The Gadsden Purchase

By Walter Mow

Manifest Destiny and Railroad Fever would propel the purchase of a large swath of southwestern New Mexico and much of southern Arizona. Its roots can be traced to South Carolina and James Gadsden whose subsequent influence would bring about the culmination of the final land acquisition that resulted in the 48 contiguous states.
Beginning in the 1830s many in the south began to be concerned about the financial strength of the northern states and the accompanying loss of trade. Recognizing that if they were to truly compete, the south needed a pathway to Pacific ports.

President James Polk and his administration, by settling the Oregon Country question with the Oregon Treaty (1846) left him free to negotiate with the Mexican government. Polk’s envoys then turned their attentions to negotiating an end to the 2 year old Mexican-American War. The Mexican Cession as part of that negotiated peace granted the United States large parts of what is now the Southwest US but left most of the planned route of a southern transcontinental railroad most notably the Mesilla Valley, New Mexico in the hands of the Mexican government.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) gave many in the south hope that an alternative could be achieved. Initial talks included a “right of transit” across The Isthmus of Tehuantepec and many southerners envisioned a rail system across the Isthmus giving them access to Pacific ports.

When all was said and done, the treaty left three critical issues unresolved. How to control the raiding by Indians into Mexico by the US Army; the Mesilla Valley remained in Mexican hands and was known to be the best route for a railroad; and finally financial wrangling and political intrigue doomed any real chance of achieving a “right of transit” across the Isthmus.

Polk’s success in settling and finalizing the Oregon Treaty and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo also made possible ambitions of a transcontinental railroad. That northern interests would control these rails was of great concern to southern shipping interests.

The south wanted a system that was controlled in the southern states. That predicated a southern route but the mountains of western New Mexico and eastern Arizona created a barrier that any wholly southern route would be forced to cross the border into Mexico.

James Gadsden was born in Charleston, South Carolina May 15, 1788; the grandson of Revolutionary War hero Brigadier General Christopher Gadsden, he graduated from Yale in 1806 with a bachelor’s degree in engineering and shortly thereafter joined the Army. He would rise to prominence under General Andrew Jackson becoming Adjutant General of the United States Army. His official rank was Colonel, but was often called “General”.

Leaving the Army in 1822, as part of the Florida legislature he was instrumental in removing much of the Seminole Nation from Florida and southern Georgia to Oklahoma Territory via “The Trail of Tears”. He served as President of the South Carolina Railroad Company from 1840 to 1850 and worked tirelessly for a southern transcontinental railroad.

The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo did not clearly define the borders between the two nations giving rise to a near renewed war over the Mesilla Valley in Southern New Mexico. President Franklin Pierce appointed James Gadsden Ambassador to Mexico with instructions to: 1. Purchase additional land from Mexico to facilitate a railroad route to the west coast; 2. Relieve the United States of protecting Mexico from raids by the Apache and Comanche; 3. Attempt to finalize a “right of transit” across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

Ambassador Gadsden recognized that the Mexican government under Santa Ana was both broke and disorganized and the original agreement struck between Santa Ana and Gadsden was not ratified by the US Senate. A reduction in the amount of land and money would lead to a satisfactory agreement and the amended treaty was presented to Santa Ana; ratified by the US Senate it became official June 8, 1854.

As a result of the purchase, the United States increased by 29,670 square miles for the sum of $10 million Dollars. The Civil War, reconstruction and financial problems would delay any southern route wholly within the confines of the United States until the 1880s.
Although Gadsden never reached the status of the railroad giants that would follow him, was it not for his efforts and the success of his mission a southern transcontinental railroad may have lingered even longer before completion.

Authors Note: I have deliberately refrained from including the issue of slavery, although it did play a part in the overall issue, at one point even stalling the treaty in the US Senate. The issue of slavery would meet its end in the ensuing Civil War.