Share This Article

Line in the Sand: A History of the Western U.S.-Mexico Border, by Rachel St. John, Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J., 2011, $29.95

The lands and peoples astride what is now the U.S.-Mexico border have been the subject of several recent histories, including Karl Jacoby’s Shadows at Dawn (2008) and Brian DeLay’s War of a Thousand Deserts (2008). Those books recount the diplomatic and military struggle between the United States, Mexico and Indian tribes over control of the borderlands. In Line in the Sand Harvard professor Rachel St. John focuses not on the players but on the physical border itself. St John holds that the boundary line established from the Rio Grande to the Pacific Ocean was of central importance to the development of the region. Concentrating on the period from the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo to the creation of a modern security apparatus in the 1930s, she tells of the imperfect attempts by the two countries to control and police the border.

St. John reveals two distinct phases in the existence of the U.S.-Mexico border: An untamed period in which the United States and Mexico attempted, and often failed, to exert control over the region; and a second phase that involved the gradual imposition of control, accomplished through tariffs, customs officials, ports of entry, fences in border towns, morality legislation restricting time of entry, and immigration legislation. The imposition of state power on the border, St. John makes clear, was gradual, and borderlands people resisted it. Mixed-nationality, mixed-ethnicity border peoples created border towns that at the turn of the 20th century were more unified than divided. By the 1930s, however, the governments in Mexico City and Washington, D.C., had installed a system capable of regulating and restricting the flow of goods and people—a system still very much in place today.

John R. Bartlett, commissioner of the 1850–53 Joint U.S. and Mexican Boundary Commission, doubted whether people would ever settle on the border, writing: “Is this the land we have purchased and are to survey and keep at such a cost? As far as the eye can reach stretches one unbroken waste, barren, wild, worthless.” Later, Apache raiders found the border useful in eluding Mexican posse members and U.S. soldiers. In 1882 the United States and Mexico were forced to sign a reciprocal crossing agreement that allowed troops to cross the international border when in “close pursuit” of Apaches. American and European filibusters like William Wallace openly defied the border, hoping to redraw the line through the establishment of their own personal empires. In 1857 Californian Henry Alexander Crabb invaded Sonora with 69 men and attempted to found an independent republic in Sonora, Sinaloa and Baja California. Sonoran statesman Ignacio Pesqueira rallied Mexicans against the filibusters, capturing and executing Crabb and most of his men in the border town of Caborca.

St. John doesn’t stop her tale at the end of the Wild West days on the border. Like Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, her book takes a measured look at the forces that brought about the end of those days. The frontier era in the borderlands soon gave way to the imposition of federal force in the form of fences, customs agents, immigration officials and, later, the Border Patrol. Power emanating from Washington, D.C., and Mexico City radically reshaped the border. In 1890 the McKinley Tariff Act ramped up customs and inspection and opened official ports of entry, giving birth to smuggling. In 1897 President William McKinley ordered a 60-foot strip to be cleared through the center of Nogales, dividing that border town in half. Ten years later Teddy Roosevelt extended such strips to every border town.

Restricting immigration came next. In 1904 the Bureau of Immigration assigned 18 immigration officials to the line and tasked them with preventing Chinese nationals from entering the United States. In 1911 the first federally built fence on the U.S.-Mexico border went up on the California–Baja California divide. Not until the Immigration Act of 1917, almost 70 years after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, did the U.S. government restrict the flow of Mexicans across the border in the form of required registration, literacy tests, head taxes and health inspections.

Obviously St. John’s book is valuable for providing the history behind the explosive topics of border control and immigration reform in contemporary U.S. politics. Beyond that, however, history buffs will be satisfied with the Western characters that inhabit this tale in the days when the line remained blurry.

—Stephen Mauro