The Broken Edge of Empire:
Making Violence, Nations and State Power in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands, 1820-1890
The mid-nineteenth century represented a critical hinge moment in the history of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. Climaxing with the U.S.-Mexican War and continuing nearly to the end of the century, a diverse range of violent conflict drastically and chaotically reshaped the social, cultural, and political face of the region. At the beginning of this period, the borderlands remained largely native ground, controlled by powerful indigenous nations. The relatively few Euro-American settlements in the region occupied tenuous positions at the edges of fledgling nation-state projects in Mexico and the United States. Identity and social groups were fluid, porous, contingent, and contested. By 1890, however, independent indigenous power had largely been erased from the region. The United States and Mexico claimed both political and cultural hegemony on both sides of an established and un-moving border. While the meaning of nationalism and state power remained fluid, contestation was now possible only within the bounds of the two modern nation states.
My research examines this watershed period through what I term the politics of violence—in short, the social processes and discourses that surrounded acts of violence. The politics of violence played a vital role in virtually every borderland society during the nineteenth century, weaving through such diverse sites as raid warfare, slavery, local and regional militias, volunteer and conscripted national armies, law enforcement, crime, and mob violence. In this way, it offers a powerful, trans-national lens into the diverse range of peoples that struggled for control of the borderlands. In societies as vastly different as Anglo Texas, Northern Mexico, and Comanchería, organizing violence and contesting its meaning structured society in fundamental ways. For elites and ordinary people alike, war-making, community defense, and other forms of violence offered access to social and political capital. Similarly, both on paper and on the ground, acts of violence and the struggles over their meaning powerfully inscribed the boundaries of social inclusion and created sites in which to construct and contest the meanings of nation, race, gender, and state power. For people in the borderlands, violence made the abstractions of nations and states unavoidably and intimately real.
Drawing on research in both U.S. and Mexican repositories, my dissertation and a subsequent book project will examine the politics of violence in the borderlands during the mid-nineteenth century. I will investigate their role in forming the region’s two modern nation-states as well as the range of alternative nation- and state-building projects the region witnessed. I will seek to draw out what these examples can tell scholars about the processes of state- and nation-building at the grassroots level. The answers to these questions are important not only for historians of the borderlands, Mexico, and the American West, but for all scholars studying the histories of colonization, nationalism, and state power in North America.
Most previous scholars have studied these problems either top-down from the perspectives of Washington and Mexico City, or tightly focused on single groups or localities, my research aims for a more balanced middle approach. Mining underutilized source material from the local and state levels, I hope to provide a broad and eclectic regional view that cuts across national and ethnic boundaries.