Conquering Sickness: Race, Health, and Colonization in the Texas Borderlands

Conquering Sickness: Race, Health, and Colonization in the Texas Borderlands

Conquering Sickness: Race, Health, and Colonization in the Texas Borderlands

Conquering Sickness: Race, Health, and Colonization in the Texas Borderlands


Published through the Early American Places initiative, supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Conquering Sickness presents a comprehensive analysis of race, health, and colonization in a specific cross-cultural contact zone in the Texas borderlands between 1780 and 1861. Throughout this eighty-year period, ordinary health concerns shaped cross-cultural interactions during Spanish, Mexican, and Anglo colonization.

Historians have shown us that Spanish, Mexican, and Anglo American settlers in the contested borderlands read the environment to determine how to live healthy, productive lives. Colonizers similarly outlined a culture of healthy living by observing local Native and Mexican populations. For colonists, Texas residents' so-called immorality--evidenced by their "indolence," "uncleanliness," and "sexual impropriety"--made them unhealthy. In the Spanish and Anglo cases, the state made efforts to reform Indians into healthy subjects by confining them in missions or on reservations. Colonists' views of health were taken as proof of their own racial superiority, on the one hand, and of Native and Mexican inferiority, on the other, and justified the various waves of conquest. As in other colonial settings, however, the medical story of Texas colonization reveals colonial contradictions.

Mark Allan Goldberg analyzes how colonizing powers evaluated, incorporated, and discussed local remedies. Conquering Sickness reveals how health concerns influenced cross-cultural relations, negotiations, and different forms of state formation. Focusing on Texas, Goldberg examines the racialist thinking of the region in order to understand evolving concepts of health, race, and place in the nineteenth century borderlands.


In June 1785 New Spain’s best emissaries, Pierre “Pedro” Vial and Francisco Xavier Chaves, set out on a diplomatic mission two decades in the making. Accompanied by a small group of Spanish soldiers and servants and Taovaya, Tawakoni, and Wichita Indian mediators and escorts, Vial and Chaves were sent out to meet with Comanche leaders to discuss a potential peace treaty. the crew trekked for months, from the provincial political center at San Antonio de Béxar, through the eastern woods to Nacogdoches and Taovaya villages, and then westward across the northern Texas flatlands toward Comanchería, or Comanche territory. in August, they finally arrived at their destination just south of the Red River. Waiting and watching the Mermellón tributary trickle through the open plain, they caught sight of 200 men heading toward them from a nearby Comanche ranchería, or encampment. Vial and Chaves wrote, “[Indian] capitanes Guersec and Eschas put on their uniforms and medals, and we unfurled our Spanish flag. Reaching us, the Cumanches fired some shots with the few guns that they had, and we answered them in the same manner. These formalities completed, the Cumanches embraced us and they gave us their hand, one by one.” the head of the ranchería showed Vial, Chaves, Guersec, Eschas, and their Spanish and Native servants to their tent made from buffalo hides, and the Spaniards dismounted and planted their flag at the entrance. the Comanches then provided their guests with buffalo and deer meat, fruits, and potatoes and rounded up the group’s horses and mules, which they held for the duration of the emissaries’ stay. Preparing for the next day’s meetings . . .

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