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The Borderlands: An Historical Survey for the Non-Historian

Michael C. Meyer


The first Europeans who walked on borderlands soil at the beginning of the sixteenth century found themselves in a region that had been occupied continuously for tens of thousands of years. Except for eastern Texas, the northern extremity of New Spain was generally arid or semi-arid, but occasionally extremely arid. Aridity increased as one moved west from Texas and Coahuila to New Mexico and Chihuahua and then to Arizona and Sonora and the Californias. This aridity not only conditioned man-land relationships but ethnic relationships as well.

Although population density in the far north was low, the region housed scores of different Indian groups many of whom spoke languages unintelligible to one another. They covered a wide cultural spectrum, ranging from completely sedentary to primarily nomadic. In terms of initial Spanish contacts the Yaqui, Mayo, Seri, Pueblo, Opatá Concho, Eudeve, Apache, Comanche, Tarahuamara, Tepehuan, Tobosos, Pima, Gila, and Yuma were among the most important.

Unlike central Mexico where the races came together, confronted one another, and grudgingly worked out the mechanisms for co-existence in a relatively short period of time, the same process in the borderlands consumed the better part of three centuries. It was not simply a matter of lack of interest on the part of the Spanish crown or individual Spanish adventurers, although this factor may have played some role. More to the point, the geographical extension of this area was huge and the Spaniards who initiated the cultural contacts were relatively few in number. When early rumors of fantastic northern wealth proved to be chimeras, initial enthusiasm about the region quickly waned.

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Print ISSN: 0886-5655
Online ISSN: 2159-1229