Award Date


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Committee Member

David Tanenhaus

Second Committee Member

Maria R. Casas

Third Committee Member

Paul Werth

Fourth Committee Member

Daniel W. Hamilton

Fifth Committee Member

Rebecca Gill

Number of Pages



United States expansion following the Mexican-American War served as the catalyst for a reinvention of American Federalism. While much of the historiography traces the accretion of sovereign power in the national government to events caused by the divisions between northern states and southern states, there is an important and understudied East to West component of the process by which sovereign boundaries changed. The American West is a legal space where the hazily defined and capacious concept of federalism received fuller form and clearer definition. During the late nineteenth century and first few years of the twentieth century, the United States modified and ultimately solidified three important relationships: (1) its relationship with Native American Tribes; (2) its relationship with territorial law and governance; and (3) its relationship to the land and natural resources.

The Framers of the Constitution, including those of the Fourteenth Amendment, acknowledged Native American tribal sovereignty. The power of tribes to police themselves remained relatively undisturbed until one particular specie of intra-tribal violence attracted the attention of Anglo-American authorities – witch killings. With the sensationalization and publication of witch killings, Native Americans were introduced to the Anglo-American criminal justice system. Since that time, the United States has severely curtailed Native American power to police and regulate their own tribes.

After the Civil War, the national government re-formulated territorial governance to assert greater control over areas of law, including common law, traditionally reserved to local sovereigns, and did so in the service of a nationalizing project. Concerned that local territorial citizens might re-assert their local laws following statehood, Congress placed increasingly stringent conditions on statehood for territories in the West.

Finally, the national government asserted robust powers not only over people in the West, but also over its most valuable natural resources – minerals, timber, water, and land. Whereas the national government had initially served as something akin to a real estate sales agent for the nation, ensuring that the public domain was disposed, it adopted a different role in the West – that of a Landlord.

All these changes necessitated new theories of federalism. Legal elites articulated these theories in Supreme Court cases, legal commentaries, and Congressional legislation. By the second decade of the twentieth century, the hazily defined federalism that had existed in flux had congealed.


American Indian History; Federalism; Legal history; Public Lands Management; U.S. Territories; U.S. West


Natural Resources Management and Policy | United States History

File Format


Degree Grantor

University of Nevada, Las Vegas




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