Thursday, September 13, 2018

Review - "Coast-to-Coast Empire: Manifest Destiny and the New Mexico Borderlands" by William Kiser

[Coast-to-Coast Empire: Manifest Destiny and the New Mexico Borderlands by William S. Kiser (University of Oklahoma Press, 2018). Hardcover, maps, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xi,184/284. ISBN:978-0-8061-6026-9. $32.95]

Though many nineteenth-century Americans viewed the Desert Southwest as a danger-filled wasteland unworthy of national possession and development, William Kiser's Coast-to-Coast Empire: Manifest Destiny and the New Mexico Borderlands argues strongly that New Mexico eventually proved to be a vital cog in the process of westward expansion, one that the U.S. government invested a tremendous amount of manpower and national treasure in managing. While it's stating the obvious that incorporating all territory lying between California and Texas would be an essential step in the United States becoming a truly continental nation, Kiser's study, which is heavily informed by his previous book-length examinations of Mesilla Valley territorial history, regional Apache resistance, and the Southwest's peonage and captive-taking traditions, richly illustrates a host of unique factors that together demonstrate the exceptional nature of New Mexico's place in Manifest Destiny.

Missouri is popularly known as the stepping off point for the famous continental emigrant trails that tens of thousands of Americans used to cross the vast central plains and mountains of the West to the Pacific, but the book effectively reminds us that Missouri and its own enterprising citizens also played an equally important role in the commercial development of New Mexico. With the town of Independence marking the beginning of the Santa Fe trail, Missourians took advantage of this hugely profitable economic pipeline to become prominent New Mexican businessmen and land owners, aided along the way by newly independent Mexico's desires to cast aside the draconian Imperial Spanish trade restrictions that retarded progress and then attract American entrepreneurs to the area with promises of easy citizenship, generous land grants, and low taxes. Even when corrupt Mexican governors levied exorbitant (and illegal) import fees on American merchants, the foreign goods were in such high demand locally that profits were high. New Mexico was thus transformed into a significant center of regional trade. As was the case with Texas and other borderlands characterized by elastic allegiances and hybridized citizenship, it was hoped that these measures would bind the newcomers to Mexico, but it quickly came to be more the case that they inadvertently accelerated the Americanization of the Desert Southwest. When tensions between the U.S. and Mexico boiled over into war in 1846, previously respected and highly successful American immigrants (even those who had married into local families and had to some degree assimilated into local culture) became targeted, often violently, as unwanted outsiders.

From the late Imperial Spanish period onward, military conflict and occupation were mainstays of the New Mexican experience, and this is one of the chief themes of the book. Early in the nineteenth century, army-sponsored exploration teams such as those led by Zebulon Pike mapped and marked southwestern trails. In 1846, New Mexico was conquered by General Stephen W. Kearny's small American army. In an example of the military's tendency to involve itself in civilian affairs in New Mexico, often without official approval, Kearny's proclamations regarding citizenship for the inhabitants got him into hot water with government authorities back home. As the book shows, naive U.S. expectations that New Mexicans would readily embrace the nationality change and its promises of newfound freedom, prosperity, and protection from hostile Indians were quickly dashed, particularly after the shocking brutality of the Taos Rebellion (the story of which, along with its suppression, is recounted well in the volume). Even so, by the end of the U.S. war with Mexico a growing number of residents became reconciled to becoming Americans, especially if the U.S. Army could physically protect them better than the neglectful Imperial Spanish and Mexican militaries.

However, shielding residents from hostile Ute, Navajo, Mescalero Apache, and Comanche raiders would require a huge proportion of the U.S. Army's manpower and budget, and the book covers in some detail the country's efforts, at exorbitant cost, to overcome this huge obstacle to New Mexican settlement and development. Kiser ably traces how conflicts over civilian vs. military oversight of the "Indian problem," an often wasteful army strategy on the ground that swung inconsistently between limited and total warfare, and the failed assumptions of the reservation system together meant that promises of protection could not be met during the decade following the conclusion of the U.S.-Mexican War. An early understanding was achieved with the Utes, but the Navajos were not broken as a regional power until the end of the Civil War and the Comanche and Apache conflicts would endure for far longer (into the 1870s and 1880s respectively). Stabilizing New Mexico and assimilating its population would prove to be a much longer and far more difficult and expensive process than most had anticipated.

In the 1850s, New Mexico also became a key component of national debates over slavery and popular sovereignty. While there were never more than a few dozen blacks (free or slave) residing in the territory during the decade and neither section believed the Desert Southwest conducive to any kind of large-scale slave labor economy, the book shows how the issue of a proslavery New Mexico was largely an ideological and political one (with two future Senate votes as a prize) rather than a practical consideration. Most interestingly, and perhaps uniquely, Kiser meaningfully integrates the centuries-old New Mexican traditions of debt peonage and captive labor into the national slavery debates, and he clearly demonstrates that New Mexico weighed heavily on the minds of faraway northern politicians and abolitionists throughout this period. The most conspiracy-minded among them feared that proslavery advocates would use those long-standing examples of enforced servitude as stepping stones for the introduction and acceptance of racial slavery, a form of bondage that held little to no favor among the locals. As the book demonstrates, there was some justification for these fears, as proponents of black slavery often justified the institution's placement in New Mexico as simply a reasonable extension of the established labor culture of the region. Indeed, Kiser's book performs an important service in highlighting popular action against Southwest peonage (which was finally formally abolished in 1868 but lasted even longer in extralegal form) as an underappreciated corollary to the abolitionist movement.

Like it did with the national slavery debates, New Mexico also figured prominently in the sectional contest over the building of a transcontinental railroad. Kiser offers a good short summary of the various northern, central, and southern surveys conducted, and shows that a pair of routes through New Mexico were objectively advantageous for railroad construction. However, the radical nature of sectional politics made it a certainty that no consensus agreement on a transcontinental route could be reached during the late antebellum period. Though contemporary commentators viewed the railroad almost entirely in economic terms, Kiser sees as equally important the ideological victory (in terms of the spread of people and ideas) that would be gained by whichever section won the transcontinental railroad race. While this is a valid point to some degree, and the author also concedes the oddness of the assumption at the time that there might be only one railroad spanning the vast American West, Kiser perhaps overestimates the material and ideological threat of southern expansion given that proslavery forces couldn't even succeed in next-door Kansas.

The final section of the book covers the Civil War years in New Mexico, when both sides determined that the territory was vital to their competing continental aspirations and worthy of significant military investment. The early-war Confederate invasion of New Mexico, and the Union Army's success in repelling it, have already been expansively documented in numerous fine works, and Kiser offers readers a sound summary of those events and synthesis of the existing scholarship. Solid overviews of the wartime campaigns against remaining Indian threats and Union measures aimed at thwarting any possible Confederate offensive renewal are also included. Along the way, Kiser cites Hispano recruitment of New Mexico volunteer units and pro-Union militias in large numbers [for a truly exhaustive examination of this topic see Jerry Thompson's A Civil War History of the New Mexico Volunteers and Militia (2015)] as evidence of an increasing success in Americanization, but it's also very likely that hatred of Texans was a motivating factor at least as important.

In all of the above-mentioned ways, Coast-to-Coast Empire very effectively situates New Mexico as key nineteenth-century battleground and conduit of American capitalism, culture, politics, and ideas. As the book argues, between Mexican independence in 1821 and the end of the American Civil War, New Mexico became a nexus to a host of issues related to the idea of Manifest Destiny, including domestic and international trade, military conquest and occupation, Indian wars, slavery debates, and the transcontinental railroad. William Kiser is rapidly becoming a leading authority on many aspects of Desert Southwest history, and this study represents another meaningful contribution on his part to that growing body of borderlands literature.  Recommended.

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