Borderline Americans: Racial Division and Labor War in the Arizona Borderlands

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“Are you an American, or are you not?” This was the question Harry Wheeler, sheriff of Cochise County, Arizona, used to choose his targets in one of the most remarkable vigilante actions ever carried out on U.S. soil. And this is the question at the heart of Katherine Benton-Cohen’s provocative history, which ties that seemingly remote corner of the country to one of America’s central concerns: the historical creation of racial boundaries.

It was in Cochise County that the Earps and Clantons fought, Geronimo surrendered, and Wheeler led the infamous Bisbee Deportation, and it is where private militias patrol for undocumented migrants today. These dramatic events animate the rich story of the Arizona borderlands, where people of nearly every nationality—drawn by “free” land or by jobs in the copper mines—grappled with questions of race and national identity. Benton-Cohen explores the daily lives and shifting racial boundaries between groups as disparate as Apache resistance fighters, Chinese merchants, Mexican-American homesteaders, Midwestern dry farmers, Mormon polygamists, Serbian miners, New York mine managers, and Anglo women reformers.

Racial categories once blurry grew sharper as industrial mining dominated the region. Ideas about home, family, work and wages, manhood and womanhood all shaped how people thought about race. Mexicans were legally white, but were they suitable marriage partners for “Americans”? Why were Italian miners described as living “as no white man can”? By showing the multiple possibilities for racial meanings in America, Benton-Cohen’s insightful and informative work challenges our assumptions about race and national identity.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Cochise County Harry Wheeler knew what he thought and knew how to enforce it. When labor organizers and their supporters displeased him, he herded them into 23 cattle cars and shipped them away. Hispanics, Native Americans, Chinese and Italian immigrants received similar treatment, Wheeler never registering regret about his extralegal edicts. As Katherine Benton-Cohen notes in this timely book, decisive actions about racial divisions and social class did not begin or end in Arizona with Wheeler's provocative exclusions. Now in paperback.

Peggy Pascoe
In a beautifully written book, Benton-Cohen provides a compelling exploration of race in the Arizona borderlands. She has a talent for grabbing readers' attention, for assembling a fascinating cast of characters--ranging from Geronimo to Felix Frankfurter--and for heightening the anticipation of her audience. Her descriptions of small towns are as lively as her accounts of nasty labor conflicts, and I was so eager to find out what she had to say about the Bisbee Deportation that I found the book hard to put down.
Thomas G. Andrews
Combining the remarkable investigative talents of an ace sleuth with the lucid prose of an accomplished storyteller, Katherine Benton-Cohen shows how a deceptively simple question--who is an American?--shaped everyday life for the polyglot peoples of Arizona's Cochise County. Especially insightful, and particularly troubling, is her account of the hardening of racial categories along the U.S.-Mexican border. Anyone who cares about the historical origins of contemporary debates about race, immigration, and power will need to reckon with the stories of the "borderline Americans" whose lives Benton-Cohen reconstructs with such grace and compassion.
Virginia Scharff
The Arizona-Sonora borderland is a messy, volatile place where American authorities have worked hard to draw neat, static lines. In this lively and revealing book, we see that the boundaries that have divided space and inscribed race are products of history, not nature or fate. When you visit this country, it's good to have a guide, and you'll find none better than Benton- Cohen.
Michael Kazin
Benton-Cohen has crafted a jewel of social history, the most insightful local study I have read in years. Her absorbing narrative will turn Cochise County, 'a place in the middle of nowhere,' into a memorable location for anyone who cares about the tortured, fascinating history of race in modern America.
Linda Gordon
This book not only offers drama, but it will change the way that historians think about race, labor and gender in the southwestern US. In fact, it points to rethinking what Americanism was and is.
Choice - E. R. Crowther
A splendid study of the contested meaning of "American" from the 1880s through the New Deal, this is an episodic case study of Cochise County, Arizona, best known as the locus for the gunfight at the OK Corral.
Huffington Post - Jeff Biggers
Publishers Weekly

In 2005, a, rancher and newspaper editor named Chris Simcox set out to maintain the border between the southwestern states and Mexico. He and his Minutemen Civil Defense Corps, dedicated to reporting undocumented migrants crossing into the U.S., were merely the latest in a lineage of self-appointed patriots patrolling the border. Nearly 100 years earlier, Harry Wheeler, an Arizona sheriff, stormed through Cochise County asking illegal residents, "Are you an American, or are you not?" before rounding them up in the Bisbee Deportation. At the turn of the last century, Cochise County represented the "New America" that emerged from the nation's incorporation of northwestern Mexico, the immigration of Europeans to work as miners and the passage of constitutional amendments loosening the racial strictures around citizenship. Benton-Cohen uses the backdrop of the Wild West, with its bustling commerce and growing population, to wage a discussion on racial division and the power of "white privilege"-even where the black-white dichotomy didn't necessarily exist-in this richly detailed anthropological look into the creation of racial boundaries and their application in present-day immigration reform debates. (May)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

In a riveting display of first-rate scholarship, Benton-Cohen (history, Georgetown Univ.) shows how entangled ideas of race and nation shifted as conditions changed in the place that became Arizona's 6000-square-mile Cochise County. She traces tumultuous interactions among Indians, Mexicans, Europeans, a smattering of Chinese, and a few blacks who grappled to civilize the land, one another, and themselves in the territory acquired from Mexico in the 1853 Gadsden Purchase. To solidify their grasp, Benton-Cohen explains, the increasingly dominant groups used an ideology of a self-constructed Americanness that combined antilabor, industrial capitalism with white supremacy to define the place and its peoples. Her complex story of community creation and cleaving details the hardening of race as a community divider and determiner of the status and norms of class, family, and gender. She unmasks many fictions in the invented political economy touted in the imagined identity of "white Americans." Telling more than local or regional stories, this is essential for all those deeply concerned with U.S. history, race relations, and society.
—Thomas J. Davis

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674060531
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 3/1/2011
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 995,482
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Katherine Benton-Cohen is Associate Professor of History, Georgetown University.
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Table of Contents

  • Introduction

  1. A Shared World in Tres Alamos

  2. Race and Conflict in Tombstone

  3. The White Man's Camp in Bisbee

  4. “A Better Man for Us” in Warren

  5. Mormons and Mexicans in the San Pedro River Valley

  6. Women and Men in the Sulphur Springs and San Simon Valleys

  7. The Bisbee Deportation

  8. One County, Two Races

  • Conclusion

  • Abbreviations

  • Notes

  • Acknowledgments

  • Index

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