Three area museums developing a display on the Borderlands of Southern Colorado
Officials of El Pueblo History Museum are joining forces with their colleagues in Fort Garland and Trinidad to produce a display titled “Borderlands of Southern Colorado.”
The undertaking is an ambitious one that prompted museum officials to enlist the services of a number of scholars from across the country.
Leading the way is University of Colorado professor Patty Limerick, Colorado’s state historian and director of the Center of the American West.
A dozen other scholars from Colorado, New Mexico and Texas, as well as California, Vermont and Connecticut, lent their knowledge and opinions to the project.
The brainpower was welcomed because it’s going to take some creativity to figure out a way to fully capture the rich history produced by the borderlands of Southern Colorado.
Limerick and her colleagues held a symposium on the borderlands project at El Pueblo History Museum on April 21, and shed some light on the challenges they face.
Simply defining what is meant by borderlands takes some discussion.
When it comes to the definition of borderlands there several types:
“Every one of the borderland definitions works,” said Rachel St. John of the University of California, Davis.
Borders can be anywhere and everywhere. Take Pueblo, for example.
The city at different times was on the border of the United States and Spain, of the United States and Mexico, of the United States and France.
Pueblo is at the junction where the Great Plains meet the foothills, which segue into the mountains. It’s located where the Great Plains meet the Southwestern Desert.
Because of those natural borders, the city was at the junction of several cultures.
Numerous Native American tribes roamed Colorado, including the Apache nation, the Arapaho nation, the Cheyenne nation, the Pueblo tribes, the Shoshone tribe, the Comanche tribe, the Kiowa tribe, the Navajo tribe and the Southern Ute tribe.
The Spanish and later Mexican settlers moved through the area, as did the French and, finally, the American settlers arrived, pushed West by the expansion of the United States.
The Arkansas River created a barrier in Pueblo, as did the Colorado and Rio Grande rivers in other parts of Southern Colorado and the Southwest.
Each of those physical landmarks created a border of sorts. Each of the Indian tribes had their own boundaries. So did each wave of the settlers.
History offers more confusion than clarity because there were borderlands inside the borderland.
The original borders within the area were set by the indigenous people who lived here.
“The indigenous people are central to the story,” said Paul Conrad of the University of Texas, Arlington. “The landscape was full of indigenous nations.”
Conrad said there were 300 indigenous languages in the area north of Mexico.
Indigenous tribes held enormous sway in Mexico and the United States in the early 19th Century. That began to change in 1821 when a new Mexican government decided to throw open the doors to commerce.
Up to that point, products had to be brought into the area from Spain, an expensive proposition. After 1821, products could be imported from anywhere.
In 1822, $15,000 worth of goods was imported into the area. That grew to $30,000 by 1824, $60,000 by 1826 and by the mid-1830s, more than $500,000 worth of goods was being imported annually.
That turned the Santa Fe Trail into a bustling highway of commerce and led to the colonization of Mexico, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado and California.
It also changed the borders and the borderlands for the indigenous people, as well as those who were settling in the region.
Eventually, the United States took control of the Western United States through expansion by settlers, by conquest and by purchase, namely, the Louisiana Purchase.
Colorado, itself, settled into three distinct areas: the Front Range, the Western Slope and Southern Colorado.
All three were included in Colorado when the borders for the territory were drawn up. Those borders were arbitrary lines of latitude and longitude.
Colorado’s southern border is the 37th parallel (the same line that divides North and South Korea). Its northern border is the 41st parallel. The state’s eastern border 102.3 degrees west longitude and its western border is 109.3 degrees west longitude.
By then, the border with the United States and Mexico also had been drawn. The area was chosen because it was mostly uninhabited at the time. Part of the border follows the Rio Grande River.
Yet, the historians pointed out, borders draw attention. The 1,989-mile border between the U.S. and Mexico is the most frequently crossed in the world counting just legal crossings (350 million annually).
So, even arbitrary lines drawn in the dirt (or on maps) can have a significant impact on the people in the borderlands.
Melding of cultures
One of the keys to the display will be how the cultures coexisted.
Sometimes, it was peacefully and amicably. Other times there was friction. At other times, there was violence and injustice.
The dynamic of those interactions created the Pueblo and Southern Colorado that we have today.
Even after the national and international borders were settled, Pueblo continued to evolve.
The steel mill and area coal mines brought immigrants from all over the world seeking work and opportunity. They settled in Pueblo, each ethnic group or race in their own neighborhoods, with their own bars, restaurants and churches. In effect, creating more borders. And more interaction.
“All of that made Pueblo what it is,” said Dawn DiPrince, director of El Pueblo History Museum and one of the driving forces behind the borderlands exhibit.
DiPrince concedes capturing the history of the borderlands in one display won’t be easy. However, she is confident it can be done.
“This isn’t going to be a display where once we’re done, it’s a monument,” DiPrince said. “It’s going to keep evolving.”
The El Pueblo Trading Post archaeological dig on the grounds of the museum likely will continue to provide insight into the evolution of the borderlands.
Limerick suggested that the display make its viewers feel like intruders in someone else’s home.
Perhaps the display could include a series of “homes” going back in time starting with the borderland today through the arrival of American settlers, the French, the Mexican and the Spanish, and finally to the American Indian tribes that were constantly moving and encroaching on each other’s borders. American settlers may have been the last of the “intruders,” but they weren’t the only ones.
“History is movement,” said Mary E. Mendoza, from the University of Vermont. “These borders were always moving.”
The Borderlands of Southern Colorado display is scheduled to be unveiled at El Pueblo Museum in February of 2018, DiPrince said. The display will be shown at museums in Trinidad and Fort Garland a few weeks later.
The selection of that date is to commemorate the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hildalgo, which was signed on Feb. 2, 1848.
The treaty ended the 2-year-old Mexican-American War, which started, coincidentally, as a border dispute.
The treaty added an additional 525,000 square miles to U.S. territory, including the land that makes up all or parts of present-day Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. Mexico also gave up all claims to Texas.
Significantly, the treaty recognized the Rio Grande River as America’s southern boundary.
Little did the signers of that singular document realize the impact of what they were doing. The treaty and its new border set the stage for the cultural melting pot known as the Borderlands of Southern Colorado.
BORDERLANDS OF SOUTHERN COLORADO
What: Proposed display at El Pueblo History Museum, Trinidad History Museum and Fort Garland Museum and Cultural Center.
When: The display is set to open in February of 2018, the 170th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hildalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War in 1848.
Contributors: In addition to the staff at the museums, many other historians and experts are being consulted for the project. Scholars participating include Paul Conrad, University of Texas, Arlington; Andres Resendez, University of California, Davis, a Mexico City native; Patricia Trujillo, Northern New Mexico College; Fawn-Amber Montoya, Colorado State University-Pueblo; Alice Baumgartner, Yale University; Beth LaDow, independent scholar; Rachel St. John, University of California, Davis; Derek Everett, Metropolitan State University, Denver; Matthew Garcia, Kansas State University; Phillip Gonzales, University of New Mexico; Mary Mendoza, University of Vermont; and Nick Saenz, Adams State University.