- Carceral Colonialism in Arizona Territory
When the US military entered what is today southern Arizona in November 1856, over two years after the United States Senate ratified the Gadsden Purchase, they were unaware that this was the beginning of a thirty-year war. It was one matter to claim sovereignty on paper and quite another to do so in the often brutal Sonoran Desert. To establish control of space meant to assert control over the bodies in that space. An overwhelming majority in Arizona Territory were tribal peoples, some of whom complied with the new US authority much as they had reached prior accommodations with Mexican and Spanish authority. Most, however, resisted, notably Navajo, Apache, and Yavapai. Confinement within borders or walls became a crucial element of US strategies of subordination. These strategies served to impose social control on an entire population, not only one defined population sector. The early decades of US-governed Arizona Territory can be described as the establishment of smaller confinements (jails, military guardhouses, and a small penitentiary) within an overarching system of larger confinements (Indian reservations). These interlocking civilian and military confinements imposed a colonial order that governed both Indigenous peoples and thousands of new settlers flooding into Arizona Territory, officially established in 1863, after the Civil War.
This essay’s first section begins with a single story, a nineteenth-century Arizona jail text probably written by a prisoner, and elaborates the social context of the white working-man’s life it describes. In a second section, I expand that discussion by contextualizing this brief autobiographical note within types of confinements created by American colonization of Arizona [End Page 1] Territory.1 The purpose in doing so is to open questions about the relationship between nineteenth-century imprisonment practices and colonialism in Arizona as it transited into governance by the United States. The third section makes an interpretive pivot toward current settler colonial theory and its inadequate consideration of incarceration. This prison narrative, in its sketchy details, undermines what Tim Rowse calls “a compact of epistemological and political certainty” where Indigenous and settler agencies remain forever distinct and separate (301). Finally, a larger purpose of the present essay lies in the limited historical comprehension that contemporary Arizona society manifests toward its colonial origins, often framed in stereotyped heroic terms when discussed at all. A public understanding of modern Arizona as rooted firmly within colonialism and anticolonial struggle is nearly absent.
Confinement worked to asymmetrical effects on different populations within Arizona Territory but represented a shared principle in the project of converting desert lands into capital investment and a Western concept of civilization. The Arizona territorial legislature made clear this link between economic advancement and confinement when in 1865 it petitioned the US House of Representatives for a $250,000 appropriation to levy war against Apaches and force them into reservations. The petition stated, “The working of mines of unequalled value, the occupancy of farms and pastoral lands of excellent quality, and the development of all the resources of the Territory, depend on the subjugation of the barbarous [Apache] foe so long a terror of the settler within our border. It were vain to solicit capital or emigration until the power of the Apache were broken” (United States House of Representatives, “War”). In its repeated memorials to Congress, Arizona’s territorial government emphasized a link between control over Indians and opportunities for prosperity. Twenty-two years later, in 1887, Arizona’s territorial governor, C. Meyer Zulick, complained that subjugation and confinement of White Mountain Apaches— Geronimo and the Chiricahua had been imprisoned the year previous— was not sufficient to deal with such “incarnate fiends” who refused to remain penned in their reservation (“Arizona’s Progress”). He demanded their complete removal from the United States in order to advance economic development. [End Page 2]
A logic of removal from society and confinement in order to enforce social compliance similarly informed an early state history that described acquiring two thousand acres for the Yuma penitentiary prison farm because “tilling of the soil will do much toward making better men of the unfortunate convicts and in preparing them for liberty and restoration to society” (McFarland and...