In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Conquest of Borderlands in Latin America

  • Introduction
  • Theories and Approaches
  • General Collections, Readers, and Research Guides
  • Primary Sources
  • General Surveys
  • Early Conquest Expeditions
  • Archaeology and Geography
  • Missions and Missionaries
  • Administration, Defense, and the Military
  • Art and Architecture on the Frontier
  • Disease and Demography
  • Women, Gender, and Family on the Frontier
  • Slavery, Race, and Identity
  • Frontier Violence and Rebellion

Latin American Studies Conquest of Borderlands in Latin America
J. Michael Francis
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0006


The Spanish Borderlands occupy a vibrant, though relatively recent, field of historical inquiry. In 1921, Herbert E. Bolton issued the call to incorporate the Spanish Borderlands into the general history of the United States. A disciple of Frederick Jackson Turner, Bolton spent most of his academic career researching and writing about the Spanish Borderlands, which he defined as “the regions between Florida and California, now belonging to the United States, over which Spain held sway for centuries.” For Bolton, Spanish institutions shaped these frontier regions, distinguishing them from the northern frontier experiences described by Turner. Recent scholarship has departed dramatically from earlier characterizations of frontiers as meeting points between European civilization and Indian barbarism. By contrast, the “new” Spanish Borderlands are much more dynamic and complex zones of exchange, places where cultural, economic, religious, genetic, military, intellectual, and linguistic interactions intertwine to create something new and unique. At times, Borderlands were places dominated by violence and warfare; at other times, they were characterized by long periods of peace and accommodation. Borderlands transformed both Europeans and Indians, often in unexpected and unintended ways. To complicate matters further, Borderlands are no longer viewed exclusively as contested geographical spaces where Europeans and Indians competed for power. The New Borderlands historiography also recognizes the importance of non-European frontiers: spaces where two or more different Indian powers struggled for regional dominance. Not surprisingly, then, it has become increasingly difficult to draw broad theories and generalizations that can be applied throughout Latin America’s disparate Borderlands regions. No single school of thought, interpretive framework, or methodological approach has come to dominate the field, and the fundamental question of what precisely constitutes a Borderland remains contested and unresolved. The references that follow provide a broad overview of the rich historiography of the “conquest” of Borderlands in Latin America, with particular emphasis on Spain’s colonial possessions that now form part of the United States. Of course, the term “conquest” is misleading, as Europeans rarely exercised complete dominance over those they sought to subjugate and convert. For that reason, the entries below do not focus exclusively on the conquest expeditions of the 16th century. “The conquest” of the Spanish Borderlands was a protracted and incomplete process that in some regions persisted well beyond the end of the colonial period.

Theories and Approaches

No scholar has influenced 20th-century Borderlands historiography more than Herbert E. Bolton. Bolton’s pioneering role in the field continues to be recognized, and his writings remain a useful starting point for students and scholars. Bannon 1964 published a collection of Bolton’s writings, from his early writings to his late career, allowing readers to follow the long and productive trajectory of Bolton’s career. More recently, Magnaghi 1998 summarized Bolton’s far-reaching influences and, in particular, Bolton’s call for a broader comparative history of the Americas. However, despite his profound and lasting influence on the study of Spanish Borderlands, Bolton never advocated or articulated a clear “Borderlands” thesis. In fact, Borderlands historiography remains less theory-driven than many other fields of historical inquiry. As Weber 1986 convincingly argues, even Frederick Jackson Turner’s pioneering essay on the significance of the frontier in US history has had little direct influence on US Borderlands scholarship. For example, in his broad synthesis of the Spanish Borderlands, Gibson 1966 makes no mention of Turner’s thesis. Still, a number of Latin American frontier scholars have attempted to use Turner’s work as a starting point to explore frontier regions outside the United States. Wyman and Kroeber 1957, Hennessy 1978, and Weber and Rausch 1994 all build on Turner’s classic thesis in their volumes on Latin American frontiers. Jackson 1998 captures the spirit of much of the recent Borderlands historiography, which emphasizes regional diversity and the importance of moving away from the Eurocentric perspective of Bolton and his early followers. Jackson’s volume highlights the fundamental differences between New Spain’s northern frontiers and the Florida Borderlands. In one of the few attempts to articulate a theoretical model to distinguish between Borderlands and frontiers, Adelman and Aron 1999 proposes a provocative new approach to the study of Borderlands regions.

  • Adelman, Jeremy, and Stephen Aron. “From Borderlands to Borders: Empires, Nation-States and the Peoples in between in North American History.” American Historical Review 104.3 (1999): 163–199.

    A thought-provoking essay aimed at constructing a new theoretical framework to distinguish between frontiers (which the authors define as “a meeting place of peoples in which geographic and cultural borders were not clearly defined”) and borderlands (“the contested boundaries between colonial domains”). The essay provides a useful model that should be tested in other frontier regions.

  • Bannon, John Francis, ed. Bolton and the Spanish Borderlands. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964.

    This important volume assembles seventeen different essays and articles (some of which had never been published) written by Herbert E. Bolton, widely considered to be the pioneer of Borderlands historiography. The volume allows readers to follow the trajectory of Bolton’s remarkable career. Bannon also includes a detailed introduction, and a separate appendix lists Bolton’s other publications.

  • Gibson, Charles. “The Borderlands.” In Spain in America. By Charles Gibson, 182–204. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1966.

    Chapter Nine of his magisterial 1966 survey, Spain in America, represents one of the early attempts to integrate Spanish Borderlands into the wider historiography of colonial Latin America.

  • Hennessy, Alistair. The Frontier in Latin American History. London: Edward Arnold, 1978.

    An early attempt to examine the significance of frontiers in Latin American history. Uses Frederick Jackson Turner’s influential frontier thesis as a theoretical tool to explore Latin America’s many frontier regions. Includes maps and a bibliographic essay.

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

    This collection of seven essays includes five regional studies of single provinces and two broad thematic entries. Considers the history of Northern Mexico and the Southwest Borderlands as fundamentally different from the Borderlands history of Florida. Includes useful maps but no separate bibliography.

  • Magnaghi, Russell M. Herbert E. Bolton and the Historiography of the Americas. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1998.

    Draws on the historiographical legacy of Herbert E. Bolton to advocate a return to a broader approach to the study of American history, one that includes all of the Americas. Contains detailed bibliography of early and more recent texts.

  • Weber, David J. “Turner, the Boltonians, and the Borderlands.” American Historical Review 91.1 (1986): 66–81.

    DOI: 10.2307/1867235

    Careful assessment of the roles that Frederick Jackson Turner and Herbert E. Bolton played in the evolution of Borderlands historiography. Despite the influence of Turner’s pioneering essay on the significance of the frontier in U.S. history, Weber convincingly demonstrates that the Turner thesis has had relatively little influence in Borderlands scholarship.

  • Weber, David J., and Jane M. Rausch, eds. Where Cultures Meet: Frontiers in Latin American History. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1994.

    This valuable collection includes twenty different essays that cover a broad range of topics and regions throughout the Americas. The volume includes old classics, such as Frederick Jackson Turner’s influential essay on frontiers, as well as new contributions to the field. Introductory essay provides an excellent synthesis and appraisal of frontier scholarship.

  • Wyman, Walker D., and Clifton B. Kroeber, eds. The Frontier in Perspective. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1957.

    An eclectic collection of fourteen essays that explore frontier regions from around the world. Aims to provide a comparative framework for frontier studies and expand the assessment Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis beyond the United States.

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.