By Tahireh Hicks
From Geronimo and the Apache Wars to the infamous shootout at the O.K. Corral, southeastern Arizona’s Cochise County has staked out a surprisingly prominent place for itself in popular histories of the American West. Indeed, as historian Katherine Benton-Cohen writes in her 2009 monograph, Borderline Americans, several of the violent episodes of nineteenth-century Cochise County were “mythologized in real time” and today often “stand in for the West in general” in popular memory. And yet when compared to other Southwestern spaces such as Southern California or New Mexico, Arizona has attracted far fewer academic studies, despite the fact that the state’s history “does not always conform to generalizations about the larger region” (10).
Benton-Cohen’s work seeks to address this relative lack of attention to Arizona with a focus on racial categories in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and comes to the conclusion that the state represents “a place unique in its details and typical in its tendencies” (17). So what exactly, then, does a history of Cochise County add to the larger picture of Western history and race? If it is so typical in its tendencies, does Cochise County indeed simply “stand in for the West in general?” And beyond satisfying local curiosity, what does knowing the unique details of this place accomplish for scholarship on the U.S. Southwest more broadly?
A closer look at Borderline Americans reveals the deeper significance Benton-Cohen places on Arizona’s “unique details”: their power to denaturalize what many Americans today see as the “timeless truths” of both the physical U.S.-Mexico border and the racialized border between “Mexican” and “white” in the U.S. Southwest (17). Especially given Cochise County’s location directly on the international border between the United States and Mexico, the author points out, it is easy to assume that a natural racial border between “white” and “Mexican” has always existed in this space as well. Yet as Benton-Cohen knows all too well, neither the physical U.S.-Mexico border nor a racial white-Mexican border was clearly defined in the nineteenth century. Only by the 1930s did these harden into borders more familiar to us today. Thus, Borderline Americans not only shines a light on previously obscured details of Arizona’s past, but uses these details to make an argument for historicizing the borders and binaries most commonly associated with the Southwest.
Borderline Americans begins its history in the 1860s, roughly fifty years before statehood in 1912. Like the region that would become the state of New Mexico, most of the Arizona Territory had become part of the United States under the terms of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the U.S.-Mexico War. In 1854, the Gadsden Purchase would add the part of southern Arizona including Cochise County to the U.S.’s territorial acquisitions. Yet Arizona differed from other parts of the annexed territories in several key ways. Perhaps most importantly, the area was defined by its aridity and unforgiving desert climate, making it especially inhospitable to Euro-American settlement. The results are readily apparent in Francis Amasa Walker’s map of U.S. population density drawn from the 1870 U.S. census data. Compare, for example, the population density of southeastern Arizona with that of the land along New Mexico’s Rio Grande, or with coastal California. Largely due to climate and terrain, Arizona supported far fewer U.S. citizens (9).
In contrast, the same 1870 map of U.S. population density shows the much larger relative presence of independent Native American groups in Arizona than in other parts of the Southwest (see above, indicated in yellow). In particular, the Chiricahua Apaches represented an ongoing threat to both Anglo-American and ethnic Mexican Arizona residents. Pictured below, Chiricahua Apache leader Geronimo remains the most famous in a long line of leaders noted for their brilliance in defending Native homelands during the more than three decades that constituted the so-called “Apache Wars” (68).
Finally, as a result of both the climate and the formidable power of the Apaches, southern Arizona also differed from other Southwest locales in that it was home to a relatively small Spanish-Mexican population during the nineteenth century (22). Although the land nominally transferred from Mexican to American control in 1848 (or 1854 in the case of the Gadsden Purchase), this belied the reality on the ground: that “the Arizona borderlands… remained almost entirely an Indian enclave until 1865” (23). Thus, when Anglos began migrating into Arizona during the second half of the nineteenth century, not only were they “essentially foreigners,” but “in a way, so were the Mexicans” (ibid.). Only the lonely outposts of Tucson and Tubac maintained substantial—albeit still small—Mexican communities. Though Tucson’s Mission San Xavier del Bac (pictured below) marked Spanish-Mexican cultural claims to the Arizona borderlands, this symbolism remained largely hollow, especially as the mission’s façade deteriorated in the wake of Arizona’s annexation by the United States.
Nineteenth-century Arizona’s dynamic between longstanding ethnic Mexican residents and Anglo newcomers thus contrasts sharply with that of places such as California and New Mexico, where californios and hispanos (respectively) held more meaningful claims to the land and had established much greater power over local Native populations.
Having established these defining features of the late-nineteenth-century Arizona borderlands, Benton-Cohen devotes each of her first four chapters to a different Cochise County community: Tres Alamos, Tombstone, Bisbee, and Warren. It is in these chapters of Borderline Americans that readers will find the Arizona-specific incarnations of what Benton-Cohen labels “familiar arguments” about race-making and place. Focusing on the earliest years of these communities’ histories, the author aims to demonstrate how residents could construct racial categories in divergent ways depending on local demographic conditions and ideological influences. And indeed, all located within a 35-mile radius, the strikingly different racial histories of these four neighboring communities prove her point powerfully. This 1885 map (below) is almost certainly the first map ever produced of Cochise County (established in 1881) and illustrates just how close in proximity Benton-Cohen’s four case studies were to each other.
Located in the San Pedro River Valley, Tres Alamos was a rural farming and ranching community that was abandoned in 1886, just over a decade after its official founding. Yet its short existence provides an excellent example of the fluidity of “Mexican” racial identity in early American-era Arizona. Its population included both Anglo-Americans and Mexican-Americans—in particular, ethnic Mexicans who had chosen to stay in Arizona and become U.S. citizens after the land transferred from Mexican to U.S. hands. Given the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, these former Mexican citizens were legally designated “white,” despite the fact that many were of mestizo—mixed indigenous and Spanish—heritage (30). And as Benton-Cohen indicates, the phenotypical and cultural differences between the Mexican-American population and the Anglo newcomers had the potential to lead to racial tensions, as such differences had elsewhere. But in Tres Alamos, they apparently did not.
Rather, Benton-Cohen finds that although “the concept of race existed in Tres Alamos,” the community’s critical racial fault line was between nomadic Apaches and sedentary “white” and “American” settlers—a group that actually encompassed both Anglo- and Mexican-Americans (46). In the face of frequent Apache raids that threatened settlers’ abilities to stay on the land, shared anti-Apache sentiment and violence “fostered a sense among landholding Anglos and Mexicans that both groups inhabited and embodied the categories of ‘white’ and ‘American citizen’” (ibid.). Thus, permanent structures like the schoolhouse pictured below became markers of an expansive whiteness and Americanness, serving to distinguish Mexican- and Anglo-American residents’ racial status from the racialized hypermobility of their common Apache rivals whom they so degraded (see photograph above).
Within the community, on the other hand, Tres Alamos possessed a culture of settled “frontier sociability” between ethnic Mexicans and Anglos, including shared leisure activities, an integrated school, and intermarriages (35). While conflicts did occasionally erupt between community members, these largely stemmed from disputes over water rights and irrigation ditches rather than over racial difference.
Much like Tres Alamos, the history of the silver boomtown of Tombstone challenges assumptions of inevitable Anglo-Mexican racial tension along the border. Yet its racial landscape still differed significantly from Tres Alamos, in part because the town was founded by Anglo-American miners in 1879 rather than evolving from an older Mexican settlement. As a result, Tombstone’s ethnic Mexican population remained relatively small during the 1880s (50). Moreover, Tombstone residents primarily understood the term “Mexican” in national terms—referring to their international neighbors in Sonora—especially as a crisis of vigilante violence across the border threatened relations between Mexico and the United States.
During the 1880s, a criminal gang of Anglo rustlers known as the “Cowboys” terrorized, robbed, and murdered Mexican ranchers in northern Sonora, afterwards fleeing across the border to evade capture (52). As Mexican officials put increasing pressure on the U.S. federal government to stop these raids, local Tombstone residents worked together with U.S. Army troops to track down the Cowboys, showing a solidarity with the Cowboys’ Mexican victims over their criminal co-ethnics (65). In Benton-Cohen’s analysis, this shows how, despite the fact that “Mexicans in Tombstone were marginalized” and were perceived as racially distinct from Anglos (unlike in Tres Alamos), the distinctions did not preclude alliances with and sympathy for Mexicans (78).
In contrast, just as in Tres Alamos, the Chiricahua Apaches to Tombstone residents “represented the outer limits of humanity”—a common enemy that united not only the Anglo “lawmen” of Tombstone and ethnic Mexicans on both sides of the border, but the criminal Cowboys as well (66). Deploying increasingly dehumanizing rhetoric as tensions reignited in the early 1880s, Anglos and Mexicans painted Apaches as uncivilized, nomadic “savages” who were prone to violence. Moreover, they derided Apaches for subverting traditional “white” gender norms, specifically referencing the existence of Apache “women warriors” as a marker of cultural inferiority. Though the Apache woman pictured above in fact worked as a scout for the U.S. Army during the 1880s, her portrait is emblematic of the broader phenomenon of female Apache military participation that Anglos and Mexicans often labeled “repulsive” and “uncouth” when practiced by independent Apache groups (67). Such rhetoric united soldiers and civilians on both sides of the border during these last years of the Apache Wars.
In September 1886, followers of Geronimo finally surrendered to the U.S. Army. Five days later, American troops indiscriminately loaded all identified Chiricahua Apaches in the region onto trains (pictured below) and deported them to military bases in Florida (70). For Benton-Cohen, this mass deportation of Native people illuminates how, whereas Mexicans in Tombstone could possibly claim “white” and “American” identities, Apaches remained firmly outside of these categories from both Mexican and Anglo perspectives.
Twenty miles southeast of Tombstone, however, a very different racial system would take shape in Bisbee. Like Tombstone, Bisbee was a mining town. But whereas Tombstone had sprung up rapidly as a silver boomtown, Bisbee was a center of industrial copper mining that developed more slowly under the direction and wage labor system of Phelps, Dodge & Company.
In the late nineteenth century, Bisbee gained a reputation as a “white man’s camp,” facilitated by the fact that, like Tombstone, it was founded by Anglos several decades after the U.S.-Mexico War rather than in the Mexican Era. While two-thirds of the town’s 1881 population was actually made up of Mexican migrants, social custom and later Phelps Dodge company policy reserved the highest-paying jobs in the mines—those underground—for “whites” such as the men pictured above. Meanwhile, the company relegated “Mexicans” to lower-paid and less desirable jobs aboveground, such as in the smelters (pictured below). And even Anglos and ethnic Mexicans in the same jobs received different pay through the developing dual-wage system (84). Thus, by pitting “white” identity directly against “Mexican” identity, Bisbee residents and company managers began associating Mexican national and ethnic identity strictly with a non-white racial identity—a clear contrast with the systems in Tres Alamos and even Tombstone, where the term “Mexican” did not necessarily mean non-white, even if it carried racial connotations.
Later on, in the early twentieth century, Bisbee’s existing binary racial order would be expanded and further elaborated to respond to and sort an influx of so-called “new immigrants” from southern and eastern Europe. However, the directional influence of the relationship between racial status and labor interests was now reversed: “whereas a low racial status was the driver in the exclusion of Mexicans from the white man’s camp, for eastern and southern Europeans it was the result, as their numbers grew and they presented greater job and wage competition” (102).
Because they threatened the racial privileges of Bisbee’s original “white” population, southern and eastern Europeans were racialized as non-white alongside Mexicans, transforming Bisbee’s racial axis from “white-versus-Mexican” to “white-versus-non-white.”
Finally, Benton-Cohen explores race-making in the early-twentieth-century suburban community of Warren, located just outside of Bisbee and designed as a foil to Bisbee’s crowded and chaotic streets. Developed as a company town by a rival of Phelps Dodge—the Calumet & Arizona Company (C&A)—Warren provides perhaps the best example in Cochise County of how space and race were intertwined and mutually constitutive.
By 1900, Bisbee had become known for its “overcrowding, poor sanitation, and ethnic tumult” in the midst of labor struggles—features exacerbated by the piecemeal construction of its buildings along the steep, craggy hillsides around the mines (pictured above; 120). In an effort to attract a dependable male workforce outside the influence of Bisbee’s unions (which were perceived as un-American), C&A ventured into corporate paternalism by commissioning the construction of a new residential community within the larger “City Beautiful” movement: Warren (142). With its organized grid of streets and flatter terrain (see design plan below), Warren was designed to both control C&A’s labor force and facilitate loyalty to the company. Yet in addition, Warren functioned as a tool of race-making by transforming eastern and southern European immigrants, whose whiteness was suspect, into unambiguously white Americans. Unlike the “unity, symmetry, and top-down design” showcased in other company towns, C&A designed the homes in Warren to emphasize individuality and American identity; “officials wanted control over Warren, but they did not want their puppet strings to show” (137). Thus, a European immigrant family’s move to Warren affirmed their American identity and distanced them from “foreign” union organizing in the heart of Bisbee. As Benton-Cohen explains, “A Serbian family in Warren was ‘American,’ and thus white, in a way that a single Serb in a downtown roominghouse was not” (145).
Nonetheless, there were limits to Warren’s whitening influence—or rather, the cost of living in Warren prevented certain groups from moving there and accessing that whitening influence. Most notably, because of Bisbee’s longstanding binary racial system defining “Mexican” as the opposite of “white,” ethnic Mexicans continued to struggle against discriminatory “Mexican wages,” thereby barring them from being able to afford a home in Warren. “The flexibility of racial identity for eastern and southern Europeans made the racial category of ‘Mexican’ immutable, and the rigidity of the dual-wage system enforced this division,” Benton-Cohen explains (145).
The rest of Borderline Americans carefully traces the “funneling of multiple racial meanings into an increasingly binary world of ‘Mexican’ and ‘white American’” over time—making racial understandings in these four “once-distinct communities…more similar” during the early twentieth century (16). The impact of better transportation and increased migration to Arizona diminished the local specificity of racial categories in the author’s four focus communities and brought about a greater conformity with larger national discourses on race and citizenship. Simultaneously, Benton-Cohen points out, the U.S.-Mexico international border became more sharply defined and immigration more regulated, foreshadowing twentieth-century developments that have led many Americans today to think of the border as timeless and natural rather than constructed and contingent.
The contrast of the forlorn nineteenth-century border markers (above) with the clearly defined border fence photographed in 2009 in Nogales, Arizona (below) thus provides a useful visual parallel for the historical development of racial borders as well. While Cochise County may be “typical in its tendencies” within the greater Southwest—namely, in its tendencies toward more rigid racial systems and less local specificity over time—it should be acknowledged that it is fairly unique in its location directly on the international border. Indeed, Cochise County has dealt more directly with the physical proximity of the border than many other places loosely understood as “borderlands.” If even this place so thoroughly shaped by the physical proximity of the border once lacked a uniform understanding of racial borders, it stands to reason that this tendency in fact characterized much more of the Southwest during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
As for our present moment, the nuanced history of race and borders in Cochise County provides valuable context for the debates about border enforcement and immigration that have so frequently dominated political discourse over the past five years. Since Donald Trump took office in 2017, the federal government has poured billions of dollars into the construction of a “border wall system” that would ostensibly block undocumented immigrants from entering the U.S. from Mexico. But as Borderline Americans shows, this most recent campaign to “build the wall” is actually part of a much longer history of hardening national and racial borders. By paying attention to the fluidity of nineteenth-century borders—between the United States and Mexico, and between the racial categories of “white” and “Mexican”—we can more easily recognize that there is nothing natural about the rigidity of Trump’s racialized rhetoric when discussing the southern border. Rather, as Katherine Benton-Cohen reminds us, such seemingly “timeless truths” as racial categories and the international border are in fact historical creations (17).
Tahireh Hicks is a third-year PhD student in the History Department at USC. A native of Southern California, she earned an A.B. in History from Princeton University in 2017 before returning to Los Angeles for graduate school. Her current research focuses on race, family, and cultural identity in the nineteenth-century West.