Hill on Kiser, 'Coast-to-Coast Empire: Manifest Destiny in the Nineteenth-Century New Mexico Borderlands'

William S. Kiser
Michael A. Hill

William S. Kiser. Coast-to-Coast Empire: Manifest Destiny in the Nineteenth-Century New Mexico Borderlands. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2018. 288 pp. $32.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8061-6026-9.

Reviewed by Michael A. Hill (Department of History, University of Kansas) Published on H-Nationalism (April, 2019) Commissioned by Evan C. Rothera (Sam Houston State University)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=53987

Recent scholarship of nineteenth-century New Mexico has focused on the lived experiences of those who peopled the land as control of the territory transferred from Spain to Mexico to the United States. Beyond acknowledging the lands taken from a defeated Mexico as part of a broader pattern of US imperial expansion, however, monograph-length investigations of New Mexico have generally failed to adequately analyze how the territory expanded and challenged the United States’s continental empire.[1] Coast-to-Coast Empire: Manifest Destiny and the New Mexico Borderlands, by William S. Kiser, helps to address this gap in the historiography by arguing that US control of New Mexico is what made expansion of the US empire in the West possible. In this way, Kiser deepens our understanding of nineteenth-century US continental empire.

At the heart of Coast-to-Coast Empire is Kiser’s argument that land acquisition was the primary purpose of the US War with Mexico.  California was the territory US leaders coveted because, Kiser argues, “possession of the Pacific coast would effectively globalize the American economy” (p. 8). Without control of New Mexico, however, California’s geographic location and many natural advantages could not be effectively maximized. Before John O’Sullivan coined the term Manifest Destiny, many Americans already envisioned a United States touching both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, but without a way to physically unite the coasts, the country would never achieve its economic potential. Thus, even though US leaders believed New Mexico to possess few natural resources and to be populated by undesirable Mexican Catholics and Native Americans, the territory held a geostrategic importance as a link between the East and West. For those with the grandest imaginations, possession of New Mexico was even a prerequisite for future trade with China.

Kiser begins by exploring the Santa Fe Trail trade, demonstrating that American merchants and traders brought New Mexico into the United States’s economic orbit even before Mexican independence. The Santa Fe trade worked to create “mutually interdependent frontier zones” (p. 19) that tied the people of the Mexican North to the people of the US West, both economically and culturally. Kiser reminds readers that New Mexico was, and remains, a site of cultural hybridity, with individuals choosing between and utilizing various identities best suited to the particular circumstances in which people found themselves.

The second chapter, “The Occupation and Conquest of New Mexico,” may best demonstrate the imperial impulse that ensured continued US control of New Mexico that Kiser seeks to explain. The territory drained both military power and federal coffers, but despite the pleas of Army officers to abandon New Mexico, US political leaders refused to do so. Instead, the federal government increased spending in New Mexico because they perceived the territory’s value in a broader imperial context. In particular, politicians in Washington, especially those from the South, believed New Mexico’s value could best be measured in the transcontinental railroads tracks they hoped would connect East and West and help grow the Southern states’ wealth.

In order to protect those transcontinental dreams, US leaders, through the often clumsy use of military power, had to subdue New Mexico’s indigenous people. Beyond merely pacifying Native Americans, politicians and military officers ensured defeated tribes received land that in no way threatened potential railroad routes. It was the protection of the iron horse that relegated Indians to reservations on undesirable land in New Mexico, rather than a desire to preserve attractive farmland for white settlers.

Kiser spends two chapters placing New Mexico within the context of the US Civil War, broadly speaking. One chapter explores the centrality of New Mexico to Southern ideas about the need to expand the institution of slavery to ensure its survival. Complicating scholarship asserting that New Mexico was never a truly attractive site for US slavery, Kiser, as he does in his previous work Borderlands of Slavery, points out that New Mexico’s traditional peonage system was inadequately controlled by US regulation and formed a foundation upon which many Southerners felt their own slave institutions could build. Expanding upon and adding to his previous work, Kiser argues that Southerners so strongly believed that slavery could flourish in New Mexico that they undertook to conquer the territory at the beginning of the Civil War. Additionally, rather than interpreting New Mexico’s Civil War battles in the context of Colorado’s precious metals, Kiser insists that Confederate aims to take California, and create their own coast-to-coast empire, drove Confederate Texans to attempt to seize New Mexico, efforts that nearly succeeded. Viewed from this perspective, battles such as Glorieta Pass, usually cast as sideshows to the battles east of the Mississippi River, take on new meaning and significance. Kiser concludes that with the Confederate States defeated, the imperial contests for New Mexico, spanning hundreds of years of North American history, came to an end.

There is much to appreciate in Kiser’s work. In a mere 184 pages he engages with a number of relevant scholarly conversations, including borderlands, transnational communities, US slavery, and economic expansion in the West. At the forefront, of course, is his recasting of New Mexico as vital to the creation of the US continental empire. At the same time, however, Kiser seems to be unsure if the story he is telling is one of empire-building or nation-building. On several occasions, the words “empire” and “nation-state,” or their derivatives, are found only sentences apart while referring to the same projects or impulses. Scholars of empire in particular, might find such muddled use of terms frustrating. That being said, the confusion in terminology demonstrates that questions of empire and the nation are not binary, but rather overlapping and contested, both in the past and present.

Kiser’s engagement with nonwhite communities might not satisfy all readers, but in a history primarily about the US state, he does well to include discussions of how the actions of those on the margins of US society, or excluded altogether, influenced US decision-makers and must, therefore, be taken seriously even by scholars who do not focus primarily on social or cultural history. Thus, Kiser’s positioning of white settlement of New Mexico as sporadic and tied to the railroad, exploration of successful Native American resistance to or situational alliance with agents of the US government, reminders of the importance of nuevomexicanos to the creation of New Mexico in both the pre- and post-US acquisition eras, and highlighting of the cultural hybridity of the region challenge notions of grand organizing metanarratives, such as settler colonialism, that may be in need of further consideration. Instead, Kiser reveals New Mexico’s inclusion in the United States to be complex, unique, and contingent on the specific circumstances of the people and the region.

Coast-to-Coast Empire is a well-written study that will appeal to audiences interested in various aspects of US history. Its little-bit-of-everything approach may leave some readers unsatisfied, but the trade-off is a work that asks important questions and encourages readers to reexamine previously held notions while engaging with themes outside of their comfort zones.


[1]. Studies of New Mexico focusing on the cultural, borderland, and transnational aspects of the region include Andrés Reséndez, Changing National Identities at the Frontier: Texas and New Mexico, 1800-1850 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Phillip B. Gonzales, Política: Nuevomexicanos and American Political Incorporation, 1821–1910 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016); and Kiser’s own Borderlands of Slavery: The Struggle over Captivity and Peonage in the American Southwest (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017). One work that does attempt to specifically address New Mexico in the context of US empire is Janne Lahti, Cultural Construction of Empire: The U.S. Army in Arizona and New Mexico (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012).

Citation: Michael A. Hill. Review of Kiser, William S., Coast-to-Coast Empire: Manifest Destiny in the Nineteenth-Century New Mexico Borderlands. H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews. April, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53987

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