by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Today’s post highlights a fascinating document in the Homestead’s collection: a published report on “The Treaty Between the United States and Mexico,” issued by the Senate after it was removed from an “injunction of secrecy” on 31 May and 2 June 1848. The document contains a record of the proceedings leading to the treaty’s ratification by the Senate, the text of the document in English and Spanish, and exhaustive documentation of the difficult and controversial path to the treaty’s negotiations and ratification by both countries.
America’s first imperial war, the Mexican-American War, was launched after fighting broke out in late April 1846 in a hotly disputed area of Texas, recently annexed by America after less than a decade as an independent nation. The war came to California in the summer, including a quick seizure of Los Angeles, though Californios, enraged by treatment from the garrison commander in the pueblo, rose up and took back control of the town.
Late in the year, a new American assault commenced as U.S. Navy Commodore Robert F. Stockton, marched north by land, rather than by sea, from San Diego stopped at the mission town of San Juan Capistrano in the first days of 1847. There he met two men, including William Workman, sent as envoys by José Castro, commander of the Californios and who delivered a letter from Castro to Stockton concerning the pending conflict between the two forces.
It was stated that Workman arranged with Stockton an amnesty for those Californios who were defending Los Angeles against the latest American incursion before the short conference broke up. The Americans marched north and engaged the locals in a battle on the west bank of the San Gabriel River (today’s Rio Hondo) and then a second conflict occurred at La Mesa in today’s City of Commerce/Vernon.
When the Californios withdrew, the Americans marched into Los Angeles on 10 January 1847 and Workman and a few others were there with a flag of truce. Meanwhile, John C. Frémont, with a group of volunteers, arrived in the San Fernando Valley from the north, supposed to be reinforcements for Stockton but getting to the area late. On his own, Frémont arranged a treaty with General Andrés Pico, brother of Governor Pío Pico, and the pact was signed at Cahuenga near modern Universal City on the 13th.
American forces continued the assault in Mexico for the next nine months and entered Mexico City in September ending the hostilities. Negotiations for a peace treaty ensued with American Nicholas Trist going outside of the parameters presented to him and making concessions that angered government officials in Washington. In fact, he was officially recalled but remained in Mexico City to hammer out a final treaty.
Despite this strange circumstance, the United States and Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on 2 February 1848. Just nine days before, on 24 January, James Marshall, superintending the construction of a mill for John Sutter in the Sierra Nevada Mountains east of Sacramento, stumbled upon gold, ushering in the California Gold Rush.
After the signing of the treaty, ratification of it in Congress took place after President James K. Polk, whose aggressive ambitions of extending the nation across the continent, presented it to the Senate on 23 February. The president made it clear that Trist’s recall “was dictated by a belief that his continued presence with the army could be productive of no good, but might do much harm by encouraging the delusive hopes and false impressions of the Mexicans” regarding their priorities.
Still, while “it was not expected that Mr. Trist would remain in Mexico,” Polk continued “he has, however, done so” and the treaty was signed. Because it did adhere “substantially on the main questions of boundary and indemnity [$15 million plus additional claims to be resolved by negotiation]” the president “felt it to be my duty to submit it to the Senate for their consideration, with a view to its ratification.”
Yet, he went on:
To the tenth article of the treaty there are serious objections and no instructions given to Mr. Trist contemplated or authorized its insertion. The public lands within the limits of Texas belong to that State, and this government has no power to dispose of them, or to change the conditions of grants already made. All valid titles to land within the other territories ceded to the United States will remain unaffected by the change in sovereignty; and I therefore submit that this article should not be ratified as a part of the treaty.
The text of Article X of the treaty concerning Texas were basically about the uncertainty of valid titles to land “since the beginning of the troubles between Texas and the Mexican government.” But, generally, the article provided for something Polk and others in the government were furious with Trist for allowing, namely:
All grants of land made by the Mexican government, or by the competent authorities, in territories previously appertaining to Mexico, and remaining for the future within the limits of the United States, shall be respected as valid, to the same extent that the same grants would be valid if the said territories had remained within the limits of Mexico.
The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations began its deliberations and one of the first motions, made by Senator Ambrose Sevier of Arkansas on 2 March, was to strike out the tenth article. Debate followed and continued until the end of the session with a couple of votes about specific references to lands in Texas that led to these being removed from the treaty. Before the day concluded, Senator John Bell of Tennessee, moved that the remaining part of the article be stricken, but the body adjourned.
The following day, the 3rd, the Senate convened and immediately addressed the question of the remaining words of Article X, specifically those in the quote above. After debate, the question was asked “Shall these words stand as part of the treaty?” The response via a vote was 33-19 to strike out this portion.
There was, as well, some considerable debate and voting on provisions of Article IX, which stipulated that citizens of Mexico in those territories ceded to the United States by the terms of the treaty were to become citizens of the United States, but the article did remain in the document.
Not only were Spanish-speaking Californios affected, but so was William Workman, who became a Mexican citizen while living in Taos, New Mexico in the late 1820s, and automatically became an American citizen by virtue of the treaty, which was ratified by the Senate on 10 March by a vote of 38-14.
While Workman’s change in citizenship was simple, the question of land titles embodied in the rejected tenth article became a major issue for him and all other holders of grants made by Mexican and Spanish authorities in California prior to 7 July 1846, the cutoff date established by the Americans because that was when Monterey was taken by U.S. Navy forces.
The obvious intent of the federal government’s desire to scratch the tenth article from the treaty was to have a separate process for determining the legitimacy of land grants made under Spain and Mexico and opening those that were not deemed proper for settlement by future arriving Americans. What was not then known was just how many Americans and others would be “rushing” to California to search for their fortunes in gold fields as news of Marshall’s staggering discovery did not reach the east until later in 1848.
It was challenging enough for Congress to move on California statehood, even as the hordes of gold seekers flock to the newly seized territory. Debate largely centered on whether it would be a free or slave state based on the conditions established in the Missouri Compromise of 1820, admitting southern slave states and northern free ones in alternating order. California upended that system by being simultaneously north and south in its unusual vertical orientation.
Finally, after citizens in California wrote a constitution and established a government, Congress was stirred to act and admitted it as the 31st state on 9 September 1850. The growing importance of dealing with Spanish and Mexican land grants loomed ever larger, so the following March a land claims act was passed. This legislation set up a three-man commission to review grants with paperwork, maps and witnesses provided by the claimants.
Though about two-thirds of the over 800 claims submitted were approved by the commission, the federal government’s policy was to appeal all of them to federal district courts and, if necessary, to the U.S. Supreme Court. This extended the life of claims to an average of seventeen years, starting from the earliest commission hearings in 1852 to about 1870.
By then, many claimants died and a lot of them left their grants to heirs whose portions of a divided ranch gave them less money to prosecute claims. Others, briefly enjoying the fabulous fruits of the Gold Rush through selling cattle from ranches to gold miners and others, found their finances fragile when the rush dissipated by the mid-1850s and then were hit by the dual disaster of flood and drought in the first half of the following decade.
Hiring lawyers for long-term representation in hearings and surveyors to draw up the required maps for submission with the claims could become very expensive and some claimants paid by offering portions of the land grants. Some claimants took out loans at interest rates that, while standard for the time, were high and made paying off the debts increasingly more difficult.
While there were Americans and Europeans who struggled with claims—one local example, Lemuel Carpenter of Rancho Santa Gertrudes, committed suicide because of mounting debts to future governor John G. Downey and his partner, James P. McFarland—Californios were particularly affected by the lengthy, expensive land claims process as they were less familiar with American law, not previously required to pay property taxes, and unprepared for skyrocketing interest on loans.
They also tended to stick to cattle ranching, while others (the Workmans and Temples, for instance) usually diversified into agriculture, so that, when the cattle industry was badly damaged by the mid-1860s, most Californio grant holders were unable to survive the many challenges facing them and lost their ranches.
Not that William Workman and John Rowland, co-owner of Rancho La Puente, had an easy time of it in their claim to the ranch. They filed in fall 1852 and the commission confirmed their claim in fairly short order. The government’s appeal, however, took them to a federal district court hearing in 1856 and, though that went in their favor, too, there was another hearing held four years later.
Again, Rowland and Workman prevailed in district court, but this was followed the next year by the outbreak of the Civil War, while the government’s contemplated taking the claim to the Supreme Court as late as 1864. Finally, in 1865, Rowland reached out to Henry W. Halleck, former California Secretary of State who became general-in-chief of Union forces during the war, though he was demoted to chief of staff. Halleck was in Virginia just after war’s end when he briefly dispensed a sound piece of advice to Rowland: “hire a lawyer and give him plenty of money.”
The tactic succeeded and Henry Beard, the attorney Rowland secured, delivered by getting a patent for La Puente issued in summer 1867. The aging Rowland and Workman promptly hired a surveyor and divided the rancho evenly, being a rare example of original land grantees still keeping most of their holdings intact into the 1870s.
If, however, Article X was allowed to stand, the situation for them and all other grantees, of course, would have been different. The problem was that Trist negotiated this part of the treaty far outside the bounds of the limits assigned to him and it was a foregone conclusion that the article would be stricken from the treaty as soon as it was received in Washington.
Remarkably, people have believed and continue to think that Article X was included in the final, ratified form of the treaty, despite its early and decisive rejection by the Senate in March 1848.