History, Department of


Date of this Version



In: Beyond the Borders of the Law: Critical Legal Histories of the North American West, edited by Katrina Jagodinsky and Pablo Mitchell (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2018), pp 1-37.


Copyright © 2018 University Press of Kansas.


At my first American Society for Legal History conference in 2014, I listened with rapt attention as keynote speaker Patty Limerick asked: "Is western history legal history ?" Limerick answered in the affirmative, citing the many ways in which law had defined the North American West. Those of us who teach Western history courses can count the legal acts Limerick recited on our fingers and toes: the 1784 Land Ordinance, the 1787 Northwest Ordinance, the 1790 Trade & Intercourse Act, the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, and every treaty between American Indians and the federal government on one hand; the Missouri Compromises of 1820 and r85o, the Oregon Treaties of I 8 I 8 and I 846, and the series of legal maneuvers from the I8I9 Adams-Onis Treaty and Texas Independence to the US-Mexican War and the I848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on the other hand. With our fingers accounted for, we can look to our toes to remember the Indian Removal Act of I830 that paved the way for the establishment of Indian Territory in 1834, California Statehood in I85o, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of I854, the Homestead and Pacific Railroad Acts of 1862, the Chinese Exclusion Act of I882, the Allotment or Dawes Act of r887, the I898 Newlands Resolution incorporating the Territory of Hawaii, and every Organic Act that transformed a western territory into an American state between I803 and I958. The following chapters add even more judicial and legislative acts of creation and destruction to this list, and together they stand as the basic framework of American laws shaping the past and present of the North American West as we know it. Pablo Mitchell and I, intrigued by this legal landscape and inspired by the works we read in histories of gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity, borderlands studies, and critical race theory, wanted to gather those we had seen working with such strands, and the Clements Center Symposium model seemed an ideal venue for our ambitions. We reached out to others we knew through Western and legal history and launched a conversation about our desire to showcase, and make more visible, the scholarly community working on the North American West. The legal borderlands model allowed us to share a conceptual framework while we sought to demonstrate the extent to which the North American West has been, and continues to be, a profound site of overlapping and overreaching legal structures and practices steeped in articulations of race, gender, and power.