Bridging National Borders in North America: Transnational and Comparative Histories

Bridging National Borders in North America: Transnational and Comparative Histories

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Despite a shared interest in using borders to explore the paradoxes of state-making and national histories, historians of the U.S.-Canada border region and those focused on the U.S.-Mexico borderlands have generally worked in isolation from one another. A timely and important addition to borderlands history, Bridging National Borders in North America initiates a conversation between scholars of the continent’s northern and southern borderlands. The historians in this collection examine borderlands events and phenomena from the mid-nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth. Some consider the U.S.-Canada border, others concentrate on the U.S.-Mexico border, and still others take both regions into account.

The contributors engage topics such as how mixed-race groups living on the peripheries of national societies dealt with the creation of borders in the nineteenth century, how medical inspections and public-health knowledge came to be used to differentiate among bodies, and how practices designed to channel livestock and prevent cattle smuggling became the model for regulating the movement of narcotics and undocumented people. They explore the ways that U.S. immigration authorities mediated between the desires for unimpeded boundary-crossings for day laborers, tourists, casual visitors, and businessmen, and the restrictions imposed by measures such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the 1924 Immigration Act. Turning to the realm of culture, they analyze the history of tourist travel to Mexico from the United States and depictions of the borderlands in early-twentieth-century Hollywood movies. The concluding essay suggests that historians have obscured non-national forms of territoriality and community that preceded the creation of national borders and sometimes persisted afterwards. This collection signals new directions for continental dialogue about issues such as state-building, national expansion, territoriality, and migration.

Contributors: Dominique Brégent-Heald, Catherine Cocks, Andrea Geiger, Miguel Ángel González Quiroga, Andrew R. Graybill, Michel Hogue, Benjamin H. Johnson, S. Deborah Kang, Carolyn Podruchny, Bethel Saler, Jennifer Seltz, Rachel St. John, Lissa Wadewitz

Published in cooperation with the William P. Clements Center for Southwest Studies, Southern Methodist University.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822392712
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 04/07/2010
Series: American Encounters/Global Interactions
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 384
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Benjamin H. Johnson is Associate Professor of History and Associate Director of the Clements Center for Southwest Studies at Southern Methodist University. He is the author of Bordertown: The Odyssey of an American Place and Revolution in Texas: How a Forgotten Rebellion and Its Bloody Suppression Turned Mexicans into Americans.

Andrew R. Graybill is Associate Professor of History at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. He is the author of Policing the Great Plains: Rangers, Mounties, and the North American Frontier, 1875–1910.

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Transnational and Comparative Histories

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2010 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4688-3

Chapter One


Miguel Ángel González-Quiroga

When contemplating the history of the United States-Mexico border, most people conjure up images of violence and conflict. It is easy to recall the Alamo, or the War of 1846-48, or even Pancho Villa's raid on Columbus, New Mexico, at the time of the Mexican Revolution. Unlike the U.S.-Canadian border, which is generally associated with a placid and benign coexistence, the U.S.-Mexican boundary, even today, evokes images of violence associated with poverty, illegal immigration, and drug trafficking. These historical and contemporary images distort another reality that is less well known but no less compelling: the multiple instances of cooperation, accommodation, and negotiation that have also characterized relations between the border people of the two countries. Conflict and cooperation-between Anglos and Mexicans (living on both sides of the border) and between the governments of both countries-are two sides of a single reality that has typified life in the U.S.-Mexican border region. This study aims to explore that reality by focusing on a particular region along the lower Río Bravo (Rio Grande) during a period when conflict was at its highest level, the years from 1840 to 1880.

The focus on conflict, until quite recently, has also permeated the historiography of the region, and has reinforced the idea that the establishment of the border, in 1848, not unlike the creation of a fork in the road, helped to differentiate the separate and distinct national trajectories of Mexico and the United States. Recent works on North American borderlands, in contrast, demonstrate the parallel connections, continuities, and processes that have affected people on both sides of the border. These studies suggest that the imposition of the boundary between the two nation-states modified, but did not eliminate, the social, economic, and cultural bonds that had been established over a long period. This study supports that view by focusing on instances of cooperation that took place in the R? Bravo region of the Texas-Mexico border before and after the boundary was created in 1848. It demonstrates that an economically, socially, and culturally integrated region existed before the establishment of the border, and that it continued to operate for decades thereafter. Moreover, I show how the border itself, once established, became the source of both cooperation and conflict in succeeding decades.

The Border as a Zone of Conflict

It is a curious fact that conflict first occurred because there was no border, and later, because there was. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed in February 1848, established the border between the United States and Mexico as the Río Bravo. Before that date, there was no clear boundary, and this generated conflict, centered mainly on the issues of whether Mexico would accept Texas's independence, and if so, was the border to be the Rio Bravo, as Texas wanted, or the Nueces River, as Mexico insisted. In this hostile climate, both republics launched military incursions and expeditions against one another. After 1848 and until 1880, the sources of conflict were many and varied, but they all shared one underlying factor: the location of the region, far from the centers of power in Washington and Mexico City, and exacerbated by civil wars and a period of reconstruction in both nations, made it impossible for either government to exert its authority along the border and bring peace to the area.

After 1848, the historian Oscar Martínez argues, there existed "an enduring pattern of racial, ethnic, and cultural confrontation," as "armed clashes, raids, thefts, rapes, lynching, murders and other outrages became commonplace in border areas from Texas to California." Another scholar of border history, James Wilkinson, described the worst period of the violence in this way:

The Border had been accustomed for some years to the violence attendant on Indian warfare, revolution, civil war, and the presence of men who lived outside the law. But in many ways the years that began with Reconstruction and extended to about 1880 were the most violent the region had ever experienced. On the right bank of the Rio Bravo (Mexico) there was almost continuous revolution. Smuggling engaged a large number of people, absorbed a high percentage of Border trade, and generated a callous disregard of the law and its enforcement. Banditry on both sides of the river attained professional status. Indian depredations were endemic.

Widespread lawbreaking in the absence of effective state control, combined with the existence of a boundary which, upon crossing, afforded refuge, was a sure formula for conflict. The governments of both countries complained that livestock was being stolen and taken across the border, usually cattle to Mexico and horses to Texas. This led to numerous raids and reprisals by armed parties from both sides. The border also permitted Texas slaves to flee to Mexico, Mexican peons to escape their debts by crossing into Texas, and Indian raiders to plunder on one side and seek refuge on the other. The Callahan Expedition of 1855, which ended with the burning of Piedras Negras, is one example: ostensibly a raid into Mexico by armed Texans who were seeking to punish Indian raiders, the participants also sought to retrieve escaped slaves.

But conflict and cooperation often went hand in hand. When Mexicans of the border region, under the leadership of Antonio Canales, rose up against the central government of Mexico in the Federalist Wars of 1839-40, many Texans participated on the side of the Federalists. This is a good example of how the presence of an independent Texas gave the elites of northern Mexico leverage vis-à-vis the central government. The historian Octavio Herrera argues that having defied Mexico's central government, northern elites were nevertheless able to negotiate a return to the public life of the region because they had demonstrated courage and organizational capacity and had carried out "extremely delicate actions such as linking up with Texas." The new Texas Republic thus offered Antonio Canales and other members of the regional elite a sword with which to threaten the central government. Mexicans also participated in warfare alongside the Texans. When the U.S. Civil War enveloped Texas after 1861, many recruits from Mexico's Northeast participated in the Confederate and Union armies.

Border history has registered many instances of "cooperative violence," in which Anglos and Mexicans fought on the same side because it was in their interest to do so. A vivid example is the Carvajal Revolt (1850-53), also known as the Merchants' War because it had the backing of many Anglo merchants of the region. As in the case of the Canales insurrection a decade earlier, many Texas volunteers were included within the ranks of José María Carvajal's insurrection. The central government smashed the revolt, but what is interesting is that the border, in large measure, was the source of the conflict, because of the huge contraband trade that had developed there. Smuggling was a logical response by borderlanders to the Mexican government's policies of prohibiting the importation of many goods and fixing onerous tariffs on others. When Mexico City moved to enforce these policies, merchants, consumers, and freighters on both sides of the border rebelled.

But the border also promoted cooperation, as people of different races and nationalities united around common causes, and it was not unusual for Anglos, Indians, and Mexicans to form alliances for self-defense. In February 1852, for example, Henry Clay Davis, an Anglo merchant from Rio Grande City, led a war party of Indians across the river to rescue Carvajal, who was trapped in Camargo. Thus, the border, with its complicated tariff schedules and abundant incentives for smuggling, could provoke conflict, but practical necessity, or simply the need for survival of the borderlanders, could generate cooperation.

The violence along the Texas-Mexico border in the 1870s was particularly hellish. Raids and claims intensified throughout the decade, culminating in the Ord Order of June 1, 1877. This instruction authorized General E. O. C. Ord to pursue Mexican robbers across the border, with or without consent from Mexican authorities. In the opinion of many Mexicans, the order was tantamount to a declaration of war. Fortunately, war was averted and the border was pacified by the end of the decade, bringing to an end a forty-year period of unremitting border violence.

Pacification was achieved by a process that intimately involved the merchants of the Rio Grande border region. In Texas, Charles Stillman, Richard King, Sabas Cavazos, and others provided men, money, and arms to Porfirio Díaz in his struggle to gain power during the Tuxtepec Revolt of 1876. These merchants wanted the border violence to cease. When Díaz was hiding out in Texas, they offered to help him, with the understanding that he would remove Juan Cortina from the border and pacify the region so as to create more favorable conditions for their commercial enterprises. In his drive to create the conditions for the modernization of Mexico, Díaz eventually did banish Cortina from the R? Bravo and pacified the border region-along with the rest of Mexico. This is an interesting example of a borderland elite injecting itself firmly into the national historical narrative. But in this instance it was the local elite on the U.S. side of the border who assumed an active role in Mexican national politics.

Coexistince and Cooperation: A Diverent Border History

Despite the prevalence of violence and conflict along the border, we can discern an alternative history for the region if we put a different set of historical actors under our lens. From 1840 until 1880, when conflict was rife, merchants, teamsters, migrant laborers, and missionaries were creating a diverse history there, one that has been largely obscured by historians' focus on violence.

The loss of Texas and the preoccupation with getting it back was an important concern for political elites in greater Mexico, but this goal was not shared by most people in northeastern Mexico. The majority of the population there was willing to live in peaceful coexistence, or even active cooperation, with the Texans. One of the most important bridges between these two peoples was provided by commerce. From the 1820s, after Matamoros became a port city, a firm connection was established between the province of Texas and the interior of Mexico, extending commerce to points as far south as the states of Zacatecas and San Luis Potosí by way of Monterrey.

As in all human societies, trade was essential to the people of the borderlands, because only through commerce could they obtain a diverse range of goods that they could not produce themselves. When the trade route from Matamoros to Monterrey became too dangerous or was closed due to wars or other disturbances, merchants, teamsters, and cartmen modified their strategies and sought alternative interior routes to bring their goods to market. During the years of the Texas Republic, and with the acquiescence of Mirabeau B. Lamar, who became the Republic's president in December 1838, a flourishing trade developed between the towns along the U.S.-Mexico border and those in the interior of Mexico, as well as with Austin, in central Texas, and Houston, in eastern Texas. The historian Joseph M. Nance wrote about this Texas trade:

Several thousand dollars in specie (silver coins), a much needed item in Texas, were brought into San Antonio in the course of a week or two, and large quantities of silver were coming in from Chihuahua. One trader arrived with $17,000 in specie, and it was estimated in May 1839 that goods valued between $100,000 and $150,000 could be sold immediately at Béxar for specie or bullion.

The trade in silver, like the fur trade described by Bethel Saler and Carolyn Podruchny in this volume, was a wide-ranging enterprise that extended throughout much of the Atlantic world and defied the confines of national borders or histories.

In spite of the conflict between the two countries, then, cross-border commerce grew stronger because it satisfied an essential need of the borderlanders. Support for this assertion is provided by General P. Hansbrough Bell of the Texas militia, who was sent by Lamar in 1841 to investigate conditions on the frontier. Bell reported that a part of the Anglo population was opposed to the trade, but that the majority supported it because "many of the inhabitants of the West" were its beneficiaries, "from a supply through it of various articles which they need, and which at this time they cannot procure elsewhere." Among these articles, Bell noted, were horses, mules, saddles, blankets, and silver.

The central government of Mexico tried to stop this trade. Its military commander in the north, Mariano Arista, issued a blistering proclamation to citizens of the border to desist in their continued commerce with the Texans because they were providing the enemy with essential resources. He threatened offenders with punishments ranging from forcible service in the militia to long prison terms. These threats did little good. The two governments were at war, but their citizens obeyed a different logic. This was corroborated by a commission sent by Lamar to parley with Arista in Monterrey: "As the Texan commissioners proceeded inland they found the Mexicans east of the mountains and west of the R? Grande anxiously praying for peace and the reopening of a safe and direct trade with Texas."

The breaches which had developed between the residents of the border and the local, regional, and national authorities with respect to commerce are revealed in the official correspondence of the period. Octavio Herrera skillfully utilizes these documents to demonstrate the futility of the government in trying to halt the contraband trade between the people of the Northeast and the Texans during the years of the Texas Republic. The trade was so extensive that in mid-1844 local authorities in Reynosa called a halt to the patrols of the local militia against Indian raiders between the Río Bravo and the Nueces River, because these "lent themselves to the promotion of contraband." They feared that those who were engaged in combating the Indians would also become engaged in the illegal trade!

The borderlanders' desire for peaceful trade with Texas underwent a stern test in 1846, when the full force of the American military invaded Mexico's Northeast at the beginning of the U.S.-Mexican War. Despite the profound wounds left by the war, for practical reasons and due to geographic proximity, the diverse ties between the citizens of northeastern Mexico and those of Texas, especially in matters of commerce, were soon restored. Trade, which had been established in an earlier period, resumed with great vigor after 1848. A vast constellation of producers, merchants, and transporters on both sides of the border participated in the ever-growing trade in the three decades that followed the war. The scope of this essay only allows mention of a small number of those who participated, most of whom were concentrated along the border and in Monterrey and San Antonio, the two poles of a growing commercial axis that fused the region into a single economic unit.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: Borders and Their Historians in North America / Benjamin H. Johnson and Andrew R. Graybill 1

Part I. Peoples In Between

Conflict and Cooperation in the Making of Texas-Mexico Border Society, 1840–1880 / Miguel Ángel González Quiroga 33

Between Race and Nation: The Creation of a Métis Borderland on the Northern Plains, 1850–1900 / Michel Hogue 59

Part II. Environmental Control and State-Making

Epidemics, Indians, and Border-Making in the Nineteenth-Century Pacific Northwest / Jennifer Seltz 91

Divided Ranges: Trans-border Ranches and the Creation of National Space along the Western Mexico-U.S. Border / Rachel St. John 116

The Scales of Salmon: Diplomacy and Conservation in the Western Canada-U.S. Borderlands / Lissa Wadewitz 141

Part III. Border Enforcement and Contestation

Crossing the Line: The INS and the Federal Regulation of the Mexican Border / S. Deborah Kang 167

Caught in the Gap: The Transit Privilege and North America's Ambiguous Borders / Andrea Geiger 199

Part IV. Border Representation and National Identity

The Welcoming Voice of the Southland: American Tourism across the U.S.-Mexico Border, 1880–1940 / Catherine Cocks 225

Projecting the In-Between: Cinematic Representations of National Borders in North America, 1908–1940 / Dominique Brégent-Heald 249

Glass Curtains and Storied Landscapes: The Fur Trade, National Boundaries, and Historians / Bethel Saler and Carolyn Podruchny 275

Bibliography 303

Contributors 351

Index 353

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