In 1928, Lucien Febvre published a brief essay called “Frontière: The Word and the Concept,” in which he traced how the meaning of borders in France shifted, according to the aims and interests of its rulers. In the 90 years since the essay's publication, historians have explored how the purpose and significance of borders have changed over time. The Limits of Liberty makes an important contribution to this scholarship. By excavating how native peoples, runaway slaves, and debt peons conceived of the US-Mexican border in the nineteenth century, James David Nichols shows that even within the same time period, borders can assume multiple—and contested—meanings.

To native peoples, the border was the key to survival. In the early nineteenth century, the Mexican government encouraged the Lipan Apaches to settle in the northern reaches of the nation. But the Lipans proved erstwhile...

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