Lines and lineage

Tomas van Houtryve

2017 - Ongoing

United States; Mexico

We often forget that the boundary between the United States and Mexico was not always where it is today. It used to be seven hundred miles farther north, following what is now the state line between Oregon and California and running east to Wyoming before zagging southeast to Louisiana. Originally home to the indigenous peoples of the region, much of this land was Spanish and then Mexican territory for centuries before becoming what we now think of as the American West.

Spanish colonists and missionaries settled here beginning in 1598. In 1821, Mexico won independence from Spain, and by the middle of the century, it was in some ways far more advanced than its neighbor to the northeast. It abolished slavery shortly after independence; black Mexicans soon gained prominent positions, including the governorship of California. Indigenous people were given the right to vote. All this came to an end in 1848, when the United States attacked Mexico, seized half its land, and created the border that we know today.

At the time, the war on Mexico was emphatically opposed by prominent Americans, including Abraham Lincoln and John Quincy Adams. Henry David Thoreau penned his groundbreaking essay on Civil Disobedience after his arrest for nonpayment of taxes, an act of defiance of what he called an "unjust" war that aimed to "expand the slave territory."

Mexican administration was cut short before photographic technology, revealed in Paris in 1839, arrived in the region. The well-known visual record of the American West—dominated by photos of cowboys and white settlers, the Gold Rush and the arrival of the railroads—was created after 1848. Images from the Mexican era, on the other hand, were never fixed in our memory. Using glass plates and a nineteenth-century camera to photograph landscapes along the original border and create portraits of descendants of early inhabitants, this project imagines what that history might look like. It questions the role that photographs—both present and missing—have played in shaping the identity of the West.

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  • Patrick Garcia, the fifth-generation cousin of Alta California Mexican General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, in Sonoma California. Vallejo was taken hostage at the start of the Bear Flag Revolt that ended Mexican rule of Alta California.

  • East River, Colorado. Near the early-nineteenth-century border between Santa Fe de Nuevo México and unorganized territory of the United States.

  • Bernadette Therese Ortiz Peña, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

  • Cypress trees, Carter Lake, Texas. Near the early-nineteenth-century border between Texas, Mexico, and Louisiana, United States.

  • Ralph Peters III of the Hupa tribe in Hoopa Valley, California. After the United States took control of Alta California in 1846, extermination campaigns reduced the indigenous population from 150,000 to 30,000 in less than thirty years. The US government recognized Hupa sovereignty over their land in 1864. Many still live there today.

  • Medicine Bow Peak and Lake Marie, Wyoming. Near the early-nineteenth-century border between Alta California, Mexico, and unorganized territory of the United States.

  • Dorian Wayne Carranza, Eureka, California.

  • A snow fence near the historic border of Alta California, Mexico and unorganized territory, United States, near present-day Saratoga, Wyoming.

  • Dorothy Mary Gallegos, Arvada, Colorado.

  • Redwood trees in the historic border region between Alta California, Mexico and Oregon Territory, United States.

  • Nathan Alexander Steiner, San Francisco, California.

  • El Rio de San Buenaventura was first mapped in 1776 by Spanish explorers Atanasio Domínguez, Silvestre Vélez de Escalante, and Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco. It is now called the Green river and this section is near the historic border of Alta California Mexico, present-day Utah and Wyoming.

  • Maya Felice Bernal Smestad, San Francisco, California.

  • An canal running perfectly along the historic border between Alta California, Mexico and Oregon Territory, United States, near present-day Macdoel, California.

  • Anna Maria Gallegos de Houser, Santa Fe, New Mexico. She was born in 1912, the year New Mexico became a US state.

  • Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah. Near the early-nineteenth-century border between Alta California
    and Oregon Country, which was jointly claimed by the United States and Great Britain.

  • Anastacio Bonnie Sanchez, San Luis, Colorado.

  • Ruins of San Geronimo Church, Taos, New Mexico. US troops attacked the church in 1847, killing 150 Hispanic and indigenous people seeking refuge inside.