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Queering Frontier Identities: Archaeological Investigations at a Nineteenth-Century U.S. Army Laundresses' Quarters in Fort Davis, Texas


This dissertation examines the historical and archaeological traces of a group of Black, Mixed-Race, and Mexican U.S. Army laundresses’ and high ranking enlisted soldiers’ families who lived in a small neighborhood of laundresses’ quarters at the late nineteenth century Fort Davis, Texas. This far West Texas frontier post is distinguished by its association with Black enlisted troops and a ethno-racially diverse population situated on both a geographic frontier and a race relations frontier. In this complex environ, the families of laundresses and high ranked enlisted soldiers were positioned in such a way that their socio-economic and military status marked them as community leaders and care-takers; as such, the inhabitants at the quarters were situated on the edge, yet at the center of military and civilian life, working-class and middle-class status, and Black-White-Mexican race relations. Thus, their daily interactions occurred across various scales — with family members inside the home, between larger groups of fellow working women and soldiers, within the larger racialized military community, and as members of the larger town community.

I suggest that the laundresses’ quarters’ community’s location within a matrix of highly ambiguous social and geographic landscapes resulted in inhabitants constantly embodying and actively negotiating between multiple lived realities that were shaped by various coexisting and (sometimes) conflicting ideologies. I employ a queer theoretical framework combined with third-space theory to understand the fragmentation and fluidity of experiences that occurred throughout the resident’s daily lives and social interactions. (Re)orienting how identification processes in cultural meeting spaces shaped and altered structuring beliefs highlights contextually specific past practices and performances and how enmeshed their identities truly were. In particular, the material traces of past identity making behaviors can bring to light the dis/misorientations of social actors that do not fit the static and boxed categories so often used to describe and order stories of the past. Rather than trying to describe the complexly variable experiences of past peoples with categorizable identities, I show that it is more effective to engage the ambivalent, inconsistent, and diverse meanings in the material record. This allows for a more nuanced understanding of the past and illustrates how queer moments of unintelligibility regularly occur in lived reality, both past and present.

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