In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Borderlands

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks and Surveys
  • Journals
  • Spanish Borderlands from Bolton to John
  • Spanish Borderlands Studies since the 1990s
  • French Borderlands
  • Borderlands and the Thirteen Colonies
  • Conceptualizing Borderlands
  • Borderlands and the Early Republic

Atlantic History Borderlands
Kathleen DuVal
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 May 2010
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 May 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0010


A borderland is both a place and a historiographic methodology, although historians often combine the two uses. A borderland, in its loosest definition, is a place where two entities (usually nations or societies) border each other. As a methodology, borderlands studies question what happens when distinct societies rub against each other or contest lands in between. What do those situations tell us about both the core societies and the spaces in between? Borderlands studies are active across time periods and continents; this entry will focus on North American borderlands before 1850. In most of these cases, historians study borderlands where more than one European power (or the United States or Mexico in the 19th century) bordered on another, creating spaces of unclear jurisdiction and resulting fluidity. Moving away from European-centered definitions of cores and peripheries, historians in recent years have noted that a borderland can also refer to the contested space between an American Indian power and a non-Indian one, or two American Indian powers. For early American history, the historiographic concept of borderlands derives from Herbert Bolton’s school of the Spanish borderlands, the Spanish colonies north of central Mexico, where imperial power was weak and the French and English held neighboring colonies.

General Overviews

For recent historians, the term borderlands incorporates a conscious rejection of the implied inevitability and racial hierarchy of Turner’s concept of the frontier (Turner 2000), where white settlers met and overpowered Indians and became Americans. Some of the works in this section use the term borderlands, and others do not, but all are multi-perspectival and cross-cultural studies of different peoples coming together. Usner 2003 provides an ideal introduction to the creation and evolution of the concept. Adelman and Aron 1999 and Jackson 1998 conceptualize borderlands, distinguish the term from others, and explore various particular borderlands. The introductions in Cayton and Teute 1998 and Castañeda, et al. 2007 generalize about borderland conditions, and their essays are devoted to particular borderlands. Limerick 1987 introduces the new western history, with the West studied as a place of conflicting cultures. Shoemaker 2004 shows how borders can be metaphoric as well as geographic. Weber 1986 details some of the historiography of Spanish borderlands.

  • Adelman, Jeremy, and Stephen Aron. “From Borderlands to Borders: Empires, Nation-States, and the Peoples in Between in North American History.” American Historical Review 104 (1999): 815–841.

    Adelman and Aron propose much-needed limits on the definition of borderlands, which they define as “the contested boundaries between colonial domains.” Although this definition ignores Indian-defined borders, it allows the authors to explore important issues of border creation and defense through particular regional examples. See also “Responses to Forum Essay,” American Historical Review 104 (1999): 1221–1239, with essays by Evan Haefeli, Christopher Schmidt-Nowara, and John Wunder and Pekka Hämäläinen.

  • Castañeda, Antonia, Patricia Hart, Karen Weathermon, and Susan H. Armitage, eds. Gender on the Borderlands: The Frontiers Reader. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007.

    Focusing on the Spanish borderlands and the US-Mexico border, these essays consider how gender operates in borderlands situations through the 20th century.

  • Cayton, Andrew R. L., and Fredrika J. Teute, eds. Contact Points: American Frontiers from the Mohawk Valley to the Mississippi, 1750–1830. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

    An insightful introduction and essays by Gregory Dowd, William Hart, Jill Lepore, Lucy Murphy, Elizabeth Perkins, Claudio Saunt, and others explore cross-cultural contacts across a variety of borderlands.

  • Jackson, Robert H., ed. New Views of Borderlands History. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998.

    Cross-cultural studies of several Spanish borderlands, including New Mexico, Texas, Florida, California, and northern New Spain. Authors include Susan Deeds, Ross Frank, Jesús de la Teja, Peter Stern, and Patricia Wickman.

  • Limerick, Patricia Nelson. The Legacy of Conquest: Unclear Pasts of the American West. New York: Norton, 1987.

    Pathbreaking investigation of the long history of the American West.

  • Shoemaker, Nancy. A Strange Likeness: Becoming Red and White in Eighteenth-Century North America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    Across a variety of themes (including land, governance, and beliefs about gender), argues that Indians and Europeans were more alike than they came to believe.

  • Turner, Frederick Jackson. The Frontier in American History. New York: H. Holt, 1920.

    Classic settler-centric study of the frontier. Excerpts are available in more recent editions.

  • Usner, Daniel H. “Borderlands.” In A Companion to Colonial America. Edited by Daniel Vickers, 408–424. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003.

    Excellent historiographic overview of the concept of borderlands, suggestions for further explorations, and a very useful bibliography.

  • Weber, David J. “Turner, the Boltonians, and the Borderlands.” American Historical Review 91 (1986): 66–81.

    DOI: 10.2307/1867235

    A comparison of Turner and Bolton’s effects on the historiography of borderlands. See also Weber’s many other important articles and books, some of which are listed separately in this entry.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.