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Hispanic American Historical Review 83.4 (2003) 756-757
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La Gran Línea: Mapping the United States-Mexico Boundary, 1849-1857. By Paula Rebert. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001. Maps. Appendix. Notes. Bibliography. Index. xv, 259 pp. Cloth, $45.00. Paper, $22.95.
For all the recent interest in the border by practitioners of various disciplines, few have stopped to consider the basic processes by which a two-thousand-mile-long "line" separating Mexico from the United States came to be drawn. In this fascinating but frustrating book, Paula Rebert sets herself the task of reconstructing that process in the immediate aftermath of the Mexican-American War. Her narrative follows the surveying and mapping of the border from 1849 to 1857. After an introductory overview of the problems arising from the use of John Disturnell's 1847 Mapa de los Estados Unidos de Méjico in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Rebert picks up the story of the two boundary commissions—the U.S. Boundary Commission and the Mexican Comisión de Límites— created by each government for the purposes of mapping and surveying the line. She then follows the "cooperation and controversy," as well as the trials and tribulations, that accompanied the process of fixing the border.
It is, in many ways, a fascinating and seldom-told story. The two commissions shared a kind of schizophrenic endeavor: they were charged with creating their own maps for their own governments but were also to work together to chart the precise location of the border. The process was thus, like the border itself, binational. This is perhaps Rebert's most interesting and significant contribution. By stressing the interaction between them, she rescues the Mexican commission from the relative obscurity to which it has been cast by U.S. historians who (in typical fits of imperial arrogance) read every word written by U.S. Commissioners William Emory and John Russell Bartlett but see no reason to visit a single Mexican archive. Rebert's extensive archival research in Mexico City reveals that the success (or failure) of different portions of the border survey often depended on the nature of the interaction between the two commissions, even if the Mexican one labored under extraordinarily trying political and economic circumstances.
Yet the book is also frustrating. Rebert approaches the boundary surveys as [End Page 756] strictly technical processes; nowhere are surveying, mapping, or even science itself problematized as social and political practices. The text tends to be descriptive and is saturated with such detail that portions of some chapters resemble little more than lengthy lists of personnel and their equipment. This wealth of detail bogs down the text without leading to any larger conclusions. In other instances, interesting details are raised but never pursued. Tantalizing quotes from contemporary observers and participants regarding the destruction or removal of boundary markers by Indians "in their hatred of everything American" or by "evil disposed white men" are left as anecdotes rather than as apertures onto deeper questions about the surveys and their (perceived) effects on local peoples. Perhaps most lamentably, the saturation of detail and technical description makes the book hard going and will substantially limit its audience. Even with such reservations, however, this book is a valuable and unique contribution for those interested in the immediate aftermath of the war, the process of boundary formation, and the dynamics of binational cooperation and conflict in the nineteenth century.