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Line in the Sand

A History of the Western U.S.-Mexico Border

by Rachel St. John

Hardcover, 284 pages, Princeton Univ Pr, List Price: $29.95 |


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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

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

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Line In The Sand

Line in the Sand



Copyright © 2011 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-14154-1


Acknowledgments....................................................................................viiIntroduction.......................................................................................1Chapter One  A New Map for North America: Defining the Border......................................12Chapter Two  Holding the Line: Fighting Land Pirates and Apaches on the Border.....................39Chapter Three  Landscape of Profits: Cultivating Capitalism across the Border......................63Chapter Four  The Space Between: Policing the Border...............................................90Chapter Five  Breaking Ties, Building Fences: Making War on the Border.............................119Chapter Six  Like Night and Day: Regulating Morality with the Border...............................148Chapter Seven  Insiders/Outsiders: Managing Immigration at the Border..............................174Conclusion.........................................................................................198Notes..............................................................................................209Bibliography.......................................................................................249Index..............................................................................................273

Chapter One


Defining the Border

On paper one easily draws a line with a ruler and pencil; but on land it is not the same. —José Salazar Ylarregui, Mexican surveyor, Joint United States and Mexican Boundary Commission

On September 6, 1851, the four highest-ranking members of the Joint United States and Mexican Boundary Commission met on a high desert plain about sixty miles southeast of Tucson. Their respective governments had sent them to survey and mark the new boundary line between the two republics. U.S. boundary commissioner John Russell Bartlett had only arrived on the border earlier that year. The others, Mexican boundary commissioner Pedro García Conde, Mexican surveyor José Salazar Ylarregui, and U.S. surveyor Andrew B. Gray, had been at this work for over two years, during which they completed an arduous survey of the California–Baja California boundary. Their difficulties, however, were only beginning.

Salazar Ylarregui started the meeting by announcing that he had completed the demarcation of the first part of the Chihuahua–New Mexico boundary line. Then Gray made a disheartening declaration—he disagreed with García Conde and Bartlett's location of the initial point at El Paso del Norte and thus the entire trajectory of the line Salazar Ylarregui had just surveyed. The initial point on the Rio Grande, Gray argued, should have been farther south and west. Salazar Ylarregui, he concluded, had drawn the line too far north.

García Conde, with the support of the other members of the commission, informed Gray that his protests were too late and moved ahead with the commission's other business. The larger issue, however, would not go away so easily. Gray's continued objections would later lead to his dismissal from the commission. By then, however, Gray's complaints and U.S. sectional politics had led southern politicians to denounce Bartlett for agreeing to the initial point. They refused to ratify the boundary line, hoping to secure more territory and, more importantly, a southern transcontinental railroad route. In 1853 their efforts would culminate in the negotiation of the Gadsden Treaty and the redrawing of the boundary line.

Of course, the boundary commissioners, preoccupied with the tasks at hand, could not foresee this outcome on that late summer day in 1851. Beyond their responsibilities for making astronomical measurements, building boundary monuments, and gathering information about the surrounding territory, they also had to keep the joint commission of more than one hundred men alive in an unfamiliar, desert landscape populated by Native people who did not recognize their right to be there. Survival was foremost on the commissioners' minds as they left the site of their meeting. While the surveyors proceeded to the Gila River to begin surveying, García Conde and Bartlett set out to secure supplies in the northern Sonora village of Santa Cruz. The commissioners anticipated a short trip but soon lost their way. With only enough food for a few days, they resorted to hunting and scavenging in the orchards of the ominously abandoned settlements through which they passed. Struggling to cut through the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson, they wandered well out of their way. Rain soaked them in camp and made it difficult to cross the swollen streams and muddy plains. The commissioners also traveled in fear of Apaches. While they did not meet any Indians face-to-face on this leg of their journey, the sight of a group of riders in the distance sent a soldier in Bartlett's party scurrying into a ravine to hide. By the time they arrived in Santa Cruz, the commissioners had endured more than two weeks of hard travel.

Their experiences took a toll on the commission. Shortly after arriving in Santa Cruz, a number of its members, including both commissioners, became sick. Bartlett spent the next two months recovering in Sonora before continuing by sea to rejoin the commission in San Diego. García Conde was not so fortunate. After a brief recovery he fell ill again and died in December in Arizpe, the same Sonoran town where he had been born.

These travails marked the beginning of what would prove to be the nadir of the decade-long process of drawing the boundary line between the United States and Mexico. Between 1851 and 1853, García Conde's death, the commission's troubles in the field, and political challenges to the boundary line in the United States left the survey in shambles. The men who had set out for the border as confident representatives of sovereignty found themselves fending off political assaults, fearing Indian raids, and struggling to simply stay alive. Rather than establishing the border, they seemed to be searching for it.

From its very beginnings the border eluded state control. Long before smugglers challenged the border's authority, the land and Native people who lived on it resisted the United States' and Mexico's attempts to force them to conform to their sovereignty. From the diplomatic chambers where disagreements over territorial limits devolved into war, to the deserts where men struggled to mark the boundary line, the creation of the border was not easy. The process of delimiting, or drawing, the boundary line on paper, simple as it may seem, was the culmination of decades of conflict and diplomatic negotiation. The territorial limits that the U.S. and Mexican peace commissioners wrote into the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo at the conclusion of the Mexican-American War were laden with national significance, symbolizing a great national triumph for the United States and an even greater loss for Mexico. Having fought for so long to establish the position of the boundary line, Mexican and U.S. officials assumed that its demarcation, or marking on the earth, would be a mere formality. However, as Salazar Ylarregui had emphasized when he made the distinction between drawing the line on paper and marking it on the ground, what on paper appeared to be a fairly simple task could be a dangerous and disorienting ordeal in the field. The difficulties faced by the boundary commission not only impeded the commissioners' work, but also fundamentally challenged the national sovereignty under which they operated. The discrepancy between the ability of the nation-states to delimit the boundary line in the treaty and to demarcate it on the ground marked the beginning of a long history in which the border would repeatedly reveal the divide between the states' aspirations and their actual power.

In delimiting the border, U.S. and Mexican officials imagined that they could easily separate sovereign space. Along with defining national membership, the ability to establish the territorial boundaries of the nation and state sovereignty was considered a fundamental function of the nation-state. In Washington, DC, and Mexico City, politicians controlled this process, but on the ground it rested in the hands of men like Bartlett and García Conde, whose struggles suggested that neither nation-state actually controlled the territory that they claimed.

"On paper one easily draws a line": Imagining the Border

The creation of the boundary line did not begin with the arrival of the boundary commission in the field. The line first began to form in the minds of politicians and pundits over the nearly three decades between Mexican independence in 1821 and the ratification of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. Throughout this period, Mexico struggled to maintain the extensive territorial boundaries that it had inherited from New Spain in the face of growing pressure not only from the United States but also from a number of aggressive European empires, making it impossible to predict where the border would lie and even which nation-states or empires it would divide.

In order to understand how the border came to be where it is today, we first have to understand the context of territorial competition from which it emerged. Territorial competition defined North America in the early nineteenth century. At the beginning of the century, the continent was still very much up for grabs. In the south, the decline of the Spanish Empire created an opening for a revolutionary challenge that began with the Grito de Dolores in 1810 and concluded with Mexican independence in 1821. As the Mexican Republic took form it asserted claim to territory reaching from the Yucatán to a line drawn from the Gulf of Mexico through the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean along which the United States and Spain had divided North America in the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819. In the northeast, the young United States did not have much of a head start on Mexico, having gained its independence only a few decades before. Yet despite its youth, the United States was proving to be a dynamic nation, acquiring Louisiana from the French in 1803, fighting the British to a stalemate in the War of 1812, conquering Native peoples, and more than doubling its size in its first fifty years. In the west, however, with a patchwork of imperial and national claims and on-the-ground evidence of Native sovereignty, the future of the continent remained uncertain.

By the 1830s, people in both the United States and Mexico had come to believe that controlling this territory was critical to each of their nation's destinies. Spanish settlers and missionaries had made limited inroads into Mexico's far north, but the potential for the development of agriculture, ranching, trapping, mining, and trade along the Pacific Coast and in the North American interior was widely acknowledged. In the wake of Mexican independence, the old Spanish settlements in New Mexico had become the linchpin in a trading network extending from central Mexico into the Great Plains and to the western edge of the United States. At the same time, American and British ships expanded their operations in the Pacific, tapping into California's resources and spreading news of the fertile land and deepwater ports to be found there. Finally, although no one could have known that gold would soon be discovered at Sutter's Mill in California, Mexico's northern borderlands were known to have mineral deposits. All of these advantages made northern Mexico attractive to any number of powers, including not just Mexico and the United States, but Great Britain, Russia, and expansive Native polities as well.

For Mexico this land was more than strategically and economically valuable, it was part of the national homeland. With independence Mexico had claimed dominion over Spain's vast territorial claims in North America. Under the Constitution of 1824, Mexico incorporated the northern half of this territory as the states of Chihuahua, Sonora y Sinaloa, and Coahuila y Tejas, and the territories of New Mexico, Alta California, and Baja California. Although distant and disconnected from the national centers of population and political power, Mexicans saw these states and territories as integral parts of the nation.

Mexico's land was both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Exercising control over the far-flung reaches of the nation was an administrative nightmare. Thousands of miles of deserts and mountain ranges separated Mexico City from the sparsely settled and weakly defended northern territories. Communication and transportation were slow and insecure. With the military preoccupied with the struggle for independence and the national treasury unable to subsidize frontier defense and payments to Indians, much of the northwest became vulnerable to Indian raids that gradually pushed back Mexican settlements along the northern frontier. As the military governor of Sonora, José María Carrasco, reportedly complained to the members of the U.S. boundary commission in 1851, "our territory is enormous, and our Government weak. It cannot extend its protecting arms throughout all portions of the country."

Yet this troublesome territory remained an important source of national hope and pride, both of which were in short supply amid the political upheaval, military violence, and crumbling economy that characterized the first two decades of Mexican independence. If Mexico was weak, its land, many Mexicans believed, would someday make it strong. In 1833 Simón Tadeo Ortiz de Ayala, a prominent proponent of Texas colonization, insisted that Texas alone would someday produce more cotton than the entire United States combined. Even as Mexican political factions contested the class and ethnic boundaries of Mexican nationality, the nation's territory provided a shared source of identification and a reservoir of optimism for future development.

Unfortunately for Mexico, many Americans had also cast their hopes for national advancement on the acquisition of Mexican territory. Territorial expansion had become a part of the American ethos. Many Americans, most notably Thomas Jefferson, believed that the United States' unique experiment in republican government depended on the continued availability of open land. Only by owning their own farms, they argued, could citizens maintain the independence necessary for a virtuous democratic republic. Liberty, then, was dependent on land.

This association provided a logic for the United States' territorial expansion. The incorporation of new western states and the annexation of first Louisiana in 1803 and then Florida in 1819 changed the geographic shape of the United States and contributed to a new way of thinking about national space. In contrast to the emphasis on a historic homeland that would define European nations, Americans embraced the notion that their national boundaries would continue to expand to incorporate ever more land and people under the umbrella of republican government. In the mid-nineteenth century these ideas about expansion and liberty coalesced in the doctrine of "manifest destiny." American continental expansion, believers in this doctrine argued, was not only justifiable but was also preordained.

The concept of manifest destiny justified expansion but did not provide specifics about the methods, direction, or amount of land that this growth would require. These matters, along with their implications for sectional politics and the future of American slavery, were at the center of political debates in the United States. Northern Mexico was not the only area into which the United States could expand. Americans also had designs on Cuba, Yucatán, and large swaths of southern Canada. However, the proximity of Mexico's weakly defended northern territories and the steady flow of American settlers into Texas and traders into New Mexico and California made these territories increasingly desirable. As early as 1825, President John Quincy Adams instructed the U.S. minister to Mexico, Joel Poinsett, to approach the Mexican government about redrawing the border so that Texas, New Mexico, California, and parts of Baja California, Sonora, Coahuila, and Nuevo León would become part of the United States. Ten years later, President Andrew Jackson expressed interest in purchasing a strip of land that would connect the United States to San Francisco Bay. That same year, American settlers in Texas launched a rebellion that would pave the way for the incorporation of Texas into the United States in 1845.

Mexican political leaders repeatedly rejected the United States' offers. While empires traded territory, nation-states, having incorporated land into an inalienable part of the nation, could not do so without undermining their national status and identity. Refusing to sell national territory, Mexican officials demonstrated their commitment to territorial integrity above the opportunity to pay down their substantial national debt. Manuel de Mier y Terán, a Mexican general and patriot who had led a survey of Texas and its boundary with the United States, explained that "Mexico, imitating the conduct of France and Spain, might alienate or cede unproductive lands in Africa or Asia. But how can it be expected to cut itself off from its own soil, give up to a rival power territory advantageously placed in the extremity of its states, which joins some of them and serves as a buffer to all?" "If Mexico should consent to this base act," he concluded, "it would degenerate from the most elevated class of American powers to that of a contemptible mediocracy, reduced to the necessity of buying a precarious existence at the cost of many humiliations." No matter how poor and wracked by political turmoil, Mexico refused to exchange even its most troublesome national territory for cash.