The Oregon Country
The spirit of “Manifest Destiny” pervaded the United States during the Age of Reform—the decades prior to the Civil War. John L. O’Sullivan, editor of the influential United States Magazine and Democratic Review, gave the expansionist movement its name in 1845, when he wrote that it is “the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” Manifest Destiny was stimulated by nationalism and an idealistic vision of human perfectibility. It was America’s duty to extend liberty and democratic institutions across the continent. Underlying this divine American mission was a feeling of cultural—even racial—superiority. Anglo-Saxon Americans believed that they had a natural right to move west, bringing with them the blessings of self-government and Protestantism. Americans gradually had been moving westward for two centuries, but in the 1830s and 1840s they pushed across the continent.
By the early nineteenth century, Spain, Russia, Great Britain, and the United States claimed sovereignty to the Oregon country. Oregon was a sprawling region of half a million square miles west of the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific, between what is now the northern boundary of California and the southern tip of Alaska. Spain ceded its claims with the Transcontinental Treaty, negotiated in 1819 by John Quincy Adams, by which the United States acquired Florida and relinquished any nebulous claims to Texas under the Louisiana Purchase. In the mid-1820s, Russia acknowledged that Alaska extended only to the present-day southern boundary of 54o 40′ north latitude, and ultimately sold its holdings north of San Francisco at Fort Ross to settlers.
The withdrawal of Spain and Russia left Oregon to the United States and Great Britain. Both had strong claims to the region based on discovery and occupation. George Vancouver, a British naval officer following up on the voyages of Captain James Cook, explored the coastline in 1792, and the Hudson Bay Company subsequently established fur-trading posts. Also in 1792, Robert Gray, an American fur merchant sailing out of Boston aboard the Columbia, discovered the majestic river named for his ship. Lewis and Clark wintered on the Oregon coast during their famous expedition, and John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company built Astoria in 1811.
The United States and Britain agreed to the “joint occupation” of Oregon in 1818, when Spain and Russia still had claims to the region, allowing the citizens of each nation equal access to the territory. Merchant mariners and “mountain men” who worked for the various fur companies shared Oregon with the Indians, but there were few white settlers. Then, in 1829, Hall J. Kelley renewed interest in the region with the American Society for Encouraging the Settlement of the Oregon Country.
The Reverend Jason Lee, and several other Protestant missionaries sent to convert the Flathead Indians, settled in the Willamette River valley, south of the Columbia, by the 1830s. Dr. Marcus Whitman and his wife Narcissa, who was among the first group of white women to cross the Rockies, built their mission east of the Cascade Mountains among the Cayuse Indians. The Whitmans, who never learned to appreciate the natives’ culture or social customs, were killed by the Cayuses after a measles epidemic decimated the tribe. Other missionaries also faced resistance from the Indians who wished to maintain their traditional ways, and began encouraging white emigration to extend “civilization” to the territory. There were about 500 Americans living in the region by the end of the decade, sending back reports on the temperate climate, abundant forests, and fertile soil.
Motivated by the spirit of Manifest Destiny, “Oregon Fever” seized thousands of western Americans hard hit by the economic depression—known as the Panic of 1837—triggered largely by an over-speculation in federal lands. Independence, Missouri, was the starting point of the 2,000 mile Overland Trail, blazed by Jedediah Smith, Jim Bridger, and other mountain men. Commonly referred to as the “Oregon Trail,” the route ran along the Missouri and Platte Rivers, across the Great Plains, and through the South Pass of the Rocky Mountains. West of the continental divide, in present-day Idaho, wagon trains either moved into Oregon down the Snake and Columbia Rivers or turned southward along the California Trail.
In the years prior to the Civil War, more than 300,000 Americans traveled west, typically with all their belongings in “prairie schooners,” canvas-covered wagons typically pulled by oxen. Most of the Oregon pioneers were young farm families from the middle west, who completed the difficult journey in five or six months. A high percentage of the California gold-seekers were young, unmarried men, who expected to return to their families as wealthy men. Many overland pioneers died on the trail—17 per mile, according to one estimate—but fewer than 400 were killed by hostile Indians. The various Indian tribes frequently developed a flourishing trade with the whites passing through their lands, and occasionally served as scouts for the wagon trains.
It was clear that the joint occupation of Oregon could not continue indefinitely. About 5,000 Americans had made the trek to Oregon by the mid-1840s, most of them settling south of the Columbia River. There were perhaps 700 British citizens living near Fort Vancouver on the north bank of the Columbia. Daniel Webster and Lord Ashburton discussed the Oregon issue during their negotiations in 1842, but did not reach an agreement. President John Tyler suggested that the boundary line be extended from the Rocky Mountains along the forty-ninth parallel, but the British refused to relinquish their claims to the Columbia. The spirit of Manifest Destiny could not be held in check for long, however, and the presidential election of 1844 ultimately determined the extent of American territorial expansion.
The Annexation of Texas
When Mexico gained its independence from Spain, Texas was a sparsely settled frontier province bordering the United States. Texas, explored by the Spanish as early as the 1500s, was largely neglected in the centuries that followed. Only a few thousand Mexicans—known as Tejanos—lived in the province by the early 1820s, most of them clustered around the mission at San Antonio. The Mexican government encouraged Americans to emigrate to Texas in an effort to create a military buffer between marauding Indians and the more southern provinces. The Americans were required to give up their citizenship, convert to Roman Catholicism, and become Mexican citizens. In return, they were granted huge tracts of land in the region bordering Louisiana, along the Sabine, Colorado, and Brazos Rivers.
The first American empresario was Moses Austin, a former New Englander who had traded with the Spanish for decades. Austin was granted 18,000 square miles, with the understanding that he would settle 300 American families on his lands. His son, Stephen F. Austin, had the grant confirmed by Mexican authorities after his father’s death, and by the mid-1830s there were about 30,000 Americans ranching and growing cotton with the aid of several thousand black slaves. Despite the fact that the Mexican government had abolished slavery, Americans continued to emigrate with their “lifetime indentured servants.” The Americans in Texas greatly outnumbered the native Mexicans, and they sought full statehood for the province in order to gain home rule.
The American-born Texans supported Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna for the presidency of Mexico in 1833, because they believed he would support statehood. But after his election, Santa Anna proclaimed a unified central government that eliminated states’ rights. The Texans, with some Tejano allies, revolted against Santa Anna’s dictatorship. The revolutionaries declared their independence on March 2, 1836, and adopted a constitution legalizing slavery. David G. Burnet, a native of New Jersey who had lived with the Comanches for two years, was chosen president of the new republic. Sam Houston, a former Tennessee congressman and governor who fought under Andrew Jackson during the War of 1812, was selected as Commander-in-Chief of the army.
The Mexican government responded swiftly to put down the Texas rebellion. Santa Anna raised a force of about 6,000 troops, and marched north to besiege the nearly 200 rebels under the command of Colonel William B. Travis at the Alamo, the abandoned mission at San Antonio. The final assault was made on March 6, and the entire garrison was annihilated, including the wounded. Among the dead were frontier legends Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie. A few weeks later at Goliad, Santa Anna ordered the slaughter of 300 Texas rebels after they surrendered.
The Texas Revolution struck a sympathetic chord in America. Hundreds of southwestern adventurers responded to the romanticized heroism of the Alamo and promises of bounty lands. Ignoring American neutrality laws, they rushed to join the Texas army. With fewer than 900 men—about half the size of Santa Anna’s force—General Houston surprised the Mexicans at the San Jacinto River, near the site of the city that bears his name. “Remember the Alamo!” and “Goliad!” were the rallying cries of the Texans as they overwhelmed the veteran Mexican army.
Santa Anna was captured after the Battle of San Jacinto and forced to sign a treaty recognizing Texas as an independent republic, with the Rio Grande River as its southwestern boundary. Upon his return to Mexico City, Santa Anna repudiated the peace treaty. The Mexican Congress likewise refused to acknowledge the independence of Texas, and continued to claim the Nueces River as the boundary of its “rebellious province.” Mexico warned of war should the United States attempt to annex Texas.
Following the revolution, Sam Houston was elected president of Texas, and diplomatic envoys were sent to Washington seeking admission to the Union. President Andrew Jackson, concerned that the annexation of Texas might mean war with Mexico and knowing it would upset the sectional balance between free and slave states, merely extended diplomatic recognition to the new republic on March 3, 1837. His immediate successor in the White House, Martin Van Buren, also managed to sidestep the question of annexation.
President Van Buren was defeated for re-election by William Henry Harrison in the famous “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” campaign of 1840. Tyler was a former Democratic senator from Virginia who resigned his seat rather than vote to expunge a resolution of censure directed against Jackson. This made him an attractive running-mate for Harrison, but it did not make him a Whig in principle. Harrison became the first president to die in office (only a month after his inauguration) and President Tyler soon broke with the Whigs over two key issues—the constitutionality of a national bank and the annexation of Texas.
Tyler selected South Carolinian John C. Calhoun as secretary of state, and instructed him to negotiate a treaty of annexation with the Texas envoys in Washington. Expansionists feared that an independent Texas would blunt America’s march into the southwest. Calhoun subsequently submitted a treaty to the Senate, but also made public his correspondence with the British minister, Richard Pakenham. In his letter, Calhoun chastised British officials for pressuring the Texans to abolish slavery in return for Mexican recognition of their independence. The Republic of Texas had established close diplomatic ties with several European nations, including Britain and France, in an effort to protect itself from Mexico. After defending slavery as a benign institution, Calhoun claimed that the preservation of the Union required the annexation of Texas. By linking the expansion of slavery with the admission of Texas, Calhoun doomed the annexation treaty.
The annexation of Texas and the Oregon boundary dispute were major issues during the election of 1844. While President Tyler was plotting to annex Texas, the leading contenders for the presidential nominations of the Democratic and Whig Parties did their best to defuse the explosive controversy. Former president Martin Van Buren and Henry Clay published letters expressing their opposition to the immediate annexation of Texas. Their anti-expansionist views cost Van Buren the Democratic nomination, and Clay the presidency.
Manifest Destiny was so strong among northwestern and southern Democrats, that the party’s national convention nominated James Knox Polk of Tennessee for president. “Young Hickory” ran on a platform calling for the “re-annexation of Texas” and the “re-occupation of Oregon.” Clay received the Whig nomination by acclamation, but westerners remembered his Texas letter and some northeasterners refused to support a slaveholder. James G. Birney, the candidate of the Liberty Party, polled enough Whig support in New York to swing that state’s electoral vote to Polk, who was elected president.
President Tyler viewed the Democratic victory as a mandate to annex Texas. Recognizing the difficulty of securing the two-thirds Senate vote necessary to ratify a treaty, Tyler hit upon an ingenious ploy. He sought a joint resolution of annexation from Congress that required a simple majority in each house. This was accomplished shortly before Tyler left office. After a state convention agreed to annexation on the Fourth of July, Texas was formally admitted to the Union in December 1845. President Polk, meanwhile, ordered General Zachary Taylor and about half of the United States army—some 3,500 men—to take up a defensive position on the Nueces River.
The Mexican-American War
The process of admitting Texas as a slave state was well under way by the time Polk became president on March 4, 1845. One plank of the Democratic platform was thus resolved. In his first annual message to Congress, Polk asserted that the American claim to the entire Oregon country was “clear and unquestionable.” The British, who had refused on several occasions to relinquish any territory north of the Columbia River, now had a change of heart. Their chief fur-trading post had been moved to Vancouver Island, and British Minister Pakenham suggested extending the boundary line from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific along the forty-ninth parallel. Polk, focusing on settling the Texas controversy and acquiring California, agreed to submit the British proposal to the Senate. On June 18, 1846, over the protests of expansionist Democratic senators demanding all of Oregon to the southern border of Alaska—“Fifty-four forty or fight”—the Oregon boundary settlement was ratified. Polk was especially pleased with the timing of the compromise, because the United States was already at war with Mexico.
Mexico broke diplomatic relations with Washington following the annexation of Texas, and continued to claim the Nueces River as the southwestern border of its rebellious province. Exacerbating the situation were millions of dollars in inflated claims that Americans had lodged against the Mexican government, and the driving desire of President Polk to acquire the valuable Pacific ports of California. Polk appointed John Slidell of Louisiana as minister to Mexico, and instructed him to offer up to 30 million dollars to settle the disputed claims and purchase California and New Mexico—the territory between Texas and California. Secretary of War William Marcy suggested to Thomas Larkin, the American consul in Monterey, that the Californios might follow the Texas example and declare their independence from Mexico. John Charles Frémont led an ostensible “exploring expedition” to support such a revolt.
The Polk administration failed in its initial efforts to acquire California and settle the Texas controversy. Californians did not rise in revolt, and Mexico rejected Slidell as an American minister. Polk then ordered General Taylor to move his troops across the Nueces to the Rio Grande, but the stalemate continued. On Saturday, May 9, 1846, the president informed his cabinet that the U.S. “had ample cause of war,” based upon the rejection of Slidell as minister and the claims issue. Only Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft, the preeminent historian of the age, opposed seeking an immediate declaration of war from Congress. That very evening, however, word was received that fighting had commenced along the Rio Grande. The following Monday, Polk declared that Mexico “invaded our territory, and shed American blood upon American soil.” Congress responded with a war resolution and an authorization for 50,000 volunteers.
The war with Mexico was popular in the Mississippi Valley, but was derided as “Mr. Polk’s War” in the northeast. Whigs generally opposed the war, but party members in Congress voted to support the American soldiers and marines during the fighting. Abraham Lincoln, a Whig congressman from Illinois, believed Polk rushed the country into war over the disputed territory between the Nueces and the Rio Grande. He demanded to know the exact “spot” the war started, but his views were not popular back home and he chose not to run for reelection.
Antislavery men naturally viewed the conflict as a brazen conspiracy to extend the boundaries of the “peculiar institution.” James Russell Lowell, an abolitionist poet, castigated the Mexican War in the Biglow Papers.
Henry Davis Thoreau symbolically protested the war by refusing to pay his Massachusetts poll tax. He spent one night in the Concord jail, before his aunt paid his fine and he returned to Walden Pond to write a classic essay, “Civil Disobedience.” Thoreau rhetorically inquired: “How does it become a man to behave toward this American government today? I answer, that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it.”
Despite the opposition of Whigs and antislavery men, the war with Mexico was an unparalleled military success. After the first clash in late April, General Taylor crossed the Rio Grande and defeated numerically superior Mexican forces at the Battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma. Advancing on Monterrey, a town in northern Mexico, “Old Rough and Ready” and his men faced fierce house-to-house fighting against a valiant Mexican army led by General Pedro de Ampudia. Taylor agreed to a negotiated surrender, allowing the Mexican troops to retreat with their arms. President Polk countermanded the armistice, and ordered Taylor to take a defensive position and detach most of his veteran troops to bolster a planned attack against Mexico City. General Santa Anna tried to exploit Taylor’s weakened position, but the Battle of Buena Vista in February 1847 was a stunning American victory. It was also Taylor’s last fight—he returned home a military hero destined for the White House.
Polk’s main objective—California—was not the scene of major military action. Americans living near Sonoma raised the “Bear Flag Revolt” in June 1846, aided by Frémont’s small force. After his sailors and marines seized Monterey, Commodore John D. Sloat proclaimed the annexation of California and instituted a military government. Some Mexican loyalists resisted the American occupation, and sporadic fighting continued. Meanwhile, Colonel Stephen Kearney’s small army garrisoned Santa Fe, New Mexico, before resuming their march. En route, Kearney encountered Kit Carson, who incorrectly reported that California had been pacified. Sending all but one hundred men back east, Kearney joined forces at San Diego with Commodore Robert Stockton and helped put down the loyalist revolt. The American forces entered Los Angeles in January 1847, ending the fighting in California.
The decisive campaign of the war was the expedition against Mexico City. Winfield Scott, the commanding general of the United States Army, landed his men on the beaches near Vera Cruz, and commenced a march that traced the route taken 300 years before by Cortés. Scott brushed aside Santa Anna’s army at Cerro Gordo, a battle in which Captains Robert E. Lee and George B. McClellan distinguished themselves. Santa Anna hastily recruited a Mexican army of about 20,000 troops, but many of them were ill-trained and equipped. In a series of sharp battles near the capital city, General Scott’s army of nearly 14,000 men overwhelmed the Mexican forces. The fortified hill of Chapultepec was stormed despite the desperate resistance of the defenders, who included young military cadets known as “los niños.” Mexico City fell on September 14, as American soldiers and marines entered the “halls of the Montezuma.”
Nicholas P. Trist, the chief clerk of the State Department, was sent by Polk to negotiate a peace treaty with the Mexican government. It was signed on February 2, 1848, at Guadalupe-Hidalgo. Mexico acknowledged the annexation of Texas (with the Rio Grande as its border), and ceded New Mexico and California to the United States. In return, the United States paid $15,000,000 for the Mexican Cession, and assumed up to $3,250,000 of the disputed claims. The war’s human toll included about 13,000 American dead—the vast majority due to diseases. In terms of the percentage of combatants, this remains the nation’s costliest military conflict. It also reopened the slavery expansion controversy settled by the Missouri Compromise of 1820.
Ralph Waldo Emerson prophetically warned, “The United States will conquer Mexico, but it will be as the man swallows the arsenic, which brings him down in turn. Mexico will poison us.” Indeed, the Mexican Cession became a political battleground between the North and the South. The issue was raised early in the war by David Wilmot, a Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania. Employing the language of the Northwest Ordinance, Wilmot proposed that slavery be prohibited in any territory acquired from Mexico. The “Wilmot Proviso” passed the House frequently in the next several years, but it was always defeated in the Senate. It never became law, but represented the extreme Northern position regarding the extension of slavery. Senator John C. Calhoun presented the extreme Southern position on slavery expansion in February 1847. Calhoun argued that Congress had no power to prohibit slavery in any American territory, and Southerners subsequently demanded that federal slave codes protect slavery in the Mexican Cession. Two compromise proposals were also advanced prior to the election of 1848. James Buchanan urged that the Missouri Compromise line of 36o 30’ be extended to the Pacific. President Polk agreed; but it was becoming more difficult for politicians to concede any territory in the fight over slavery. The other compromise proposal, known as “popular sovereignty,” was introduced in December 1847 by Lewis Cass, a moderate Democratic senator from Michigan. Cass adroitly proposed that the explosive slavery question be removed from the halls of Congress by letting the people of the territories decide the matter. As it turned out, a decision would have to be reached soon because of the California gold rush.