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Beaten Down: A History of Interpersonal Violence in the West

By David Peterson del Mar

Review By Jim Phillips

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 138-139 Summer-Autumn 2003  | p. 196-8

DAVID PETERSON DEL MAR’S work on violence against wives is well known to social and legal historians, and in this important, innovative, and provocative new book, he has broadened his approach to examine interpersonal violence more generally. Beaten Down is a history of such violence in eastern Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia (the region he calls the North Pacific Slope), from the first contacts between Native societies and European traders and settlers to the middle of the twentieth century. The organization is largely chronological, taking the reader from the violence associated with the process of colonization to the 1930s, although there is necessarily a strong thematic element to many chapters, especially the first, which is on colonization. The volume is also explicitly comparative in a number of places, especially with regard to assessments of the levels and acceptability of extra-legal violence between Canada and the United States. 

Three points are crucial to understanding the content, method, and arguments in this book. First, it is about individual acts of interpersonal violence, a phenomenon to which del Mar believes historians have paid too little attention. They have preferred, he argues, to study the collective violence of the riot, the strike, and the vigilante movement, while ignoring most individual acts of violence. While he probably exaggerates historians* lack of interest in individual violence (he himself concedes the considerable recent interest in homicide), he is nonetheless right to suggest that the area deserves a good deal more attention. Second, del Mar largely eschews the use of broad indicators of violence (such as criminal justice statistics or debates over corporal punishment), preferring to try to capture its meaning through more qualitative evidence. Statistical work is employed to suggest general trends, but it often serves as a background and context for a more cultural history. Third, del Mar insists, surely correctly, that interpersonal violence is much more than the product of individual or social pathology and draws its meaning from the particularities of time and place. It is also – a point that del Mar demonstrates very effectively – a complex phenomenon. While he notes that he is “primarily interested in exploring the relationship between power and interpersonal violence” (9), he also shows that that violence has, at different times, been a product of power and a means of producing and sustaining it as well as clear evidence of individual or group powerlessness and a form of resistance. 

Within this framework, there is much to admire in Beaten Down.The first substantive chapter argues successfully that violence was an integral part of the colonization process at the level of interactions between settlers and their agents and Aboriginal peoples. Indian agents, missionaries, and individual settlers used violence and saw it as a legitimate aspect of their land acquisition and acculturation missions. It also shows that the nature of Native violence changed, essentially from a phenomenon directed at outsiders to one aimed at others within the same group. The chapter that follows, on violence among settlers, argues that it was an endemic aspect of how social and racial hierarchies were forged and reinforced. My only quibble about these chapters is that the line that Del Mar insists on between individual and collective violence is not always sustainable: if enough settlers and missionaries believed in and used violence in their campaigns for Aboriginal subordination, and did so with the shared understanding that this was a necessary and legitimate activity, then to some extent what is being described is a form of collective violence, albeit one carried out through multiple individual agency. Chapters 4 through 6 are more particular studies of violence, marginality, and race in the major cities of the region after the turn of the century. The first of these is especially good at capturing the ways in which violence was attributed to outsiders and the marginal in a period of high immigration, although that did not mean that all immigrants and ethnic groups were considered violent. The Chinese, for example, were castigated for their supposed moral threat rather than for any physical danger they posed.

In short, Del Mar is successful in revealing the contours of the uses of violence and attitudes towards it in a variety of different locales within the region and at a variety of different times. In some ways, the book can be divided into two distinct halves. The first three chapters represent a chronology of violence in the nineteenth century, with the principal message of Chapter 3 being that, largely judged by homicide rates, by the late nineteenth century, violence had declined. The three chapters that follow are more particular case studies set in the twentieth century. While they take the story down to the Second World War, they are less concerned with chronology and tend more to capture the nature of interpersonal violence and the concerns of the respectable about its prevalence. It is less clear when and why violence continued to decline after 1900, although there are suggestions, in the introduction and in the epilogue, that change did take place and that violence became a less significant part of everyday life over time. The author would perhaps concede this critique: his is not intended to be a “complete history” for he is “more interested in using time and place to explore the nuances” of the relationship between violence and power (9). The book certainly succeeds admirably in that ambition.