My dissertation,“Frontier Justice: State, Law, and Society in Patagonia, 1880-1940,” examines the joint emergence of the state and a politically active civil society, centered around the criminal court system, on Argentina’s southern frontier. In 1880 Argentina conquered the indigenous peoples of Patagonia and annexed the region, culminating three hundred years of intermittent expansion. For all its rhetorical ambition and promises of transformation from above, the almost colonial administration was underfunded and understaffed. Primarily concerned with keeping law and order, the state presence in Patagonia was no more than a skeleton crew of police and judges, who learned to make the most out of the frontier’s scarcity. Within this skeletal state framework, the indigenous peoples, immigrants, and settlers found in the courts an ally against petty tyranny in their communities, using the judicial process to build and safeguard their social relationships.
Struggles over such diverse questions as commerce, healing, race, domestic violence, and patriarchal authority shaped an increasingly self-aware civil society. The settlers used their carefully curated personal relationships to protect themselves and their communities against new arrivals and a growing state presence. Over a fifty-year period settlers became stakeholders in the success of the Argentine project in the frontier despite their systematic disenfranchisement, exercising citizenship in an active, direct and unexpected way—through the criminal courts.