Gadsden Purchase issue tells of the harsh politics of the 1850s

Gadsden Purchase stampI was born in the Gadsden Purchase, about as far south in that part of the United States as you can go, one century after the deal for its acquisition was made.

So it’s understandable that the postage stamp commemorating that last act of territorial acquisition in the continental U.S., issued when I was about 6 months old, has become one of my favorites and thus the one with which I will inaugurate this blog.

Tied up in the negotiations that sent South Carolinian James Gadsden to negotiate with Mexican President Santa Anna (of Alamo “in”-fame), was the relatively new concept of “manifest destiny,” the festering conflict over slave v. free states, the desire for a transcontinental railroad and much more, worthy of several volumes.

In the years following the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which had ended the Mexican-American War in February 1848 and gave the United States much of the West and Southwest, there was still conflict over ownership of the Mesilla Valley in what is today’s south-central New Mexico, and over continuing Apache raids from U.S. territory into Mexico. Though the United States had agreed to stop such raiding, such would continue largely unabated until the 1886 surrender of Geronimo.

The man who made the deal

James Gadsden (1788 – 1858) had a military career, serving under Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812 and in the Seminole wars in Florida. In 1840, he became president of the South Carolina Railroad Co., which operated railroads in its namesake state and was interested — as were many in the south — in developing a southern route to the Pacific, just as interests in the north wanted a central route, through free states and feeding the industry of the north.

Under the presidency of Zachary Taylor (1849-1850), a southerner and a hero of the Mexican War, the regions were in conflict over whether the newly acquired territory was to be slave or free. Already some in the south were threatening secession. That debate would continue in the administration of Millard Fillmore (1850-1853), a New Yorker who was able to negotiate compromises, including bringing California into the Union as a free state.

This was the setting in which Franklin Pierce (1853-1857), a New Englander, took office. All that had been accomplished the the Missouri Compromise of 1850 was reversed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which would allow the individual territories to decide for themselves the issue of slavery. Pierce would be accused of giving in to southern desires to spread slavery, angering many in the north. But the measure, which made territories of Kansas and Nebraska, had been promoted by Sen. Stephen A. Douglas, who needed it to develop a railroad from Chicago to California through Nebraska.

Map shows slave and free states

These pages from "Reynolds's Political Map of the United States" (1856) show slave and free states.

Balancing Douglas’ desire was Pierce’s Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, who persuaded the president to appoint Gadsden minister to Mexico, with instructions to negotiate a treaty acquiring property for a southern route to the western sea.  The southern route would be the only possible “all-weather” route, capable of operating without the problems associated with of heavy rains or snow and ice.

(The Kansas-Nebraska Act encouraged heavy migrations to that region of partisans of both sections, seeking to have to votes to determine the fate of the territories.  Unbridled passion for the causes of both sides brought about many acts of violence; this dark chapter in American history left the term “bleeding Kansas.”  It would prove to be a precusor to the Civil War.)

Meanwhile, in Mexico

Meanwhile, in Mexico, the United States and private investors had been negotiating since 1847 for rights to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the narrowest part of Mexico, site of various schemes to provide a railroad route (some were even thinking canal) between the Atlanta and Pacific. This attempt would be hurried a couple of years after it began by the discovery of gold in California.

But when Gadsden sat down Sept. 25, 1853 to talk with Mexico’s many-time president, Antonio López de Santa Anna (or, if you want the complete name, Antonio de Padua María Severino López de Santa Anna y Pérez de Lebrón), the subject was a railroad route.  President Pierce actually gave him several options, depending on the amount of land that Mexico was willing to yield.

Santa Anna wasn’t truly interested in parting with more of his nation’s territory, but he needed funds to pay the army (to put down rebellions), so he agreed to accept $10 million (much of which would go into his own pockets, rather than to the treasury) for much of the part of modern Arizona south of the Gila River and the far eastern part of Arizona and the part of western New Mexico that’s at a much lower latitude.  (See the map on the stamp.)

The treaty that Gadsden negotiated, which offered $15 million for 45,000 square miles, wasn’t exactly what the Pierce administration wanted, but as it discussed the deal in January, it decided to forward the proposal to Congress.  The Senate took up debate in February, at the same time its attention was directed toward the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and it was ready for a vote in April.  While a majority of senators voted for the deal, it didn’t get the two-thirds majority required for treaty approval.

A revised version, paying out $10 million for 29,670 square miles, would be approved, and the president signed it into law June 8, 1854.

After the treaty is approved

Within a few years, American settlers were beginning to flow into the Gadsden Purchase area, mingling with the Native Americans and Mexicans who were already there.  In most cases, the interaction was peaceful, though the Apaches would soon start resisting the American advance just as they had resisted the Mexicans.  In November 1856, the Army was directed to develop Fort Buchanan on Sonoita Creek in today’s southern Arizona to protect miners who were developing the silver resources of the are.  It would be from this point, about five years later, that a drama would play out that would put a previously peaceful leader of the Chiricahua Apaches, Cochise, on the warpath.  But that’s another story for another time.

Today, the land south of the Gila provides numerous resources, cultural attributes and wonders, just as every part of the country boasts.  Much of the nation’s copper, for example, is mined in this region.  In 1853, copper was not in that great of demand and the resources of the territory were not known.

A railroad through this part of the country, by the way, wouldn’t be completed until 1881.  The great dreams of a transcontinental railroad were delayed time and again, by events great and small, including the Civil War, and the first linkup would have to wait until 1869, a full two decades after the gold rush that made the road so desireable.

About the stamp

The 3-cent stamp commemorating the centennial of the Gadsden Purchase was issued in Tucson, Arizona, on Dec. 30, 1953.  The stamp was printed by the rotary process, electric-eye perforated and issued in sheets of 50.  The color of the stamp is brown (copper shade).  An initial printing order of 110 million stamps was authorized.  The sahuaro cacti that dominate the stamp are Arizona’s state “tree,” and are found in great abundance around Tucson, though not too much east of there.  They won’t grow well where it freezes hard, a condition achieved in much of the higher desert country of Arizona and New Mexico.

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