Since the seventeenth century, Americans have turned their gaze toward the lands to the south, seeing in them fields for religious proselytization, economic enterprise, and military conquest. Some have been motivated mainly by intellectual curiosity and the desire to learn more about the region and its people. In the nineteenth century these individuals were likely to be independent travelers and investigators. At the start of the twentieth century, with the emergence of the modern university, academics with specializations in Latin America began to appear, initially in history, anthropology, and geography. By the end of the century the number of dedicated Latin Americanists in these and other disciplines had increased dramatically, courses on Latin America had become apparently permanent features of university curricula, and research on Latin American topics was deemed a respectable activity for scholars.
Other non-European areas, notably the Middle East and Asia, also came under scholarly scrutiny in the United States in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. From an early date U.S. colleges and universities offered courses on the ancient Middle East and on biblical languages for the prospective ministers among their students. Of 122 doctorates in non-European international studies awarded by six leading universities between 1861 and 1900, more than half (66) pertained to ancient Hebrew. Archaeologists were also attracted to the ancient Middle East, often with the hope that their findings would either uphold or undermine biblical authority. During this period American missionaries stationed overseas produced many tomes not only about biblical lands but also about China and other parts of the “ non-Christian world.” Former missionaries and their children later played a decisive role in the development of academic Chinese studies in the United States.
No dominant pattern can be discerned in the recruitment of the earliest Latin Americanists. Several historians, trained as U.S. or European specialists, turned to Latin America after finding employment at universities in western states that had once been ruled by Spain and Mexico. A few others, such as the geographers Mark Jefferson and George M. McBride, had experience in Latin America before undertaking academic careers. Early archaeologists and other anthropologists often looked to Latin America as a natural extension of their work on native peoples of North America.
In short, where Latin America was concerned, conditions and interests within . . .