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The Borderlands

The Borderlands on the Eve of War

A Conversation With David J. Weber
Southern Methodist University

Drawing of cowboys roping a bull

Before and during the U.S.-Mexican War, what do the United States and Mexico see is at stake with the "new frontier" in the West?

Mexico and the United States went to war over a vast amount of terrain — what would amount to half of Mexico when it was all over, beginning of course, with Texas, which the United States annexed. The U.S. interest in expansion is very plain. Texas we wanted simply for its fine agricultural production, cotton in particular, which turned out to be the major commodity. California was the real goal in the far west — to have harbors on the Pacific and make ourselves a continental empire. We were not terribly interested in New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Utah and Nevada, all of which belonged to Mexico as well, but those territories needed to be conquered if we were eventually to connect the Atlantic to the Pacific by railroad, which was already a dream. From the point of view of Mexico, these lands were not of any great value, but they belonged to Mexico. The lands were theirs and had potential value in the future. They were not of immediate economic value, but Mexicans knew full well that Texas was a wonderful place for agriculture. The reports that came back suggested that Texas and California were potentially very rich provinces. I don't think either the U.S. or Mexico especially appreciated the desert. It wouldn't be until the advent of air conditioning that we would get excited about the desert country.

Mexico recognized that it needed to hold its northern frontier if for no other reason than to stop the U.S. from moving even closer to Mexico, then taking the next inevitable step of moving into Mexico City itself. There was a kind of domino theory at work here.

This was an extraordinarily remote area of the Mexican Republic. In those days, the population centers were actually the reverse of the way they are today. In 1821, when Mexico became independent of Spain, California was sparsely populated with something like 3,200 Mexicans. New Mexico, on the other hand, had a population of about 40,000 and was the dynamo of the northern frontier. Texas was also sparsely populated with about 2,500 Mexicans. The folks who lived in this frontier zone essentially lived in islands — enclaves unconnected to one another. There were no horizontal lines of communication across the Southwest. People who lived in San Antonio were more apt to think of Saltillo, Monterrey, and Mexico City than they were Santa Fe. People who lived in Santa Fe were unlikely to communicate with people living in San Francisco. The gulf between them was enormous.

How did these vast distances shape attitudes and interests of people living in these remote areas?

Many historians think that Mexico really was not even a nation at this early time but rather a collection of nations. New Mexico, California, Yucatán, Zacatecas, Oaxaca — these distant areas from the core of the nation were loyal to their own regional governments. This new creation, this Republic of Mexico, which had no king nor none of the power that the Spanish majesty had to demand loyalty and authority, was an abstraction. Mexico was a country in the process of inventing itself, and these different parts simply didn't hold together very well until the center somehow coalesced. I think at this time the center seemed more of a threat to those parts than a force to bring those parts together.

Revolts were breaking out in Mexico as the government moved more toward centralism in the mid 1830s. Revolts were breaking out in Sonora, which included a bit of what is Arizona today. Revolts in California, revolts in New Mexico, revolts in Texas. The Texas revolt happened to be the most successful one because Texas was on the very edge of the U.S. and could get arms, moral support and manpower from the U.S. Other distant places like Yucatán broke away at the same time too, and stayed away several years before it was brought back into the Mexican Republic.

It seems to me that Mexicans were ambivalent in their loyalty toward Mexico to the extent that Mexico could not deliver the goods. Mexico could not defend them with troops. The Mexican economy was not strong enough to furnish manufactured goods to frontiersmen at reasonable prices and link the country to it economically. Mexican politics were in chaos and the frontiersmen felt that they were neglected politically. Those problems left frontiersmen with no compelling reason to be loyal to Mexico, but rather to look to themselves and after their own self interest.

Some of the leading Californians thought the answer to this might be to create an independent California or, perhaps, one under British, French or American protectorate. There were a variety of options. New Mexicans thought, on the eve of the U.S.-Mexican War, about breaking away from Mexico and forming an independent republic. We don't know how many New Mexicans did this, but there are some documents suggesting a separatist sentiment. And it's perfectly understandable that leaders in these provinces would look to their own fates and not to the central government to solve their own problems for their families.

How did these settlers take their fates in hand and resolve problems that were unique to their province?

Given the sparse population of these northern provinces, one of the principal goals was to find more sources of populations. Living in Santa Fe, for example, imposed an isolation from the rest of Mexico. It was a 40-day journey from Santa Fe to Chihuahua. From Mexico City, the journey by wagon could have taken as much as six months. So where did New Mexicans sell products? The U.S. looked like a very attractive market. It was a 60-day journey across the Santa Fe trail to Missouri but the trail was actually more level and safer in many ways than traveling through the Apache-infested country of northern Mexico.

By the time of the war with Mexico, New Mexicans were enormously dependent on the United States for trade goods. That included largely manufactured goods made of metal such as hinges, hair pins and scissors. It also included manufactured cloth that was produced more inexpensively by machines in the United States than could be made by hand in Mexico. Silver was the principal commodity of the Mexicans. Americans were drawn west to trade their goods and bring silver back into the U.S., a place that had been short of hard cash. Silver drove the Santa Fe trade.

Painting of a Native AmericanNew Mexicans thought of themselves as surrounded by hostile Indians, and indeed they were — Navajos to the west, Utes to the northwest, Comanches to the northeast, Apaches to the south. One could go on and break these groups down into still smaller entities as the New Mexicans did, who understood Apaches, for example, by many different names — Gileños, Mimbreños, Lipanes. These totaled 20 or 30 different groups of hostile Indians that surrounded New Mexico. The danger that the U.S. posed was, in many ways, less dramatic than the danger that Indians posed on the eve of the war between the United States and Mexico.

The desire on the part of many Mexican frontiersmen to bring in more colonists from somewhere was acute. "How are we going to defend ourselves in these remote provinces, unless there are more of us? If we are surrounded by Indians, then we need to increase our numbers too." But the odds of getting immigrants from Mexico were really very slight. Central Mexico was so far away, so to look to the United States seemed to make a great deal of sense. As the Americans came in, the Mexican frontiersmen thought of this as a real boon, by and large. It didn't mean that they were in love with Anglo-Americans, nor thought that Anglo-American culture was something that was without its dangers or threats to them. But it simply meant they would be more secure with more gun-carrying people who were likely to help them fight Indians.

On the eve of the U.S. war with Mexico, relations with Indians had actually worsened rather than improved. One sees that in the laments of frontiersmen, as they begged Mexico's central government for military help. There's a wonderful quote from the legislature of the state of Chihuahua, suggesting that Mexicans in Chihuahua essentially couldn't travel the roads, farm or ranch without Indians' permission — that, in fact, they raised cattle and sheep for the benefit of Indians, who would come and take them. Apaches, on the other hand, boasted at one point that they allowed the Mexicans to raise sheep for them and that they never wanted to take all of the sheep for fear that their herds would be decimated and they would have no fresh sources.

I think the question of worsening Indian relations can't be understood apart from the western movement of Anglo-Americans at this time. We think of Anglo-American frontiersmen as being hardy souls wandering out to conquer the wilderness. Mexicans thought of those very same frontiersmen not as hardy pioneers but rather gun merchants — that they were selling guns to Indians who used those guns to take Mexican cattle and horses to sell to the Anglo-Americans in exchange for ammunition. So Mexicans essentially had no control over the frontier. They no longer controlled the arms trade — they no longer controlled ammunition. During the 1830s and 40s, Indians increasingly found markets for stolen goods with the Americans and the military situation just simply deteriorated. New Mexico was braced for war with Navajos just a month before Stephen W. Kearny marched over the Santa Fe trail to invade New Mexico. So, New Mexico really was at war on several fronts simultaneously.

As we think about Anglo-American/Mexican relations during this time, the emphasis naturally is on conflict. We have a war heating up. But underneath the surface, there was also a terrific amount of accommodation as Anglo-Americans moved in, lived with Mexicans in New Mexico and California, and intermarried. The very same Anglo-Americans who left the United States with racist attitudes wound up as minorities in Mexican communities. They adapted and, indeed, embraced Catholicism, embraced the Spanish language, and literally embraced Mexican women with whom they had very close relationships. So, the Mexican frontier became a place of considerable harmony even as there was conflict on other levels.