America’s Long Journey: The 1840s and Utopia

The 1840s and Utopia

Two generations later, in a different context, George Bernard Shaw would famously say that some people saw things as they were and asked why, but he dreamed things that never were, and asked why not. That was very like America — particularly New England America — in the 1840s. Reform was in the air. It was a new day, under new conditions, and it seemed that all the world’s wrongs could be identified, addressed, and overcome.

When scholars think of the 1840s, they think of the New England Transcendentalists, because they were the thinkers whose work bore such vigorous fruit. (We cannot stay to explain Transcendental Idealism, nor to trace its derivation from German philosophers via Coleridge and others. A fast search on the word “transcendentalist” will start you on your way.) If later generations came to think of them as perhaps a bit stuffy, that is only because time had made them “classics,” therefore “respectable,” therefore dull. In life, these men – they were mostly men – were incendiaries.

Take merely Emerson and Thoreau: Their social gospel was self-reliance. Test everything. Hold to what seems true to you, and don’t worry about what England thinks, or what contemporary American society thinks, or what your neighbors think. Every day is a new day, bringing new thoughts and new perceptions. Everyone (they would have said “every man,” meaning the same thing and being understood to mean the same thing) has equal access to divine inspiration, and must learn to trust it. And down with whatever in society revealed itself to their eye as obsolete or moribund or – particularly – unjust.

Stuffy? These men were revolutionaries, relying on an inner power more solid than the state, and stronger than gunpowder. And they met response! Emerson spoke to the Harvard Divinity School as a young man, and the corporation didn’t dare ask him back until a full generation had passed. They knew arson when they experienced it.

Beyond the transcendentalists came that literary renaissance – one might almost call it a first-birth rather than a re-birth – that included Whitman and Melville. Nothing sedate and conservative about these two, either! And behind the literary renaissance came the reform movements. The North, particularly New England, centering on Boston, radiated reform movements, or, one might almost say, the reforming mood. In the South, the perceived need to protect slavery from any possible threat generated intolerance of nonconformity. In the South (and increasingly so as the years went on and the feeling of being under siege grew stronger), you went along with the power structure or you got out. But in the North, political and economic interests were more diverse, which left room for individual conscience.

Into that society, relatively open to innovation, social reformers poured their ideas and experiments: prison reform; educational reform; attacks on the sources of prostitution and drunkenness; creation of insane asylums and orphanages, and of cooperative and utopian societies such as Brook Farm and the Oneida community, and of new religious sects such as the Mormons.

But the most widespread, most vocal, most disruptive and ultimately most successful reforms were the intertwined calls for abolition of slavery and equal rights for women. The two causes emerged together and affected each other; often luminaries in one were also active in the other.

In the early 1830s, active abolitionists had to face ridicule and even mob violence. But by the end of the decade, the nation had begun to learn a lot more about the nature of slavery in the South, and was beginning to become exasperated by Southern resistance to change, and so anti-slavery became less unpopular. Naturally, this led the movement to split into two factions, radical idealists who refused to compromise, and moderates interested in practical politics and achievable results.

Radical abolitionists tended to favor woman’s rights and believe that women should have a significant role in antislavery work. “Political” abolitionists, on the other hand, sought to elect anti-slavery candidates, and therefore shied away from “the woman question” lest it frighten people off. So, when the 1840 national convention of the American Anti-Slavery Society supported the nomination of a woman abolitionist, Abigail Kelley, to serve on the convention’s business committee, the political abolitionists walked out and formed the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, which explicitly excluded women from membership.

But women had been involved in the antislavery movement from its beginning in 1833, when they organized female antislavery societies in Philadelphia and Boston. In 1837, seventy-one delegates from eight states held the first Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women in New York, issuing publications and resolutions, forming executive committees, and launching a campaign to collect one million signatures on antislavery petitions to Congress. And individual women who began as abolitionists became increasingly active on behalf of woman’s rights.

Jack Larkin, Chief Historian for Old Sturbridge Village, puts it this way:

“The most active abolitionist women were the principal organizers and energizers of local or statewide action, and the writers who produced children’s books, hymns, and stories with an antislavery message, contributed to antislavery papers, or wrote tracts on the subject. The most unusual of them were the handful of women who spoke publicly for the cause, traveling the countryside as agents for the American Anti-Slavery Society. These women confronted a deeply ingrained tradition—the notion that women did not and should not speak in public. The first women lecturers were Sarah and Angelina Grimké. They began by addressing all-female audiences—itself a violation of custom—but soon went on to speaking before mixed groups of men and women, an even more serious offense. Such `promiscuous assemblies,’ as they were called, created controversy wherever the Grimké sisters went. In 1837, the General Association of Massachusetts, which represented the ministers of the state’s dominant Congregational church, issued a statement condemning women `who so far forget themselves as to itinerate in the character of public lecturers and teachers.’ This attack, and others made against them, spurred the Grimkés to make the equality of women a more important part of their message. They began to write and speak about the condition of woman as well as the condition of the slave—a decision which would soon help to split the abolitionist movement. But for the rest of their career as public speakers, Sarah and Angelina continued to combine the messages of woman’s rights and antislavery.

“In the process they helped lay the foundation for the woman’s rights movement which would issue its first manifesto, the famous “Declaration of Rights and Sentiments” at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. Many of the women who would sign that Declaration and work to secure equality for women were also active abolitionists who believed that woman, like the slave; was entitled to equal rights.”

[For more information see: http://www.teachushistory.org/second-great-awakening-age-reform/articles/historical-background-antislavery-womens-rights-1830-1845]

The 1840s were much like the 1960s would be. In both cases, an impulse to reform caught fire, one enthusiasm sparking another, one perception of injustice illuminating another, until utopia itself seemed not quite good enough. In both cases, reform proposals blossomed into organized movements, which generated counter-pressure from conservative elements, which finally quashed the expectation of near-term reform. In both cases, few or none of the immediate goals were achieved, and yet, in both cases, the country was changed forever.

America’s Long Journey: Abolition

Abolition

Abolition is a large and troubling subject, the more troubling the closer you look at it, because your view of who were heroes and who were villains changes depending on context. Is a William Lloyd Garrison’s unequivocal condemnation of slaveholders really better morality than the troubled pragmatism of an Abraham Lincoln? Does the extremism that calls forth a corresponding defensive hardening of the opposing position really serve the purpose it wishes to advance? Yet, on the other hand, do not the counsels of moderation often merely prevent reform? It was a troubling, perplexing question: What was to be done about slavery in America? The subject was at the heart of the American experience, and at the heart of the issue of slavery was race.

If slavery had not existed, no one would have advocated forcibly bringing hundreds of thousands – millions – of Africans to these shores. And, on the other hand, had slaves and masters been of the same race, slavery would have died with the Declaration of Independence, if not long before. Slavery and race were intertwined in the American experience from the very beginning.

We have seen how slavery died amid the immense blood-letting of the Civil War, in which it almost seemed, as Abraham Lincoln said, that the Almighty had decreed that it continue “until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.” Here we want to look at the changes that helped bring that war. Was that the only way we could have gotten rid of that cursed institution?

(How emancipation efforts began and spread, both before and after independence from England, we discuss in the next section, the 1700s. How slavery came to these shores and became intertwined with all levels of society among all the colonies, we leave for the 1600s.)

On August 1, 1833, the English government proclaimed emancipation throughout the empire. (Google William Wilberforce.) This event that had repercussions in the States. Although England and the United States had criminalized the international slave trade more than 25 years earlier, as we shall see, emancipating slaves throughout the world’s largest empire was a different story. Americans still looked to Britain, and the British had freed their slaves! And this included the West Indies, which to Southerners was uncomfortably close to home.

Even closer to home was another event that took place that year, when William Lloyd Garrison, evangelical minister Theodore Weld, and freedman Robert Purvis founded the American Anti-Slavery Society. Now, Garrison is one of those men who is either a saint or a fanatic, something like John Brown. His weekly anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator, founded in 1831, was known for its uncompromising advocacy of “immediate and complete emancipation” of all slaves in the United States. In the very first issue, he said, “I am aware, that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation.”

People don’t do their best thinking when motivated by fear or greed. They just hunker down. That’s what happened in the South, in the wake of Nat Turner’s rebellion, which all too many Southerners blamed on The Liberator, and on mythical Northern conspiracies to incite slave rebellion. After a certain point, Southerners ceased to apologize for their peculiar institution, and began to convince themselves that it was necessary, and right, and in fact mandated by God. Northern teachers suspected of abolitionism were expelled from the South, and abolitionist literature was banned. In 1835 alone abolitionists mailed over a million pieces of anti-slavery literature to the south. In response southern legislators banned abolitionist literature and the U.S. Postmaster General refused to allow the mails to carry abolition pamphlets to the South.

The Liberator had a subscription list of only about 3,000, three-quarters of them black, but it drew a vehement reaction in the South. His critics believed he advocated the sudden and total freeing of all slaves, and considered him a dangerous fanatic. (Actually, he called for “immediate emancipation, gradually achieved,” which meant immediate repentance and a system of gradual emancipation.) After Turner’s slave rebellion, a North Carolina grand jury indicted Garrison for distributing incendiary material, and the Georgia Legislature offered a $5,000 reward for his capture and conveyance to the state for trial.

Historians distinguish between moderate antislavery reformers, who concentrated on stopping the spread of slavery, and radical abolitionists, whose demands for unconditional emancipation often merged with a concern for black civil rights. Most Northerners favored a policy of gradual and compensated emancipation, recognizing that the Constitution did not allow the federal government to intervene to end slavery in the South. But as the Anti-Slavery Societies spread throughout the North, and as more and Northerners began to speak of the evils of slavery (noticeably influenced by the publication and wildfire success in 1852 of Harriett Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin), Southerners began to lose the ability to make distinctions.

You know you have lost the ability to make distinctions when you can’t distinguish John Brown, trying to lead a slave revolt, from William Lloyd Garrison, calling for immediate emancipation, or Hinton Rowan Helper, a North Carolinian arguing that the South must end slavery, or Abraham Lincoln, conceding the South’s Constitutional right to preserve slavery, but demanding that it spread no farther. To more and more Southerners, any shade of opinion that did not say that slavery was good and justified constituted abolition sentiments. Their Northern opponents were not anti-slavery, or anti-slavery-expansion, but always “abolitionists.” A little later, the new Republican Party was never the Republicans but, always, Black Republicans.

And of course fear generated hatred, and hatred generated counter-hatred, and so fanatics on all sides generated and fueled the forces that they feared.

Southerners resisted containment of slavery; they got John Brown. They rebelled against Abraham Lincoln; they got General Sherman. Abolitionists rejected compromise and moderation; after a while, they got Civil War.

 

America’s Long Journey: The telegraph

The telegraph

We just call it the telegraph, forgetting that at one time the term referred to other forms of long-distance signaling. But it was a big day when men learned to use electrical impulses to send coded text messages through strung wires (or, later, by radio). The electromagnetic telegraph, which sprang up with the railroad, and became indispensible to it, changed everything. Within a few decades, people were communicating from one end of the continent to the other, and then, via undersea cable, across the North Atlantic. The era of electronic mass communication was on its way.

The system that eventually emerged built upon many inventions, including many that worked but were commercially impractical. Not going into it here, though a brief run through is very interesting. (A Wikipedia search will tell you anything you want to know.) The world’s first commercial telegraph was developed in England, patented in 1837, and put into operation (a 13-mile line) on the Great Western Railway in 1838. Telegraph operations became standard on British railways, then became a form of mass communication there when the instruments were installed in post offices across the country.

In that same year of 1837, in the United States, Samuel F.B. Morse independently developed and patented an electrical telegraph, and devised the Morse Code to communicate letters and numbers as combinations of short and long electrical impulses. He sent the first telegram in the United States on 11 January 1838, across two miles of wire. The message that everyone knows he sent, “What hath God wrought,” came six years later, in a demonstration along a transmission line strung between Washington and Baltimore. (Only 40 miles apart, the two cities in 1844 were connected by poor roads and otherwise accessible to each other only by a circuitous passage by ship.) In America, as in Great Britain, railroads immediately saw the necessity for some means of communication within its system that moved faster than the engines , which themselves moved at speeds never before seen.

America’s Long Journey: The Mormon emigration

Everybody knows that the Mormons are centered in Utah. Few know how they got there, or why. It wasn’t in order to establish the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

The Mormons entered history in 1830, in upstate New York, when a man named Joseph Smith published The Book of Mormon and founded the Church of Christ. The little church attracted converts, and Smith sent out missionaries. As it grew, Smith moved it westward, relocating first in Ohio, then in Missouri. But soon Mormons and their neighbors were feuding, and in the fall of 1838, the church – now numbering some 8,000 – was forced to leave Missouri and relocate in Illinois, where they promptly began to build the city of Nauvoo. The church grew rapidly, fueled in part by immigration from Europe. But again, within a few years, there was trouble with their neighbors. In 1844, Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were killed by a mob.

Brigham Young, who had been a close associate of Smith’s, and who was senior apostle of the Quorum of the Twelve, assumed the leadership of what was now called the Latter Day Saints, and decided to move west yet again, in an attempt to get beyond the reach of further persecution. He led them first to Nebraska, then, in 1847, to the vicinity of the Great Salt Lake, which he named Deseret, and which we know as Utah.

It was a meticulously planned operation. Young’s group was small and fast-moving, selected from among those in the temporary settlements they had constructed in Nebraska and Iowa. When he had selected their new site, he sent another 2,000, bidding them to do the work needed to support the thousands yet to come. So, they established farms, grew crops, and in general established preliminary settlements.

And then the Mormon community began to gather from all ends of the earth. Beginning in 1848, trains of emigrants followed the California Trail and the Oregon Trail to Fort Bridger in Wyoming, then took the trail to the Great Salt Lake. The Mormons organized a complete evacuation from their previous homes, leaving no one behind. By 1860, more than 43,000 Mormons had traveled this route.

The Westerns that portray wagon train emigrations never show people pulling or pushing handcarts, and yet about 3,000 of the Mormon pioneers came west doing just that. Those carts, pulled or pushed by two, three or four people, could carry up to 100 pounds of food, bedding, etc., and were no slower than the ox-drawn wagons that accompanied them carrying more food and supplies. These handcart pioneers, once they arrived in the valley, were given jobs and accommodations by individual Mormon families until they could become established. (One feature of their migration that shows both their sense of community and their enterprising spirit is the system of ferries run by the Mormon pioneers along the Mormon Trail. The ferries were free for Mormon settlers, but others paid a toll.)

Having failed to build Zion within the confines of American society, the Mormons began to construct a society in isolation, based on their beliefs and values. The cooperative ethic that Mormons had developed over the last decade and a half became important as settlers branched out and colonized a large desert region now known as the Mormon corridor. The Mormon villages were governed by bishops and were viewed as commonwealth. From 1849–52, the Mormons greatly expanded their missionary efforts overseas, and Young’s presidency (1847–77) saw more than 70,000 converts arrive.

But the country the Mormons had left behind caught up with them. After the Mexican War, the New Zion was no longer beyond the borders of the United States, but was again included within U.S. territory. Year by year, tensions between Mormons and their neighbors escalated, largely as a result of accusations involving polygamy and Young’s theocratic rule, until in 1857, President James Buchanan sent an army to Utah. A brief, mostly bloodless, conflict ensued, and was resolved by Young agreeing to step down as governor and be replaced by a non-Mormon. But of course he remained the power behind the throne until his death in 1877.

The one thing everybody knows or thinks he knows about Mormons is that they practiced polygamy. But what they may not know is that every wife was established in her own house, and no man was allowed more wives than he could afford to maintain. For single women without brothers or fathers to support them, plural marriage made economic sense, and in a culture strongly rooted in a sense of communality, it made social sense as well. However, the practice of plural marriage was never universal, and was finally abandoned in the years between the Civil War and the end of the century.

 

 

America’s Long Journey: The Oregon Trail

Before the transcontinental railroad, before the Civil War, before the Mexican War, Americans were moving toward the Pacific. How we came to acquire our share of the Oregon territory is a story we will tell below, but for now we’ll just talk about the days when the only overland route between the Missouri River (and points east) and the fertile lands of Oregon was a 2,000-mile wagon route through Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Idaho. Today, I- 80 follows the trail for a good way, and many of the towns it passes through grew up with the trail.

The first wagon train to take to the trail (which at that time extended to Fort Hall, Idaho) was organized in Independence, Missouri, in 1836, while the Texans were winning independence from Mexico. Year by year, more wagon trains came, starting variously in Missouri or Iowa or Nebraska and linking up with the trail somewhere along the lower Platte River Valley in Nebraska. And, year by year, the trails were cleared farther west, until they reached all the way to Oregon’s Willamette Valley. In time, the trail grew branches: the California Trail, the Bozeman Trail, and the Mormon Trail.

From first to last, between the 1830s and the completion of the transcontinental railroad, about 400,000 people traveled the Oregon Trail — settlers, ranchers, farmers, miners, and businessmen, and their families. Notice that last word. Unlike the stampede to California, which was mostly young single men, Oregon’s was a migration of families.

Why Oregon? Because early explorers, having seen few trees and little surface water on the great plains, had termed it the Great American Desert, and it didn’t seem a promising place to settle. Besides, until after the Civil War the plains were reserved for the Indians, and settlement there was illegal. In Oregon, land was fertile, free for the taking, and it came with tremendous natural resources, a climate free of the yellow fever and malaria then prevalent in lower latitudes, and only a few (nominally but certainly not rabidly) British settlers.

The first three wagons to reach the Columbia River by land, two families traveling together, arrived in September, 1840. In 1841 an emigrant group set out for California, but about half the party went instead to the Willamette Valley in Oregon, the first members of an organized wagon train to do so. The following year, another organized wagon train brought more than 100 pioneers. And then, in 1843, an estimated thousand emigrants set out for Oregon. A man named Marcus Whitman volunteered to lead them to Oregon, wagons and all. He believed the wagon trains were large enough that they could build whatever road improvements they needed. They made it as far as Mount Hood, then disassembled the wagons and floated them down the Columbia River and herded the animals over a rough trail. They nearly all arrived in the Willamette Valley by early October. The settlers organized land claims within the Oregon Country, allowing unmarried settlers to claim up to 320 acres and married couples up to 640 acres (one square mile, which was called a section). This was merely provisional, but the claims were eventually honored by the United States in the Donation Land Act of 1850.

In 1846, a road was completed around Mount Hood, thus completing a 2,000-mile wagon trail from the Missouri river. Over the years ferries were established on many rivers to help get the wagons across. These ferries increased the cost of traveling the trail by roughly $30 per wagon but could reduce transit times by a month, as well as preventing death by drowning at river crossings.

The Oregon Trail led to the development of the prairie schooner. Half the size of the larger Conestoga wagon the prairie schooner weighed about 1,300 pounds empty with about 2,500 pounds capacity and about 88 cubic feet of storage space in a box 11 feet long, 4 feet wide, and 2 feet high, and could easily be pulled by four to six oxen or six to ten mules.

The wagons cost between $85 and $170 new. One wagon could carry enough food for six months’ travel for four or five travelers as well as a short list of household and luxury items including clothing and ammunition. More than two thirds of the wagons were pulled by oxen, and most of the rest by mule teams. Although an ox team was about 10 percent slower than a mule or horse-pulled wagon (about 2 to 3 miles per hour) they were cheaper to buy ($25 to $85 per yoke versus up to $600 or more for six horses), easier to train, could pull more, survived better on the sparse grass often found along the trail, did not require oats or grain, and were often tamer and easier to handle after they were trained. (Novices could usually learn to handle a trained ox team in about a week.) They could be turned loose at night and easily rounded up in the mornings. Indians were usually less interested in stealing them. Ox drivers walked alongside the left side of their oxen team and used the voice commands “gee” (right) and “haw” (left) and a whip to guide them, snapping them in the air to get the animal’s attention.

The cost of traveling over the Oregon Trail and its extensions varied from nothing (if you hired on to help drive the wagons or herds) to a few hundred dollars. About 60 to 80 percent of the travelers were farmers and as such already owned a wagon, livestock team, and many of the necessary supplies. This lowered the cost of the trip to about $50 per person for food and other items. Families planned the trip months in advance and made many of the extra clothing and other items needed. If you had capital, you could buy livestock in the Midwest and drive it to California or Oregon for profit.

The number of deaths on the trail is not known with any precision. Estimating is difficult because of the common practice of burying people in unmarked graves that were intentionally disguised to avoid them being dug up by animals or Indians. Graves were often put in the middle of a trail and then run over by the livestock to make them difficult to find. Disease was the main killer of trail travelers; cholera killed up to 3 percent of all travelers in the epidemic years from 1849 to 1855. Indian attacks increased significantly after 1860 when most of the army troops were withdrawn and miners and ranchers began fanning out all over the country, often encroaching on Indian territory. Other common causes of death included hypothermia, drowning in river crossings, getting run over by wagons (believe it or not), and accidental gun deaths. Significant numbers suffered from scurvy, because of their typical diet of flour and salted pork/bacon. Some believe that scurvy deaths may have rivaled cholera as a killer, with most deaths occurring after the victim reached California.

For details of life on the trail, Google the Oregon Trial.

 

 

America’s Long Journey: The Mexican War

 

The story of how Texas won its independence in 1836 is told in its own section, below. From 1836 to 1845, Texas led a precarious existence as an independent republic, officially recognized by Great Britain, France, and the United States, but desiring to join the Union. When Texas did finally enter the Union as the 28th state on December 29, 1845, war with Mexico soon followed.

Here, as elsewhere, it is important to remember that hindsight varies with the times. Sometimes certainties are merely our own unconscious prejudices. It is tempting to see that war as simple American aggression against a relatively blameless neighbor. Indeed, many saw it that way at the time, and it shocked those who thought of the United States as a new beginning in world affairs. Emerson said it as part of a poem:

“But who is he that prates Of the culture of mankind, Of better arts and life? Go, blind worm, go, Behold the famous States Harrying Mexico With rifle and with knife.”

Most Whigs opposed the war, wanting to strengthen the economy with industrialization, rather than expand it. Most Democrats, on the other hand, supported expansion as the nation’s “manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” At any rate it wasn’t as simple as President Polk made it out to be in his message to Congress, in which he said that Mexico had “shed American blood upon American soil.”

But whatever the ultimate rights and wrongs of the situation, Mexican actions in crossing the Rio Grande and attacking American soldiers had precipitated a state of war, and then the war had to be fought and won. Once it came to war, the situation had a logic of its own.

Mexico was in political chaos, insolvent, with no conceivable way to pay the many outstanding financial claims against it except perhaps to cede the territories of New Mexico and California in return for the American government undertaking to pay Mexico’s claims. These territories, though long part of Mexico, were largely frontier lands, unsettled, ungoverned, and unprotected, with Americans, rather than Mexicans, constituting much of the non-native population. The fear was that if the United States did not take possession, they might fall to the British Empire, then in its heyday.

What’s more, the people of Northern Mexico didn’t necessarily object to the transfer of sovereignty. In the 25 years since Mexico became independent in 1821, it had become less and less able to defend the northern half of the country. Comanche, Apache, and Navajo Indians, especially Comanche, engaged in large-scale raids hundreds of miles into the country, stealing livestock and killing thousands of people. When American troops entered northern Mexico in 1846, they found a demoralized people who offered little resistance, perhaps preferring their new masters to their old, perhaps not, but at any rate appreciating the greater security that the American military presence promised.

The genesis of the war was simple enough. Texas had won its independence in 1836 on the battlefield at San Jacinto, in which Sam Houston’s army captured Mexican president (and general) Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Santa Anna had signed the Treaties of Valasco, which recognized the Rio Grande as the boundary of the Republic of Texas, but the government of Mexico repudiated the treaties, did not concede the Texas independence, and insisted that in any case the Nueces River was the limit of the territory that it controlled de facto.

For political reasons, the Congressional resolution annexing Texas deliberately omitted any mention of the Rio Grande boundary, but when the Republic of Texas became the 28th state, the United States inherited its territorial claims. President Polk sent General Zachary Taylor to Texas, and by October 3,500 Americans were on the Nueces River, ready to occupy the disputed land. In November, Polk sent a secret representative to Mexico City to offer $25 million for the Rio Grande border in Texas, to forgive the $3 million owed to U.S. citizens for damages caused by the Mexican War of Independence [from Spain] 25 years earlier, and to pay another $25 to $30 million in exchange for the two territories of Alta California and Santa Fe de Nuevo México.

Mexicans refused to deal. When president Jose Joaquin de Herrera considered receiving the president’s envoy, he was accused of treason and deposed, and a more nationalistic government publicly reaffirmed Mexico’s claim to Texas.

At this, President Polk ordered General Zachary Taylor south to the Rio Grande, about 150 miles south of the Nueces. Mexico demanded that Taylor withdraw. Instead, Taylor constructed a makeshift fort on the banks of the Rio Grande opposite the city of Matamoros. On April 25, 1846, a 2,000-strong detachment of Mexican cavalry attacked a 70-man U.S. patrol, routing it and killing 16 American soldiers. American blood had been shed, to be sure. On American soil? Polk thought so, or pretended to think so, and sent a message to Congress saying so. Congress approved a declaration of war on May 13.

Santa Anna persuaded the Americans that he would work to sell the contested territory at a reasonable price, and he persuaded the Mexicans that he just wanted to fight for his country. Or course, as soon as he got command of an army, he double-crossed everybody, declaring himself president and trying to fight off the Americans.

In May, Taylor and 2,400 troops defeated 3,400 Mexicans in the Battle of Resaca de la Palma, in fierce hand to hand combat. Taylor’s troops crossed the Rio Grande and took the city of Monterrey, then in February, 1847, held the mountain pass at Buena Vista against an attack by 15,000 Mexican troops led by Santa Anna personally. A second army under General Winfield Scott was transported by sea to the port of Veracruz, and on March 9, 1847, Scott performed the first major amphibious landing in U.S. history, using specially designed landing craft and 12,000 volunteer and regular soldiers to offload supplies, weapons, and horses. Veracruz surrendered after 12 days. Scott then marched westward toward Mexico City, defeated Santa Anna at Cerro Gordo, captured Puebla, the second largest city in Mexico, and successfully stormed Mexico City in August.

Meanwhile, a U.S. cavalry force reinforced by a Pacific fleet had invaded western Mexico, lest Britain seize the area. California was won by army and navy operations, culminating in the treaty of Cahuenga on January 13, 1847.

President Polk achieved his goal of American territorial expansion to the Pacific coast. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo forced Mexico to cede Alta California and New Mexico to the United States in exchange for $15 million and the assumption by the United States of $3.25 million of debt owed by the Mexican government to U.S. citizens. Altogether, adding up territory lost by the secession of Texas, the territory ceded after the war, and the Gasden Purchase of 1853, Mexico’s land-mass was reduced by more than 55%. However, the land lost was mostly empty of Mexicans. Alta California contained only about 14,000 Mexicans; Nuevo México, fewer than 60,000. Of those, the great majority chose to remain where they were rather than relocate to the south.

With time and politics, the war came to be seen in the North as a Southern plot to gain new territory geographically suited for the expansion of Slavery, and that view, though not complete, was not wrong. The question of whether the newly acquired territories were to be free or slave brought the Union closer to Civil War. It might have come in 1850 – almost did – but in 1850 political opinion in the North had not been hardened by a decade of ever-increasing defiance, insolence, and invective hurled at it day by day by representatives of the South. That defiance stemmed from a sense of injustice, as the Southerners saw what looked to them like a conspiracy to deprive them of the spoils of a war that had been largely fought by Southern troops. President Ulysses S. Grant, who served in Mexico under General Taylor as a young army lieutenant, said in his Memoirs: “The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican war. Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions. We got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times.

America’s Long Journey: California and gold

In 1846, Alta California was a province of Mexico, as it had been ever since Mexico achieved independence from Spain in 1821. It was sparsely populated, Governed from Monterey, and was as remote from the nation’s capital and center of population as it was possible to be. Mostly it was a region of cattle ranches, trading cowhides and tallow with Boston merchants. (For a very interesting account of coasting along the California posts from San Diego to San Francisco, accumulating cowhides in the early 1840s, see Richard Henry Dana’s classic Two Years Before the Mast).

Native Californians revolted against the central Mexican government several times in the 1830s. (The Mexican government ended the final revolt, in 1836, by naming the head of the rebellion governor of the department.) But 1846 was a different story. This year, settlers raised the Bear Flag (featuring a bear, a star, a red stripe and the words “California Republic”) at Sonoma, and declared independence, then gave way to U.S. occupation during the Mexican War, as we shall see. Following the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, in January, 1848, Alta California became American territory. The newly acquired territory had a population of about 8,000 (plus about 100,000 Indians).

Then everything changed.

On January 24, 1848, less than two weeks before the signing of the treaty ending the Mexican War and making California American territory, a man named James Marshall found gold in the tailrace of a lumber mill he was building for Sacramento pioneer John Sutter. Sutter tried to keep it quiet, being more interested in agriculture than in fostering a gold rush, but the news got out. By March 1848, San Francisco newspaper publisher and merchant Samuel Brannan (after cornering gold prospecting supplies and setting up a store) was going around the city shouting “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!”

People came running. The first people to rush to the gold fields, naturally, were those who lived closest — California residents. Then they started to arrive from Oregon, Hawaii, and Latin America. A small number of “forty-eighters” arrived overland from the east. Some of them got rich pretty quickly, being able to collect in a month what it would take them a year to earn in wages back home.

As the news spread, people came from everywhere in the world. Estimates are that 90,000 people arrived in California in 1849—about half by sea, and half by wagon train along the California Trail. First to last, the hope of getting rich quick drew 300,000 people to California, not only Americans but Mexicans, Britons, Australians, French, and Latin Americans in the tens of thousands. Several hundred Chinese arrived in California in 1849 and 1850, and in 1852 more than 20,000 landed in San Francisco, forerunners of many more who would be recruited to build the western part of the transcontinental railroad. San Francisco alone went from 1,000 residents to 25,000 in two years, and by 1870 it had a population of 150,000.

The gold found and processed was worth billions in today’s dollars, but by 1850 most of the gold that could be recovered by simple methods like panning was gone, and what was left required technology, which required capital. As usual, most of the money made went to a relative few people. And, as usual, any Indians who were sitting on valuable land were evicted or murdered. (In twenty years, an estimated 100,000 California Indians died, 4,500 of them killed outright.) As to what the process of gold mining did to rivers and lakes, the less said the better. Large amounts of gravel, silt, heavy metals, and other pollutants went into streams and rivers, and 150 years later many areas still do not support plant life.

It is estimated that about half the gold-seekers made a modest profit, after taking all expenses into account. The people who made the real money were the merchants who sold the miners the goods they needed, and those who provided shipping, entertainment (including brothels, saloons and gambling houses), lodging, and transportation. By 1855, most people were making their living in the businesses that support ordinary life, most notably California’s second “Gold Rush” – large-scale agriculture.

California discovered gold in 1848, applied for admission as a state in 1849, and received statehood in 1850. As someone said, when a millionaire applies to join your club, you do not keep him waiting long.