Line in the Sand: A History of the Western U.S.-Mexico Border

Line in the Sand: A History of the Western U.S.-Mexico Border

Line in the Sand: A History of the Western U.S.-Mexico Border

Line in the Sand: A History of the Western U.S.-Mexico Border


Line in the Sand details the dramatic transformation of the western U. S.-Mexico border from its creation at the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848 to the emergence of the modern boundary line in the first decades of the twentieth century. In this sweeping narrative, Rachel St. John explores how this boundary changed from a mere line on a map to a clearly marked and heavily regulated divide between the United States and Mexico. Focusing on the desert border to the west of the Rio Grande, this book explains the origins of the modern border and places the line at the center of a transnational history of expanding capitalism and state power in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Moving across local, regional, and national scales, St. John shows how government officials, Native American raiders, ranchers, railroad builders, miners, investors, immigrants, and smugglers contributed to the rise of state power on the border and developed strategies to navigate the increasingly regulated landscape. Over the border's history, the U. S. and Mexican states gradually developed an expanding array of official laws, ad hoc arrangements, government agents, and physical barriers that did not close the line, but made it a flexible barrier that restricted the movement of some people, goods, and animals without impeding others. By the 1930s, their efforts had created the foundations of the modern border control apparatus.

Drawing on extensive research in U. S. and Mexican archives, Line in the Sand weaves together a transnational history of how an undistinguished strip of land became the significant and symbolic space of state power and national definition that we know today.


The land border between the United States and Mexico is hard to miss these days. It rises out of the Pacific Ocean in the form of metal pilings that cast a shadow across a beach where families gather and Border Patrol jeeps leave tracks in the sand. It then cuts east across coastal bluffs until a dense tangle of traffic erupts around it at the San Ysidro port of entry. There, helicopters circle overhead and street vendors wind their way through the long lines of cars that wait to pass through an array of electronic scanners and vehicle barriers and to be inspected by a host of customs and immigration officials. This scene is repeated again at towns along the length of the boundary line—at Otay Mesa, Tecate, Calexico, Nogales, and other ports of entry where border crossers and buildings crowd the line. But for most of its length the border stands lonely of human activity, save for the barriers erected to prevent crossings—a patchwork of steel mesh, picket fencing, vehicle barriers, and barbed wire that rise above the desert floor marking the boundary line’s course from the Pacific Ocean to the Rio Grande.

Although some stretches of the border are still marked by no more than a five-strand barbed-wire fence that can easily be cut or climbed over, it is the image of an imposing physical barrier that comes to mind when most people think of the U.S.-Mexico border today. Walls and fences have become both physical realities and metaphors for the stark divide between the United States and Mexico and the attempts to control undocumented immigration and illegal drug trafficking that many people associate with the border.

But the border has a history. in the nineteenth century there were no border fences. the U.S. government did not prevent Mexican immigrants from crossing the border or even record their entries. in 1900 the U.S. and Mexican officials who patrolled the streets of border towns were occupied with collecting customs duties, not chasing drug runners or migrants. in 1870 there were few border towns west of El Paso and Apaches challenged the United States and Mexico for control of the sparsely settled borderlands. Just a few decades before that, this border did not exist at all.

This book is a history of how and why the border changed. Focusing on the western border between the United States and Mexico from its . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.