David Patrick McKenzie

Digital Public Historian

AmWest #1: View from the East vs. View from the South

For the few people following along at home: I’m now taking a Western U.S. History class with Dr. Paula Petrik. This is the first in a series of weekly posts about our readings.

Our first reading assignment is, perhaps, not surprising for such a course:

Limerick, Patricia Nelson. The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.

Originally published in 1987 (the version I’m using includes a 2006 preface), this work has deservingly been one of the most influential on the subsequent development of Western history. Although I think I had heard of it before, it really popped to my attention originally in a fall 2009 forum on the book’s legacy in the public history field (JSTOR link).

I’ll leave commenting on that forum–including personal experience working at a contested site of Western history–for a later week, when we specifically discuss historical memory in the West. Instead, this week I’m turning my focus to Chapter 7 of The Legacy of Conquest: “America the Borderland,” discussing the role of people of Hispanic origin (perhaps the best term for a disparate grouping) in the history of the trans-Mississippi West.

Having studied borderlands history, a separate but related field, I especially found this chapter fascinating. I was particularly happy that Limerick, as in the rest of her work, showed the continuity of the past of the trans-Mississippi West–not breaking it arbitrarily at either the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 or the “closing” of the frontier in 1890, a la Frederick Jackson Turner.

However, I couldn’t help but to think that this chapter, even in discussing pre-1848 events, took a “view from the East” (to use the title of Dr. Petrik’s NEH summer seminar), rather than a “view from the South.” As did David Weber in his seminal The Spanish Frontier in North America (1992), Limerick focused on events north of the Guadalupe Hidalgo and Gadsden treaty lines. She did attribute causality for these events to south of that line, showing that this region represented the northern expansion of New Spain and, briefly, Mexico’s “Far North,” as did Stanley Green in his The Mexican Republic: The First Decade (1987). But in reading that portion of the chapter, it still felt as if events in that region were isolated from those in the rest of New Spain.

Georgetown historian John Tutino‘s two recent books, Making a New World (2011) and Mexico and Mexicans in the Making of the United States (2012), meanwhile, brought, to me, more satisfying explanation for Spanish expansion. I recently read the latter, so this was fresh on my mind as I read Chapter 7. (Here’s an excellent podcast interview that summarizes the arguments of these complicated works.)

In Limerick’s synthesis–likely reflecting the approach of the time–imperial rivalries drive Spanish expansion into New Mexico, Texas, and later California during the course of the 16th through 18th centuries. Tutino, meanwhile, while not discounting the motive of imperial rivalry, linked these regions into the economic and social system he called “Spanish North America.”

He defined this system as beginning in the central Mexican region of the Bajío, northwest of Mexico City, and extending its tentacles northward. This was, he argued, a capitalist region, defined by mostly free labor, working for wages, and owners of large mines and haciendas accumulating and investing capital. This wealth accumulation was based on the silver mines of the Bajío, which provided the capital for the Spanish Empire’s imports from China, and the haciendas and ranches that fed those mines.

This stood in stark contrast with “Spanish Mesoamerica,” a land where Spaniards found already densely-settled native populations and essentially placed themselves at the head of these social formations. In Spanish North America, Native populations were typically nomadic, and many (like the Comanches that we’ll discuss in later weeks) maintained their independence throughout this period. Those that integrated into the Spanish system did so in ways that vastly changed their identities in new mission and ranching communities.

In this formulation, Spanish colonists pushed into New Mexico, Texas, and California not merely to fend off potential imperial rivals (although that was a motive), but to extend this economic system further. The integration of these regions into the wider economic system of Spanish North America is missing in Limerick’s chapter, and in much other writing on this region’s time under Spanish rule.

This is a small quibble here (one I hesitate to call a quibble, since it’s based on work two decades later), and indeed, Legacy of Conquest is one of the most cited works in Mexico and Mexicans. Thus, that work built upon Legacy of Conquest to provide a more full explanation. I wanted to bring attention to this point because it more fully supports Limerick’s analysis of the unbroken past in the trans-Mississippi West: Tutino and his co-authors in Mexico and Mexicans argued that this system of mining, farming, and grazing continued well after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and in many places continues to this day.

This explanation thus also provides a more significant cause for Spanish northward expansion than imperial rivalry, and shows one of the dangers of depicting the history of this region in relative isolation. As Limerick stated, the present-day Southwestern United States forms one ecological region with the Mexican North. As Tutino and his coauthors showed, it formed a unified economic region, as well.


This week I commented on Allyson’s, Carol’s, and Diane’s  blogs.


  1. David,

    Your post and a paragraph in chapter 7 (pg 237) reminded me of a book I began reading last winter, Anne Hyde’s Empires, Nations, and Families: A New History of the North American West. In the paragraph on pg 237, Limericks briefly mentions the role of Spanish-Mexican women in forging links across racial and ethnic lines; “intermarriage was an innovative way of pursuing stability during an unsettling social transition.” In essence, Hyde pursues this idea in great depth, arguing for the centrality of domestic relationships in crossing borders that divided nations, races, and empires. I didn’t get a chance to finish the book (quite a tome) as Religion and Society in the Reformation got in the way. If you’ve read it, I’d be interested in hearing your assessment.

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