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SOUTHWEST may be roughly defined as the southwestern quarter of the United States, although any distinct delimitation of the area is necessarily arbitrary. So considered, it includes Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, the southern half of California, and the southern portions of Kansas and Colorado. With the exception of most of Kansas and Oklahoma, which formed part of the Louisiana Purchase, all of the Southwest was a part of the possessions of Spain, and later of Mexico, well into the nineteenth century and so has, historically, a background that is distinctly Spanish. Kansas is a "marginal state," since its history is partially bound up with that of the Southwest and in part with that of the central prairie states. Oklahoma and Texas each has a history essentially its own. Oklahoma was for more than half a century a great Indian territory, forbidden to settlement by whites. The Five Civilized Tribes, occupying much of it, formed small commonwealths or republics, each with its own government and laws. Texas, settled largely by Anglo-Americans, won its independence from Mexico in 1836. After nearly ten years' existence as a republic, it was annexed by the United States in 1845. The remainder of this southwestern region, except for the small strip of land acquired from Mexico in 1853 in the Gadsden Purchase, became a part of the United States in 1848 with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo with Mexico.

The influence of the Southwest on the political history of the United States began early in the nineteenth century. The Louisiana Purchase boundary line, which had been the subject of much controversy, was drawn in 1819, leaving Texas to Spain. Later, the question of the annexation of Texas became an important political issue. After annexation, the dispute over the Texas-Mexico boundary helped to precipitate the Mexican-American War (1846–1848). Disputes over the organization of the new territory acquired from Mexico by this war ended in the much-debated Compromise of 1850, under which California entered the Union as a free state but slavery was not restricted in the newly created New Mexico and Utah territories. Four years later came the Kansas- Nebraska Act, allowing the residents of these territories to decide for themselves whether to become free or slave states, and the violent controversies following it attracted the attention of the entire nation.

Significant as the Southwest has been in the political history of the United States, its importance in U.S. economic history is even more apparent. The discovery of gold in California and Colorado in the nineteenth century brought about one of the most picturesque movements in all American history. The settlement of the Pacific coastal region and the increased production of gold stimulated industry, caused the building of the Pacific railways, and created demands for a canal between the Pacific and Atlantic.

Texas, which had early developed as a great cattle-raising area, sent a stream of cattle northward from 1866 to 1890 to stock ranges on the central and northern Plains; thus, it was the chief factor in the formation of the "cow country" that spanned much of the American West. The production of petroleum and natural gas in California and in the great mid-continent field lying largely in Oklahoma and Texas has been of great significance in the economic life of the nation. The fruit-growing industry of southern California, Arizona, and the lower Rio Grande valley of Texas has also been of great importance to the country as a whole. The production of wheat and cotton in this area adds materially to the nation's crops of these two staples. Manufacture and distribution of motion pictures have long centered in southern California, and the industry's influence on the people of the United States as well as much of the world can hardly be estimated. Since World War II, the Southwest has also become a major center for the aerospace and electronics industries. Los Alamos, New Mexico, a major site of atomic research during the war, continues to host a number of university and government laboratories engaged in sensitive research.

Since World War II, the population of the "Sun Belt cities" of the Southwest has swelled with retirees and Mexican immigrants. This demographic trend has transformed Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Albuquerque into crucibles of conservative thought and important battlegrounds during congressional and presidential elections. It is not coincidence that between 1980 and 2002, three presidents—all Republicans—have hailed from the region. California produced Ronald Reagan, while Texas produced George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush—not to mention the surprisingly strong third-party candidacy of billionaire Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996. Culturally, the Southwest in the twentieth century has produced a flowering of indigenous and blended cultural forms: Mexican rancheros inspired the macho style of the Anglo cowboy, a staple of American fiction and movies since the 1890s; in the 1920s, painter Georgia O'Keeffe helped to make the pueblo villages of Taos and Santa Fe, New Mexico, home for the alienated avant-garde; and by century's end, "Tex-Mex" cuisine, a commercialized adaptation of Mexican cuisine, emerged as a mass-market phenomenon. Finally, the status of the Southwest as a borderland between Native American pueblo territory, Anglo-America, and Hispanic Central America has made it a symbol of the increasingly diverse demography of the modern United States.


Abbott, Carl. The New Urban America: Growth and Politics in Sun-belt Cities. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987.

del Castillo, Richard Griswold. La Familia: Chicano Families in the Urban Southwest, 1848 to the Present. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984.

Dutton, Bertha P. American Indians of the Southwest. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1983.

Kowalewski, Michael, ed. Reading the West: New Essays on the Literature of the American West. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Lamar, Howard Roberts. The Far Southwest, 1846–1912: A Territorial History. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1966.

Nash, Gerald D. The American West in the Twentieth Century: A Short History of an Urban Oasis. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1973.

Nichols, Roger L. "The Southwest." In Encyclopedia of American Social History. Edited by Mary Kupiec Cayton, Elliot J. Gorn, and Peter W. Williams. Vol. 2. New York: Scribners, 1993.

Weber, David J., ed. Foreigners in their Native Land: Historical Roots of the Mexican Americans. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1973.

Edward EverettDale/a. r.

See alsoConservatism ; Guadalupe Hidalgo, Treaty of ; Mexican Americans ; Santa Fe Trail ; Sun Belt .


views updated May 23 2018

south·west / ˌsou[unvoicedth]ˈwest/ • n. 1. (usu. the southwest) the direction toward the point of the horizon midway between south and west, or the point of the horizon itself: clouds uncoiled from the southwest. ∎  the compass point corresponding to this.2. the southwestern part of a country, region, or town: the beach is in the southwest of the island. ∎  (usu. the Southwest) the southwestern part of the U.S.: the desert turtle population in the Southwest.• adj. 1. lying toward, near, or facing the southwest: the southwest tower collapsed in a storm. ∎  (of a wind) blowing from the southwest.2. of or denoting the southwestern part of a specified country, region, or town or its inhabitants: fishing in southwest Alaska's Bristol Bay area.• adv. to or toward the southwest: they drove directly southwest.DERIVATIVES: south·west·ern / -ərn/ adj.

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