David Patrick McKenzie

Digital Public Historian

Building Two Databases for My Dissertation…?

Wow, it’s been a long time since I’ve blogged outside of a class. As much as I admire the people who blog through their dissertations and have meant to do so, well… Good intentions and all that. I hope to blog my progress in the future, though, both as a way for me to explore and refine ideas, and, perhaps more importantly, to share the process for those who are currently undertaking or might undertake this type of work in the future.

For this first post, I’m delving into an area with which I’m struggling at the moment: Structuring and using data.


Data in my Dissertation

When the History Department at George Mason University accepted my prospectus in December 2016, my topic was the experiences of U.S. and Mexican travelers and migrants between each others’ countries from the start of Mexico’s Wars of Independence until the two nations went to war in 1846. I planned the work to be mostly qualitative, using a series of case studies of individual experiences to illuminate broader trends.

Although I’ve long had an interest in digital methods, I didn’t want to do digital work for the sake of doing so. I saw some uses for digital methods:

But I didn’t have concrete plans.

That said, one of the pieces with which I’ve long struggled in pondering my topic is how to integrate quantitative work with qualitative analysis, to explore what a dataset could yield that individual case studies could not.

As I began to research, I found a data source that could help, thanks to Harold Dana Sims’s The Expulsion of Mexico’s Spaniards, 1821-1836. In 1820, the United States began to require inbound vessels from foreign ports to submit passenger manifests. These manifests are available on microfilm at the U.S. National Archives nearby. Then, even better, I found that these manifests were also available via Ancestry.com and FamilySearch. For someone working full-time Monday through Friday, this was golden, especially following the tragic (but, given the federal budget situation, sadly understandable and unsurprising) decision of the National Archives to end Saturday hours in summer 2017.

A black-and-white ship manifest of the Schooner Sally Ann, which sailed to New Orleans from Rio Grande, Mexico, in October 1826. The manifest contains the names of five passengers.

Passenger manifest of the Sally Ann.

Each manifest contains:

Ship information:

  • Ship Name
  • Port of Departure
  • Port of Arrival
  • Date of Arrival

Passenger information:

  • First and last names
  • Age
  • Sex
  • Occupation
  • Country to Which They Belong
  • Country in Which They Intend to Become Inhabitants

Why Ship Manifests?

What could a dataset based on these ship manifests add to this dissertation? For one thing, they could yield numbers of ships and passengers going between the United States and Mexico between 1820 and 1846.

Tracking those raw numbers could help me identify ebbs and flows in travel and trade, which I could then investigate to determine why. I could also see a more detailed picture of how traffic between individual ports ebbed and flowed over time, and, again, investigate why. I also quickly began to recognize some distinctive names in the records, yielding clues as to who might have business interests in which places and could make for a prime case study.

For example, a merchant or hatter (depending on which manifest) named John Baptiste Passement showed up frequently in voyages between New Orleans and various Mexican ports, most frequently Campeche, in the early 1820s. Conducting a further search of his name on Ancestry.com yielded a will listing creditors in Mexican cities.

I could also, on a more advanced level, even find social networks among travelers. Who traveled together multiple times? How were these people connected?

I could also see if demographic profiles changed over time.

What Format?

Since there seemed many possibilities of what I could do with this data, I created an Excel spreadsheet as a first step. Pretty quickly, the spreadsheet began to grow unwieldy. For one thing, I was entering a lot of repetitive information—for example, I put a new person on each line, but a lot of repetitive information about the ship voyage. I suspected I needed something more sophisticated. But after setting up a custom MySQL database in my Clio 3 class in 2012, I wasn’t ready to do that again. If the data is a mid-sized nail, an Excel spreadsheet is too small of a hammer, but a custom MySQL database is a sledgehammer. I needed something in-between.

A screenshot of a spreadsheet of data about ships coming into U.S. ports from Mexico in the early 1820s, showing a large number of repeated cells.

What my spreadsheet began to look like. Note the repeated cells.

Thankfully, as I was wrestling with this question, I attended THAT Camp DC 2017. At the spur of the moment, I suggested a session on dealing with historical data—hoping that my experiences could help others and that I could get some advice on what to do with this.

Thankfully, someone there—I don’t remember whom, as the person I suspect doesn’t think it was him—suggested Heurist. Heurist, as I learned, is a database platform created specifically for humanities research at the University of Sydney. It seemed that this would do the trick for me.

Indeed, it has.

Setting Up My Heurist Database

Amazingly, within 24 hours of me signing up for Heurist, I received an email from the project’s lead, Dr. Ian Johnson. I told him about what I was trying to do and shared my spreadsheet. He and I then exchanged emails and held a Skype call in which I sat on my balcony in Arlington, Virginia, he was in Paris, and we were pinging a server in Sydney. After some working to figure out how to structure the data, he came up with a scheme based on how the ship manifests are structured and what I might do with the data in the dissertation:

Chart showing structure of David McKenzie's Heurist database. The database includes five tables: Trip, Person, Voyage (of Ship), Ship, and Place.

The structure of my Heurist database.

After I used OpenRefine to clean up my spreadsheet, he imported the data for me as a way to test out the importing features.

I cannot say “thank you” enough to him for all that he did.

And Now the Fun Part…

Since getting the database set up in the late spring, I’ve been going in spurts inputting data. Sadly, although I inquired on Twitter whether Ancestry or FamilySearch have these manifests available for bulk download, it seems I’ll be inputting manually (which, given the state of the OCR of names in particular, might not be a bad thing). I input two types of voyages:

  • For those inbound from Mexican ports, I input data on the voyage itself, as well as on all passengers.
  • For those inbound from other ports but with Mexicans on board, I input data about the voyage and then only input data about the Mexicans on board.

I realize that this method would not allow me to answer the question of what percentage of inbound voyages to a particular port is from Mexico, but I’ve decided that the amount of time doing that additional data entry would not be worth any questions it could answer.

Screenshot of the Heurist database, showing David McKenzie's "Add Trip (of Person)" interface.

The interface of a Trip record.

My workflow starts with selecting “Add Trip (of person).”

The Trip is the basic unit of my database—each Person takes a Trip on a Voyage of a Ship.

If I’m starting on a new manifest, I create a new Voyage record (often involving creating a new Ship record, as well).

I then check the person’s name to see if the name already exists in the database. Often, this is a guessing game as to whether a person is the same or not. Are the birthdates listed similar? Does the person who might be the same have a record of traveling between the same ports? Is the name unique enough to lessen the possibility that the records are referring to different people?

After making that judgment, I then proceed, if it’s a new person, to copy over the information that I can glean from the manifest about that person. Finally, after the Person record is created, I input the rest of the data about that person on the trip.

I found a large number of Voyages—roughly 400—between Mexican ports and New Orleans just from 1820 to 1826. I started to question whether creating a comprehensive dataset would be worth the effort.

When I discussed this database project with faculty members and classmates at George Mason University’s Early Americas Workshop, opinion in the room was divided on that question.

I’m still debating, although I’m leaning toward plowing ahead in creating a comprehensive dataset to really be able to see and show change over time.

I’d love advice on this question!

Right now, with working full-time, I’ve taken the advice of others and given up on doing brain-intensive work on weeknights; instead, I’ll either read secondary literature or input data (often with a basketball game on in the background), while reserving primary source research and, eventually, writing for the weekends. It’s still taking quite a bit of time, though!

To take a break from the intensive data entry of ships coming into New Orleans, I’ve begun inputting ships coming into New York. So far, I’ve found many fewer (which, admittedly, creates the opposite problem—sorting through those manifests can be mind-numbing, although it does get me thinking about the differences in traffic).

What’s Next for the Manifests?

In the time since I started this database, my research focus has narrowed. My advisor, Joan C. Bristol, and I agreed that the original topic was too broad and ambitious. We agreed that I would instead focus on traffic going one way: U.S. migration into the interior of Mexico. This is because I found I was developing an argument about U.S. commercial expansion into the interior of Mexico being related but distinct from the migrations into border regions like Texas that eventually resulted in U.S. territorial expansion. Preliminarily, I suggest that this secondary migration laid the groundwork for the formation of an informal, as opposed to territorial, U.S. empire in Latin America (more on this in another post).

This has led me to question the value of ship manifest data for that topic. I still think being able to quantify shipping and movement will be valuable, as will being able to pinpoint comings and goings of U.S. and Mexican nationals. I could still see connections between U.S. and Mexican ports, and find more people who were U.S. nationals but resident in Mexico.

What are your thoughts on how this data could be valuable?

And Possibly Another Database…

Meanwhile, examining how U.S. migrants to the interior of Mexico laid the groundwork for a future informal, commercial empire brought me back to the database that I already began constructing over five years ago: Tracking U.S.-Americans who filed claims against the Mexican government.

When I set up the database, I mainly looked at what the extensive files of 1839 (15 boxes) and 1849 (30 boxes) claims commissions could tell us about the claims themselves: Who the claimants were, summaries of the cases, and amounts of claims. But I’ve since realized, thanks to rethinking the topic, that I might have been asking the wrong questions, and thus extracting the wrong data.

While many of these files have to do with incidents involving merchants who simply traveled to Mexico but did not stay, there are also many about U.S.-Americans who settled in Mexico’s interior. Many of these files contain information such as when they settled in Mexico, where, their occupations, and demographics.

As part of the narrowed focus, I’m realizing that this data could prove valuable in painting a portrait of the U.S.-American diaspora in Mexico’s interior during this era, and how that group of people changed over time. What patterns exist? Where did the U.S.-Americans who settled in Mexico come from? Where did they settle? When? With whom did they interact? This could allow for a good number of visualizations that can paint a broader picture, beyond qualitative exploration of individual experiences.

Looking for Advice

I would love advice on how to build and use this dataset.

Should I use the records of claimants as my main source, keeping an intentionally limited but self-selected data set?

Or should I cast a wider net, knowing that it would be nearly impossible to create a comprehensive set?

And furthermore, should I scrap the claims database that I already started to create, or simply change some of the categories?

Should I create a new Heurist database and import the previous custom database, or, knowing that some of the same people are likely to be passengers on vessels (indeed, I’ve found my central case study, John Baldwin, on at least two ship manifests), add them to the ship manifest database?

Lots of questions for going forward…

AmWest Final Post: The New Orleans Association’s Claims against Mexico

In my midterm primary sources blog post, examining U.S. citizens who filed claims against Mexico for unpaid debts related to their support of Mexico’s War of Independence, I laid out grand ambitions for the technology I would use in my final paper.

Like many grand ambitions, these didn’t materialize–I wound up writing a more traditional research paper, based on a deep read of these primary sources, rather than using text mining and topic modeling technologies. This decision was partially pragmatic; turning these handwritten documents into usable data would involve a great deal of time transcribing. Furthermore, I wasn’t sure of the payoff for doing so. The documents in these cases served a wide variety of purposes: Memorials and judgments, depositions of witnesses, copies of cargo lists, receipts, customs documents, letters in pursuit of the claims, and even biographical excerpts of the parties involved. The dataset was simply too varied for distant reading, and in the end, I didn’t think doing distant reading of these sources would tell me that much–especially not for the time I’d have to spend on getting the technology right.

For purposes of my final paper, I also narrowed the claims files I considered from ten to six, filed in three batches. These cases concerned members of a merchant group known as the New Orleans Association, who supported Mexican rebels via their envoy José Manuel de Herrera in 1815-16. They sold weapons and outfitted ships with supplies to support the rebels at a time they were close to failure. Ultimately, the rebels were not successful at that time either. The merchants wound up pursuing the unpaid bills from their support before a commission that sought to resolve claims by U.S. citizens against Mexico. The claims files I used for this paper, as well as a database I’ve started, are the result of this commission’s work.

The New Orleans Association–including former New York City mayor and future Representative, Senator, and Secretary of State Edward Livingston–had previously financed filibustering expeditions to seize Texas from Spain. In this case, though, they were financing Mexican rebels–supporting Mexican independence rather than attempts at seizing Mexican territory for the United States. This raised a paradox for me, one that I sought to use the claims files to help resolve.

Previous historiography on the activities of the New Orleans Association was drawn on extensive research in Mexican and U.S. archives (particularly the classic work on filibustering, Harris Warren’s 1943 The Sword Was Their Passport), but did not use these claims files to interrogate the Associates’ motives. Frank Owsley and Gene Smith, in Filibusters and Expansionists: Jeffersonian Manifest Destiny, 1800-1821, say that the Associates’ support for both filibusters and Mexican rebels was hard to sort out for the time after 1815.

So for this paper, I use the claims files to try to sort out some of this story. While the claimants surely supported Herrera for financial reasons, I also argue in the paper that their professions of support for Mexican independence were not just window dressing, meant to please those hearing the cases. Rather, it comports with the support that U.S. citizens more broadly had for Latin American independence movements during this time. I also argue that the merchants were businessmen, and thus could simultaneously support filibustering and Mexican independence out of commercial interest, which would sometimes trump ideological interest.

These claims records add nuance to the story of U.S. activities in Mexico during the early 19th century, including filibustering–an important factor in the buildup to the hostilities in 1846 that ultimately brought the southwest borderlands into the United States. New Orleans’s role in that drama has been little-studied. These documents add some to that story–I wouldn’t argue they change the story, but they add some wrinkles. They show how the activities of private citizens were sometimes at odds with official U.S. policy, which sought neutrality. They show the close ties between New Orleans and Mexico, including the paradoxical role the Crescent City would later play in Mexican affairs: Support of the Texas Revolution while attempting to maintain trading ties with Mexican ports in 1835-36. (For more information on that, see Edward L. Miller’s New Orleans and the Texas Revolution.)

They also provided a good trial balloon for me to use a small sample of this collection that will likely be valuable to my dissertation, to really see its benefits and limitations.

AmWest Post #12: “You ain’t from around here, are you?”

This clip from the film Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure demonstrates a phenomenon the late Hal Rothman, in his fascinating work Devil’s Bargains: Tourism in the Twentieth-Century West, argues was associated with tourism: The need to perform a certain image of a place. When I worked in the position that Jan Hooks depicted in this film (which, I should add, was not filmed at the Alamo and completely inaccurately depicts the place, not to mention how we did our jobs), one of the most common questions visitors asked me (besides the location of the basement) was some variation of, “You ain’t from around here, are you?” My accent–the result of a Pittsburgh-born broadcaster father and a Minnesota-born mother–belied the fact that I had grown up 15 miles away.

This phenomenon dovetails nicely with the subject of recent discussion in our American West class: Who should tell the history of a place or people, whether in an academic work, a public history production like an exhibition or historic site tour, or even participating in a tourist production? Should representatives of particular ethnic groups, or natives of particular places, have a greater right to tell the history of their people or place? In both academic and public history, a great deal of digital and physical ink has been spilled over this topic in recent years. The jury is out on that issue, and probably always will be.

While I’ve read some of that literature for academic and public history, I haven’t given that issue much, if any, thought for working in tourism. Perhaps that partially is from the the fuzzy line–one many of us in public history perceive is much more solid–between what is public history work and what is tourism work. Was my job at the Alamo–a front-line historical interpreter–a job in tourism or in public history/museums? I tended to think of it as the latter, because proper historical research influenced how I did my job–perhaps an elitist assumption on my part. But a large part of the constituency that I served was from outside of San Antonio, visiting the city–in other words, tourists. The Alamo is the most-visited site in Texas. So although I didn’t think of myself as such, I was employed in tourism.

Reading Rothman’s book added another dimension to the “you ain’t from around here” question. I had previously thought visitors were asking me that question in terms of legitimacy for historical interpretation, along the lines of what we previously discussed in class. Was someone with my accent, who had arrived as an infant in Texas with my family in 1980, not qualified to interpret that story?

But perhaps that question also came from an expectation, as Rothman details, of a certain way that tourism workers should act–as part of the backdrop, as part of what makes that place distinctive. (Addendum: My classmate Carol Apelt found the perfect quotation from Rothman to sum this up:”Tourist workers quickly learn that one of the most essential traits of their service is to mirror onto the guest what that visitor wants from them and from their place in a way that affirms the visitor’s self-image” [12]).

Was it not so much that I wasn’t qualified to represent that story (particularly at a site then managed by a descendants’ group) as I didn’t fit the expectation of how a local in San Antonio was supposed to sound?

That raises the question of to what degree our visitors distinguished, as we in public history often do, between us–a serious historical institution–and the tourist traps across Alamo Plaza.

How much study has been devoted to the place of public history work in the broader spectrum of tourism–particularly how visitor expectations of tourist sites influence visitor expectations of public history institutions? How do visitors know when they’ve walked into a public history institution versus a tourist trap? I suspect the distinction is intuitive, but beyond that, what are the expectations of each and how do they influence each other?

Suggestions for further reading would be most appreciated!


This week I commented on Carol’s post on her experiences with expectations of the roles she should play as a Texan.

AmWest Post #11: San Antonio as Western City

Throughout our Western history class, I’ve been pondering the question of Texas as a Western versus Southern state. Overall I agree with the assessment of historian Randolph Campbell that the state is more Southern because the bulk of the population lives in the portions that would generally be classified as Southern geographically, climatologically and politically. Its political history has tended to align with that of the South. As Michael Bottoms noted when I posted the above-linked interview with Campbell on Facebook, Texas was never a territory, and slavery and Reconstruction formed the state’s “defining relationship with the national government.”

So I’ll buy that we should classify Texas as a Southern state. But as Campbell notes, a large part of Texas’s landmass (just not where its population lives) is Western in character. So where does my hometown of San Antonio fit into that divide? That question popped into my mind as I read John M. Findlay’s “Far Western Cityscapes and American Culture Since 1940” (The Western Historical Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 1 [Feb., 1991], pp. 19-43). So in this post, I’m going to muse on the idea that although Texas may be more of a Southern state, San Antonio, its second-largest city and third-largest metropolitan area, is Western in character. (I say “muse on” rather than argue, though, because I’m formulating some thoughts here rather than a cohesive argument.)

San Antonio makes its way into Findlay’s article with a mention of its 1968 World’s Fair, dubbed Hemisfair, as one of a series of three World’s Fairs in Western cities (the other two being Seattle in 1962 and Spokane in 1974) that, according to Findlay, redefined the genre from large fairs like that of New York in 1964. But many of the patterns he mentions, even though pioneered in other places, helped define the character of San Antonio.

Most of San Antonio’s population growth came after World War II; the city’s population grew from 253,854 in 1940 to 1,327,407 in 2010. Much of that growth came, as Findlay discusses being characteristic of conscious choices of Western cities, through suburban sprawl (although there have been efforts to revitalize downtown and promote a dense urban core recently). The Stanford industrial park example that Findlay cites is similar to what has happened in San Antonio, where a large number of sprawling industrial campuses have proliferated, particularly near the University of Texas at San Antonio. UTSA is itself located far from downtown, so much so that when it was first started, some called it “UT Boerne” (Boerne being the seat of the next county over).

This pattern of population growth, however, has not been distinctive to the West. Indeed, Findlay even says that the precedents and patterns he identifies as Western spread by 1970; even Arlington, Virginia (where I now live) adopted Phoenix’s decentered urban village model. Other cities, such as Atlanta, grew much the same way as San Antonio did after World War II–and it’d be hard to find anyone who would call Atlanta Western.

This points to a question at which Findlay hinted but on which he didn’t elaborate: Western versus Sunbelt. Do the patterns he identify as distinguishing Western cities also apply to “Sunbelt” cities? Or did Western cities pioneer what became arguably the Sunbelt pattern of development? I think Findlay would argue so, but I would love to see different arguments.

So Findlay’s definition of Western cities is not why I’d suggest that San Antonio is more Western than Southern. Rather, San Antonio is, in my opinion, more Western than Southern by other definitions that we’ve discussed in our semester:

  • It lies just west of the 98th meridian (98 degrees, 30 minutes west, to be exact).
  • Although its average annual rainfall is above the 25 inches per year that others have noted makes agriculture near impossible,  San Antonio has had difficulty with water supply because of frequent droughts. This makes it like most areas defined as Western, rather than Southern.
  • From the time of its annexation into the United States, San Antonio has been defined by more ethnic diversity than a black-white divide. Its history of ethnic relations has been more based on a broad range of ethnicities–not as broad as the range Bottoms discusses in An Aristocracy of Color, though, and still in a once-segregated Southern state. In fact, white Texans segregated both African American Texans and Hispanic Texans. (Two great books on ethnic relations in South Texas, by the way, are David Montejano‘s Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas and Laura Hernández Ehrisman‘s Inventing the Fiesta City. Much of my understanding of the city’s ethnic relations comes from these books.)
  • Along those lines, the famous U.S. Census map of the distribution of the enslaved population in 1860 shows a sharp cutoff just east of San Antonio. Although 9.6 percent of Bexar County’s population was enslaved, this is a much smaller percentage than in most places that could be defined as Southern; indeed, east of Texas, few counties outside of Applachia (the parts of East Tennessee and what became West Virginia that remained loyal to the Union) had percentages as low.

Again, these are meant to be musings and not full-blown arguments. Perhaps one could argue that San Antonio might be more Western than Southern, but that it is, due to being in Texas, still Southern in many ways. Perhaps it’s both Western- and Southern-lite? Perhaps it’s neither, but its own beast, as Will Rogers supposedly quipped. For me, I’d like to settle on the idea of San Antonio fitting into a pattern of being a Western city with Southern characteristics due to being in a Southern state. What do others think?

AmWest Post #10: Comanche… World-System, Federation, Empire?

From the title of this week’s book, we can tell that Pekka Hämäläinen isn’t messing around. He intentionally provokes by calling his book the Comanche Empire. The book argues that the Comanches gained so much power in the 18th- and early 19th-century Southwest that they should be called not just a tribe, not just a nation, but an empire.

Them’s fightin’ words. So for this post, I’m going to discuss on a couple of alternate concepts before going into Hämäläinen’s definition of empire and why, ultimately, I concur with his use of that term to describe the Comanches of this era. (As with all blog posts, this is intended to share musings rather than fully-blown arguments.)

The first concept is “world-system.” As we discussed in relation to Robbins’s Colony and Empire, Immanuel Wallerstein gave us the concept of cores and peripheries to describe a region’s place in a particular economic order. This order can encompass most of the world, as Wallerstein argues has been the trend through the last several centuries, or it can encompass a much smaller space. Hämäläinen toys with this concept in his introduction, arguing that the Comanches built their own small world-system (p. 5). On what would be considered the periphery–or borderland–of the larger world-system, they created their own. The periphery of the Comanche world-system interacted (indeed, engaged in a relationship of mutual dependence) with the larger world-system of which Spanish North America was a part.

As I read this, I wondered if the book should perhaps be titled Comanche World-System. While surely a title that would turn off even an editor at a university press, this might encompass Hämäläinen’s argument in a less-provocative way. Wallerstein argues that a world-system tends to function best in a fragmented political situation, rather than a unified empire–and Hämäläinen also suggests that the Comanches, much less the peoples on their periphery, were intentionally not unified. He also points out that Comanches could have destroyed Spanish settlements, but didn’t. Instead, they successfully co-opted them economically but left them apart from Comanche political control, which made them more valuable, not less, to the Comanche world-system.

But this concept, in addition to not making for a good title, does not adequately explain what Hämäläinen is discussing. It largely focuses on economic dynamics, and Hämäläinen is going further than economics. So it’s out.

Another term could be “federation.” Hämäläinen never uses it, but throughout the book, and especially in the conclusion, he discusses the internal political workings of the Comanches. Specifically, he points to the lack of a strong, central governing authority. Rather, each Comanche group maintained a degree of autonomy, but within a shared framework.

Should the book be called Comanche Federation? Again, not the most provocative title, and also one that doesn’t adequately describe what Hämäläinen argues, as it leaves out the economic aspects, particularly the economic domination of areas under other political powers.

So, then, we have “empire.” In his conclusion (p. 349-50), Hämäläinen lays out six different characteristics that he argues made the Comanche Empire fit that term:

  1. “Staggering geographical range,”
  2. “Core-periphery hierarchies,”
  3. “Vast hinterlands of extraction,”
  4. “Systematic incorporation of foreign entities,”
  5. “Dynamic multiculturalism,”
  6. “Penetrating cultural influences.”

These characteristics go beyond both “world-system” and “federation.” But as Hämäläinen says throughout, the Comanche Empire is not often what we think of as an empire. In other parts of the book, Hämäläinen compares the Comanches with the Mongols, both for their pastoral lifestyle (p. 243), as well as their style of empire-building (p. 352). He even qualifies his definition, saying that of the Comanche “differed from full-blown empires.”

I’d like to take that notion a step further, and really query the term by bringing in another comparison. This empire shared a borderland (one should hesitate to call it a border) with the Comanche, and as Hämäläinen argues, the Comanche were dependent upon this empire for their own economic power. That empire is the Spanish Empire, and it was also the subject of a book that qualified, and further explored, the definition of that term: Henry Kamen’s brilliant 2004 work Empire: How Spain Became a World Power, 1492-1763.

Kamen’s definition of empire in the context of Spain’s bears some similarity to Hämäläinen’s, and bears exploration here. Kamen argues that the Spanish Empire was an empire, but not particularly Spanish; it “was always a joint enterprise” (p. xxv) of people from Spain, as well as others from Europe, Asia, Africa, and even the Americas.

Thus, for Kamen, empire does not just mean “conquest and the extension of national power,” but the “underlying structures,” “factors such as the ability  to supply finance and services” (p. xxiii). Most of the people who supplied finance and services–including, most importantly, military services–to the Spanish Empire were not actually from the Iberian Peninsula. Rather, they were people with a vested interest in building this “empire.”

Kamen points out that Spain itself, much less its empire, was not a single, uniform entity. Spain only became an entity from several kingdoms in the Iberian Peninsula in the early 18th century, and many of its colonies were brought into the Spanish orbit on the power of local arrangements. In other words Spain’s empire was fragmented and held together by a “web of relationships” (p. 11), rather than a uniform central order. In fact, when administrators in the newly-consolidated Spain in the 18th century tried to impose a central order on all of the colonies, they largely failed.

Kamen’s vision of empire, while not an exact parallel, has a similar ring to that of Hämäläinen. Both argue against their empires as hegemons that simply project their power and will. Both argue that, rather, their empires were founded on unequal and often violent but often cooperative relationships. These relationships were largely based on mutual economic interests and involved a great deal of give-and-take.

The Spanish Empire and the Comanche Empire had a large number of fundamental differences, particularly in the degree of centralized internal control (while not a monolith, the Spanish Empire was much more centralized than Comanchería), but Kamen’s and Hämäläinen’s definitions are closer, and their empires bear greater resemblance, than one might otherwise expect.

Yet the Spanish system is universally regarded as an empire, while Hämäläinen threw down the gauntlet by calling the Comanche an empire. That gauntlet is rightfully thrown.


This week I commented (belatedly) on Doug’s blog post.

AmWest Post #9: Railroads and the West’s Transformation

This week’s reading was Richard White‘s influential Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, which focuses on the development of transcontinental rail lines from nothing at the dawn of the Civil War to multiple lines by the end of the 19th century.

White argues that the proliferation of these railroads, often heralded as a net success, were anything but beneficial for the country, or even for the railroad corporations themselves. Rather, they fleeced U.S. taxpayers for their subsidized construction and their customers and investors for their operation, often remaining unprofitable. They built so quickly that they outpaced demand, forcing further expansion to recoup both capital and operating costs, which exacerbated the problems that got them to that point in the first place.

Furthermore, White argues  that the change they wrought–the much more rapid opening of the region between the Missouri River and the coastal mountain ranges to Euro-American settlement than would otherwise have happened–had numerous negative consequences for dispossessed Native Americans, the environment, and even the Euro-American settlers themselves, who moved into marginal territory.

This simplification of White’s complicated argument will not the the center point of this post, though. Instead, I’d like to focus on two digital complements to the book. The first is “Shaping the West,” a web project of the Stanford Spatial History Lab. “Shaping the West” is a series of visualizations related to the information White used in Railroaded, but was not built as a companion to the book. For example, this visualization of the railroads from 1879 to 1893 shows the development of the rail system, and is meant to demonstrate White’s argument that the railroads expanded way too quickly. In many ways, this helped me make greater sense of that argument in the book. This simple map, showing population density and the railroads, and allowing the user to click to watch the year-by-year evolution, shows that part of White’s argument in Railroaded even more effectively than the book itself does, at least in my perception.

While “Shaping the West” appeared before the book did, White also maintains a companion site to Railroaded. I found it interesting that I only thought to look for this based on knowledge from previous digital classes (where we had discussed the Spatial History Lab’s work) and not from reading the print edition of the book itself, which, unless I missed something, didn’t refer to the website. Is that a sign that the website is meant to complement the printed book, but that the printed book is primary? Looking at the website suggests that is the case.

On that site, White directly presents the data behind the book’s arguments, and indeed presents the idea of “hybrid digital publishing.” The site consists of visualizations, a series of photos, and perhaps most importantly, interactive versions of White’s 2000 footnotes (the code for which appears to be not working so well, as the linked page here has an image of the book’s cover above the page’s text). Unfortunately, these different parts of the website do not link well together, and I found myself having to use the back button frequently to get to all of them.

The interactive versions of the footnotes leave something to be desired, but are a good start of the direction this type of website could take. They leave something to be desired in that most links go to a book or primary source’s entry on WorldCat, rather than the source itself. It represents a help in footnote mining, but doesn’t go as far as it could in putting the sources behind the footnotes in plain view. This is not to say that what White does here isn’t laudable. As someone working on a digital compilation of primary sources, I know how difficult not just compiling but digitizing can be. I will be curious if more historians choose to go this route in the future; indeed, I hope so. This level of transparency is especially laudable, as this section makes it all the easier for fellow historians to track White’s research.

The photos, meanwhile, offer what a printed book cannot: A set of extensive visual evidence. As a lover of HistoryPin, I was especially happy to see the photos (like this one) pinned there, as this helps a reader see the places described in the book.

Some of the visualizations are rather impressive, and the best part of this website, while others don’t offer as much. One that doesn’t offer so much is “The Central Pacific and Transcontinental 11 Step.” This presented a nice synopsis of some of the arguments of the book, with fun illustrations, that helped me consolidate what I read, but didn’t add much. By contrast, the visualization of who sat on the boards of the railroads is an excellent way to present the data underlying the book. A visualization that allows one to track individuals more directly is even more helpful.

So all in all, White’s Railroaded site presents a positive complement to his book, but not a replacement for reading it. The website makes White’s research more transparent, and offers visualizations that help convey his arguments even more effectively. This is not to say that it couldn’t offer a lot more to help users engage his arguments, and its navigation and layout could be much better. But it is a lot more than most authors are doing, and for that White should be lauded.


I commented on Megan’s blog post this week.

AmWest Post #8: Statewide Online Archives

For this week, our assignment is to look at Montana Memory and similar statewide online archival portals from Western states. Montana Memory is a joint project of the Montana Historical Society and the Montana State Library, but, like many such portals, it contains collections from many other contributing institutions. The goal of Montana Memory is, first and foremost, to provide access to primary source materials. Collectively, these primary sources are meant to serve as “a resource for education, business, pleasure, and lifelong learning,” according to the State Library’s page about the project.

Since at Ford’s Theatre I’m working on the Remembering Lincoln digital collection, for this blog post I’ll discuss using Montana Memory to find materials for that project, as a way to assess the resource. (Please note that I am writing this post, like everything else on this blog, purely from my personal perspective.)

Our goal with Remembering Lincoln is to bring together responses to the Lincoln assassination from the time just after it took place, helping to personalize and localize that national event. We’ve been working with a range of partner institutions, but are also researching to find other digitized pieces and incorporate them into our collection.

My search for relevant materials in Montana Memory admittedly disappointed me. I began by using the term “lincoln” and set the date range to April 15, 1865 (the morning Lincoln died) to June 1, 1866 (the range we are currently using for the collection). It gave me one hit: The commission of a territorial Supreme Court justice in 1864, signed by Lincoln. I was surprised that this came up in my search. I did notice, though, that the years listed in the metadata for the entire collection description include 1865 and 1866. Perhaps this explains why this particular piece came up. Still, I was surprised that the commission wasn’t filtered out. Is this an issue with ContentDM, the system underpinning Montana Memory, and used by many other libraries and archives? I don’t personally know, but would be curious to find out.

This also shows why we can’t be too dependent on searches: We might miss something relevant, because no metadata is perfect. One of the most interesting sources for Remembering Lincoln is one about which we learned at the American Association for State and Local History conference in September: The memoir of Mary Sheehan Ronan. A couple of fellow attendees tipped us off to it, and we quickly found it. The memoir, edited by Ellen Baumler of the Montana Historical Society, includes Ronan’s description (pages 47-48) of dancing in the streets with friends of Southern origin when they learned of Lincoln’s assassination.

This source would not come up in a search for items created during those dates, but yet is extremely relevant for Remembering Lincoln. It shows the need to keep an open mind for sources when undertaking any research.

No search engine can be perfect. Thus, one has to try a range of searches in any portal, just as one has to try different collections when looking for something in a physical archive. One can’t let a machine’s judgment substitute for the historian’s sense. If we had just used searches, even broadly constructed ones, we wouldn’t have found a gem like Ronan’s memoir. Instead, because public historians knew about it off the tops of their heads, we found it.

This is not to say that Montana Memory and other similar portals are not valuable. Indeed, aggregators like Montana Memory have facilitated–some might say even revolutionized–the research process. Not only do we not have to go to Montana to research Montana history, but we don’t even have to know what institutional repositories to search–we can search multiple repositories all in one place. Regional aggregators like the Mountain West Digital Library are taking this a step further, and the Digital Public Library of America, headed by a former member of our own History department, Dan Cohen, is taking this another step further.

Thus, we just have to be careful not to become too dependent on automated searches. They can facilitate our work, but still cannot substitute for the hard work of the historian using the most important resource we have at our disposal: the brain.


This week I commented on Megan’s post.

AmWest Post #7: West as Exception, Norm, Precedent…?

This week’s main reading, An Aristocracy of Color by D. Michael Bottoms, formerly of our own George Mason University History Department, focuses on the application of Reconstruction laws and post-Civil War constitutional amendments–based on the specific circumstances of the South but national in scope–in California specifically, as well as in other parts of the West.

Bottoms closely examines how the ethnic diversity of California changed application of these laws and amendments. He argues that, particularly, Chinese and African Americans distinguished themselves from each other in such a way that they secured their rights, yet paradoxically reinforced the state’s racial hierarchy that Anglo immigrants to the state established in the 1850s.

For this post I would like to focus on some of this excellent book’s implications for wider conversations not just about Western history but U.S. history. Particularly, I’d like to extend some of what Bottoms says in his short and perhaps understated epilogue. I say “perhaps understated” because what Bottoms has to say has broader applications than this focused book lets on.

Bottoms argues for the importance of the California story as not simply an exception–important as it was–to the typical story told about Reconstruction, but as precedent-setting for the shape of future civil rights movements and legal history around racial issues.

This, in addition to previous readings from our class, raises the broad question for me about the degree to which we can see experiences in the West as exceptional, normative, precedent, or some combination thereof? I realize that’s an extremely broad question, worthy of (and I’m sure addressed) in a grand theory book along the lines of The Legacy of Conquest.

Bottoms hints that he sees, at least in the particular story he tells, the notion of West as exception, then precedent.

In some ways, the idea of West-as-precedent both turns Turner on his head and might reinforce his thesis. Turner argued that much of what could be considered U.S.-American national character was formed in the West. The idea of West-as-precedent refutes and reinforces that in showing that the experiences of intermingling people in the West–not the experience of white people simply sweeping over the others and interacting with a wild place of free land–is what set the tone for the future of the United States.

Besides wondering about our old friend Turner, from Bottoms’s epilogue, I also found myself wanting to know more about the short- and long-term precedents set by cases and experiences from California. To what extend did Ward v. Flood influence Plessy v. Ferguson, for example, beyond a short mention that it receives? To follow how Bottoms rightfully addresses legal history, beyond the case law cited in Plessy, how influential was that case in establishing inequality cloaked as “separate but equal” in the Jim Crow South? How much were precedents from California specifically referenced in other places?

These questions are not central to Bottoms’s focused story and don’t detract from his argument, but I hope that future scholarship will address them.

I’m also curious as to whether California’s significance to the broader story was more because of the precedent it set for the future, or whether its significance comes from California’s experiences making a difference in the East at that time. How much did Easterners see what was happening in California as relevant to what was happening in their part of the country, especially the former Confederacy during Reconstruction and in the next decade? If they didn’t, why not? Again, this is peripheral to the story Bottoms is telling, but something that I hope future research will address. Understanding these questions would help us further understand the importance of the West in U.S. history.


I commented on Carol’s blog this week.

AmWest Primary Sources: U.S. Aid to Mexican Rebels

For this blog post and for my paper assignment in the American West class, I’m using selections of claims by U.S. citizens against Mexico. These selections document involvement by U.S. citizens in Mexico’s War of Independence, specifically merchants who sold arms, munitions, supplies, and even ships to Mexican insurgents in the mid-1810s. Because the insurgents made these purchases on credit, then faced defeats, the merchants never received payment, and eventually filed claims against the Mexican government.

For this post, I’m using a series of memorials–written testimony–from the claimants. Before delving into the substance of the memorials themselves, though, a bit of background on the claims themselves and how I got to these records.

Background: U.S. Claims Against Mexico

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which brought the U.S.-Mexican War to an end in 1848, is rightly most known for a vast transfer of territory: The northern half of Mexico became the southwestern United States. Besides withdrawing its army from Mexico’s capital city and other portions of remaining Mexican territory, the United States paid $15 million and additionally absorbed $3.2 million in claims that its citizens had filed against the southern neighbor.

Like Brian DeLay, I stumbled into a research topic from the treaty’s provisions. DeLay’s curiosity about Article 11, as he details, led to his award-winning book War of a Thousand Deserts. Where mine might lead I do not know, but it may very well be a significant portion of my dissertation.

Specifically, that $3.2 million in claims piqued my interest. In my dissertation I broadly plan to look at the experiences on the ground of U.S. nationals in Mexico (outside places like Texas), and Mexican nationals in the United States, between roughly 1810 and 1846, when the two countries went to war.

I was looking for a way to get at the experiences of merchants when that $3.2 million in claims caught my eye. I wondered how the two countries came to that number and, even more importantly for my purposes, how U.S. citizens went about claiming their share of that money. Surely they would have needed to submit documentation to receive that money, right? And perhaps that documentation is stored somewhere?

A rabbit hole one night led me to find Record Group 76 at the National Archives. There were not just one but two commissions set up to hear the claims. The records of both commissions–a joint commission set up by an 1839 treaty and a U.S. commission set up in 1849 to dole out the money from the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo–are contained there. In the last couple of years I’ve made trips to the National Archives in College Park–one of the benefits of living in the Washington area–and have photographed around 5,000 pages of these files.

Previous Work on the Claims Files

Dr. Peter M. Jonas, who is a professor of doctoral leadership at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, analyzed the claims–particularly the process of resolving them–in his dissertation at the University of Wisconsin. Jonas also published an article on William Parrott, one of the more prominent claimants. Sadly, or perhaps happily for me as a dissertator, these claims have been little-used besides by Jonas; even Jonas’s article on Parrott yields only two citations on Google Scholar.

As I delved into these claim files, I found them to be incredibly rich. So I realized that there is more that can be done. Jonas has been incredibly supportive of my work to use these files to answer more questions about the activities of U.S. citizens in Mexico during this volatile time.

For my Clio 3 class with Fred Gibbs in fall 2012, I began a custom MySQL database to keep track of the cases and yield some data. The website where I house that database contains skeletal information, including the beginnings of a list with basic data about the claims heard by the 1839 commission and some visualizations of the data in aggregate.

Additionally, in a blog post for my New Media minor field readings, I did some more visualizations of other aggregated data (via Jonas’s dissertation) to find patterns in the claims.

Claims for Aid to Mexican Insurgents

But now, for this assignment, I’d like to delve into the substance of certain claims. Most of the claims relate, as shown in the above-linked blog post, to confiscation of ships and merchandise and other incidents that took place in Mexico in the 1820s-30s. Those claims are relevant to the history of the U.S. West because they are part of the sequence of events–one of the reasons given for war in 1846, in fact–that led to the U.S. acquisition of what today is the Southwest.

For this class, though, the most relevant claims are those relating to the involvement of U.S. nationals in the fight for Mexican independence. They document early contact between U.S. and what would become Mexican nationals, and U.S. activity as the western movement of its citizens reached the lands under Spanish rule.

Specifically, I chose to look at claims 8, 9, and 10 (filed together); 13 and 14 (filed together), 24, 47, and 48 and 49 (filed together). These, interestingly, were all related: They all had to do with aid provided by merchants, mostly from New Orleans (some from Baltimore), in 1816 at the solicitation of José Manuel de Herrera, an agent for insurgent leaders Guadalupe Victoria (later Mexico’s first president) and Francisco Xavier Mina.

First I’ll provide some basic impressions gleaned from reading and transcribing the memorials (PDF here), and then delve into what basic text mining–through word clouds in Voyant–can and cannot yield.

General Impressions

In general, the memorials show that Herrera worked with several merchants to outfit ships and procure weapons and supplies for Victoria and Mina. Herrera made his purchases on credit; because of a reversal of fortune, Victoria was unable to pay the merchants. Eventually, according to the memorials, in 1824 the independent Mexican government assumed responsibility for repayment, but the country’s continuing financial crisis prevented payment. Finally the merchants, and/or their heirs, filed claims before the 1839 claims commission.

Reading the memorials (which are among the many papers filed as part of any claim) in the process of transcribing them for text mining (discussed below) revealed some similarities. The merchants were consistent in their stories that they did what they did for the motive of helping Mexican “patriots,” as they called the insurgents. The use of the term “patriots” particularly stood out to me, showing at least an implicit comparison with the United States’s origins. This jives with the bigger picture of strength of support for Latin American independence movements at that moment in time, which Caitlin Fitz analyzes in her forthcoming book.

The claimants also were remarkably consistent in saying that Herrera promised them payment–altruism was not the only motivation for the merchants (and indeed, one can doubt they would have carried out essentially private foreign aid)–but that first the insurgents and then Mexico could not repay.

They were also consistent in pointing to Edward Livingston, by that time a former mayor of New York and member of Congress who had moved to Louisiana in 1804, as one of the organizers of schemes to aid Mexican insurgents. Livingston later served as a U.S. Senator from Louisiana and, from 1831 to 1833, U.S. Secretary of State for President Andrew Jackson. Livingston’s involvement in Mexican independence is not mentioned in his short official biography from the U.S. State Department; for the final paper, I’ll have to look into other, longer biographies to see if that involvement is mentioned. This raises the question of how Livingston’s involvement at this time influenced his later work as Secretary of State; specifically, how did he behave toward Mexico? Did his attitudes change, as did the attitudes of many other U.S.-Americans between the 1810s and 1830s?

Basic Text Mining: Voyant

But I’d like to go a little bit further, and see if running Voyant word clouds on the memorials can either raise new questions or bring about new answers that a read didn’t. Because of time, I didn’t transcribe all of the memorials in these claims, but rather:

  • Claim 8/9/10: Memorials 1 and 2 (tough to read, so many blank spaces).
  • Claim 13.
  • Claim 47: Memorial 1.
  • Claim 48/49: Memorial 1.

What are the most common words used in these claims?

First, here’s the word cloud before removing stop words:

Obviously, not so helpful because of the presence of words like “the,” etc. So with the default stop words removed, here’s what we get:

This is a little more telling. We see the name Herrera quite prominent here, so if I hadn’t already read the documents for the purposes of transcription, I’d know that Herrera played a prominent role, and would know to look for more about him. We see some financial terms here, such as “exchange” and “advances”–indicating that the merchants at least are portraying these transactions not as aid. We see that ships were involved, and also see that arms were one of the major goods. Also we see names like Duncan, Wollstonecraft, and Livingston.

This cloud still has some issues, though. The names of the claimants themselves come through quite a bit. So let’s remove some more words:

  • Names that happen frequently but aren’t claimants: herrera, manuel
  • Titles: don, mr, general
  • Where the goods are going: mexican, mexico
  • Who they are: memorialist, wheeler
  • Where they are: orleans, states, united, new
  • To whom they are addressing the memorial, and words associated with the legalese of the claims: government, board, respectfully, submit, claim

With those words gone, let’s see what we get:

Seeing this word cloud, I would have removed other words, but let’s stick with it for now.

Looking at these charts, one word I’m surprised not to see more is “patriot.” When reading this small sample of texts, that term really stuck out at me. Here, it’s not even visible. This is perhaps because of the structure of the documents: They go briefly into the original circumstances of the claim, then also document the steps that the claimant took to get it resolved, showing that he or she is not simply coming at the last minute to get money.

Indeed, this shows a flaw of using a simple technological tool like a word cloud in Voyant for research like this. It could yield some interesting things, especially if you haven’t already read one of the documents before. But it still doesn’t answer questions: It just shows ways to look further. One still must read the documents, especially in a small sample set like this.

Next Steps: Further Use of Voyant and Topic Modeling

As seen above, Voyant can only do so much. But this has shown me some next steps that I’ll plan on taking for my final paper for this class.

First of all, I’ll need to transcribe more of the memorials. I simply ran out of time to transcribe more. I’ll probably stick with running text mining tools on the memorials themselves, though. While the memorials are only some of the documents contained in this valuable set, they are the most consistent. They represent testimony from the claimants themselves, as they wanted to present their claims before the board of commissioners. They follow a consistent format, and thus make a consistent data set, which is important for text mining.

Then, I’d like to use Voyant more fully. It offers more tools than word clouds, and allows for comparisons of documents. Instead of using the tools, especially word clouds, for these memorials as a whole, I’d like to experiment a bit more. How do word frequencies vary across the memorials? What are the differences among the different claims, and even among memorials for the same claim?

Further, what about using other tools, like topic modeling (explained here nicely by Megan R. Brett, a fellow GMU Ph.D. student)? Would running these texts through one of the topic modeling tools yield some insights that a regular human read might miss?

Finally, though, I will also plan on using other documents besides the memorials. The memorials are the nicest summations of each case from the perspective of the claimant. But the claimants produced them at particular places in time, as summations that often accompanied other evidence, such as letters, ledgers, and many financial documents. How do letters from the time involved, in particular, compare with the testimony offered in memorials? Can we see change over time in this individuals perceptions of Mexico, Mexicans, and his or her role in Mexican independence? Do we see evidence of later involvement in, for example, schemes in Texas?

It seems like I have some work cut out for me here.

AmWest Post #6: The West as (Latin) America

In his first chapter of Colony and Empire, William Robbins references the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s controversial West as America exhibition from 1991. As I read the book, however, I couldn’t help but to think that he was arguing for the U.S. West not as America (meaning the United States) but, in some ways, as Latin America.

The reason: I had flashbacks to a year ago, when I took my minor field readings on “Latin America and the World” with Dr. Joan C. Bristol. As the course progressed (blog posts here), we kept discussing world systems theory and dependency theory, both of which–whether in agreement, disagreement, or qualification–were present in some form or another through the set of readings. For me to gain a better understanding, we agreed that I should also read origin works: a basic primer by Immanuel Wallerstein on world systems theory (blog post here), and Fernando Henrique Cardoso (later president of Brazil) and Enzo Faletto on dependency theory (blog post here).

So based on this experience, it was really fascinating for me to read Colony and Empire. This book convincingly applies these modes of analysis to the history of the U.S. West–and, more than any other work we’ve read so far, not only places the U.S. West in the wider sweep of U.S. history but even in global history.

The origins of world systems theory and its later Latin America-specific variant, dependency theory, correlate to trends in U.S. West historiography–specifically the turn away from Frederick Jackson Turner.

Both world systems theory and dependency theory emerged as counterpoints to modernization theory, which was dominant in the years after World War II. This argued, at its simplest, that societies move through various stages of economic development in a particular, evolutionary manner. One could argue that this mode of thinking underlays much international development work today, and is even prevalent in, for example, analysis of the rise of countries like China–showing them going through the same phases of industrialization that the West did.

By contrast, to over-simplify two extremely complex and tough to decipher modes of analysis, world systems theory and, specifically, dependency theory counter that development and underdevelopment take place simultaneously and, in fact, depend on each other. Core areas–to use the term that Robbins borrows from world systems theory–depend on the underdevelopment of the peripheries from which they extract resources. Thus, areas within particular world-systems aren’t underdeveloped and poor because they are at an earlier stage of evolution. They are underdeveloped and poor because of the roles they serve in the wider economy, whether it be regional, national, or global.

Like about anyone else we’ve read in this class, Robbins takes on Turner, showing both the continuity of change in the U.S. West and the artificiality of his 1890 breaking point (echoing Limerick), and refuting Turner’s notion of independent people, not so tied to the broader country and the world, moving West and being transformed by that experience into individualistic-yet-communal yeomen.

For this post, I’d like to take the critique of Turner a step further and suggest that, for Robbins, Turner represents what modernization theory did for world systems and dependency theorists: an idea of sequential progress and stages.

Turnerian Western history has often focused on the idea of stages of development of the frontier; one book that encapsulates and best demonstrates this notion is William C. Davis’s Three Roads to the Alamo, which argues that David Crockett (frontiersman), James Bowie (unscrupulous merchant), and William B. Travis (town-dwelling attorney) represented three stages of frontier development.

By contrast, Robbins argues that U.S. industrial development in large measure occurred because of Western expansion, with the opening and incorporation of resource bases, new hinterlands (to follow along, as Robbins does, with Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis, this week’s other reading) to development.

So, in this way, Robbins brings the U.S. West not just into the mainstream of U.S. history but global history. Essentially, he argues that the U.S. West served a role in the U.S. economy that Latin America served in the global economy: as a producer of commodities to be extracted for the profit of core areas.

I’ll buy that, with qualifications. One of the critiques of dependency and world-systems theories is that they leave little room for individual agency (a counter to that would be Gramsci’s notions of hegemony, arguing that people acted within specific bounds, even mental bounds, set by the wider system). World systems and dependency theories attempt to get at the overall picture, but often leave little room for individual motivations without a material basis.

Also, some of Robbins’s analysis of what capitalism is and isn’t might be (I’m not versed enough to say more definitively) outdated in light of other recent historiography on two regions he includes: the U.S. South and the Mexican North/U.S. Southwest. Recent historiography on the U.S. South has argued that region was much more entwined with the wider U.S. and global economies than Robbins’s chapter 8 suggests. Indeed, my understanding of U.S. South historiography (I’m not a Southern historian, so please correct me if I’m wrong) is saying that plantations were not feudal but rather industrial arrangements. Similarly, recent work, most notably by John Tutino, suggests that an early form of capitalism–with its own differences–existed in Spanish North America, a region that includes the present-day U.S. Southwest. Thus, the U.S. conquest in 1848 did not so much bring capitalism, as Robbins suggests in chapter 2, as continue a form that already existed (and incorporate it into the broader U.S. economy).

Those qualifications aside, though, I found this book overall convincing, at least in its broad analysis–perhaps more so because of what I read in the Latin America and the World minor field readings. Yes, world systems and dependency theories do leave out a lot and certainly can’t explain everything. As Robbins acknowledges, certain places can be core and periphery, and those categories are far from neat. But all in all, this book helps to place the U.S. West in the wider sweep of both U.S. and global history, and for that, we should applaud it.


This week I commented on Nick’s primary source blog post.

« Older posts