The Mexican War and Movement West
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In the 1840s, the U.S. began to expand its borders. As a result, the U.S. will become a Spanish-Speaking nation although people today don't seem to get it. Maybe you will get it.
We have not talked about Hispanics and the Spanish much since the era of exploration. Before the 1840s, there were very few Hispanics in the U.S. That changed dramatically in the 1840s. Before we examine why that changed, take a minute to think about how much Hispanic culture has influenced the U.S. especially in Texas. What do you associate with Hispanic heritage we enjoy today in the U.S.? Are you thinking? I bet you said "food." Most students do. But there are many other contributions including tequila. Moving on....Hispanics have influenced the U.S. and especially Texas economically as laborers, consumers, and taxpayers; they created the cattle industry and ranching; they gave us the rodeo, music, dance, fashion, jewelry, language (El Centro College), holidays, religious demographics, and architecture. What can you add to the list? So, we should enjoy some of that culture and dance! Add food at your desire.
To understand how the U.S. became a Spanish-Speaking nation requires we check-in on the politics of the day. Last time we addressed politics waa the 1840 election of William Henry Harrison, a Whig. Harrison, however, died a month after taking office of pneumonia after he refused to wear a coat while giving his inaugural speech in a snow storm. Vice-President John Tyler took over but the Whigs did not trust him. Basically, he had been put on the ticket because he was a southerner and attract southern votes. He was one of the few people in history who actually wanted to be Vice-President. He did not want to be President, but there he was. Many of his views were closer to the Democrats and he was an ex-Democrat. He favored states' rights, opposed the Bank of the U.S. and high tariffs. Tyler was basically a President without a party.
Meanwhile, for his second wife, life was one party after another. His first wife, Letitia Christian, died in 1842. He remarried in 1844 while President. Julia Gardiner was described as glamorous and she thought she was a queen. She even wore a little crown at times. She was known for her lavish parties. But, she had time to have seven children to add to the seven children from Letitia. Tyler had a total of 14 children.
While Washington was wrapped up in social events, other more important events took place during the Tyler presidency. Most issue dealt with foreign policy issues with England, Texas, and Mexico. First, the U.S. had problems with England over the Canadian boundary. Also, England had abolished slavery in 1833 and pressured the U.S. to do the same. Meanwhile, Americans went to Canada to try to get a rebellion going to split with England. By 1837, the conflicts became violent when the English Navy sank a U.S. ship, The Carolina, on the Niagara River. The ship was on its way to supply nationalists wanting independence from England.
Then, in 1840, England offered asylum to 130 Virginia slaves who had captured a U.S. ship, The Creole. In addition, skirmishes occurred along the Canadian border over the Maine boundary called the Aroostook War.
Despite threats on both sides, a treaty was signed in 1842 settling the boundary dispute (Webster-Ashburton Treaty or Maine Boundary Settlement). It was unpopular on both sides of the border bud did avoid all out war.
Meanwhile, the U.S. and Tyler turned attention to problems with Texas and Mexico. If you recall, In 1836 Texas declared independence from Mexico, but President Jackson refused to annex due to the slavery issue, fear of a war with Mexico, and the military was busy rounding up American Indians. Mexico continued to dispute the boundary claims of Texas. There was more and more popular support for annexation of Texas especially by the Democrats. It was part of the expansionist mood that swept the U.S. in the 1840s known as Manifest Destiny. This was a term created by historians to label the dominant belief in the U.S. that God wanted the U.S. to dominate North America and maybe South America, too.
This became the major theme in the 1844 presidential election. Tyler was not re-nominated by the Whigs. Instead they chose Henry Clay (Kentucky) who was one of the "War Hawks" of 1812 and lost to Jackson in 1824 which led to accusations of the "corrupt bargain" when Clay was appointed Secretary of State by John Q. Adams. The Democrats nominated James Polk of Tennessee who favored the annexation of Texas and control of Oregon Territory then shared with England. A third party, the Liberty party, represented the anti-slavery movement and nominated James G. Birney who had freed his slaves and dedicated his life to abolition.
The main issue was Texas. Polk favored annexation and Clay waffled. He was unclear and said he opposed the expansion of slavery but would favor Texas annexation "under certain circumstances." Polk won. Tyler was still in office but took this as a mandate from the people to annex Texas so he did in 1845 as a slave state when he signed a joint resolution. Some Texans still question the legality of the annexation because they are idiots.
With a stroke of a pen, thousands of Hispanics became U.S. citizens. As many as 25,000 Hispanics were in Texas or about 7% the population. With annexation, "Tejanos" found themselves in a difficult position. During the Texas Revolution many had sided with the Texans for independence from Mexico. The first Vice President of Texas was Lorenzo de Zavalla. This cooperative relationship did not last long. By the time Texas became a state, the Anglo-Celtic community had begun harassing Hispanics. Part of it was revenge, blaming all Mexicans for the Texas Revolution even though they supported independence. But it was mostly about land. Hispanics had it. Anglo-Celtics wanted it. Ex-soldiers raided Hispanic ranches, communities were attacked, property destroyed or stolen and Hispanics driven from their homes especially east of San Antonio. West of San Antonio was relatively peaceful but that land was still disputed by Texas and Mexico.
With annexation, these became U.S. problems. And the U.S. was in that Manifest Destiny mode. So with the inauguration of Polk, the youngest in our history to that point at 49, expansionism became the dominant pholosophy of the U.S. government. He will be a controversial President while his wife was the opposite.
Sarah Childress Polk was described as a "Spanish-like beauty" which will turn out to be somewhat ironic. She served as her husband's secretary and wrote his speeches. She banned alcohol in the presidential mansion as well as playing cards and dancing. While he did speak at the Seneca Falls Convention, she gave no indication to whether or not she favored woman's rights. She avoided all controversy. That was his job.
One of his first action was in regard to California, still part of Mexico. He liked what he saw so offered Mexico $25 million for it and Mexico rejected him and treated our diplomat rather rudely. Polk saw this as Mexico interfering with God's will (remember Manifest Destiny?). This added to other conflicts between the U.S. and Mexico. The Texas boundary was still disputed as to whether the border was the Nueces River as the Mexicans claimed or the Rio Grande River that the U.S. claimed. Mexico also owed debts to U.S. citizens as result of seizures during the Texas Revolution. So the relationship between the U.S and Mexico deteriorated
Political instability in Mexico made Mexico vulnerable, too. Two parties, the Federalists and Centralists were struggling for power. Centralists favored a very strong central government and took control in 1822. Then, in 1823, the Federalists took over favoring a government similar to the U.S. Then in 1829, revolution erupted between the two parties. In 1833, Centralist Santa Anna took control and established a dictatorship that led to, in part, the Texas Revolution and opposition to Mexico by many Tejanos. But, Santa Anna was unable to stabilize Mexico. Between 1833 to 1855, he was in and out of office eleven times. But Mexican turmoil was good for the U.S.
By the summer of 1845, President Polk had concluded that the only way to get California and obey God's will was a war with Mexico. He just needed a reason for the war. He examined his options. Not selling territory was not really a good reason for attacking Mexico. No real fighting erupted over the Texas border since Mexico was so busy with their own problems so that did not look like a good reason to attack. Then, there were those debts but Polk discovered that the U.S. owed more to the Europeans than did the Mexicans to us and that might be a bad precedent to attack over debts. All Polk could do was to hope Mexico would attack the U.S. and he could then declare war on Mexico. Mexico would not cooperate. Finally, out of desperation, Polk decided to try to provoke an attack by Mexico.
In July, 1845, he ordered 4,000 troops to Corpus Christi under General Zachary Taylor. Nothing happened to in March, 1846, they moved to Brownsville on the Rio Grande River and blockaded the river. They also built a fort across the river from Matamoros. All this is happening in the disputed territory that both Mexico and the U.S. claim as part of Texas. Still nothing happened.
President Polk grew impatient and prepared a war message in April, 1846, claiming the unpaid debs and refulsal to negotiate about the sale of California as his cause. Polk got little support from his advisers but on May 9, Polk got his break. He received a message that Mexican troops had attacked U.S. troops east of the Rio Grand at Palo Alto claimed by Texas. 16 Americans were killed. Polk proclaimed blood had been spilled on U.S. soil and asked Congress to declare the war he wanted so much.
Still this was controversial and strong opposition in Congress. Young Congressman Abe Lincoln said the war was an excuse to expand slavery. Future Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant agreed and later would say the Civil War was God's punishment for the Mexican War (also known as the Mexican American War). Despite opposition, in May, 1846, Congress voted for war. The Mexican or Mexican American War had begun. What do you think about this? Was this a war the U.S. had to fight?
At first, the war was not popular with the public either. There was disagreement even within the parties. many Democrats called it an "unjust war." Whigs said it was was an excuse to expand slavery. Even those who were pro-slavery opposed the way saying Mexico was unsuitable for slavery and Mexicans, if citizens, would destroy the U.S. since they did not understand U.S. government, English, or U.S. culture. There were other pro-slaverites who said expansion was the "lifeblood of slavery" though.
The issue of slavery dominated the debate over the Mexican War, not whether or not the U.S. had any right to go after Mexico. The slavery issue led to the Wilmot Proviso written by Congressman David Wilmot, a Pennsylvania Democrat. He advocated annexing all of Texas, supported the Mexican War, and taking California and New Mexico. But, he opposed expanding slavery into territories won. The Wilmot Proviso banned slavery in any territories won in the Mexican War. It passed the House but failed in the Senate so did not go into affect.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military was having problems, too. The controversy led to a shortage of men volunteering for war. At one point, the Army advertised that volunteers would get a "beautiful Mexican woman as their reward." Mexican women had already been stereotyped as "loose women" because they did not fit the dominant view of U.S. women. Mexican women were more liberated. They wore make-up and smoked tobacco.
As the war proceeded and the U.S. had a series of victories, support for the war increased and the number of volunteers increased. They came from all over the U.S. including over 10,000 African-Americans from the South. The war lasted less than two years. By early 1848, the U.S. was on the verge of victory controlling California and New Mexico while approaching the gates of Mexico City itself. Negotiations began to end the war. On February 2, 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hildalgo was signed and ended the Mexican War.
The treaty gave the U.S. Texas to the Rio Grande River, California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado. The U.S. won one-half of Mexico. Some Americans were unhappy and wanted it all. The U.S. agreed to give Mexico $15 million for their trouble. This is rather unusual since rarely do the winners give money to the losers. It is unclear why this was done. Some suggest it was to relieve guilt. Others say it was to make note that we still had to live next door together and should try to work-out problems. The map below shows some of the geographical changes. I does omit the Texas territory that went into Colorado that will later be severed.
With this treaty, 80-100,000 Mexicans ad to choose between staying in the U.S. or moving to Mexico. The treaty also gave them a choice of dual citizenship or leaving. Approximately, 3,000 left. The treaty also promised that the U.S. would recognize Hispanic land claims.
The treaty did not prevent problems and the U.S. government did not enforce the treaty. Very quickly, relations between Hispanics and non-Hispanics deteriorated with both sides stereotyping the other. Non-Hispanics saw Mexicans as "priest-ridden," immoral, lazy, ignorant, violent, drunken, superstitious and undemocratic. Mexicans saw non-Hispanics as rude, crude, unsophisticated, coarse, overly ambitious, driven, "uptight," intolerant and irreligious.
Again, though, it was land that was the issue. Hispanics had it. Non-Hispanics wanted it. In Texas, conditions worsened. Some counties like Matagorda ordered all Hispanics to leave. By the late 1850s, warfare had erupted in the Lower Rio Grande Valley in the Cortina Wars that lasted sporadically from 1859-76. Juan Cortina, a wealthy landowner near Brownsville shot the Marshall of Brownsville when Cortina observed the Marshall abusing an acquaintance. The Marshall survived but a warrant was put out for Cortina's arrest. He fled across the border and formed a following of Cortinistas. They would cross the border and conduct raids in Texas. Half of San Antonio's Hispanic population will flee to safer areas such as Laredo. There was little conflict in Laredo due to extensive intermarriage and cooperation that existed between Hispanic and non-Hispanic ranchers.
In general, however, Hispanics were viewed as second class citizens in Texas. Some areas denied them the right to vote. Law enforcement had a double standard. If a Mexican killed an Anglo, it was murder. If an Anglo killed a Mexican it was justifiable. Forcing Hispanics off land through intimidation, taxes and fraud will also continue into the early 20th century. Relations will worsen during the Civil war especially when Hispanics opposed the war and slavery.
At the same time in California, the situation deteriorate also. Again, land was at the core of the problems, but gold added to the issues. Nine days before the Mexican War ended, gold had been discovered at Sutter's Mill near San Francisco. The result was the "Gold Rush." by 1849, thousand of people went to California to "get rich quick" that was a new phenomenon in the U.S. They were called the "forty-niners" this the football team. Approximately 80,000 Americans went in one year. In addition, 8,000 Mexicans and 5,000 other Spanish-speaking peoples arrived especially from Peru and Chile.
Violence erupted as result. Anglo vigilantes attacked Hispanic ranchos and claimed the land for themselves. Hispanic "bandidos" attacked non-Hispanic settlements and boycotted non-Hispanic businesses. With the arrival of Chinese immigrants who replaced many Hispanic workers, conflicts intensified.
To deal with the problems, California leaders did two things. First they requested statehood and second passed the California Land Act in 1851. This required Hispanics to prove ownership of land in hearings. English-speaking only commissions were established. It was a costly process so some Hispanics just gave up. Since many of their claims dated to the 1600s and 1700s, records had been lost or destroyed in a Mexico City fire. When all was said and done, Hispanic lost 80% of their land claims. A similar process was implemented in the 1890s in New Mexico.
Meanwhile, the U.S. also expanded territory in the Northwest, Oregon Territory. That region had been shared with England since 1818, but President Polk had promised to get all of Oregon to Alaska. By the 1840s England and the U.S were threatening war over it. Just before the Mexican War, however, a treaty was signed establishing the current boundaries between the U.S. and Canada at the 49th parallel. In the U.S. this was unpopular since most wanted all of Oregon Territory as promised.
By 1850, the size of U.S. territory had increased dramatically. The next step was to fill the territories with American people. The pioneers begin the movement West. They came to symbolize American individualism and self-sufficiency. The West symbolized freedom, democracy, and opportunity. But, who went West and why did they go?
Of the 250,000 who went West, most were farmers (3/5). Most had moved before. Most were men until after the Civil War. Prior to that only 20% were women. Most were also young (16-35). They went to seek a better life. Oregon and California were seen as earthly paradises. Some went to find gold in California while Oregon was seen as having an unending supply of furs, fish, timber, and farmland. And, most went to get land which was seen as a key to happiness and economic liberty.
The U.S. government also encouraged the migration. Pioneers had a reason: Manifest Destiny. And, to many politicians, the West was seen as a "safety valve" for the poor to relieve the pressures of urban overpopulation. I would prevent unrest. Pioneers were told they were providing a national service by cultivating a wilderness. A series of federal laws encouraged the "homesteaders" even more. The Pre-emption Act of 1841 permitted "squatters" to buy 160 acres at $1.25 an acre ($200). Most pioneers did not have the money, though, so it was mostly exploited by speculators. The Homestead Act of 1862 lowered the costs for settlers if they lived on the land five years to a $30 filing fee.
There were two ways to go West. The Overland Routes such as the Oregon Trail and Santa Fe Trails were used by the wagon trains. Others took ships to Central America where they crossed the land and caught ships to California. Of course, many never made it to the West. Disease, accidents, weather, and hostile American Indians took their toll. If you would like to join the pioneers going West, read my docudrama On the Oregon Trail. There are also questions on e-campus you may answer for Final Exam points.