REV: Ukockis on Huizar-Hernández, 'Forging Arizona: A History of the Peralta Land Grant and Racial Identity in the West'

Casey Lurtz's picture
Ed. note - reposted from H-Environment 
Author: 
Anita Huizar-Hernández
Reviewer: 
Joseph Ukockis

Ukockis on Huizar-Hernández, 'Forging Arizona: A History of the Peralta Land Grant and Racial Identity in the West'

Anita Huizar-Hernández. Forging Arizona: A History of the Peralta Land Grant and Racial Identity in the West. Latinidad: Transnational Cultures in the United States Series. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2019. Illustrations, maps. 180 pp. $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8135-9881-9; $99.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8135-9882-6. 

Reviewed by Joseph Ukockis (University of New Mexico) Published on H-Environment (July, 2020) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55034

The story of the fraudulent Peralta Land Grant is the story of Anglo-American westward expansion in the wake of the US-Mexico War. Anita Huizar-Hernández explores this idea in Forging Arizona as she moves beyond the walls of US land courts to analyze a notorious case of land fraud in a broader cultural context. The case involved an ex-Confederate soldier from Missouri, James Addison Reavis, who spent two decades traversing archives throughout Spain, Mexico, and the United States in order to forge a twelve-million-acre land grant in Arizona based on a fabricated lineage. At the end of this fictitious bloodline stood Reavis’s new wife, through whom Reavis claimed rights to the Peralta Land Grant under the property protections per the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. When the scandal broke in 1890, Doña Sofia Loreto Peralta-Reavis (formerly Sofia Treadway) became the focus of the legal debate and eclipsed Reavis’s painstaking works of forgery and dominates the nation’s collective memory of this event. This book is about narrative-making, and Huizar-Hernández focuses on that process in the context of Reavis’s fraudulent archive, proceedings and coverage of his trial in 1895, and twentieth-century works of fiction concerning this episode. The scope of this piece is limited in that it does not offer the sort of political economy or legalistic analyses that usually guide land grant case studies. Instead, it examines the relationship between narratives and borders and offers a sophisticated example of gender’s utility in examining the relationship between property law and culture. 

The first three chapters of the book address the Peralta Land Grant scandal and its coverage in the 1890s, revealing the broader cultural context of land claims and Anglo settlement. Huizar-Hernández does not interrogate the content of Reavis’s documents so much as contextualize their role in the ways people interpreted and have remembered these events. The theme of this section is the archive as a physical collection and a symbol of epistemological authority. The idea of the archive allowed Reavis to build a “counterfeit narrative,” which Huizar-Hernández defines as a fiction that is logically compatible with the dominant narrative of US history. Assumptions of settler legitimacy made the unlikely story of Treadway’s buried lineage and her entitlement to twelve million acres of Arizona territory plausible to contemporary observers. As Reavis’s accomplice, Doña Peralta-Reavis embodied ambivalent ideas about race and gender that ultimately shaped Arizona’s incorporation. Her perspective is mostly absent from archival records, which has rendered her body and identity open to interpretation by her contemporaries and historians alike. Court records and fictionalized accounts of the Peralta scandal fit neatly into this analytical framework, as these reflect the workings of archival power in boosting some voices while silencing others in the historical record. Though Reavis’s efforts exemplify the mechanisms by which land speculators manipulated the system designed to protect existing property claims in ceded territories, the court’s and the public’s treatment of Peralta-Reavis demonstrate that the swindle was as much of a performance as it was a legal maneuver.

The last two chapters focus on collective memory through fictionalized portrayals of the incident, which specifically exclude Reavis from the Anglo-American homesteader ethos. In the late nineteenth century, ambivalences within the doctrine of Manifest Destiny and narratives about Anglo settlement created a space for Reavis to establish himself as a successor to the vanishing multiethnic population in Arizona, cultivating what Huizar-Hernández calls a “counterfeit nostalgia” that has painted the US conquest of Arizona and neighboring territories as inevitable and triumphal. Refracted through that nostalgia in the twentieth century, however, the figure of Reavis represents an ineffective barrier to US westward expansion. In his novel Baron of the Colorados (1940), Atherton DuPuy connects Reavis to the Spanish Empire’s legacy in Arizona, as the baron’s reliance on Spanish law negated his claim to an Anglo-American identity. The novel evokes both the Black Legend of Spanish Empire and the ideal of the Anglo-American homesteader whose land entitlements were based on occupancy and improvements. In that vein, Samuel Fuller’s film Baron of Arizona (1950) juxtaposes Reavis, in his attachment to luxury and land entitlements, to the fictional settler Lansing, who earned his property rights on the Peralta Land Grant by virtue of his toil over the land. These retrospective characterizations of Reavis as foreign in spite of his Anglo-American background gesture to a broader attitude that land claims per the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo are incompatible with American ideas about ownership.

Huizar-Hernández succeeds in her stated intention to explain the relationship between narratives and borders. Borders work well as a thematic hook, as Peralta-Reavis’s racialized and gendered body symbolized the sort of categorical ambiguity that rendered nineteenth-century conquest of the US West incomplete. Huizar-Hernández’s framework of “unsettlement” entails a disruption of the version of US history that naturalizes the Anglo-American dominance over the US West and erases the historical participation and continued presence of peoples of color in the Arizona territory. Throughout the text, she speaks to the various assumptions embedded in twenty-first-century legislation targeting undocumented people and ethnic studies programs, which exemplify Anglo-Americans’ claim to Arizona’s land and history. Despite the incident’s retreat into historical obscurity, the ongoing relevance of the Peralta Land Grant scandal to contemporary Latinx issues demonstrates that land theft and narrative-making are two facets of the same process of conquest. Forging Arizona thus illustrates the complicated position of cultural hegemony in the enactment of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and Arizona’s subsequent incorporation into the United States.

Citation: Joseph Ukockis. Review of Huizar-Hernández, Anita, Forging Arizona: A History of the Peralta Land Grant and Racial Identity in the West. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. July, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55034

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