What Do These Two Women Have in Common?

While conducting research into the history of U.S. expansion into the Mexican North, I came across two compelling protagonists whose differences were more instructive than their similarities. The first, Ricarda León Flores, was a young girl during the early Mexican Revolution. León Flores lived in the Yaqui pueblos in Sonora, Mexico, where she led a life shaped by migration and by indigenous and Mexican cultures.

 Ricarda León Flores (seated) with her first cousin Manuela, ca. 1925. Illustration in Juan Silverio Jaime León,  Testimonios de Una Mujer Yaqui  (n.p., 1998), 77.

Ricarda León Flores (seated) with her first cousin Manuela, ca. 1925. Illustration in Juan
Silverio Jaime León, Testimonios de Una Mujer Yaqui (n.p., 1998), 77.

The second woman, Marjorie Van Meter, lived in Sonora, too, for a brief time in 1913. She joined her brother, employed by the Southern Pacific (of Mexico), on a kind of working vacation south of the border. Van Meter, an Iowan from Belle Plaine, taught school to mostly American children, and thereby recreated a U.S. world in the company town of Empalme.

 Marjorie Van Meter, 1913, Howard Van Meter Pictorial Collection, 1905–1914. Courtesy of Center for Southwest Research, University of New Mexico.

Marjorie Van Meter, 1913, Howard Van Meter Pictorial Collection, 1905–1914. Courtesy
of Center for Southwest Research, University of New Mexico.

Though these women inhabited the same geography at the same time (Empalme was only about 40 miles from the Yaqui pueblos), they never met nor knew of each other, though both of their lives were shaped by capitalist expansion and gendered networks.

For León Flores, she and her mother had to migrate to southern Mexico to avoid intense persecution by the Mexican Government. Why? Officials coveted Yaqui lands as a way to encourage and protect U.S. investments in the region. Between 1903 and 1908, the Government led a campaign of ethnic cleansing, removing Yaquis to Yucatán, among other places, clearing the lands for foreign irrigation enterprises. (In fact, the Boer emigrants in my previous posts first considered settling on Yaqui lands, before they ultimately chose to relocate in Chihuahua.) As a result, León Flores' and others' lives were difficult and ever mobile; they nevertheless managed to maintain a sense of "home" among the Sonoran Yaqui pueblos through the years of harshest treatment.

For Van Meter, she experienced Sonora on a lark, more or less, attempting to find employment and adventure for a time while accompanying her brother. Her ability to decide when to go to Mexico, and when to leave, in itself demonstrates the power differential that separated these two women. When the Revolution again flared in 1913, Van Meter lived for a time on "El Morrito," a beach near Empalme, residing in a railroad car (protected by the Southern Pacific) during the evening, enjoying the tides during the day.

As different as these two women's lives were, they both played a small part (one affected by, the other contributing to) in a similar historical process--the U.S. capitalist development of the Mexican North--that shaped countless lives, albeit in strikingly different ways.

For more on the resonances and dissonances between the lives of León Flores and Van Meter, see an article I published a few years ago. These two women also make brief cameos in my forthcoming book.

The South African Roots of the Hacienda de Humboldt in Chihuahua

After suffering defeat in the South African War, between 1902 and 1903, Boer exiles from southern Africa (related to my previous post) chose to settle 60 miles southeast of Chihuahua City on a stretch of land made fertile by irrigation agriculture. The Boers had considered lands first in Sonora, among the Yaqui Indians, but selected fields in Chihuahua (Mexico) that offered an easier connection to U.S. markets to the north by railroad.

The details of this colony -- what it produced, how long it lasted, and where it went -- appear in my book's Chapter 4. In researching this history, while doing archival work, I went to the location of the colony to track down descendants still living in the region. Along the way I learned an important difference between understanding history and proving it.

Today the Boer colony is entirely forgotten in the region. Nevertheless, I wanted to introduce myself to folks with the (idealistic) hope that I may find oral histories or privately held archives. Unsurprisingly, I had little success just knocking on doors. It turns out that either:

A) not too many residents are relaxing at home on Saturday afternoons;
B) residents are indeed relaxing but have no interest in that strange, random gringo knocking on their front doors and/or peering into their windows; or
C) A and B, but mostly B.

Despite the long odds, and accompanied by a Chihuahua friend, I managed to make contact with Don Pablo Hoffmann, whose grandfather purchased the lands from the Boers (though Don Pablo, himself, knew nothing of the lands' southern African connection). 

 Don Pablo Hoffmann in his fields, near Meoqui, Chihuahua. June 2014.

Don Pablo Hoffmann in his fields, near Meoqui, Chihuahua. June 2014.

On two separate occasions, Don Pablo welcomed me into his home and shared his knowledge of the family lands. I must admit, when he did not know of the connection to the Boers, while not entirely surprising, it did raise a number of questions in my mind. Was I absolutely sure I had the right location of the Boer colony? What proof did I have that it was once on these exact lands? Don Pablo shared a number of documents/items with me, including an original label for peaches that his ancestors once canned and marketed throughout the state and region. 

 After 1905, German colonists in the early twentieth century canned peaches and other products for sale in Mexican and U.S. markets. The Hacienda de Humboldt got its name as an homage to the German explorer, Alexander von Humboldt, who had traveled through the region a hundred years earlier (ca. 1804).

After 1905, German colonists in the early twentieth century canned peaches and other products for sale in Mexican and U.S. markets. The Hacienda de Humboldt got its name as an homage to the German explorer, Alexander von Humboldt, who had traveled through the region a hundred years earlier (ca. 1804).

I left with a deeper appreciation for the region's rich history, but a question lingered for several days: where was the proof connecting the Hacienda de Humboldt with the previous Boer colonists? Don Pablo's certainty shook my faith in how I understood the past. What did I have that could prove to him that, without question, his lands had a connection to Boers, and that I was not a random gringo making false claims for personal advancement (a history not unfamiliar to the region)? For the first time, I had what felt to be the most skeptical audience imaginable: a generous and cordial gentleman, sharing coffee with me in his home, trying to weigh whether my textual proof would convince him that he did not know an entirely hidden part of his lands' history. More than any other readers of my future work, he had a vested interest.

As it turned out, I would find proof in the ICHICULT archives in Chihuahua and in online newspaper repositories over the next few days. The lightening bolt struck in the lead paragraph of an article appearing in the Mexican Herald, an English language paper based in Mexico City, in December 1906.

With this, I had proven the Hacienda de Humboldt's history and shared with Don Pablo his strange connection to a Boer past.

As I left the region for the last time, outside of Meoqui, I saw the workers tending the fields, realizing that the "strange" history is only so because of categories we place on people: nation, gender, race, and class. The longer history of human hands, fertile earth, and agriculture smooths over these rough patches of interest, and in this way I felt as if I were viewing a sight common to Don Pablo's time, to his grandfather's (and Boers'), and to Alexander von Humboldt's.

 Workers in a field near Meoqui, Chihuahua. July 2014.

Workers in a field near Meoqui, Chihuahua. July 2014.


What is a Burro Party?

The Congregational missionaries James and Gertrude Eaton served the American Board for Commissioners of Foreign Missions in Mexico after 1882, when railroads connected Chihuahua with the U.S. Southwest. Holding culturally hybrid events like "burro birthday parties" and Christmas celebrations in Spanish, as well as leading lives marked by the influence of global Protestantism, left the Eatons in a precarious position with their Catholic neighbors.

James and Gertrude Eaton hosted a "burro party" for their daughter, Dorothy, at their home in Chihuahua City, Chihuahua. Source: Private Collection of Susan Martine.

My thanks to Mary Edgar of Gilbert, Arizona, and Susan Martine of Lakewood, Colorado, both granddaughters of the Eatons, for providing this and other documents and photographs relevant to the Eaton mission in Chihuahua.

People, Sources, and Thoughts from a Borderland History

A ten-year research project, just completed, started with an intriguing footnote: in 1903, a colony of Boers from southern Africa immigrated to Chihuahua, Mexico. Boers? In Chihuahua? It sounded like the set-up to a joke. The citation soon transformed into a veritable rabbit hole of research, into which I fell, circling outward with evermore questions, trying to understand this history, to make the strange familiar. Why did these colonists later move to the United States? What did this borderland offer destitute settlers, and vice versa? Why did the Yaqui Indians of Sonora, Mexico, keep emerging in the sources? How did this all relate to the Mexican Revolution?

Soon, the historical antecedents and context became clear, and my questions transformed from the specific to the regional, national, and global. Each question required its own cyclical process—read, research, write, and repeat—to address broader topics like frontier adventurism, race, masculinity, capitalist development of the Mexican North after 1880, U.S. ties to southern Africa and other mineral frontiers, and the relationship between capitalism and indigenous dispossession from southern Africa to the American West and Mexico.

The results of this research will appear in spring 2019 as a book (provisionally entitled Frontiers in the Gilded Age) in the Lamar Series in Western History, published by Yale University Press. The book examines how Mexico and southern Africa were two (of many) nodes on a global frontier network, traveled by capitalists and adventurers alike, who drew upon a romanticized frontier ideology to understand their world. It also digs deeply into the history of the Mexican North, to view this past from an indigenous perspective—specifically, that of the Yaqui Indians, or Yoemem—and to understand the costs of capitalist development from 1880-1917.

The entire process of producing the book has been one long adventure in its own right, and beyond the results of the research, the most rewarding part of this project has been meeting and working with descendants from South Africa to Mexico and the American West. Conversations with Yaqui Indians, about the times of ethnic cleansing, challenged published versions of U.S. capitalist histories. American Boer descendants in Nevada, California, Texas, and New Mexico offered privately held sources and stories. And relatives of missionaries and adventurers in northern Mexico provided documents and family stories whenever possible.

Preparing the manuscript for publication has reintroduced me to these generous folks, their ancestors, and the thousands of sources encountered along the way, many of them fascinating and worthy of their own attention. Sadly, not all of these sources made the final manuscript (word count limits can both curse and bless), and so between now and the appearance of the book, I will feature on this blog some of these people, sources, and thoughts in researching this history.

I look forward to sharing these experiences, and to offering a glimpse into this borderland history. It all began by stumbling across a simple footnote. Be careful what you read.