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article number 182
article date 11-13-2012
copyright 2012 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Westward Expansion in the 1840’s Texas, California, Oregon … Tainted by Political Friction
by James Truslow Adams

From the 1932 book, The March of Democracy.

In 1843 President Tyler and his Secretary of State, Abel P. Upshur, both Virginians, were disturbed by the more definite rumors that both England and France were flirting with Texas, and Tyler suggested to Sam Houston, then President of the Texan Republic, that it might be well to discuss possible annexation again. This suggestion Houston, then negotiating with England, treated coolly. Tyler pressed the point, and finally Houston agreed to treat with the United States, the negotiations continuing with Calhoun who had succeeded Upshur on the accidental death of the latter. On April 12, the two Republics signed a treaty by which the United States agreed to annex Texas and to assume her public debt up to the amount of $10,000,000, the Federal Government becoming owner of all the public lands of the annexed State.

When the treaty was submitted to the Senate, the North was furious, claiming that the South was trying to extend slavery and to overturn the balance between the sections. On the other hand, the South claimed in turn, that the North, from mere prejudice, was attempting to prevent the natural and necessary expansion of the whole nation. In the Senate, from a combination of very varied motives on the part of senators, neither party wishing to assume responsibility for ratification on the eve of a Presidential election, the North won, and the treaty was defeated, embittering the campaign then just opening.

Oregon Fever.

Northwestward as well as southwestward expansion was to enter into the campaign, however, and the Oregon question now again came to the fore. The title to the Oregon country, disputed between England and ourselves, was an uncertain one when it came to delimiting it by specific boundaries, and although the question had several times been raised between the two powers since the ten-year agreement of joint occupancy had been made in 1818 (renewed with somewhat different terms in 1827), no boundary, mutually satisfactory, could be determined upon.

The line as far west as the Rockies had been set at the 49th parallel of latitude (now the top of Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho and Washington) and we had offered to accept this out to the coast, but England had declined any settlement which did not give her the north bank of the Columbia River. Until 1834 the only Americans in the district had been hunters, trappers, and fur traders, and comparatively little interest had been excited, but in that year, Methodist missionaries went out with a few permanent settlers, followed the next year by some Presbyterians. In 1836, Doctor Marcus Whitman took a wagon across the Rockies and set up a mission at the junction of the Snake and Columbia Rivers. By 1842 there may have been 500 Americans permanently located in the country, and from that time on the “Oregon Trail,” from Independence, Missouri, up the Platte and over the mountains, was to see thousands pour into the new frontier, all bitten by the “Oregon fever.”

The Oregon Trail in South Pass, 1852.

In 1843 the settlers formed a government of their own and asked Congress to erect them into a territory. Although the Treaty of 1827 could be denounced on a year’s notice, Congress was not yet ready to act, but it was clear that the Oregon question was entering upon a new and far more dangerous phase. A rapidly growing agricultural population with farms and villages was very different from a few hunters for furs when it came to the settlement of boundaries.

Such was the situation as the campaign of 1844 drew near. In the possible occupation of Oregon, the South saw a chance to placate the North for the annexation of Texas, and the Oregonians themselves, anxious to establish their own position, and to add the territory to the Union, began to clamor for the annexation of all the disputed northern country, raising the war cry of “Fifty-four Forty or Fight” regardless alike of our own several offers to accept the Forty-ninth parallel and of England’s valid claims.

The election of 1844 was chiefly influenced by two of the strongest forces of the time, those of expansion and of sectionalism. Tyler had become a man without a party, for although elected by the Whigs, he had gone over to the Democrats, and he was out of the running as far as either major party was concerned. At the beginning of the year, it seemed certain that the Democrats would nominate Martin Van Buren and the Whigs Henry Clay.

The Burning Question of Texas.

On being asked to take their stand on the burning question of Texas, however, both candidates met embarrassing situations. So far had sectionalism already entered into politics that Van Buren, “little Magician” as he was, could not oppose annexation without alienating the important Democracy of the South, nor favor it without losing the North. He chose to oppose it, although offering to submit the question to Congress if Mexico should threaten Texas in such a way as to involve our interests. At once the South was politically in arms, and Van Buren’s candidacy became impossible. On the other hand Clay, like his opponent, had expressed himself in a letter also, the “Raleigh letter” as it came to be called, in much the same terms as to Texas, and although most of the Whig strength was in the North and West, the famous “compromiser” was forced to hedge in such a way as to leave complete doubt as to where he did in reality stand.

Both party conventions were held in Baltimore in May, and, although the Whigs unanimously nominated Clay, the Democrats were in a quandary. After taking many ballots, in which Van Buren steadily declined in strength, and his rival, Cass of Michigan, gained up to a certain point, it became evident that there was a deadlock. As a result of consultation during the night, the first “dark horse” of American national politics was suddenly brought forward in the morning, and James K. Polk, of Tennessee, after one ballot, was unanimously chosen as the Democratic candidate.

The first capitol built by the republic of Texas.

The country, bewildered, at once asked “Who is Polk?” He was, indeed, not entirely unknown. He had been a Speaker of the House for a time and had received one Electoral vote for Vice-President in 1840, but he had made no mark in public life, and the nation was ignorant as to what opinions he might hold, if any. The opinions, however, were provided by the Democratic Party platform which grandiloquently proclaimed, with little regard for facts, that “our title to the whole territory of Oregon is clear and unquestionable; that no portion of the same ought to be ceded to England or any other power; and that the re-occupation of Oregon and the re-annexation of Texas at the earliest practicable period are great American measures, which this convention recommends to the cordial support of the Democracy of the Union.”

Of course, this was sheer bunkum, although it may have been good politics. We had never officially claimed farther north in Oregon than 49°, and England unquestionably had a good claim to part of the disputed territory. As for “re-annexing Texas,” that phrase was based upon the absolutely invalid assumption that we had ever held title to it, which we never had. It was hoped that the South could be won by the promise of Texas, and that the North would be placated by getting Oregon while its sensibilities might be eased as to Texas by the suggestion that we were merely taking back what we had once owned.

Tyler, who had hoped for the Democratic nomination, was nominated by a separate party, but the movement was dead from the start and the candidate withdrew from the contest in August. Clay’s vacillation on the Texas question, however, had serious results in the appearance of a third party at the polls, the so-called “Liberty Party,” which again nominated James G. Birney who had run in 1840. Backed by the Abolitionists who refused to vote for Clay because of his stand, or lack of it, on Texas, the Liberty Party polled over 62,000 votes and held the balance of power. As Polk received 1,337,243 and Clay 1,299,062, had the Abolitionists voted for Clay he would have received not only the greater number of popular votes but they would have been so placed that instead of being defeated by Polk in the Electoral College by 170 to 105 he would have won by 146 against 129. Thus by their ill-considered action, from the standpoint of their own objective, the Abolitionists had made practically certain a huge addition to slave territory.

That the election indicated the certain absorption of Texas was understood by Tyler, who at once proceeded to recommend to Congress in December immediate annexation by means of a joint resolution of the two houses instead of a treaty, the former method requiring only a majority vote whereas the ratification of a treaty would require the consent of two thirds of the Senate. The resolution, which passed at once, provided that Texas should be made a State of the Union as soon as she had presented an acceptable constitution, and that the President could complete the process of annexation by negotiating with Texas or Mexico as he should deem fit.

The vote in the Senate had been close, 27 to 25, and some of the senators had been induced to vote in favor only, as was claimed, by assurance from Polk that Mexico would be honorably treated. Tyler, however, paid no attention to what may or may not have been a promise by his successor, and immediately sent a messenger to close the transaction with Texas. A few months after Polk became President, Texas, on December 29, 1845, was admitted as a State.

Meanwhile, our annexation of a Mexican province, whose independence had never been acknowledged, was embroiling us with our southern neighbor.


Practically since her winning of freedom from Spain, Mexico had been in a most unstable condition, politically and economically. The country with which we were soon to go to war had a white population of only about one million, or less than twice as many as there were in our city of New York. The remainder of her 7,000,000 were made up of 4,000,000 Indians and perhaps 2,000,000 half-breeds.

Her territory at the time of gaining her independence included all of the present Mexico, and our present States of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California.

The problem of governing such a vast domain with such a population would have been extremely difficult in any case, but in addition the people, after winning their independence from Spain, were not at all ready for self-government. The result was a succession of revolutions. Foreign investors, however, insisted upon holding Mexico to the same standard of accountability as they would have the United States or England. The consequence was the piling up of the usual “claims” under such conditions.

In 1838 France had collected some of these for her citizens by force of arms but England had refrained. In 1839 after long negotiations, a treaty was signed providing that the claims of American citizens should be arbitrated, and, when the award was made, Mexico paid three installments and then stopped.

Although Justin H. Smith, one of the few American historians who uncompromisingly defends our war with Mexico, points to this default as a breach of faith, we may note that it occurred in the very year in which English bondholders were making bitter protests to our own Secretary of State, regarding the defaulted payments of Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Illinois, Michigan, Maryland, Indiana, and Florida. At that time our minister to Mexico, Wilson Shannon, was a blustering, blow-hard fourth-rate political stump speaker, while his predecessor, Anthony Butler, is described by Smith as a “national disgrace,” “shamefully careless about Legation affairs . . . a bully and a swashbuckler . . . wholly unprincipled . . . and openly scandalous in his conduct.”

Under such circumstances our relations with the Mexicans, who were proud and touchy, naturally went from bad to worse. There were plenty of grievances on both sides, but our own skirts had been far from clear in the Texan revolt, and when we annexed that State there was bound to be further trouble. In the summer of 1845 General Zachary Taylor was ordered to the Rio Grande with troops and orders were sent to Commodore Sloat in the Pacific to seize California as soon as war might come.


Meanwhile, hoping to get what he wanted without war, Polk sent John Slidell to Mexico with an offer of $25,000,000 for California, $5,000,000 for what was then called New Mexico, and our agreement to assume the claims of our own citizens. The envoy was also to try to have the Texas boundary settled as reaching to the Rio Grande, which under both Spanish and Mexican rule had never gone south of the Nueces River, though Texas had claimed the farther line. Slidell arrived in Mexico City at a moment of government crisis, and the attempted negotiations came to nothing. Polk then made up his mind to war.

He had been elected, however, on a platform which had demanded not only Texas but Oregon, and preparatory to the conflict, which he now felt was certain if we were to have Texas and California, he began negotiations with England to settle the Northern question. Congress denounced the Joint Occupation Treaty, and some months later England offered a new one setting the Oregon boundary at the Forty-ninth Parallel, which, in spite of the campaign nonsense, Polk accepted and the Senate confirmed. The northern boundary was thus settled from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the Treaty with England having been signed June 1, 1846. In that same year a new tariff Act was passed by Congress and signed by Polk which has sometimes been said to have marked a return to Free Trade principles but which rather merely diminished the extreme protectionism of the preceding Acts. The main interest of Polk’s term, however, was not to be domestic but to continue to centre in our foreign relations. Oregon out of the way, Polk was free to deal with Mexico.

Mexican American War.

Meanwhile General Taylor had taken up his position at Corpus Christi, on Mexican soil, as it was south of the Nueces, but when it was known that Slidell had failed, the troops were ordered on to the Rio Grande. The Mexicans had thus far remained on the south bank of that river, but when Taylor appeared, he was requested to fall back to the Nueces, and as he refused to do so, the Mexicans, under General Ampudia, crossed the stream on April 24, 1846, and captured a party of the Americans. Polk then proclaimed that our patience was exhausted, that the Mexicans had invaded the United States, and asked Congress for war. On May 12, bills were passed appropriating $10,000,000 for war expenses and ordering the enlistment of 50,000 additional troops, the votes being 174 to 14 in the House and 40 to 2 in the Senate.

Mexico, not believing we would fight, took no formal action at this time, and in August, Polk tried to have a measure passed in Congress authorizing him again to try to buy from Mexico what we intended to take. This action, which came to nothing, is chiefly interesting from the first appearance, in connection with it, of the “Wilmot Proviso,” which was constantly to make trouble between North and South for many years after. While the bill was being considered, a Pennsylvanian, David Wilmot, tried to have an amendment attached to it providing that no territory acquired by the purchase or war should ever be open to slavery. This would have deprived the South of all its anticipated advantages and made the slave States almost negligible politically. Although defeated, it served to increase yet further the sectional tension.

Meanwhile, military operations had already begun. Marching from Fort Leavenworth to Santa Fe, Colonel S. W. Kearney captured that town without bloodshed, and at once issued a proclamation declaring all of New Mexico (including the present Arizona, Nevada, and Utah) to be part of the United States. He then set out for the further march to California, but that was already ours, as he was informed by Kit Carson when only a short distance on his way.


There had been some American settlers on the Pacific coast, and the great Province of California, so remote from Mexico City, was bound to it by the slenderest of ties. There had been talk of French or English occupation of the province, separated as it had been from the United States by mountain ranges and wide stretches of foreign territory.

In October, 1845, Polk had sent instructions to our consul at Monterey, saying that the President would make no effort nor use any influence to induce California to join the Union unless the people should desire to do so of themselves, and if it could be done without giving Mexico cause for complaint. What this would mean was clear enough from the history of our steady advance, and the small respect we had for either Indians or Spaniards.

We need not go into detail in relating the somewhat confused events of 1846, one of the first of which was the threatening appearance of Colonel Frémont with armed American forces at Monterey, and subsequently the raising of the American flag over his camp. Although a clash was then avoided, on June 10, a party of American settlers in the Sacramento Valley attacked a party of Mexican troops, who they imagined had been sent to force them from the lands on which they were illegally squatting. Four days later another party captured General Vallejo at Sonoma, and then proceeded to issue a proclamation declaring the independence of the American settlements, hoisting a flag on which were painted a star and bear. It has always remained obscure whether Frémont, who was a son-in-law of Senator Benton, was involved in this insurrection and how far, if at all, it may have had the secret sanction of the Washington authorities.

Meanwhile, Commodore Sloat had sailed for Monterey, reaching that port on July 2, when he immediately had an interview with our consul there. Mexico had not yet declared war, but Larkin, the consul, was the confidential agent of the American Government, and his peculiar instructions had been made yet more enigmatic according to international codes of friendship by the order that he was to “arouse in the bosoms” of the Californians “that love of liberty and independence so natural to the American Continent.” Five days later, Sloat landed a force, took possession of Monterey, hoisted the American flag, and declared California to be a part of the United States. By the end of the year we had established ourselves in every part of the province.


While these operations had been in progress on the coast, Taylor and his troops had not been idle across the Texas border in northern Mexico. In May he had defeated the enemy at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma. On the 18th he won another victory at Matamoras, forcing the Mexicans back to Monterey, the capital of the province of Nuevo Leon. After a considerable rest and delay in waiting for supplies, Taylor continued to advance, and on September 23 captured the strongly fortified city of Monterey.

These easy successes against an incompetent Mexican general began to make Taylor a possible Presidential candidate, by no means to the satisfaction of Polk, who decided to entrust the leadership of operations in future to Major-General Winfield Scott, whom he thought both a better soldier and a less dangerous political rival.

Opinions differ as to the real ability of Taylor, who had seen little but Indian frontier fighting on a small scale, and who, in spite of great courage and a personality which inspired his men, had slight knowledge of strategy or the handling of large bodies of troops. On the other hand, he had won victories, and had done so with the scant support of the government, facts which were to count heavily in his favor later and make him at last President, as Polk feared they might.

The new plans, however, called for a direct attack on the city of Mexico by way of Vera Cruz, and Taylor was called upon to dispatch half his troops to the Gulf port to join Scott. We had had a blockading squadron there, and through it we had, as a matter of policy, allowed our former and future enemy, Santa Anna, to return to his country from exile in Cuba.

He had made us believe he could manipulate the political situation at the capital so as to end hostilities by negotiation, but the pride of the Mexicans and their not unjustified hatred of us precluded the possibility of any peaceful settlement of our dismemberment of their State by the method of bargain and sale. Santa Anna, whatever his original aims or motives may have been, turned round, and put himself at the head of the Mexican forces. All that Polk’s attempt at intrigue had succeeded in doing was to present our enemy with their strongest leader.

Having discovered that Taylor’s force had been heavily depleted by the troops sent to Scott, Santa Anna decided upon a quick blow. With a good army of 16,000, the largest we had ever been called upon to face since the Battle of Long Island in 1776, he marched northward against Taylor and his 5000. It was expected that Taylor would retire, but he appears to have thought the coming attack less important than it was. Remaining at Saltillo, he posted General Wool with most of the troops in a valley a couple of miles wide on the ranch of Buena Vista, which gave its name to the ensuing battle.


Owing to the rough and broken nature of the terrain, the disparity in numbers was practically overcome completely. Santa Anna had had to march through a dry, desert country, with scarcely any water, but on February 22 he reached the American forces and launched his attack. In spite of his gaining some of the commanding heights, the American position was too strong for him and our artillery mowed down the Mexicans as they tried to force their way up the narrowing valley. There was terrible slaughter but night came without the Mexicans having been able to make good their attack, and during the darkness, Santa Anna drew off his forces, to the infinite relief of the Americans, who were in an awkward plight.

As Santa Anna retreated across the San Luis Potosi desert, his men died by hundreds from fatigue and thirst, and, what with the losses from battle and the retreat, he reached Mexico City again with approximately one third of the troops he had led out. Buena Vista was notable not only for being one of the best-fought battles of the whole struggle but also for the men who were engaged in it, among them Bragg, Reynolds, and Thomas, all to make their mark in the later Civil War, and, by an odd coincidence, two who were later to become Presidents of the United States and of the Confederate States, General Taylor himself and his son-in-law, Jefferson Davis.

We must now turn to Scott and his troops, who had been sent by boat to Vera Cruz down the Gulf. On March 27, 1847, they captured that city, and began the march to Mexico by the old road which had led thence from the coast long before the first white man had come to disturb the peace of Montezuma. At Cerro Gordo, about 55 miles from the Gulf, Santa Anna had placed a force of about 13,000 men to oppose Scott, who had about 10,000. Occupying strong positions on the heights commanding the road, the obstacle to the advancing Americans was formidable. Scott had among his officers, however, even a more brilliant group than Taylor had had, Robert E. Lee, U. S. Grant, George G. Meade, George B. McClellan and P. G. T. Beauregard. Lee discovered that it might be possible to reach the heights by a trail up which artillery could be dragged and the Mexicans outflanked. In spite of some bungling, the plan was carried out with success, and after a battle on April 18, the enemy fled, abandoning their guns, and leaving about 3000 prisoners.


The march then proceeded to Puebla, where Scott found himself almost without supplies, one tenth of his force in hospital, and many volunteers, whose time had expired, refusing to advance farther. These he sent back to Vera Cruz, called up the garrisons he had left at several points behind him, and with about 10,000 men, to be followed by 2000 reinforcements who had arrived at the coast, he continued his way to the capital. He reached the outskirts early in August and on the 7 th and 20th, defeated bodies of Mexicans at Contreras and Churubusco, only a few miles outside the city.

There one last attempt was made at negotiation. Scott concluded an armistice with Santa Anna, who it is said, received a bribe of $10,000 and the promise of a million if peace were made according to our terms. These were drastic enough.

We demanded the Rio Grande as the southern boundary of Texas; California, and the entire expanse of “New Mexico,” and a canal route across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Polk had placed the negotiations in the hands of the chief clerk of the State Department, an unimportant person by the name of Nicholas P. Trist, who could easily be disavowed.

When the Mexicans came back with proposals to cede no territory except Texas with the Nueces as boundary, and a demand that we pay the entire cost of the war, it was clear that Mr. Trist would not get far, and as Santa Anna broke the terms of the armistice in several particulars, Scott at once moved against the city. On September 8 he made an attack on some factory buildings, called El Molino del Rey (the Royal Mill), which he wished to capture because of the war materials being manufactured there. The effort proved extremely costly, over 700 men of the 8ooo, which was all Scott then had with him, being killed.

Two causeways which led into the capital were dominated by the hill of Chapultepec, and it was necessary to control the height before the city could be entered. This also proved an expensive undertaking, but the way was at last made clear, and with about 7000 troops, the victorious American general entered the capital city. There, governmental affairs were in chaos, and the American commanders began a disgraceful playing of American politics in a series of charges and countercharges and of courts-martial.

Santa Anna resigned the presidency, however, and a new government consented to negotiate a treaty with Trist, who had been ordered back to Washington but had declined to move. The British Minister made it plain to the Mexicans that they could expect nothing from England, and Trist succeeded at last in getting a treaty, signed at Guadaloupe Hidalgo on February 2, 1848, according to the terms of which Mexico was to cede all of New Mexico and California, and acknowledge our possession of Texas with the Rio Grande as boundary in exchange for $15,000,000 and our assumption of the claims of our citizens against Mexico to the extent of $3,250,000.

An Expanding America and Possible Political Tension.

Trist had been without authority to act but on March 10, 1848, the Senate ratified the results of his negotiations by a vote of thirty-eight to fourteen. Meanwhile on January 24, some gold particles had been found in the millrace on Sutter’s ranch in California, and as soon as the news spread there was a rush such as the world had never known. San Francisco was almost deserted, as were the ships which touched at California ports. When the word reached the East, men of all types and of all grades of life started either across the continent or by way of vessels to Panama, across the isthmus and by vessel again to San Francisco to win a fortune.

Almost as soon as we had acquired title to the soil from Mexico, the “Forty-niners” and their successors were building up a populous and turbulent State. By 1850 there were over 92,000 persons, mostly men, and by 1860, 380,000.

Post-office at Pike and Clay Streets, San Francisco, at the time of the Gold Rush.

The war had been extremely unpopular in the North, especially among the Abolitionists and other strong antislavery groups who had seen in the whole Texas question merely a plot of the South to extend slavery. James Russell Lowell, writing in homely Yankee dialect the first series of his widely popular Biglow Papers, voiced the indignation and strong sectionalism of Massachusetts, as did Whittier also.

In point of fact, the huge acquisitions of 1846—48 had increased that portion of the Union which must be free by nature far more than it had the slave portion, for slavery was economically impossible in most of what was to become New Mexico, Arizona, California, Colorado, Utah, Oregon, and Washington. The few States which might be, but never were, carved out of Texas itself could not counterbalance in Congress these seven others. This, however, was not foreseen, and the partisan bitterness of the nation had been immensely increased by the war.

Expansion had won a colossal victory, but at the cost of an equal colossal increase in the tension of sectionalism.

Even before peace was declared, the question of slavery in the new Far West had already agitated the country. The whole of the new Western acquisitions was without established forms of government, and Polk wished to organize territories on the basis of the old Missouri Compromise of 1820, that is, to make the parallel of 36° 30’ the dividing line between slave and free.

Calhoun, who had then for some time been the acknowledged leader of the most fiery pro-slavery party in the South, insisted on the other hand that the whole of the new West having become the property of the nation, and slavery being legal under the Constitution, it was legal everywhere in the additions to the national domain.

Webster took the ground that the Constitution affected only the States of the Union, and that there never having been slavery in California or the Oregon country, those sections were free as they stood. After heated debates in May, 1848, Oregon was erected into a territory on the basis of the fundamental provisions of the old Northwest Ordinance, that is, as free soil, but Congress could reach no compromise as to California and the rest of the territory included under the title of New Mexico.

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