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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Tallgrass Empire: Aspirational Citizenship, Martial Service, and the Creation of Subjects in the Northern Great Plains – 1876-1898

  • Author(s): West, Geoffrey
  • Advisor(s): Plant, Rebecca
  • et al.
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Scholars have typically characterized the conquest of the Trans-Mississippi West as a contiguous, internal, and non-imperial project. Tallgrass Empire portrays the conquest and incorporation of the Northern Great Plains by the United States as an imperial project shaped by global ideologies concerning subjects, citizenship, and military service. In the aftermath of Reconstruction, from 1876 until 1898, the United States Army formulated, deployed, and often retracted policies aimed at marginalized groups operating within the military. This process drew in Black and Indian soldiers, as well as female laundresses, many of whom were recent immigrants. The army’s policies were meant to explicitly provide state benefits through martial service, chief among them being formal full citizenship — something denied to each of these groups. When first enacted, policies like the U.S. Colored Troops and the Indian Regulars programs promised to expand the boundaries of citizenship, incorporating subjected or marginalized people into the body politic. As the remote outposts of the Northern Great Plains were integrated into growing civilian settlements, however, Army policymakers and civilian officials rapidly shifted away from the idea that the ascribed status of “subject” was inherently anti-American. Instead, they increasingly adopted an outlook much more in line with those of European imperial powers, one in which the presence of subjects bolstered claims of those classed as full citizens, creating an insurmountable gulf between the subject and citizenship. By 1898 the distance between a ward or dependent and a citizen had been reconceived and redeployed through army policy as something inherent to one’s birth and nigh impossible to achieve through service to the state. The reluctance to allow Filipinos, Cubans, and Puerto Ricans to claim citizenship in the wake of the Spanish American War, something legally codified in the Insular Cases of 1901, was therefore not a new imperial turn but an expansion of extant ideologies about race, class, and gender and their connections with service to the state that had been formulated on the Northern Great Plains decades prior.

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This item is under embargo until September 11, 2021.