BOOK REVIEW: Hill on Grossman, Mining the Borderlands: Industry, Capital, and the Emergence of Engineers in the Southwest Territories, 1855-1910.

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Sarah E. M. Grossman
Michael A. Hill

Hill on Grossman, 'Mining the Borderlands: Industry, Capital, and the Emergence of Engineers in the Southwest Territories, 1855-1910'

Sarah E. M. Grossman. Mining the Borderlands: Industry, Capital, and the Emergence of Engineers in the Southwest Territories, 1855-1910. Mining and Society Series. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2018. viii + 175 pp. $44.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-943859-83-2.

Reviewed by Michael A. Hill (University of Kansas) Published on H-Nationalism (September, 2019) Commissioned by Evan C. Rothera (University of Arkansas - Fort Smith)

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In 1893 Frederick Jackson Turner, in presenting his now-famous Frontier Thesis, described the westward movement of white Americans across North America as a process of gradual agricultural advancement pushing back the frontier line, introducing white settlement and civilization and thereby renewing the uniquely American democratic spirit in the forge of the frontier. While this interpretation continues to carry a romantic weight in popular imaginations, historians have long recognized that Turner’s thesis fails to adequately describe the manner in which white Americans came to dominate the continent. One of the most significant errors of the thesis is that agricultural Americans rarely spread behind a screen of fur hunters and pastoralists, with urbanites following far to the rear. Instead, white Americans often skipped across large swaths of territory and quickly established fairly isolated enclaves of settlement. Often, those enclaves centered on mines and the promises of wealth offered by the precious metals waiting to be removed from the earth. The story of the North American West, rightly told, is one in which mining should play a pivotal role.

Sarah E. M. Grossman does just this in her book, Mining the Borderlands: Industry, Capital, and the Emergence of Engineers in the Southwest Territories, 1855-1910. But Grossman’s work is not about the mines themselves or the metals extracted from them. Instead, she endeavors to explain the role of the Southwest territories’ mines in a nation experiencing rapid social, industrial, and technological change. To do this, she focuses her attention on a group of men who occupied a kind of middle ground between the capitalists and investors who financed the mines and the laborers who worked the mines. She analyzes the mining engineers who described which mines should be invested in and worked and who, in the process, made legible the Southwest borderlands for American businessmen, bureaucrats, and government officials living thousands of miles away.

Grossman’s borderland region straddles New Mexico, Arizona, Sonora, and Chihuahua after the Gadsden Purchase. While the governments of the United States and Mexico may have recognized a boundary between the two countries, Grossman reminds her readers that the border was “almost completely permeable” (p. 25). Additionally, the geological processes that resulted in deposits of gold, silver, and copper took no note of lines drawn on maps. Therefore, the mining companies that came to dominate the Southwest mining industry were transnational in the sense that their business interests extended across the border as well. Mine laborers were drawn from a polyglot of racial and ethnic backgrounds. Cornish miners might find themselves working with Mexican, Chinese, and American workers, although the actual work was often divided along racial lines.

Because her attention is fixed primarily on the evolution of mining engineers, Grossman describes the early impetus that led mining investors, often located in the East or even in Europe, to desire professional inspections of mines and potential mines in order to mitigate against investing in unprofitable mining endeavors. In the middle of the nineteenth century, few credentialed mining engineers worked in the United States. Initially, an emphasis was placed on an inspector’s previous mining experience in other regions of the United States. But conditions in the Southwest did not mirror those in other mining territories and such experience often proved of little value. Nonetheless, mining companies continued to recruit mining engineers because their reports were useful in raising the capital needed to operate mines. “Mining engineers during this time [the 1850s and 1860s],” Grossman writes, “were most valuable to their employers as tools of the stock market, trotted out for the sake of investors and cast aside, or blamed, when profits failed to materialize” (p. 39). As US mining transformed from the ideal of the lone prospector to an industrialized business, companies began to insist that mining engineers possess more than experience mining different minerals in other places. Mining engineers needed to have a credential.

Grossman explores how technical experience began to be preferred in the form of a formal education rather than past practical experience. The realization that mining the borderlands was dramatically different than mining in such places as California or Colorado meant that a new kind of technical expert, qualified and trained to understand mining on a broader theoretical level, was needed. Not only were the metals mined in the Southwest different, but the quality of the ore itself was far inferior to that mined in other American locations. Mining companies needed formally trained mining engineers, but in the 1860s and 1870s there were few US schools offering a course of instruction necessary for training such professionals. Thus, most American mining engineers during this time received their training in Germany. Armed with prestigious degrees, mining engineers “could soothe the anxious investor who wanted to be sure he was hiring the ‘best’ mining engineer available” (p. 47). Eventually, US universities began adding mining programs to courses of study. In particular, land grant colleges eagerly added programs aimed at educating the country’s mining engineers. These programs sought to combine the best theoretical education with enough practical experience to ensure their graduates could adequately negotiate two worlds: the business world and the subterranean world of the mines themselves. An unintended consequence of these formal educational programs was the breakdown of the apprenticeship system that had previously thrived, particularly among Cornish miners, in the Southwest borderlands. By the dawn of the twentieth century, argues Grossman, possession of a mining degree was often the decisive factor in the hiring of engineers. Their technical knowledge was needed in order to profitably extract ever-lower grades of ore from the ground.

Grossman then describes what motivated mining engineers to travel to the Southwest borderlands, far from the comforts of urban life. Initially, many mining engineers came from the very class of individuals investing in the mines in the first place; “they were the sons, brothers, and classmates of mining investors and capitalists” (p. 67). Although primarily easterners, mining engineers embraced the iconography of the pioneering frontiersman. The image of the mining engineer as a westering adventurer was critical to the engineer’s ability to negotiate simultaneously needing to be at ease in the boardroom and the mineshaft. By virtue of their very university educations, writes Grossman, mining engineers were members of the nineteenth-century cultural elite. But such privileged status carried little weight with investors or laborers. By cultivating a pioneering masculinity, engineers hoped to convince both investors and mine workers of their worth. But while mining engineers sought to navigate between the boardroom and the mine, they fully existed in neither. Beholden to the mining companies that paid their salaries, mining engineers nonetheless lived in the borderlands and needed mining laborers to follow their day-to-day directions. It is for this reason that Grossman rejects prior interpretations of rifts between mining engineers and mine workers. Mining engineers opposed labor unions not simply because their professional self-interest aligned with their capitalist employers (which it certainly did) but also because giving voice to the inequalities of mining camps undermined the frontier masculinity engineers sought to cultivate and employ for their own benefit.

The book then moves on to explore the metal that truly made the mines of the Southwest borderlands profitable, copper, and the ways the continued professionalization of mining engineers made mining that copper lucrative. Prior to the 1890s, much was stacked against the copper mines of the region. The mines were isolated, making it difficult to reach the mines, to say nothing of transporting equipment in or copper out. Additionally, neither the US nor the Mexican governments had the ability to protect the mines from Native American raiders who viewed the miners as intruders. Also, the quality of the ore itself was of such low quality that extracting and processing the ore was cost-prohibitive. Finally, the market for copper was not a large one and was dominated by the copper mining companies of the Great Lakes, which actively worked to prevent Southwest copper companies access to the market. By the 1890s all these circumstances had begun to change, and with a cadre of highly trained mining engineers, the Southwest companies realized huge profits as the nineteenth century became the twentieth. Mining engineers convinced capitalists to build railroads to the mines just as more efficient means of extracting copper were being developed and the US government succeeded in eliminating the threat of Native American attack. It was also during this time that the growth of urban electrical power greatly expanded the need for copper, broadening the market to unheard of levels. These changes in the United States made copper more important than ever, as well as the technical expertise of the mining engineers who directed the search for and extraction of the metal. New technocratic bureaucracies sprang up to support the engineers, whose knowledge and experience had never been so valuable.

Grossman argues that as mining became more technology intensive rather than labor intensive, small companies gave way to ever larger, capital-rich companies that consolidated their hold on the mining industry. Further, as the emphasis switched from labor to technology, the laborers became evermore unskilled while facing growing technological dangers. More than anything else, however, Grossman stresses how the life and work of mining engineers in the early twentieth century looked much different than they had fifty years prior. No longer perceived as adventurers living on the edge of civilization, engineers were now well-entrenched bureaucrats, living in large homes with their families while being waited on by members of the local populace. Neither were they individual experts, but members of corporate teams, part of the centralized systems operating on scales heretofore unheard of. Such scale forced mining engineers into nearly complete subservience to the needs of large corporations.

Mining the Borderlands usefully explores the role of mining engineers in the expansion of US economic and political power in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In using their technical expertise, mining engineers helped make the Southwest borderlands legible to American business and government elites as a “technocratic landscape that enabled an explosive capitalist expansion into the borderlands” (p. 157). Grossman also reminds us that white Americans were often drawn to the West not as farmers or pioneers but as corporate agents sent to exploit specific natural resources at specific points on the map. Rather than staying to develop democratic communities, these men quickly moved on to exploit new resources found in new locations. Thus, westward expansion was not a systematic pushing back of the frontier line but rather a process of rapid, often isolated, growth and decline subject to market whims and capitalists located in New York City or Europe. The transnational promises of Mining the Borderlands, while not completely fulfilled, suggest a number of opportunities for further research. Grossman argues that “political and technological developments in the United States and Mexico served to knit the region more closely together” but could have done more to demonstrate this unity beyond noting the simple fact that the region’s mines existed on both sides of the border (p. 9). Grossman also informs the reader that these mines were worked by Cornish, Mexican, and Chinese laborers but does not explore their transnational stories. In fairness, Grossman declares upfront that her work focuses almost exclusively on the mining engineers, not the mining laborers, but the presence of the ethnically diverse workforce in the background suggests an avenue for further study.

In sum, Mining the Borderlands describes the role of mining engineers in the development of the Southwest borderlands and helps to explain the unique elements of the mining industry in that region and the ways the industry changed over time. Additionally, as all good work does, this book points toward areas of further study, suggesting paths forward rather than masquerading as the final word on the topic.

Citation: Michael A. Hill. Review of Grossman, Sarah E. M., Mining the Borderlands: Industry, Capital, and the Emergence of Engineers in the Southwest Territories, 1855-1910. H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews. September, 2019. URL:

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