You have probably read, during your school years, that Columbus “discovered” America (or rather, “introduced Western Europe to America”, as it had already been “founded” by the natives living there). But have you ever wondered what shaped the United States of America? As with any other country’s borders, parts of America were defined through the capturing of land by waging wars, revolting, and signing of peace treaties. However, a major piece that forms the US was bought off, much like any business deal. The Louisiana Purchase is famous, for it doubled the area of the US. Yet, there is something fascinating about the Gadsden Purchase between Mexico and the US. While the US added almost 830,000 square miles to its territory for $15 million ($18 per sq. mile) with the Louisiana Purchase, they somehow agreed to settle at $10 million in exchange for a mere 30,000 square miles ($333 per sq. mile)! Fascinated?
Mexico and the United States had been involved in a tussle long before the Gadsden Purchase, since 1836, to be precise. This was the time when Texas was celebrating its independence from Mexico. The US had 27 states and a bunch of territories in the West, and was debating the annexation of Texas but refrained after the Mexicans threatened war. However, more and more Americans settled in Texas over the next nine years, which meant a majority of the population was eager for the US to adopt Texas. Thus, in 1945, Texas was admitted as the 28th state of the United States. This, however, angered Mexico as a part of Texas’ land was disputed. While Texas claimed it extended till Rio Grande River, Mexicans argued Texas ended at Nueces River, north of Rio Grande. Well, now this was between Mexico and the US.
In 1845, President James K. Polk sent his troops into the disputed land between the two rivers, and essentially provoked Mexico to engage. Polk used this to declare war on Mexico in 1846, saying, “Mexico invaded our territory and shed American blood on American soil” (even though the land was disputed). Although this move was challenged by many, including Abraham Lincoln, the Mexican-American war raged on. Following the defeat of Mexico, the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo was signed on February 2, 1848 that gave the United States 525,000 square miles of territory including states like California, Arizona and New Mexico for $15 million. After this, the US extended from “sea to shining sea”, from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. So, the question is, “Was this not enough?”
Apparently, no. The United States was fuelled by the idea of “Manifest Destiny”. It was believed that America was destined to own and rule the land to the West no matter who they had to face – the French, the Spanish, the British, the Mexicans or the Native Americans. Thus, while the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo officially ended the Mexican-American war, tensions continued to simmer over the next few years as the US attempted to negotiate control of more and more land. One such region was that of the Mesilla Valley. Apart from their expansionary destiny, the United States needed to develop a transcontinental railroad connecting the east to the west in order to create a profitable trade route, and improve transportation and communication among their southern states. And the imperative grew with the discovery of gold in California.
The land that the US had acquired under the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo was mountainous and not suitable for a train route. In 1847, they tried to buy the Isthmus of Tehuantepec to connect the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean, but failed to secure it. The best path through the southern route, and seemingly the only option left, crossed the Mexican territory, and this is where the problem arose. By 1853, Mexico started evicting Americans from the disputed Mesilla Valley. When the US Government fell silent on this, Governor William Lane declared it a part of his territory, New Mexico. In order to defuse another potential battle, US President Franklin Pierce sent James Gadsden, President of the South Carolina Railroad and former army officer, to work out a peace deal with the Mexican President Antonio de Santa Anna. Gadsden was instructed to negotiate a deal ranging from $50 million (for lower California and portion of northern Mexico) to $15 million (for a smaller land deal that would at least enable the US to move forward with their transcontinental railroad line), and one that would free the US from any financial obligation for the Native American attacks. While Santa Anna refused to part with any more of Mexico territory than was necessary, he was in need for some cold-hard cash to fund an army (much like Napoleon at the time of the Louisiana Purchase).
After a lot of back and forth, the Gadsden Purchase or the Gadsden Treaty was signed in April 1854, agreeing to sell 29,670 square miles of land that became a part of Arizona and New Mexico (south of the Gila River), in exchange for $10 million This was revised down from the previously agreed upon 45,000 square miles for $15 million in 1853; there was opposition from senators in the north who opposed expansion of the southern territory fearing formation of another slave territory. Translated to 2019 dollars, the Gadsden Purchase cost the United States of America almost $305 million! The US managed to get the last piece of the puzzle connecting El Paso, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico with Los Angeles, California.
However, the deal came with its own new set of problems. This deal awoke the controversy between the North and the South over slavery, an issue that the US leaders had spent a lifetime trying to suppress. What’s shocking is that by the time the deal was finalised, the issue of the southern railroad had become moot and was overshadowed by more pressing matters relating to slavery. This was the time when the Kansas-Nebraska Act was in talks. While the bill was introduced with the goal of developing a ‘central’ transcontinental railroad, it was notable for stoking national tensions over slavery by allowing the settlers to decide whether slavery would be allowed within a new state’s borders. It even led to the violent uprising, “Bleeding Kansas” that paved the way for the shattering of the Union in 1861, aka the American Civil War.
While the driving incentive behind the Gadsden Purchase had been the development of a southern transcontinental railroad, sectional bitterness and complexities of that era kept it from being built despite negotiating an expensive deal. Nevertheless, the southern pacific railway did eventually build a transcontinental railroad along the southern route, but it wasn’t completed until 1883, and only after the first transcontinental railroad was built along the central route!
- The Annexation of Texas, the Mexican-American War, and the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, 1845–1848, Office of the Historian
- Gadsden Purchase: History and Facts, A Border-Building Bargain, Purchase Control
- Gadsden Purchase, 1853-54, Office of the Historian
- The Gadsden Purchase and a failed attempt at a southern railroad