Boundaries (Geography)

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From the U.S. war cry in the mid-1840s over disputed British and American territory in the Pacific Northwest—"Fifty-Four Forty or Fight!"—to the westward extension of the Mason-Dixon Line separating slave from free states, boundaries and borders of various sorts preoccupy the nation during the antebellum decades. Debated, fought over, and painstakingly delineated on maps and charts, boundaries lie at the heart of major political decisions and prove fundamental to a host of social and economic issues. Paramount among such issues are the expansion of national borders as fresh territories are either annexed by diplomatic treaty or conquered outright, the relocation of eastern tribes to west of the Mississippi through the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the intensification of regionalism, the westward recession of the edge of settlement, and debate over whether new states added to the union should be slaveholding or free. As the nation approaches nothing less than a cataclysmic civil war to resolve many of these issues, and as antebellum boundaries remain in flux, their vulnerable, culturally constructed character lies close to the surface. It is not, then, especially surprising that much of the literature of this period becomes preoccupied with various borders that are said to mark insides and outsides, clearcut beginnings and endings, the limits of territorial jurisdictions, and the outermost edges of the nation itself.


A major antebellum border is of course the frontier. Throughout the antebellum decades the idea of a frontier edge where settlement is said to end, and where "wilderness" is assumed to spread into raw, unsettled space, remains a fundamental aspect of the national sense of geography, with a long history extending back to earliest colonial settlement. William Bradford (1590–1657), governor of the Plymouth Bay Colony throughout most of its early development, invokes the idea of a frontier of civilization in his Of Plymouth Plantation (c. 1650), in which "all the civil parts of the world" emerge in stark contrast to a "hideous and desolate wilderness" of "savage hue" where "wild beasts and wild men" are presumed to roam (p. 62).

Scholars and historians such as David Laurence, John R. Stilgoe, and Robert E. Abrams have come to emphasize that terms such as "wilderness," "savage," and "civil parts" register European concepts and values projected into New World topography. As used by a writer like Bradford, the phrase "hideous and desolate wilderness" refers to a pre–New England landscape that in alternative accounts by Giovanni da Verrazzano, Samuel de Champlain, and other European explorers actually emerges as thickly populated by native tribes, whose villages and agricultural clearings dot the Atlantic coastland from the Saco River to Narragansett Bay. The initial colonial division of New World space into a fundamental difference between white "settlement" and "desolate wilderness," with a frontier edge falling between "civil" and "wild" worlds, erases the prior history of tribal cultures on the so-called desolate side of the border while apparently clearing the ground for unimpeded colonial possession. The frontier thus emerges as a problematic and ideologically charged, if highly significant, concept in North American colonial history.

Rooted in colonial interests and attitudes, the idea of the frontier remains widely influential in antebellum literature and culture, although considerable ambivalence is often expressed about its westward recession and eventual disappearance. On the one hand, the American frontier ostensibly marks the advancing edge of civilized structure and order, and registers the triumph of a nation whose Manifest Destiny, according to the phrase coined by John L. O'Sullivan in 1845, is to expand across the continent, bringing the benefits of civilization to raw, wild land. In commenting on this transformative process, Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859) refers in Democracy in America (1835) to a great "march" of civilization into wilderness, "turning the course of rivers, peopling solitudes, and subduing nature" (2:74).

Throughout the antebellum decades, however, American writers and artists often lament even as they affirm the militant "march" of settlement behind an advancing frontier. Thomas Cole (1801–1848), the celebrated Hudson River School landscape painter, writes in his "Essay on American Scenery" (1836) that "although an enlightened and increasing people" have "wrought changes that seem magical" across a once uncultivated land, as "civilization" has taken hold, the "sublimity of the wilderness"—"perhaps the most impressive" characteristic of "American scenery"—threatens to "pass away" (pp. 3–19).

A presumed edge of the "wild" that is conceived as withdrawing lamentably away from and yet marking the triumphant expansion of settled, organized space, the frontier thus becomes an ambivalently perceived border, on alternative sides of which allegiances become split between the allure of the vanishing wilderness and the advance of civilization. Over the years, literary critics and art historians ranging from Leo Marx to Angela Miller have emphasized the way the American pastoral ideal, with its roots in poetry by Theocritus and in Virgil's Eclogues, emerges in much antebellum writing and painting as the strategy of choice to resolve such ambivalence. Pastoralism, that is to say, appears to soften the sharp distinction between settlement and wilderness through the envisagement of what Marx, in The Machine in the Garden, calls a "middle landscape" falling between and yet harmonizing the "opposed worlds" of "civilization" and "unimproved, raw nature" (pp. 22–31). In Walden (1854), for example, Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) strives to maintain equilibrium between wild and civilized worlds by reading classics in the open air, building a shelter open to summer breezes, dressing simply, and avoiding needless luxuries. Similarly, in a number of Cole's paintings in the 1830s and 1840s, a "pastoral moment," as Angela Miller observes in The Empire of the Eye, seems deliberately "poised between the extremities of wilderness and overcivilization" (pp. 51–52).

Often in such works, however, the "pastoral moment" seems at best fleeting and provisional: an arcadian idyll doomed by the railroad, the factory, and the whole inexorable momentum of the Industrial Revolution eventually to disappear. At the other end of an ostensibly balanced "middle" terrain between "overcivilization" and "wilderness," the vocabulary of American pastoralism projects concepts such as "the primitive," "savagery," and "the wild" into unre-claimed space in ways that have grown suspicious to a later generation of scholars. The "pastoral moment," that is to say, seems to take shape in the midst of what Henry Nash Smith, in a critique of his own influential earlier book, Virgin Land, terms a series of "social stages" presumed to be modulating from "savagery" toward an "increasing level of complexity." At bottom, Smith emphasizes, to perceive the nineteenth-century American landscape in this way is to continue to project so-called free, primitive space—ostensibly inhabited, much as Bradford writes in 1630, by "wild men"—to the far side of a moving frontier, effectually obscuring the prior presence there of "nonwhite races," their own cultures, and their own complex relationship to the land ("Symbol and Idea in Virgin Land," p. 28).

Although the idea of the frontier as a boundary between primitive space and civilized, more advanced space dominates a considerable amount of antebellum writing, such a boundary is sometimes questioned by antebellum authors themselves. Nathaniel Hawthorne's (1804–1864) novels, tales, and sketches of early colonial American life, for example, frequently blur the distinction between wilderness and settlement, nature and culture. The frontier may seem to divide civil from wild space, but Hawthorne suggests that when colonial settlers visit or gaze into the forest, they persist in perceiving it through the lens of their own cultural assumptions. In "Young Goodman Brown" (1846), for example, Hawthorne's protagonist crosses the threshold into the wilderness with his mind so heavily steeped in European forest folklore that he remains on the lookout for devils, witches, and black magic, ever ready, in the shadowy obscurity, to imagine a twig assuming life as a satanic snake or to hear the wilderness laughing at him in the rustle of the wind. Can creatures of human history, steeped in all sorts of unexamined prejudices and biases, ever truly claim to cross the frontier into primitive nature? Significantly, Hawthorne cautions in "The New Adam and Eve" (1843) that "we, who have been born into the world's artificial system, can never adequately know how little in our present state and circumstances is natural, and how much is merely the interpolation of the perverted mind and heart of man" (p. 237).

However fundamental it may be to U.S. geography and sense of space, the idea of a frontier edge where culture ends and pure nature begins turns problematic for a writer like Hawthorne. A tale such as "Young Goodman Brown," in which nature becomes the projective backdrop of "the perverted mind and heart of man," anticipates the observation by the noted cultural and political theorist Theodor Adorno (1903–1969) that "the image of undistorted nature" is likely to arise "only in distortion, as its opposite" (p. 95).


In addition to a frontier edge ostensibly marking a clear-cut distinction between culturally organized and purely natural space, the antebellum landscape sometimes appears, from another perspective, to become regionalized into recognizable sections and localities. Elizabeth Johns observes that as early as the 1780s regional stereotypes—the Yankee sharper, for example, or the tall Kentuckian—begin to codify into what she calls an "efficient roster" of regional differences for "ordering" the nation (p. 12). But although these differences become especially sharp, acrimonious, and intense throughout the 1850s as Northerners and Southerners, increasingly divided over slavery, warily eyed the admission of western states into the union as slaveholding or free, historians ranging from David Potter to Edward L. Ayers generally emphasize that in the early antebellum period, regionalism is less severe. A balance between local interests and representative federal government becomes an especially important principle of the Whig Party, and prominent Whig politicians such as Daniel Webster (1782–1852) and Henry Clay (1777–1852) craft federal legislation based on mutual compromise and negotiation in the interest of the whole nation. In American schoolrooms, moreover, textbooks such as S. G. Goodrich's The Child's Book of American Geography (1831) foster concrete attachments to immediate, local regions since these are presumed to provide the very foundation for attachment to the nation as a whole. The assumption, derived from Scottish common sense philosophy, is that the mind first obtains knowledge of the world in concrete, immediate form, moving, so to speak, up a ladder from immediacy of environment and particularity of scene toward larger loyalties and more abstract entities such as the nation as a whole.

Regionalism no doubt intensifies as the nation approaches the Civil War. Travel literature by Northern writers such as Frederick Law Olmsted (1822–1903) and John Stevens Cabot Abbott (1805–1877) not only exoticizes the South, making it seem strange, deviant, and peculiar, but also portrays the South in negative terms against which the North emerges as fostering values of thrift, industriousness, and hard work which slaveholding is assumed to undermine. In particular, the "New England . . . model" of individual freedom, self-reliance, and small village life, as Harriet Beecher Stowe's (1811–1896) husband, Reverend Calvin Stowe, writes in the December 1849 issue of Godey's Lady's Book, is assumed to have "originated most of that which is really valuable in the social and political condition of the United States" (p. 459). In reaction, white Southerners cobble together an alternative national identity based on the contrast of agrarian to industrial values, the romanticization of plantation life, and even the assumed superiority of graceful Southern speech to harsh, grating Yankeeisms. Throughout this period, the West, often given to promoting itself as the one region where sectionalism is transcended, and where the expansionary destiny of the nation lies, is nevertheless jealously targeted by both North and South. Southern politicians and landowners promote the extension of slave-based agriculture into western lands and states. In contrast, in an 1850 speech that reveals the underlying sectarian bias even of a stalwart proponent of compromise and federal union, Daniel Webster envisages pioneer "descendants of New England" spreading thrift, indus-try, and the "Pilgrim" way from the "Alleghenies" across the "Rocky Mountains" to the "shores of the Pacific" (pp. 222–223).

The tendency of the "West" to locate itself beyond narrow regionalism, and yet to become alternatively defined on northern and southern terms, while its center of gravity gradually shifts from the Ohio Valley to beyond the Mississippi, underscores the complex and fluid history which regional divisions simplify. How hard and fast are antebellum regional borders, and how homogeneous and well defined are the regions that appear to take shape within them? Historians often emphasize the ambiguous and fluctuating character of regional boundaries and, to a certain degree, the imaginatively constructed character of places like New England that novels such as Catharine Maria Sedgwick's (1789–1867) A New-England Tale (1822), or travelogues such as Timothy Dwight's (1752–1817) Travels in New-England and New-York (1821–1822), envision, celebrate, and appear to define. For example, as Stephen Nissenbaum points out, although Dwight's text, with its idealization of New England village life, is a precursor of the later promotion of the New England village by Reverend Calvin Stowe and others, Dwight falsifies the New England past. He erroneously endows the New England village, whose graceful white houses are theoretically arranged around a central, sociable "common," with a long colonial history that is in fact belied by actual historical research. Such research discloses an early New England population actually scattered throughout hamlets and isolated farms, with very few central village "greens" dotting the landscape, and houses painted in a variety of colors rather than in decorous, uniform white (Nissenbaum, pp. 48–52).

As acrimony between the North and South intensified in the approach to the Civil War, writers from across the Mason-Dixon Line often exaggerated the virtues of their own respective regions. Theodore Parker's remarks epitomize the rhetorical excesses sometimes spawned by antebellum regionalism.

Whence come the men of superior education who occupy the Pulpits, exercise the professions of Law and Medicine, or fill the chairs of the Professors in the Colleges of the Union? Almost all from the North. . . . Whence come the distinguished authors of America? . . . All from the free states; north of Mason and Dixon's line.

Theodore Parker, Letter to the People of the United States Touching the Matter of Slavery (Boston: J. Munroe, 1848), pp. 63–64.

In addition, regional boundaries as understood by antebellum Americans actually shift, overlap, or prove uncertain on closer analysis. What, for example, constitutes the authentic "South"? Edward L. Ayers points out that by the 1830s, Virginians and Carolinians, presuming themselves to be the inhabitants of the true if dying "South," warily eye the flow of money and population westward into Alabama and Mississippi, which are considered to be raw, uncouth regions, devoid of gentility, and basically unsouthern (pp. 68–69). Moreover, the cultural life of New York City and New England on the one hand is marked by rivalry and on the other hand remains intimately linked as numerous New Englanders, from the writer William Cullen Bryant (1794–1878) to the painter Frederick Church (1826–1900), become prominent in New York City publishing and art while sustaining strong New England ties.

The relationship between North and South itself proves, on closer analysis, to remain equivocal and ambiguous even as acrimony intensifies and lines seem sharply drawn in the approach to Civil War. The Massachusetts Quarterly Review self-righteously affirms New England values and chastises the South as a region of moral decadence. But in "Chiefly about War Matters" (1862), Hawthorne darkly links the economic and social histories of New England and the South. At bottom they are entangled in one another. Hawthorne goes so far as to emphasize that one and the same Mayflower brought both Pilgrims to Plymouth Rock and slaves to Virginia: a "monstrous birth," he proposes, of religious idealism and yet American slavery out of a single mother ship such that "two such portents never sprang from an identical source before" (p. 319).

Along border states, an entangled, intertwined, and equivocal sense of reality especially prevails. In Maryland, for example, close kinship ties conflict with dictates of conscience as brothers and cousins join opposing Union and Confederate armies, eventually to face one another in some of the bloodiest battles of the war. Rebecca Harding Davis (1831–1910) recalls that "on the border of West Virginia," "opinions clashed" in "every village," households were torn apart, and many suffered the anguish of seeing "the great question from both sides" (Bits of Gossip, pp. 109, 166). The anguish of living in the ambivalent borderland between divided worlds is best emphasized in Davis's story "David Gaunt," published in 1862 in the Atlantic Monthly. Set in the northwest Virginia hills close to the Ohio and Pennsylvania borders, Davis's story recounts how the devoutly religious daughter of a Confederate sympathizer falls in love with a Union officer given to doubting God, and how, after joining the Union cause, an idealistic Methodist preacher finds himself bound by duty to shoot the very father of the woman he loves. Little remains clear-cut in this borderland narrative of multiple ties, duties, and affections that refuse to accord with one another. Such a tale of incongruous allegiances and crisscrossed feelings along a troubled border throws into question the stark delineations that appear to divide alternative regions—and alternative human worlds—so precisely and emphatically on geometrically stable maps.


Historians and literary scholars assert that the borders and edges of American nationhood itself turned troubled, unsettled, and equivocal throughout the ante-bellum decades. On the face of it, to be sure, this seems to be a period characterized by an aggressively expanding—scarcely a blurred and troubled—national edge as fresh territories are successively absorbed into the U.S. republic. In the wake of warfare between Mexico and incoming Anglo-American settlers, for example, Texas declares itself to be an independent republic in 1836 and is then annexed to the union at the invitation of President James Polk in 1845. A subsequent U.S. victory over Mexico in the war of 1846–1848 leads to the acquisition of California and New Mexico through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. From the late 1840s through the 1850s, Southern slaveholders in particular press for the conquest and annexation of Spanish-held Cuba, and at times the dream of a Greater South expands still further to include a vast slave empire encompassing the entire Southern Hemisphere. In the Pacific Northwest, after a crisis in British-U.S. relations that almost leads to open warfare over the disputed Oregon Territory, the U.S. border is at last fixed by an 1846 treaty at forty-nine degrees latitude north, and the Oregon Territory is officially admitted into the Union by act of Congress on 14 August 1848.

Yet the very expansion of national borders to include territories and populations once outside the federal republic produces, at bottom, a complex national geography of multiple languages and mixed ethnicity even as immigrant Irish laborers flood into East Coast cities such as Boston and New York and as Germans settle farther west. Lured by the discovery of gold in 1848, moreover, South Americans and Australians, Hawaiians, Chinese, and New Englanders pour into California, while by 1855 a good half of the population of New York City actually consists of the foreign-born (Bridges, p. 55). In reaction, precisely as the U.S. population swells and the borders of the nation expand westward and southward into Spanish-speaking territories, antiforeign sentiment intensifies among American nativists. Rising out of this ground-swell of nativist sentiment, the "Know-Nothing" or "American" Party of the 1850s—originally a secret fraternal society whose members are sworn to say that they "know nothing" when asked about it—eventually manages to elect more than a hundred U.S. congressmen committed to anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant policies.

A time of unprecedented expansion and immigration is thus accompanied by increasing anxiety over the social and cultural identity of the nation. What does it ultimately mean to be an "American"? Policing the borders of "American-ness" becomes a major preoccupation of journalists, essayists, and historians, magazine editors, and art publishers even as immigrant laborers pour into cities like New York, and as the boundaries of the nation spread into territories inhabited by numerous native tribes and into the Spanish-speaking Southwest. In reaction, artists employed by Currier & Ives—a significant number of them actually foreign-born—are encouraged to paint standardized, all-American scenes of village lanes with picket fences and of middle-class families out in their carriages for a Sunday drive. Through such standardized scenes, what Bryan F. Le Beau terms a "common" visual "vocabulary" that claims to represent "the nation" finds its way into picture-book collections and popular lithography (p. 7). In addition, what Reginald Horsman identifies as a powerful strain of "American . . . Anglo-Saxonism," defining white Americans as a "superior race" fated to triumph over "inferior races" (p. 2), influences political oratory, contemporary journalism, and new scientific disciplines claiming to make precise racial divisions based on skull measurements and other physical factors.

American Anglo-Saxonism is accompanied by a widespread fear of racial and cultural miscegenation. In Transamerican Literary Relations, Anna Brickhouse observes how just such an obsession with cultural, linguistic, and racial purity, along with a consequent fear of cultural and racial mixture, becomes especially directed by Anglo-American writers against the neighboring French- and Spanish-speaking cultures of Mexico, the Caribbean, and the Southern Hemisphere. William Hickling Prescott (1796–1859), for example, in his three-volume History of the Conquest of Mexico (1843), is disturbed by the "dark," "doubtful," and mixed character of Mexico's "native races" as well as by the very language that they speak: a decadent Spanish unfortunately bastardized, he believes, by native Indian colloquialisms and jarring sounds (1:482, 53, 207). And in spite of its abolitionist theme, Harriet Beecher Stowe's celebrated novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) seeks to affirm clear-cut racial distinctions even though the racial origins of the blond, blue-eyed Augustine St. Claire and his dark twin brother, Alfred, are revealed to be ambiguous when the novel shifts its setting to New Orleans, gateway to the West Indies.

Thus even as American Anglo-Saxonism prevails, a counter-reality of racial and cultural mixture haunts and troubles antebellum U.S. writing. At times, indeed, the focus of certain writers is directly upon an intermixed but by no means harmonious national space whose fundamental character cannot be fixed and framed. John Rollin Ridge's The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta (1854), for example, the first known Native American novel, discloses a California of conflicting alliances and ethnic communities at odds with one another: what emerges is an unsettled space of white nativist mobs, Tejon Indians, and, at one point, the shaky alliance of Indians and Mexican Americans provisionally forged by the bandit Murieta to resist Anglo-American power and oppression. Herman Melville's (1819–1891) The ConfidenceMan (1857) envisages a Mississippi riverboat world of "Sioux," "Mormon," and "mulatto" passengers, "French Jews" and "Santa Fé traders" (p. 6). In this riverboat world of transient strangers all from somewhere else, immediate social exchange is haunted by underlying paranoia and mistrust. In phraseology characteristic of the worst fears spawned by such unstable gatherings of strangers, Lyman Beecher (1775–1863), father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, warns that especially in "the great West," where a population from "all the States of the Union" and from a multitude of "nations" is "rushing in like the waters of the flood," no "homogeneous public sentiment can be formed" (pp. 15–16).

Beecher's remarks notwithstanding, antebellum American authors sometimes endorse the emergence of a modern social space of increased immigration and cross-cultural exchange. In his famous 1852 speech, "The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro," Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) celebrates the fact that

no nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world. . . . Long established customs . . . could formerly fence themselves in. . . . But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind. Walled cities and empires have become unfashionable. The arm of commerce has borne away the gates of the strong city. . . . Oceans no longer divide, but link nations together. . . . Space is comparatively annihilated. (Pp. 128–129)

Such "comparatively annihilated" space of porous national borders fosters a new cosmopolitanism. Even as U.S. nativism gives rise to the Know-Nothing Party, antebellum writing often eagerly bestrides geographic borders. Douglass's own travels throughout the British Isles from 1845 to 1847, for example, provide him with an out-of-the-country perspective from which to critique U.S. institutions—especially slavery and American racism—in letters and essays written from an international vantage point. In the three volumes of The Talisman (1828–1830), William Cullen Bryant (1794–1878) collaborates with Gulian C. Verplanck (1786–1870) and Robert C. Sands (1799–1832) to create the Anglo-American narrator Francis Herbert, whose travels cater to a growing public appetite to learn about foreign cultures and peoples, albeit in an exoticized and sometimes condescending form. Margaret Fuller's "Dispatches" from Europe to the New-York Daily Tribune from 1846 to 1849 range from vivid portraiture of Scottish scenery to descriptions of Italy in the throes of revolution. Edgar Allan Poe's tales are often set abroad. Emily Dickinson's poems are full of wide-ranging allusions and references that escape a provincially "New England" frame of reference.

Indeed, whereas scholars and literary historians once sought to disclose a distinguishably New World voice in mid-nineteenth-century American writing, scholarship tends to emphasize the way such writing is often best situated within a much broader context. Paul Giles, for example, explores the complex interaction and reciprocity of British and American writing and culture, with special attention to the transatlantic vantage point assumed in works such as Washington Irving's The Sketch-Book (1819–1820) and many of Herman Melville's sketches and tales of the 1850s. Moreover, Anna Brickhouse reveals the way mid-nineteenth-century American writing is often best studied within a transamerican, multilingual framework including not only the United States but also Latin America and the French- and Spanish-speaking Caribbean. Timothy Powell addresses what he terms "a fluid, infinitely complicated . . . dialogue" of voices and literatures spawned by America's multicultural history, the powerful U.S. "will to monocultural unity" notwithstanding (pp. 22–23). In Border Matters: Remapping American Cultural Studies, José David Saldívar sets the keynote for such criticism by challenging scholarship that locates American studies too tidily within a national framework assumed to be homogenous and stable.


In the final analysis, to explore the various borderlines that appear to organize U.S. geography during the antebellum decades—the frontier, sectional distinctions between different regions, the edge of nationhood itself—is to encounter a significant discrepancy between the divisions of mapped space and a considerably more complex cultural reality. This is scarcely to deny the undeniable historical force of borders that are fought over, carefully delineated on maps and charts, policed, defended, or extended. Borders and the nations and regions that they define can exert enormous influence over the way human beings think about space, determine who owns what, and even perceive one another. Humanly constructed borders and boundaries, however, as Thoreau emphasizes in "Walking" (1852), are by no means natural, inevitable, and timeless features of topography. Thoreau tells us that on a leisurely afternoon walk, he deliberately zigzags this way and that in defiance of the very boundaries of properties that he has professionally surveyed, and quite often, he points out, the most zealously respected borders cannot actually be seen by the naked eye. In Culture and Imperialism, Edward W. Said emphasizes that throughout history, what appear to be separate cultural geographies have "always overlapped" or become entangled in "one another" through reciprocal "influence, crossing," and, "of course, conflict" (p. 331).

In the antebellum United States, however, geographic borders prove to be frail and problematic in an especially noticeable sense: that is, they remain in dramatic flux, and they are often as recently and suddenly established as the rectangular townships and squares projected by nineteenth-century federal cartography into wild forest and desert, or as the 1846 agreement between Great Britain and the United States fixing the disputed American border at forty-nine degrees latitude north. This overlay of recently mapped U.S. space upon lands that may have been inhabited by native tribes for thousands of years, or regarded as British and Mexican just a few years earlier, helps to explain why antebellum American borders are often the sites of anxiety, debate, and conflict. It may be true that ongoing tension between borders, on the one hand, and the constantly transgressive flow of immigration and cultural influence across them, on the other, is widespread throughout history. But an underlying ambivalence toward the power and yet the porousness and contingency of borders emerges with particular intensity in the antebellum United States.

See alsoAmericans Abroad; Ethnology; Exploration and Discovery; Indian Wars and Dispossession; Nature; Spanish Speakers and Early "Latino" Expression


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Miller, Angela. The Empire of the Eye: Landscape Representation and American Cultural Politics, 1825–1875. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993.

Nissenbaum, Stephen. "New England as Region and Nation." In Edward L. Ayers, Peter Onuf, Patricia Nelson Limerick, and Stephen Nissenbaum, All Over the Map: Rethinking American Regions, pp. 38–61. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Potter, David M. The South and Sectional Conflict. Baton Rouge: Lousiana State University Press, 1968.

Powell, Timothy B. Ruthless Democracy: A MulticulturalInterpretation of the American Renaissance. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Knopf, 1993.

Saldívar, José David. Border Matters: Remapping AmericanCultural Studies. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Smith, Henry Nash. "Symbol and Idea in Virgin Land." In Ideology and Classic American Literature, edited by Sacvan Bercovitch and Myra Jehlen. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Land: The American West asSymbol and Myth. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1950.

Stilgoe, John R. Common Landscape of America, 1580 to 1845. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982.

Robert E. Abrams

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Natural or artificial separations or divisions between adjoining properties that show their limits.

Boundaries are used to establish private and public ownership by determining the exact location of the points at which one piece of land is distinguishable from another. They are also used to mark the functional and jurisdictional limits of political subdivisions. For example, in the United States, boundaries are used to define villages, towns, cities, counties, and states.

The setting of boundaries is a characteristic of the modern era of history during which centralized states emerged that required both protection against attacks and definition of their populations. Historically, natural objects such as rivers and mountains served this purpose. Accurate determination of boundaries requires surveying and cartography, which were not widely used until the early nineteenth century. But even in the late twentieth century, with scientific information methods available, mapmakers occasionally are forced to turn to ancient landmarks and memories when attempting to set boundaries. For example, for centuries the borders within the Arabian peninsula had been loosely defined by tribes' grazing patterns. Following Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait and subsequent defeat in 1991, united nations mapmakers attempted to determine the exact border between Iraq and Kuwait. The United Nations enlisted the help of British border expert Julian Walker, who sought out elderly guides who could describe the locations of landmarks referred to in earlier records and provide a starting place for demarcation of the border.

Boundary disputes can last for centuries, undermining efforts to end long-standing animosities. In May 1994, at the signing of the historic self-rule accord for Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, the chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Yasir Arafat, suddenly refused to sign six maps appended to the agreement. After much discussion with his advisers, Arafat added an Arabic disclaimer to the maps which made the point that the boundaries of the ancient West Bank town of Jericho were still in dispute, and then he signed the accord.

Several types of maritime boundaries exist, such as the territorial sea, which is a belt of coastal waters—controlled by the adjacent state and subject to rights such as those of foreign ships to passage—whose boundary is a line measured three miles from the low-water mark along the shore; contiguous zones, which extend beyond the territorial sea to a maximum of twelve miles, within which the controlling state may act to prevent or punish violations of its regulations; and a two-hundred-mile exclusive economic zone, subject to a nation's rights of exploration, exploitation, conservation, and management of marine life, which was authorized by the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea.

Marine boundaries provide fertile ground for international conflict. In June 1990, the United States and the Soviet Union signed an agreement resolving a 1,600-mile-long maritime boundary dispute that began in 1977. The area at issue, some 21,000 square nautical miles, contained valuable fishing grounds and possible oil and gas fields. The conflict had its origins in 1867, when czarist Russia sold Alaska to the United States. It was not until more than 100 years later, while establishing their respective 200-mile fisheries zones off the coasts of Alaska and Siberia in the Bering Sea, Chukchi Sea, and Arctic Ocean, that the two countries realized they had each set a different boundary for Alaska.

Even marine boundaries that have been widely accepted for years can be suddenly ignored. For example, in March 1995, Canada seized a Spanish trawler fishing for halibut in international waters just beyond Canada's 200-mile boundary. Foreign Affairs Minister Andre Ouellet of Canada claimed that a catastrophic decline in fishing stock in recent years gave Canada moral authority to extend its jurisdiction beyond the internationally recognized 200-mile maritime limit.

Boundaries in inland waters, such as the Canadian-U.S. boundary through the Great Lakes, follow a median line equidistant from the opposite shores. Boundaries in navigable rivers are set at the middle of the thalweg, which is the deepest or most navigable channel, as distinguished from the geographic center or a line midway between the banks (United States v. Louisiana, 470 U.S. 93, 105 S. Ct. 1074, 84 L. Ed. 2d 73 [1985]). As the thalweg shifts owing to the accumulation of sediment in the river, the geographic boundary also shifts. The island exception to the rule of thalweg provides that if there is a divided river flow around an island, a boundary once established on one side of the island remains there, even if the main downstream navigation channel shifts to the island's other side (Louisiana v. Mississippi, 516 U.S. 22, 116 S. Ct. 290, 133 L. Ed. 2d 265 [1995]).

Boundary disputes between states often attract attention from the media and from legal scholars because they invoke the U. S. Supreme Court's seldom-used original jurisdiction. The most typical path to the nation's high court is by appeal, either from a federal court of appeals or a state supreme court. Article III, Section 2 gives the Court original jurisdiction to try cases "affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, and those in which a State shall be a Party."

In 1993, the state of New Jersey filed a complaint in the Supreme Court against the state of New York, alleging that filled portions of Ellis Island belonged to New Jersey. In 1834, a compact between New York and New Jersey, approved by Congress, established the boundary line between the states as the middle of the Hudson River. Ellis Island, then only three acres, became part of New York according to the compact. The United States in 1891 decided to use Ellis Island as a port to receive immigrants. Over the next 42 years, the federal government added 24.5 acres to the island to facilitate its use as a portal for the more than 100 million immigrants who passed through the island facilities. Although the Ellis Island Immigration Center closed in 1954, the site has remained an important historical landmark. The Supreme Court in 1994 appointed a special master, Paul Verkuil, to determine whether the filled portion of the island belonged to New York or to New Jersey. New Jersey v. New York, 513 U.S. 924, 115 S. Ct. 309, 130 L. Ed. 2d 273 (1994). Verkuil found that although the original 1834 compact designated the island as the property of New Jersey, the compact did not establish boundaries for the filled portions of the island. In a report filed with the Court in 1997 (520 U.S. 1273, 117 S. Ct. 2451, 138 L. Ed. 2d 209 [1997]), Verkuil concluded the filled portions belonged to New York according to the original compact, which set the boundary line as the middle of the Hudson River. The Supreme Court concurred with the Special Master in its final order and degree in 1999 (526 U.S. 589, 119 S. Ct. 1743, 143 L. Ed. 2d 774 [1999]).

The Supreme Court heard another boundary dispute in 2000 involving the states of New Hampshire and Maine. New Hampshire officials filed a lawsuit asking the Supreme Court to decide whether the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard is located in one state or the other. At stake in the case was approximately $3 million per year in income taxes that Maine assesses against the nearly 1,400 New Hampshire residents who work at the shipyard. New Hampshire has no state income tax, and its residents who work at the shipyard asserted that the assessment constituted taxation without representation.

The shipyard sits on Seavey Island, a 272-acre tract in the Piscataqua River between Kittery, Maine, and Portsmouth, New Hampshire. New Hampshire contended that the island's border lies along the Main bank of the river, putting the shipyard in Maine. In 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court set the ocean boundary between the two states at a point in the mouth of the Piscataqua (New Hampshire v. Maine, 426 U.S. 363, 371, 96 S. Ct. 2113, 2118, 48 L. Ed. 2d 701 [1976]). The 1976 decision left unclear how that boundary extends up river to Seavey Island. The Court nevertheless decided that the doctrine of judicial estoppel precluded New Hampshire from asserting a position that contradicted its position in the 1976 case (New Hampshire v. Maine, 532 U.S. 742, 121 S. Ct. 1808, 149 L. Ed. 2d 968 [2001]). The Court's decision brought a conclusion to a controversy that began heating up in the early 1990s and that had involved a series of hearings in the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee in 1997.

On June 14, 2003, in Pikeville, Kentucky, representatives of the Hatfield and McCoy families signed a truce officially ending the most famous mountain clan feud of them all. Some 60-plus descendants of the two families, which engaged in a bloody dispute that claimed at least a dozen lives at its height in the 1870s and 1880s, signed a peace proclamation to put the feud in the history books once and for all. The Hatfields and McCoys belonged to a single rural community that was artificially separated by the boundary line between Kentucky and West Virginia. The interfamilial dispute escalated over competing claims to timber rights on both sides of a meandering body of water.

Some observers believe that the traditional role of boundaries as buffer regions protecting the national security of nations began to change in the 1950s. Lawrence Herzog, professor of Mexican-American studies at San Diego State University, described the evolution of large-scale cities along the borders of nations, which he called transfrontier metropolises, that share ecological resources such as water and environmental problems such as sewage control and air pollution. Traditionally, divergent laws and customs in boundary areas have discouraged economic development by interfering with the movement of labor and commodities across borders. But with the emergence of two important world regions—Western Europe and the United States-Mexico border zone—economic development in cities along borders has become intertwined.

According to Herzog, such border urbanization has generated legal and political concerns not previously addressed by international law. The emerging need for transborder cooperation in the areas of transportation, land use, and environmental regulation requires the development of new planning and policy guidelines that address the changing role of boundaries.

further readings

Epstein, Richard A. 2000. Private and Common Property. New York: Garland.

Herzog, Lawrence. 1991. "International Boundary Cities: The Debate on Transfrontier Planning in Two Border Regions." Natural Resources Journal 31.

——. 1990. Where North Meets South: Cities, Space, and Politics on the U.S.-Mexico Border. Austin, Tex.: CMAS Books.

Spranking, John G. 2000. Understanding Property Law. New York: Lexis.


Estoppel; Fish and Fishing; International Waterways; Territorial Waters.

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All territorial entities have borders, defined as the area where one territory ends and another begins. Borders can be delineated along natural divisions such as mountain ranges or rivers or they can be artificially created. Once delineated, governments demarcate significant portions or all parts of a border with actual markings such as fences, posts, or border checkpoints. The majority of the worlds borders are agreed upon, but border disputes exist in all regions of the world. Because border disputes can escalate to armed conflict or war, governments pay significant attention to borders. For this reason, the study of borders is primarily a political issue, but also involves economic and cultural issues.

Politically, borders are most significant for states to signal where their sovereign power exists. Borders are important to states both in actual and symbolic terms. In actual terms, borders protect the state and its population from foreign intrusions and potential threats. Most states maintain strict border controls, mandating that foreigners apply for entry or check in with government officials at the borders. Borders are also often secured to prevent potential attacks from hostile neighboring states or individuals. In a few cases, states such as those in the European Union have demilitarized their borders and opened them to allow for the free flow of people, goods and services, and money, making state borders less relevant. In symbolic terms, borders act as clear indicators to neighboring states that they should not interfere in the governing of territory beyond the border. A key component of sovereignty is territorial control as delineated by a states borders.

A territorial dispute exists when one state challenges the recognized location of a border. Some of the best-known border disputes have been between India and Pakistan, Ethiopia and Eritrea, Israel and Lebanon, and China and Vietnam. States can resolve border disputes in a variety of ways. The challenging state can attempt to use armed force to move the location of the border, creating an armed conflict. The competing states can also work through bilateral or multilateral negotiations, mediation, arbitration, or adjudication through the World Court. Once a border dispute is settled, the competing states sign a treaty agreeing to the delineation and demarcation of the revised location of the border.

In economic terms, borders signify where a states economic control exists regarding its gross national product, standard of living, economic policies, currency use, and imports and exports. Borders act as checkpoints for the movement of workers, goods, and services, preventing the ease of sharing labor between states. Culturally, borders often separate distinct cultural groups, both in real terms and metaphorically. In most cases, crossing a border indicates a shift in language, religious practices, social practices, customs, traditions, and food. Borders can also divide one cultural group so that members of a group live in two or more states. In some cases, divided cultural groups seek to reunite through secession or irredentism, causing tension or armed conflict. Borders have both positive and negative connotations, depending on which side of the fence one is located.


Allcock, John, ed. 1992. Border and Territorial Disputes. 3rd ed. Essex, U.K.: Longman Press.

Anderson, Malcolm. 1996. Frontiers: Territory and State Formation in the Modern World. Oxford: Polity Press.

Day, Alan J., ed. 1987. Border and Territorial Disputes. 2nd ed. Essex, U.K.: Longman Press.

Gottman, Jean. 1973. The Significance of Territory. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.

Murphy, Alexander. 1990. Historical Justifications for Territorial Claims. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 80 (4): 531548.

Krista E. Wiegand

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Borders Region of se Scotland; its s boundary forms the border between Scotland and England. The administrative centre is Newtown St Boswells, other towns include Hawick and Jedburgh. The rivers Tweed and Teviot flow e through Borders and meet near Kelso. The Cheviot Hills forms most of its s border, and the Southern Uplands its e border with Strathclyde and Dumfries and Galloway. Livestock farming and forestry are the major economic activities. Due to its strategic location it was the scene of many battles between the English and the Scots. Area: 4714sq km (1820sq mi). Pop. (1996 est.) 106,100.

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Borders. From 1973, an administrative region of Scotland, comprising the counties of Berwick, Peebles, Roxburgh, and Selkirk and a small part of Midlothian; these counties together, historically, formed much of the frontier zone facing England. From 1973 to 1996 it shared local government functions with its districts of Berwickshire, Ettrick and Lauderdale, Roxburgh and Tweeddale, but in 1996 it became an all-purpose local authority. A hilly area, its economy has continued to be dominated by sheep-farming and textile-manufacturing and services, with a growing presence of tourism attracted by its legends (perpetuated in the border ballads), its castles and abbeys, its peaceful countryside, and its small towns.

Charlotte M. Lythe