Deadly Politics of Giving: Exchange and Violence at Ajacán, Roanoke, and Jamestown



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Lecture 5 Outline

North and South of the Rio Grande: A History of Mexican–American Relations


Discussion topics from last week’s readings:

  • Deadly Politics of Giving: Exchange and Violence at Ajacán, Roanoke, and Jamestown–How did Indians and Europeans view gifting and trading differently?

The History of New Spain, Cortés and the Conquest of 1521—Conquistadors, looking for gold, slaves and civilizations – and heavily allied with tribes unsatisfied with Aztec rule – conquer Aztec Empire in 1520s. Conquest of other regions of Mexico not as easy or quick as often portrayed (Mayan areas) but fairly brutal. New Spain soon established as successor to Aztec empire. Spanish rule brings plantation-based colony with enslaved or un-free labor (encomienda->hacienda). New Spain highlighted by Catholic Church as strong player, religious and cultural syncretism, and a unique racial hierarchy, peninsulares, mestizos, indios, negros/slaves. European wars of the 18th century sap imperial power of Spain, various cycles of reform/control pit European peninsulares against native-born Mexicans, creoles. During turbulence of Napoleonic wars, Mexico “conservatively” revolts and gains independence from Spain 1808–1821. New state forced to survive on its own without protection of mother country. Foreign powers seek (successfully) to gain political influence and access to resources (Great Britain, France and, notably, U.S.) – an ever-present issue in Mexican history.

Tejás and Northern Mexico—The young Mexican state attempts to solidify its northern border. Emigrant settlement long a favored tactic, encouragement of U.S. settlers proves to be a mistake. Authoritarian pushes by central Mexican government result in revolts in the North—Texas revolution one such example. Mexican forces headed by Santa Anna invade and are defeated. Texas Republic declared in 1836, US formally annexes Texas in 1845 – an open affront to Mexican sovereignty which leads to political standoff.

U.S. president James K. Polk sends forces to the Rio Grande, the then-disputed border – a skirmish serves as pretext for war. Mexican–American War (1846) an absolute disaster for Mexico and shock to the Mexican people. Mexico City taken in 1847. The Mexican Cession of 1848 secures for the Americans the entire SW of modern U.S. (California, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas) equal to half of the territory of the Mexican state; $18 million to Mexico as payment. Overwhelming American military might often cited as reason for lopsided U.S. victory, but fact of matter is that provinces of Northern Mexico were never successfully integrated into Mexico proper; more akin to peripheral areas within the “collection of semiautonomous provinces” that was Mexico. Indian powers in the region also played a key role in final outcome (Comanche Empire, P. Hämäläinen).

Mexican Cession creates unique circumstances in Southwest: ~80,000 Mexican citizens remain north of the border, their rights strongly safeguarded by peace treaty. Racism and violence prevalent on both sides throughout war and continue after hostilities end. The fate of Mexican-Americans as second class citizens becomes a political issue. Mexicans didn’t easily fit into white America’s conceptions of political (and racial) entitlement.

The Conundrum of New Mexico—unlike other territories or states ceded by Mexico, New Mexico was predominantly settled by Mexican citizens. Political issue of whether N. Mex. territory could/should be accepted as a state (normal route to statehood) rests on question of whether Mexicans are fit to take part in American democracy—the “congregation of like-minded persons”. Generally accepted racial view in U.S. is that Mexicans are not white, language issue and religion also play a part. Mexicans have more nuanced view of race, less immutable, more hierarchical. Mexican issue also an Indian issue: over 75% of Mexicans in SW were Indians, 25% mestizos. Wider debate in latter half of 19th century and turn of 20th hinges on whether a federal citizen of the United States can simultaneously be a second class citizen (politically disenfranchised). In 1912, after nearly 70 years of debate, New Mexico gains statehood, long after smaller, less populous states (Nevada, Colorado) with white populations gained status. In modern SW, still much animosity between Mexican-Americans and white Americans, particularly in places where fighting and violence is in near past—cross-border raiding, banditry and wildcat economy continue long into 20th century.

The Borderlands—Political border is slow in coming. In times of social upheaval the wider border region has offered refuge (financial or political or social) but also concrete support to many movements. Both sides seek to use this to their advantage, Mexican War of Independence, Mexican Revolution(s), World War I and II, the “War on Drugs”, etc. all offered opportunities for parties to meddle across the border. Some groups found refuge beyond the border (Mormons, exiled revolutionaries, social outcasts, etc.) or found opportunities to flourish (Comanche traders/raiders, revolutionaries, etc.) Until very recently U.S.–Mexico border has not been a strong political border; can be seen historically as a borderland of cultures and peoples outside scope of mainstream political forces – Indians, settlers, traders, criminals, resource plunderers, immigrants. Both governments have struggled (and still are struggling) to create a political boundary in region where culture, economy, social forces, etc. tend to prohibit such a boundary. Many peoples (and animals) live in a borderland foreign and separate from national integrated territories – Indian reservations split by border, adjunct populations of jaguars and bighorn sheep just a few prominent examples.

Selected Reading:

Borders and bridges: A history of U.S.-Latin American relations, by Stewart Brewer, pp. 35–57 (pages 59–78 are optional reading but well worth the trouble)

Suggested Musical Interlude:


Cortez the Killer by Neil Young
Remember the Alamo by Donovan AvP13

Andrew Pattison Oulu University Focus Areas in North American History 682373A


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