Enterprise & Society 4.3 (2003) 567-569
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Maria E. Montoya. Translating Property: The Maxwell Land Grant and the Conflict over Land in the American West, 1840-1900. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. xvi + 299 pp. ISBN 0-520-22744-1, $50.00.
Maria Montoya's study of land and property regimes in nineteenth-century New Mexico has all the elements of an epic. The stakes are high (somewhere between one and two million acres), the setting is grand, the protagonists are diverse and engaging, and the sequence of events is replete with all manner of twists and turns. We have patrons and peones, Jicarilla Apaches, and government officials prospecting for private gain, Yankee homesteaders, and British and Dutch financiers, property-owning and property-less women, and propertied men with connections to elected officials. The plot and the particulars of this specific case are well known (as the author reminds us on p. 19). Spanish usurp land from the indigenous peoples; Americans buy out the local landed elite; exogenous investment capitalists get a whiff of gold and rush in just as the Spanish did two centuries before.
This epic's similarity to like epics in other parts of the Americas during the age of conquest and the subsequent epoch of nation building is striking. Montoya smartly stakes out the comparative as one of her central themes, and she rightly conceives of the book as a significant contribution to the growing literature on property regimes, legal systems, and the everyday practices that govern land rights in place and on the ground. If the New Mexico case study is situated "within the context of a larger world history and other nineteenth-century case studies of land loss in places such as Hawai'i, Russia, Africa, and Latin America," it will reveal how the "U.S. government acted in imperial and colonial ways that mimicked its European counterparts" (pp. 8-9). This is a project worthy of attention, with implications for historians, anthropologists, and other scholars working in a number of fields and subfields.
Unfortunately, Montoya does not deliver on this objective. The comparative analysis, such as it is, is limited to two or three restatements of intent (see pp.118-19 on Hawai'i, for example) presented as "suggest[ions of] the larger connections of the Maxwell Land Grant story to other places and times" (p. 119). This discrepancy between intent and presentation is unfortunate on several levels. First, the lack of an actual, sustained comparative analysis deflects attention from the New Mexico case study, a solid, often engaging monographic account of the Maxwell grant. Second, the findings from a comparative investigation likely would have led the author to reassess [End Page 567] some of her central interpretations and to reconsider some large claims. For example, in a discussion of political economy and global trade, framed in terms of world systems theory, Montoya focuses on the institutional change in governance from Spain and Mexico to the United States as a primary variable for assessing production and consumption within trade networks that drew residents of northern New Mexico into an expanding market economy. As she rightly notes in a previous section, however, Hispano settlers who occupied this land under the patron-peon system sold surplus goods in a broader, world market. Hence, the transition appears to be one of degree and scale rather than of type. Evaluating the nature of change requires longitudinal data on trade in both eras, as well as comparative data for similar (and different) locales; Montoya marshals neither in this account.
Third, though the author intends to use the Maxwell case to situate the American West into narratives of colonialism and thereby expand the intellectual boundaries of the "New Western History," it struck this reader that world system theory returns us to the "old" Western history, where the borderlands and the intermountain West remain little more than a periphery, the site for extractive industry and hence a dependent "colony" within known systems of nations and international trade.
On a minor note...