Review of Major Problems in the History of North American Borderlands edited by Pekka Hamalainen and Benjamin H. Johnson Wadsworth Cenage Learning

Major Problems in the History of North American Borderlands. Pekka Hämäläinen and Benjamin H. Johnson, eds. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2012. ISBN 0495916927

This essay is a part of our series, Borders in the Classroom.

One of the most recent additions to the long-standing series from Wadsworth Cengage Learning, Major Problems in the History of North American Borderlands, brings together an array of primary sources and insightful essays from roughly two dozen scholars whose work has illuminated the growing field of borderlands history. Designed for use in upper-division university courses, it stands alone in the literature as one of the best comprehensive introductory texts to the burgeoning field of borderlands history.

Co-editors Pekka Hämäläinen and Benjamin H. Johnson draw upon their extensive knowledge of the field to offer a superb balance of thematic and geographical coverage with the sources and articles in this collection. Hämäläinen, author of The Comanche Empire, has a background in world, comparative, and colonial histories, with an emphasis on relationships between indigenous and European empires. Johnson, best known for Revolution in Texas, which focuses on social conflict along the U.S.–Mexico border, draws upon his expertise in late nineteenth and twentieth century histories of race, border violence, and identity. The co-editors have extensive vitae that include numerous awards and fellowships, a long list of co-editorships and authorships, and significant classroom teaching experience.

Major Problems in the History of North American Borderlands follows the pattern for books in the Major Problems series by beginning with an introductory chapter that maps the state of the field with three essays by leading scholars of borderlands history. The co-editors start with a deceptively simple question: “what is borderlands history?” It opens up for discussion a wide array of issues, themes, methodologies, and historiographies that will inevitably arise when using this book in the classroom. Hämäläinen and Johnson provide an important service to teachers wrestling with a sometimes fluid and shifting field of scholarship by directly addressing questions: “what is a border?” “how does it compare with a frontier?” “where are borderlands?” and “are all borderlands alike?” Without placing limitations on the concepts they and their contributors raise, the co-editors provide an intellectual road map that contains numerous moments for deviation, elaboration, and curiosity in the classroom. This first chapter alone will provoke productive debate in classrooms where students are discussing important issues such as immigration, border surveillance, national identity, and international relations.

The book is clearly organized for maximal efficiency and ease of use in the classroom. It contains fourteen chapters, which is consonant with a fifteen week semester. Echoing the origins of much borderlands scholarship, the first chapter (Chapter Two) of essays and sources focuses on the Spanish borderlands and cross-cultural relations during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Chapters Three and Four contain documents exploring the themes of cultural exchange, and articles discuss content and scholarly debate surrounding borderlands, frontiers, and middle grounds associated with the New England and Great Plains regions. These early chapters reflect some of the seminal research on cross-cultural relations in borderlands contexts from authors such as Juliana Barr, James Merrill, and Sylvia Van Kirk, and they will appeal to students and faculty in a variety of classroom settings because the reveal the nuances and intimacies of early colonial-indigenous contact. Chapters Five and Six include documents and essays investigating borderland spaces from the perspective of elite or marginalized groups. These chapters are especially useful because of the sheer geographical range of the documents: Spanish Colonial Florida, the Upper Missouri River Valley, the Great Lakes, Colonial New Mexico, and Louisiana are all covered with equal weight. Essays by David Weber and Stephen Hackel, among others, provide context for the primary sources.

The next chapters cover the Mexican North on the eve of Texas Independence, discuss the U.S –Mexico War, and highlight the imposition of national boundaries and systems of surveillance in the mid to late nineteenth century. The primary sources in Chapter Seven provide a firsthand view of the growing influence of the U.S. upon Mexicans in Chihuahua, Tejas, and Nuevo Mexico before the invasion. These documents help illustrate the concerns of Mexicans about the expanding nation to their north. Chapters Eight and Nine provide documentation of the War, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the Gadsden Purchase, as well as the impact of these turning points on peoples of the borderlands. Essays by Andres Resendez cover national identity, Albert Hurtado discusses gender and sexuality, Brian DeLay introduces us to Native Peoples in the 1830s and 1840s, and Samuel Truett delineates changes in the Arizona-Sonoran borderlands. The documents and essays in Chapter Ten, which investigate the Pacific World, will help students expand their understanding of regions and countries not typically associated with borderlands histories and narratives.

The final chapters of the book, Chapters Eleven through Fourteen, cover the twentieth century. Johnson and Hämäläinen cull through the mountain of documentation on the Mexican Revolution to offer readers an array of perspectives on this pivotal moment in borderlands history. The accounts of foot soldiers, Mexican migrants, Texas Rebels, and Arizona sheriffs help readers understand the diversity and complex implications of the revolution, and essays by Freidrich Katz and Benjamin Johnson provide scholarly analysis. Chapter Twelve, which focuses on vice along the northern and southern borderlands, explain the early origins of unofficial economic activities that capture much media attention today: drug trafficking, cross border alcohol use, prostitution, and weapons smuggling. Contributions from Stephen T. Moore and Gabriela Recio discuss Canadian borderlands and U.S. drug trade with Mexico. Chapter Thirteen succinctly tracks the rise of border enforcement, migration, and the concomitant evolution of racial identities, with documents ranging from Congressional investigations, to Native American views on border surveillance. Trenchant analysis on the social construction of the “illegal alien,” and Operation “Wetback” and the Bracero Program comes from Mae Ngai and Kelly Lytle Hernandez. The final chapter closes the book with post-NAFTA documents and articles that make cogent connections between themes and issues covered in the opening chapters.

Although the book is clearly designed for classroom use, it will also prove valuable for scholars searching for an overview of the literature on borderlands and frontiers. Instructors at the university, community college, and advanced high school level will benefit from this book. The primary sources range in length from one paragraph to a few pages, and thus they will be easy for students to digest. The academic essays are accessible to undergraduates and newcomers to the field. Instructors could even assign primary sources to read during a single class period and create in-class debates and conversations. The articles may be a little too long to read during a single class meeting, but instructors may reasonably assign an entire chapter to read for a single week.

Taken together, the materials in this volume should spark lively discussions in the classroom because they represent a wide range of experiences and intellectual perspectives. This diversity will enable instructors to engage students who may be new to historical methodologies and who believe history is a single, universal narrative of “the truth.” The documents reveal the multiple perspectives of real people living in the past, and the essays introduce students to the contentious and controversial discipline of history. In summary, Major Problems in the History of North American Borderlands provides students, scholars, and the general public with an important set of perspectives on issues of great relevance, particularly the implications of globalization, migration, and cross-cultural interaction in the twenty-first century.

Reviewed by Jeffrey P. Shepherd, University of Texas at El Paso
Edited by Benita Heiskanen, Andrae M. Marak, and Jeanne E. Grant

(c) 2014 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 8, Spring, 2014. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]