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.