Macfarlane on Kathke, 'Wires That Bind: Nation, Region, and Technology in the Southwestern United States, 1854-1920'

Torsten Kathke
Bryant Macfarlane

Torsten Kathke. Wires That Bind: Nation, Region, and Technology in the Southwestern United States, 1854-1920. American Culture Studies Series. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2017. 312 pp. $45.00 (paper), ISBN 978-3-8376-3790-8

Reviewed by Bryant Macfarlane (Kansas State University) Published on Jhistory (November, 2020) Commissioned by Robert A. Rabe

Printable Version:

Torsten Kathke, a resident lecturer at the Obama Institute for Transnational American Studies and assistant professor of American studies at Johannes Gutenberg University, offers a dynamic reinterpretation of the Americanization of what would come to be the states of Arizona and New Mexico. True to the analytical strengths of the Obama Institute, Kathke’s inaugural publication is a highpoint in the interculturality, transnationalism, critical theory, and intradisciplinary reinterpretation of history. He follows the historiographical tradition founded by western history’s “gang of four”: Patricia Nelson Limerick, Richard White, William Cronon, and David Worster. In particular, Limerick would be proud of how Kathke eschews the dogmatic expressions of Turnerian frontier history. In what may be viewed as a seminal work in the New New (or Post-New) western history tradition, Kathke persuasively argues that “between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the end of World War I, Tucson, and the region that surrounds it, experienced a change not only unparalleled in the United States, but singular within a global context as well” (p. 12). This region—known as the Mesilla—of 29,760 square miles of land south of the Gila River and west of the Rio Grande, was desirable for a deep southern route for a transcontinental railroad and as a resolution for regional American-Mexican border disputes. Kathke examines how the last territory added to the continental United States under the Treaty of Mesilla—better known as the Gadsden Purchase—was markedly different, in both form and function, from other American territorial and polity additions. Through his example of Anglo, Hispano, and Native Americans living in southwestern communities, he offers a multidisciplinary approach that “emphasizes [that] the inherent hybridity of cultures and social interactions” within a community is the result of the community’s contiguous region and the specific locations within the region (p. 14). Rejecting a Turnerist or Boltonian understanding of the nationalization of a porous borderland into a single national entity was not an easy process. However, Kathke argues that the Americanization of the Mesilla was a complex interaction between people and a physical environment. The argument laid out in Wires That Bind identifies the unique confluence of events and people that provided a greater understanding of the changes within periphery regions across the globe “during the era of high nationalism and high imperialism at the turn of the century” (p. 22).

Wires That Bind has three distinct, nonconsecutive, and topically arranged sections. The first section, consisting of chapters 1 and 2, defines Kathke’s terminology and method—modified from other social sciences—to outline how this complex milieu and the challenging environment were fundamentally different from the traditionally defined American West and of the American nation overall. Here Kathke defines the parameters of examination and presents an overarching thesis of Arizona and New Mexico as colonial borderlands through three micro-histories of Yuma and Tucson, Arizona, and Deming, New Mexico, as they relate to the existing body of research.

The second portion encompasses chapters 3 and 6, which discuss the roles technology and governance played in transforming a predominantly disparate Hispano-Native American equilibrium into a more Anglo-homogenized society. By emphasizing Anglo control of communication through the mail, newspapers, social clubs, and telegraph—and later through powerful corporate rail, water, agriculture, and mining consortiums—as a method of government by proxy, Kathke paints a history whereby the Anglos continued to appropriate power from the Hispano elite since the early days of America’s colonialization of Mesilla. He demonstrates how the pre-American Mesillan identity was forged through the direct result of generations of Spanish influence and neglect to form unique normative cultural and societal constructs. The post-Gadsden assault on these ways of life was to be protected through the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the later 1853 Gadsden Treaty. However, the residents of the Mesilla were victimized by politicians and officials “guilty of historical ignorance compounded by lazy racism,” and later Gilded Age corruption, like much of the West (p. 224). However, as Kathke persuasively argues, the Mesilla was geographically and socially different from California, Colorado, Texas, or the rest of the American West. Furthermore, the Mesilla’s intrinsic ties to Spanish law and traditions, which were radically different from Anglo common law or traditions, led the Washington bureaucracy to adopt the line of thought that it is easier to ignore issues than to endeavor to overcome them. By homing in on the lackluster American execution of legal protections for property, water, and land use rights, Kathke gives an account with “all the makings of a Western tall tale, worthy of Mark Twain” of how the Mesilla Hispano-Native American residents were legally defrauded (p. 222).

The extractive nature of Anglo cultivation in the Mesilla through extensive mining—supportable only through the beneficence of the US government’s construction of telegraph-linked military fortifications to subdue Native American populations and public domain use of lands for rail and coastal transportation interests—typified the colonial experience abroad and in the Southwest. Mining, according to Kathke, was ruled by mobile communities of miners that “provided a stable cast of characters perpetuating certain solutions” that were often “exclusionary to blacks, Hispanos, American Indians, and other groups contextually identified to be outside of whiteness by the prevailing microclimate,” which was only bolstered by the implementation of Anglo common law (p. 244). Because mining is a water-intensive action, industrial-scale extraction and water use were intrinsically linked. Water use soon moved away from a Spanish-American method of water sharing that ensured equal access to limited supplies of water toward an eastern riparian doctrine more suited to “industrial enterprises or industrial-scale agriculture, not communal husbandry of limited pastures” that typified the Mesilla (p. 227).

The third section is composed of chapters 4 and 5—the connective tissue, the human element of the narrative. Kathke initially presents a linear narrative of how the Mesilla initially welcomed Anglo-pioneers into its ethnic equilibrium, and then how, over a few short decades, the balance had shifted in Arizona to a very nearly Anglo-homogenized society. At the same time, New Mexico held firmly to its Hispano-dominated society while ceding primary political power to Anglo-centric settlements like Santa Fe. To demonstrate this power shift, Kathke presents micro-histories of Yuma, Tucson, and Deming through the key actors in the transition of normative Mesilla society and polity. Here, more than the other two sections, he embraces the social intricacies and complex nature of propagating a regional or national identity through the people’s eyes—some recording for posterity, others merely living—involved in the forging of that new identity. The complex interplay of religion, race, class, and politics merge throughout the narrative into a visually complex node-network diagram of society and the environment, shaping a distinctly new identity from the trappings of donating cultures. This continuum allowed the emerging community to continue to repress Native American and Mexican immigrants as “lesser” outgroups to measure their new identity. Kathke asserts that this forging process was continual, non-confrontationally evolutionary and did not become recognizable as part of the American identity until the late 1910s. He does qualify this notion in his conclusion: “race always mattered, but that most of the time it did not matter in the same binary manner that today often dominates discourse.... So many microclimates of race in turn-of-the-century Southern Arizona and New Mexico speaks loudly of this” (p. 250).

Kathke presents a narrative that forcefully argues the Mesilla was indeed part of the United States through treaty and purchase; however, it was not part of the collective US identity. By combining both a top-down and bottom-up interrogation of events, Kathke provides a fascinating examination of western history that presents a methodology to broaden the discussion of borderlands in the discussion of transnational history and the more considerable analysis of historical methods. He demonstrates the importance of reminding historians that the archives, no matter how progressive and inclusive we have attempted to be in their examination, still imbue privilege to the privileged. “The ‘ordinary,’” Kathke points out, “foregrounded in the intent, are simultaneously denigrated to a position apart from the fabric of the political, of the world of ‘famous people,’” in an artificial distinction that those studying the past should be cognitively striving to present history as “interlinking, but also separate, networks” of people who occupy “a limbo in between the two poles” (p. 253).

Kathke uses an impressive capacity for archival research to support his deep and wide interpretation of a locally significant, but largely unknown, cast of characters. Local, state, and national archival records provide personal papers, newspapers, and other documents that offer the supporting aim for the exhaustively placed historiographical argument presented by Kathke. Despite being well placed within the historiography and exhaustively researched, his book reaches too far in its claim that the American Southwest stands alone as a global exemplar of a complex periphery. The scope of modern history contains many models of filibustering, industrialization, and complicated multicultural colonial, or colonial-like, relationships for this to hold. Additionally, most of the volume tends to marginalize New Mexico, and I would have liked to have seen how Kathke could have demonstrated his well-documented Arizonian patterns of racial exclusion in juxtaposition with the evidently much more ethnically balanced New Mexico. Despite the titular role of wires and visualization of a railroad crossing on the cover, this book is truly not about technology so much as it is about the transformation of regional and local power as expressed in the ethnic identity of businesspeople, traders, and entrepreneurs. Kathke’s inclusion of world-systems theory is largely a non sequitur in his light treatment of the overarching theme of predatory economic behavior. Karen Barad’s “cutting together-apart” thesis would likely have been a more relevant lens to examine the subject than an adaptation of Immanuel Wallerstein’s multidisciplinary world-systems theory. A more considerable exploration of economics and technology like mining, telegraphy, and railroads, which arguably were the most significant economic drivers in the region in the period under concentration, would have been expected from a volume looking to tie technology to the transformation of societal or cultural norms. A reader looking for an in-depth discussion on these topics would do better to look elsewhere, but a reader looking for a cultural study of the Mesilla will be greatly rewarded by Kathke’s effort. 

As this review is written, the American polity is struggling with categorizing individuals as distinct members of ingroup or outgroup collectives. Future historians will undoubtedly examine the importance of social networks and the inherent instability of their membership that comprise our age. Perhaps, we would all be better practitioners of our craft were we to study the past through similar lenses of fluidity. As we struggle to come to grips with our concepts of modernity in the twenty-first century, perhaps an examination of how modern identity was forged through technology in peripheries at the turn of the twentieth century is more worthy of inclusion in discussion than we had previously thought.

Citation: Bryant Macfarlane. Review of Kathke, Torsten, Wires That Bind: Nation, Region, and Technology in the Southwestern United States, 1854-1920. Jhistory, H-Net Reviews. November, 2020. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.