The 'Line In The Sand' Dividing The U.S. And Mexico

Second In A Three-Part Series

Two armed American border guards confront a group of immigrants attempting to cross illegally from Mexico into the United States in 1948. In A Line in the Sand, Rachel St. John traces the history of the U.S.-Mexico border. i i

Two armed American border guards confront a group of immigrants attempting to cross illegally from Mexico into the United States in 1948. In A Line in the Sand, Rachel St. John traces the history of the U.S.-Mexico border. Keystone/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Keystone/Getty Images
Two armed American border guards confront a group of immigrants attempting to cross illegally from Mexico into the United States in 1948. In A Line in the Sand, Rachel St. John traces the history of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Two armed American border guards confront a group of immigrants attempting to cross illegally from Mexico into the United States in 1948. In A Line in the Sand, Rachel St. John traces the history of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Keystone/Getty Images

Much of America as we know it evolved in the 19th century, as we'll explore in a series of three conversations this week with writers who seek out new ways to understand old events.

It's easy to define the squiggly border between Mexico and Texas: It's determined by a river — the Rio Grande. But the rest of the U.S.-Mexico border is not so obvious. The straight lines are drawn seemingly at random across mountains and deserts.

In her book Line in the Sand, historian Rachel St. John traces that dividing line to its beginnings in the mid-1800s. "One of the things that's really interesting to me about the western border," St. John explains to NPR's Steve Inskeep, "is that there really is no 'there' there before the United States and Mexico sit down and decide that they're going to draw this line."


Line in the Sand book
A Line In The Sand: A History of the Western U.S. - Mexico Border
By Rachel St. John
Hardcover, 304 pages
Princeton University Press
List Price: $29.95

Read An Excerpt

Interview Highlights

On how the U.S.-Mexico border came into existence as a product of the U.S. defeat of Mexico in the 1840s

"When the U.S. and Mexican governments [and] their peace negotiators sit down to create the border, they mostly picked a few sort of geographically important points, a few points that they knew about, frankly, because neither government knew very much about this territory at all. And then they drew a series of straight lines between them."

On the United States' mistakes and second thoughts

"It wasn't just that [the U.S.] didn't like where [the border] had been drawn; it's that they messed up, basically. What happened in the Peace Commission is that they wrote down a series of directions about where the border should be, so that it should start a marine league south of San Diego and run in a straight line to the Colorado River. There is a long series of descriptive explanations. ... They attached a map — the best map they had at the time of what this territory supposedly looked like. ...

"Well, the problem is, when the boundary commissioners got into the field, it turns out that the map, it was in the wrong spot. So the boundary commissioners on the spot had to make a decision; they decided to compromise and give a little bit more land to Mexico in one way and a little more to the U.S. in the other. And when this boundary came out, the U.S. Congress was not happy with it at all, and it's partly that discomfort about where the boundary line lay that led to the renegotiation of the boundary line in the Gadsden Treaty just five years later."

On railroads and the Apaches

"There was a theory at the time that the best location for the railroad to go across the southern U.S. would be through southern New Mexico and through southern Arizona. But the railroad does not end up going through there for a very long time.

"The other thing the U.S. did ... is that they promised to keep Indians, particularly Apaches, from raiding into Mexican territory, and they said they would pay for any damages basically caused by Indian raiding.

"It only took five years for the United States to realize that that was an impossible promise to keep. It's territory that's really controlled by Apaches at the time. And when the U.S. boundary commissioners and the Mexican boundary commissioners get out into the field, they realized Apaches are raiding heavily throughout northern Mexico and there is, at that time, very little the U.S. government can do to stop it. One of the things they do in the Gadsden Treaty, then, is they back down on that provision — they get Mexico to agree to basically let them off the hook for preventing raids."

On how the Apaches didn't care much about the abstract line drawn by Mexico and the U.S. ... but soon learned to use it to their advantage

"The Apaches realized that if they are in the United States and they are being chased by U.S. troops, the best way to get away is simply to cross the border, because the U.S. troops can't cross into Mexican sovereign space. There's this sort of cultural cliche of making a run for the border to escape law enforcement: The Apaches are sort of the first people who learn how to do that and do it quite effectively."

A 1997 photo shows a sign in San Diego, Calif., warning drivers about pedestrians running across the highway at the U.S.-Mexico border. St. John says that seeing borders as tools to control the movement of people is a uniquely 20th-century phenomenon. i i

A 1997 photo shows a sign in San Diego, Calif., warning drivers about pedestrians running across the highway at the U.S.-Mexico border. St. John says that seeing borders as tools to control the movement of people is a uniquely 20th-century phenomenon. Hector Mata/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Hector Mata/AFP/Getty Images
A 1997 photo shows a sign in San Diego, Calif., warning drivers about pedestrians running across the highway at the U.S.-Mexico border. St. John says that seeing borders as tools to control the movement of people is a uniquely 20th-century phenomenon.

A 1997 photo shows a sign in San Diego, Calif., warning drivers about pedestrians running across the highway at the U.S.-Mexico border. St. John says that seeing borders as tools to control the movement of people is a uniquely 20th-century phenomenon.

Hector Mata/AFP/Getty Images

On modern-day border debates

"When people talk about the politics of the border today, they often refer to a sort of imagined historical time in which particularly the U.S. government had control of the border. There's a lot of rhetoric of, 'We have lost control of the border.' Studying the history of the border, I don't see a time when the United States ever had control. It's always a negotiation between governments trying to establish certain laws, people who want to evade those laws finding ways to do so, the government coming back, smugglers responding in turn. There's always a sort of dance going along.

"The other thing I think that really stood out to me is that, like most Americans, I think, I assumed going into this project that the border is primarily about immigration, and in some ways I imagined that the purpose of borders is to control the movement of people. And in the 19th century that's just not the case at all. ... This is, I think, a 20th century phenomenon."

Rachel St. John is a professor of history at Harvard University. Line In The Sand is her first book. i i

Rachel St. John is a professor of history at Harvard University. Line In The Sand is her first book. Jennifer Houle/ hide caption

itoggle caption Jennifer Houle/
Rachel St. John is a professor of history at Harvard University. Line In The Sand is her first book.

Rachel St. John is a professor of history at Harvard University. Line In The Sand is her first book.

Jennifer Houle/

On the meaning the once-arbitrary border has developed over time

"When the boarder is first created ... there's this somewhat arbitrary line drawn ... and then the border becomes this important space that draws people to it. People actually go to the border and establish towns, setting up ports of entry that monitor customs across the border. Then people decide to build businesses on the border in order to service the development of transporter trade."

On the idea of "If you draw it, they will come"

"One of the things that's interesting about the border is that initially when the boundary commissioners were originally drawing this line, many of them kept saying: This is a desert — no one's ever going to settle here. ...

"It's 1850, it's hard to move around in the desert, it was hot — over 110 degrees — and they literally say, 'Look we're not going to do a full survey of this line because no one's ever going to live out here.' I often think if those people could come back now, they'd be amazed to see places like Tijuana that they never could have imaged would develop."

Excerpt: 'Line In The Sand'

Line In The Sand book
A Line In The Sand: A History of the Western U.S. - Mexico Border
By Rachel St. John
Hardcover, 304 pages
Princeton University Press
List Price: $29.95

Chapter One: A New Map for North America: Defining the Border

... the joint commission set out in 1849 to undertake an arduous task that would have challenged even the most well equipped nineteenth-century surveyors. Transportation difficulties, unforgiving terrain, extreme weather, inaccurate information, political challenges, and Native people who rejected their sovereign presumptions created an imposing obstacle course for the boundary commission. The problems they confronted would threaten their work and their lives, but perhaps most importantly would prove how little control the United States and Mexico actually exercised over the land they had fought so hard to possess.

The trouble started even before the commission met for the first time. Its members found themselves en route to San Diego just as the California gold rush got underway in the spring of 1849. Traveling via the Isthmus of Panama, the first U.S. commissioner, John B. Weller, became caught up in a swell of forty-niners who strained transportation and lodging facilities and left Weller and his party sweltering in Panama for two months before they were able to book passage to San Diego. The Mexican commission also experienced delays on its two-and-a-half-month journey from Mexico City to San Diego. Despite treaty stipulations requiring the work to commence no later than May 30, 1849, the commission did not even meet in San Diego until early July.

Traveling did not get any easier once the commission reached land. Upon finally beginning work in July, Weller dispatched a surveying party led by Lieutenant Amiel Whipple to survey the confluence of the Gila and Colorado rivers. This stage of the boundary survey took the commission into a landscape of rocky passes, extreme temperatures, and little water. Leaving the coast, the new boundary line between California and Baja California cut through the rugged mountains of the Peninsular Range, reaching heights of more than 3,000 feet before dropping below sea level into the western edge of the Sonoran Desert. As Whipple's company skirted the mountains, following a wagon road used by U.S. troops during the war and now rapidly filling with immigrants en route to the gold fields, they faced flash floods, temperatures over one hundred degrees, and long stretches devoid of water or forage. While in his own account Whipple was stoic, the commander of the army escort, Lieutenant Cave J. Couts, mocked Whipple's lack of preparation. "[Whipple] finds himself in a terrible stew because I am going to march over the desert by night," he wrote. "Washington City dandies with white kid gloves, etc., don't like roughing it any more than having to get up early in the morning, saying nothing of losing a night's sleep."

Confronted with these environmental challenges, the boundary commissioners scaled back their plans for the demarcation of the line. Weller and Garcia Conde concluded that the arid and mountainous border between California and Baja California could never be settled and thus required no more than seven boundary markers. Yet determining even these few points was not the simple task that the treaty makers had foreseen. Surveyors Gray and Salazar Ylarregui discovered that a discrepancy between Don Juan Pantoja's 1782 map of San Diego Harbor on which the treaty was based and the current shape of the harbor necessitated a lengthy survey of the bay before they could determine the initial point. It was not until five months after arriving in San Diego that they accomplished this task.

As these struggles suggested, the treaty writers' selection of geographic points that they perceived to be both natural and known did not make it easier to locate them on the ground, and in fact posed unexpected challenges to the surveyors. U.S. secretary of state James Buchanan's assumption that "the middle of the Rio Gila, where it unites with the Colorado, being a natural object, there can be but little difficulty in ascertaining this point" proved to be decidedly wrong. Rather than "distinctly marked," the location of the middle, or even the main channel, of the Gila was difficult to determine. The center of the Gila, dependent as it was on the river's flow, was not constant. With the river's banks eroding continuously, Gray explained, "The middle, therefore, to-day, may not be the same as yesterday."

The difficulty in locating these few strategic points was so time consuming that the commission, despite the protests of both surveyors, failed to mark all of the seven designated points before they suspended their work in the spring of 1850. With the U.S. commissioner deeply in debt, having exhausted his $50,000 budget in just a few months, and with both commissioners wary of crossing the desert, Weller and Garcia Conde decided to begin the next stage of the survey from El Paso the following November. When they adjourned, the commission had only completely surveyed and marked the initial point south of San Diego Bay and the confluence of the Gila and Colorado Rivers. Far from a boundary, what the joint commission had begun to stake out was a dotted line, a few clearly defined points that suggested, but did not delineate, a legible border.

Excerpted from Line in the Sand: A History of the Western U.S.-Mexico Border by Rachel St. John. Copyright 2011 Rachel St. John. Reprinted with permission of Princeton University Press.

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