Rachel St. John is an associate professor of history at the University of California, Davis. Her research focuses on North American history with a particular emphasis on state formation and nation building in the nineteenth century. She is the author of Line in the Sand: A History of the Western U.S.-Mexico Border (2011). Her current book project, “The Imagined States of America: The Unmanifest History of Nineteenth-century North America,” explores the diverse range of nation-building projects that emerged across the continent during the nineteenth century. Originally from California, she taught at New York University and Harvard University before joining the faculty at the University of California, Davis in 2016.
This talk reframes the fractured history of U.S. territorial expansion with an emphasis on the contingency of national boundaries and identities in nineteenth-century North America. It focuses on the compelling life story of William McKendree Gwin, a California senator and insatiable expansionist whose ambitions took him from the Mississippi River Valley to Gold Rush California and from Washington, DC, to Paris and Mexico City. Through Gwin’s story we are able to catch a glimpse of the many different national and imperial configurations that were imagined across the continent and to better understand the real North America of fluid boundaries, identities, and authority in which these imagined polities were possible.