New Mexico and California: Message of President James K. Polk to the House of Representatives, 24 July 1848

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

On this day 170 years ago, President James K. Polk, nearing the end of the term of office which he promised would be the sole one, submitted a message (an original copy of which is in the Homestead’s collection) to the House of Representatives based on a request he received by resolutions of that legislative body two weeks prior for more information as to the status of New Mexico and California, recently seized from Mexico during the late war.  Specifically, the House wanted to know more about the forms of government existent in those territories.

The president replied that he’d stated, in a message of 22 December 1846, “the general authority upon which temporary military governments had been established over the conquered portions of Mexico then in our military occupation.”  The army and navy of the U.S. acted, he continued, in strict conformity to accepted practices for the government of territories taken during war.

The scans shown here are of an original copy of the 24 July 1848 message to the House of Representatives by President James K. Polk about the status of New Mexico and California, recently seized by America in the recent war with Mexico.

Polk went on, however, that the established military governments in both places “substitute for the harshness of military rule something of the mildness of civil government,” in that there was “no excess of power” by military authorities.  Rather there was “a relaxation in favor of the peaceable inhabitants of the conquered territory who had submitted to our authority, and were alike politic and humane.”

He did acknowledge that, after his late December 1846 orders, some army and navy officers “exceeded, in some respects . . . the authority which had been given,” so the president issued a new set of orders on 11 January 1847, just two days after the Battle of Los Angeles, which concluded hostilities in California.


Once the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was ratified, the temporary arrangements ceased and Polk turned to discussing the situation in New Mexico in some great detail, particularly in reference to the very important question of the status of Texas and a border with the former along the Rio Grande.

By contrast, his mention of California was quite brief, though he did note that

Although none of the future cities on our coast of California may ever rival the city of New York in wealth, population, and business, yet, that important cities will grow up on the magnificent harbors of that coast, with a rapidly increasing commerce and population, and yielding a large revenue, would seem to be certain.

Here, it appears that Polk was thinking of San Francisco and San Diego, the only areas which had decent natural harbors.  Los Angeles, lacking anything remotely resembling a port of this type, was likely not on the president’s mind.  He went on to observe that, by securing these harbors, “we shall have great advantages in securing the rich commerce of the east, and shall thus obtain for our products new and increased markets, and greatly enlarge our coasting and foreign trade . . .”

Another important point, for both New Mexico and California, concerned land.  The president wrote

The period since the exchange of ratifications of the treaty has been too short to enable the government to have access to or to procure abstracts or copies of the land titles issued by Spain or the republic of Mexico . . . It is estimated . . . that much the larger portion of the land within the territories ceded remains vacant and unappropriated, and will be subject to be disposed of by the United States.  Indeed, a very inconsiderable portion of the land embraced in the cession, it is believed, has been disposed of or granted either by Spain or Mexico.

It is also important to note that Polk continued by addressing revenues realized from sales of unallotted land, writing that “with prudent management, after making liberal grants to emigrants and settlers, it will exceed the cost of the war, and all the expenses to which we have been subjected in acquiring it.”  He was careful to add that the conquest of these lands was not all about money, as the value of adding New Mexico and California to the Union and not “subject to any European power” was of its own significant value.  It was the question of sovereignty that was promoted in this passage.

There were several reports appended to Polk’s letter, including one, dated 17 July, from Secretary of State James Buchanan, who was president from 1857 to 1861 as the nation moved rapidly towards the Civil War.  Buchanan was asked to provide information on the boundaries and population of New Mexico and California and referred to a map used as the sole one for the negotiations of the treaty ending the war as constituting the “proper limits and boundaries” of the two.


This actually turned out not to be the case, as many changes were made later in regard to defining the two territories, as well as the boundary with Mexico, the latter leading to the Gadsden Purchase five years later and the settling of the international boundary.  Moreover, Buchanan referred to other maps, as if the question was not quite as settled as he intimated.

As to population, he wrote “it is believed that no census of the population of New Mexico and the Californias has ever been taken, but little accurate information on this subject has been published.”  The secretary relied on information from John Parrott, a former consul at Mazatlan, who stated

the population of Upper California was estimated, in 1845, at 15,000 whites, 4,000 domesticated Indians, and 20,000 other Indians, making an aggregate of 39,000 souls.

He also cited U.S. consul at Monterey, Thomas O. Larkin, as corroborating Parrott’s figure of 15,000 whites, though Larkin did not offer figures for native peoples.  Yet, Buchanan also quoted from John C. Frémont, whose semi-military exploring expeditions and his role in the invasion in 1846-47 made him a controversial figure, but whom Buchanan referred to as having “well known ability, and superior means of information.”


According to Frémont, there were 50,000 persons in California by the beginning of 1848, including 12,000 “Spanish whites and mixed bloods”, and 4,000 Americans, English, French and others, while the native population was said to be 34,000 with 4,000 of these “domesticated.”  Notably, Frémont observed that “in Upper California, east of the Sierra Nevada . . . the only white inhabitants are a settlement of Mormons, on the Great Salt Lake, amounting to about three thousand,” while any accounting of “wandering and unsettled Indians” could not be provided with any reliability.

The remainder of the document consists of supporting reports from 1846 and 1847 concerning the conquest and establishment of military authority in New Mexico and California, which are of great interest and will make for a fine post in the future.


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