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Colonial resolve
The new nation
     American and Mexican War
     Trails west
     California and the Gold Rush
     The issue of slavery
     Kansas and the Republican party
     Abraham Lincoln

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American and Mexican War: 1846-1848

The Americans in Texas claim that the southern boundary of their province is the Rio Grande. The Mexicans maintain that it is the Nueces river, more than 100 miles to the north. War breaks out in 1846 when President Polk sends an American army under Zachary Taylor into the disputed region, prompting the Mexicans to take the same step in retaliation.

Taylor makes little progress into northern Mexico beyond the city of Monterrey, which he captures in September 1846. During that winter Polk tries another tactic. He sends an American army under Winfield Scott by sea to the Gulf of Mexico.


In March 1847 Scott takes the port of Veracruz after a three-week siege. He then marches inland and defeats Santa Anna (once again serving as Mexico's president) at Cerro Gordo. Though strongly opposed in the mountainous terrain, he reaches Mexico City. He enters the capital in September.

The resulting treaty, signed in Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, gives Polk all that he has hoped for. In return for a payment of $15 million, Mexico cedes to the USA the territory now forming the states of New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and California. With suitable forethought, during the course of the war, US forces have already occupied the only developed parts of this vast region, New Mexico and California.


The trail to Oregon, California and Utah: 1841-1850

The term Great Migration has been applied to two separate movements of people during the 1840s. One is the stream of immigrants drawn across the Atlantic to the land of liberty, headed by the Irish from 1845. The other is the move westwards by American pioneer families to settle the regions bordering the Pacific. This begins a little earlier. The Great Migration of 1843 establishes the fame of the Oregon Trail.

In the 1840s the most westerly region which can be considered a settled part of the United States is Missouri. It is here, in the aptly-named town of Independence, that brave and optimistic families assemble to prepare for the dangerous journey west.


In the early years Oregon is the destination. American missionaries, working there among the Indians from 1834, send home word of the region's rich potential. The first small group of families attempts the trail in 1841. Thirty-two people complete the journey safely, increasing Oregon's American population by 20%. They join missionaries and trappers who together number only about 150.

The Great Migration of 1843 is more ambitious. As many as 1000 people set off west guided by a Presbyterian missionary, Marcus Whitman. Their wagon wheels begin to mark out the route across the plains which becomes known as the Oregon Trail.


The Conestoga wagons on the open plains provide a romantic image, as the prairie schooners much loved by film directors in the 20th century. Soon there are a great many of them. The trail is about 2000 miles long and in places as much as ten miles wide, with the wagon drivers spreading out to avoid the dust and to find grazing for their horses, mules and cattle. In one summer, that of 1850, as many as 50,000 people make the journey, which lasts from four to six months.

The route goes northwest through the prairie to the Platte river. The wagons then follow the Northern Platte tributary (past Fort Laramie) before making their way to the Sweetwater river. Moving up this towards its source brings them to the South Pass through the Rockies.


Beyond the South Pass there are several alternative routes, but from 1847 only a minority of the wagons coming through the pass are headed for Oregon.

An increasing number of travellers are now Mormons, on their way to a safe haven near the Great Salt Lake in Utah. And from 1849 the trail is used by an unprecedented horde of wagons, moving now in feverish haste. Gold has been found in California. The new immigrants are the famous forty-niners. Of the 50,000 who swarm through the South Pass during 1850, as many as 40,000 are prospectors desperate to find their fortune.


The Mormons and Salt Lake City: 1846-1896

The Mormons' great trek to the west could hardly have started in worse circumstances. In February 1846 the first groups begin to cross the Mississippi, which is about a mile wide at Nauvoo. The river is freezing but not yet frozen. Several craft capsize, drowning their passengers. A few days later the river is covered in ice and wagons and animals can be driven across.

At last the entire expedition is over the river (they are travelling heavy with all their possessions, including 30,000 head of cattle) but progress is slow through marshy regions even after snow and torrential rain have given way to summer heat. It becomes evident to their leader, Brigham Young, that they must sit out the next winter beside the Missouri.


The place which they call Winter Quarters, on the west bank of the Missouri, becomes an established staging post. Here Mormon parties in later years prepare for the last stretch of the journey. After this first winter, of 1846-7, Brigham Young sets off again. His pioneers join the Oregon Trail at the Platte river, but they keep to the north bank - safely separate from the other 'gentile' immigrants moving along south of the stream.

By July 1847 the vanguard is through the South Pass and into Salt Lake valley. Within a few months the rest of the group follow safely, some 1600 people. By 1869, when the railway arrives, about 80,000 have made the arduous journey in wagons or on foot from Winter Quarters.


Brigham Young selects the site for Salt Lake City before returning to Winter Quarters to bring out another group of Mormons in 1848. Meanwhile the ground is being marked out according to a plan for the city of Zion drawn up by Joseph Smith. The Temple is to be built at the centre of a rectangular grid of main streets forming large square lots, each of ten acres.

Founded as a religious community, the new Salt Lake City makes no distinction between church and state (in this respect even going beyond Calvin's Geneva). Districts are administered by leaders who are both bishop and magistrate. The highest executive body is the Council of the Twelve Apostles, of which Brigham Young is senior member for thirty years.


These circumstances give the Mormons of Salt Lake valley a strength unique among settlers. Those who arrive here combine the toughness of pioneers with the discipline and obedience of monks and nuns.

Under the strong leadership of Brigham Young small groups of families are sent into neighbouring regions to establish outposts of the Mormon community (similar to the settling of colonies in the early Roman republic). In these places, extending north into modern Idaho, ambitious programmes of irrigation are carried out. Riches are conjured from the desert. Non-Mormon pioneers, moving on further west, trade with the Saints for fresh produce on their journey.


As early as 1849 Brigham Young applies for his community to be admitted to the union as the state of Deseret (a word from the Book of Mormon meaning 'honeybee', to signify industry). Congress instead grants the status of a territory, under the name Utah.

During the next forty years there are frequent attempts to achieve statehood, but they founder on one issue - polygamy. It becomes public knowledge in 1852 that Joseph Smith had many wives and that the Mormons have made a religious principle of this practice. Brigham Young is said at first to have been averse to the idea of polygamy, but he overcomes his scruples quite convincingly. He becomes husband to seventy women and is survived by forty-seven children.


Such information is not well-received in the rest of the United States. Polygamy joins slavery as one of the great moral crusades of the time. Congress passes a succession of polygamy laws from 1862. Prosecutions, leading to fines and gaol sentences, are brought against selected polygamous families in Utah. Meanwhile the Mormon leadership conducts a lengthy legal campaign, arguing that these laws conflict with the religious liberty guaranteed by the Constitution.

Eventually a judgement by the US supreme court in 1890, reinforcing the polygamy laws, persuades the Mormon leadership to abandon both the principle and the practice. Utah is duly admitted to the union in 1896 as the 45th state.


California and the Gold Rush: 1849-1850

In 1849, when the Mormons of Salt Lake City first apply for statehood, the region of Utah has recently been ceded by Mexico to the USA. So has California. But while Utah thrives steadily, California does so with a sudden rush.

As the most distant province of New Spain, and from 1821 of Mexico, California's main European settlements have been Catholic mission stations. They become local trading centres, and several develop into townships. During the Mexican period the government grants large cattle ranches (some 80 million acres in all) to about 800 recipients. At the same time Russian and Canadian fur traders begin to move into the region from the north, as do Americans from the east.


The small number of foreigners arriving in the area are made welcome (by 1845 there are only about 700 Americans in the whole of California) and they are in many cases given generous grants of land. By far the largest holding belongs to John Sutter, an adventurer of Swiss origin, who arrives in California in 1839. He persuades the Mexican governor to assign him 50,000 acres on the Sacramento river. Here he establishes the town of New Helvetia, protected by Fort Sutter, as a centre of local industry and agriculture.

The Mexican War of 1846-8 delivers California into American hands, and Sutter becomes an American citizen. But in 1848 a chance discovery on his land transforms both his own life and that of California.


On 24 January 1848 James Marshall arrives in Fort Sutter and asks to see Sutter alone. Marshall is a builder, constructing a mill for Sutter at Coloma on a tributary of the Sacramento river. He shows Sutter flakes of gold which he has found at the site.

In spite of the efforts of the two men to keep it secret, news of the discovery leaks out. New Helvetia empties as its citizens scramble the thirty-five miles northeast to Coloma. Soon they are joined by sailors deserting their ships in San Francisco harbour, and by labourers laying down their tools all over California. Sutter gains nothing in the chaos. His cattle are destroyed, his property stolen. The great gold rush is on.


It takes months for news of the find to reach the other side of the American continent, and months more for the first prospectors to arrive along the Oregon Trail. So 1849 becomes the accepted date of the California gold rush, and 'forty-niners' provides an early rhyming name for the miners - though as yet there is no need for mining. Panning is sufficient.

Panning requires no capital. All that is needed is a pan with a mesh, in which river silt is shaken so that any flakes of gold glitter as the water drains away or clumps of earth break up. Every forty-niner stands an equal chance. The gold rush is an irresistible lottery, and many small fortunes are rapidly made.


The sudden growth in population and money supply transforms California into a new kind of society - one of violence, greed and ostentatious consumption, in which new ventures are recklessly undertaken and frequently fail.

The numbers arriving are extraordinary. The population of California is 14,000 in 1848, 100,000 in 1850 and 250,000 in 1852. And this increase is by immigration alone, for hardly anyone is being born here. In 1850 just 8% of the population is female. In the mining towns that figure falls to 2%. Forty-niners do not arrive with women.


Yet this new California is a place of extraordinary vigour, and of great potential once some sort of normality is restored. The miners themselves hurry on elsewhere when the supply of easy surface gold is exhausted (there are subsequent gold rushes before the end of the century in Colorado, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Arizona, the Klondike and Alaska). Those remaining in California get on with the process of establishing a stable community.

The first step is very early application for statehood. By September 1850 congress has passed a bill admitting California as the thirty-first state of the union. It is specifically admitted as a free state, meaning one from which slavery is excluded. This is now, more than ever, a controversial topic.


The political issue of slavery: 1819-1850

Slavery has been a major area of disagreement between the northern and southern states ever since the first compromise is achieved on the issue at the constitutional convention of 1787. It becomes a particularly hot political issue in 1819 during congressional debates on the application of Missouri for statehood.

Settled largely from neighbouring Kentucky, Missouri contains many slaves on the plantations. In 1819 a New York congressman, James Tallmadge, proposes an amendment to the Missouri bill to the effect that no further slaves shall be brought into the state and that children of existing slaves shall be freed at the age of twenty-five.


The house of representatives, with a preponderance of congressmen from the more populous north, passes the Tallmadge amendment. In the senate, where eleven southern and eleven northern states have two senators each, the amendment fails to win a majority. It is an issue of great importance since the two new senators of a 'free' or a 'slave' state will tip the existing balance one way or the other.

The impasse is broken by another in the series of practical compromises on this contentious issue. It is agreed in 1820 that the district of Maine will be separated from Massachusetts to become an independent free state, the 23rd in the union. Missouri, with its slaves, follows in 1821 as the 24th. The balance is kept in the senate.


The Missouri Compromise, as the measures of 1820 become known, includes one other clause passed separately by congress. This legislates in advance for the territory beyond Missouri, stating that no more slave states shall be admitted to the union north of latitude 36.30 (the continuation of the southern boundary of Missouri).

The compromise holds good for the next thirty years, during which an equal number of new slave and free states enter the union (Arkansas, Florida and Texas in the south, Michigan, Iowa and Wisconsin in the north). But in 1849 the issue returns. California applies to join the union as a free state. For the first time since 1820 the southern states are in danger of being outvoted in the senate.


This time the compromise patched together is more complex, consisting of five separate agreements passed during 1850. Concessions to the north include the key issue of Californian admission to the union as a free state; and the banning of the slave trade (but not slavery itself) in the nation's capital city, Washington, and the surrounding district of Columbia.

Concessions to the south are the promise that when New Mexico and Utah are ready for statehood, they may enter the union either with or without slavery; the federal payment of $10 million dollars of Texan debt; and new and more stringent Fugitive Slave Laws.


The Fugitive Slave Laws, passed in 1793, have been a continuing cause of local friction. They allow southern slave owners to reclaim escaped slaves found in northern states. Northern magistrates have often made a policy of deliberately frustrating the slave owners' legal rights in this respect. The Fugitive Slave Laws of 1850 attempt to prevent this (though in practice they have the opposite effect, prompting northern states to pass new laws safeguarding liberty).

It is believed by many that the Compromise of 1850 will resolve the thorny issue. It does nothing of the kind. Within four years the question of Kansas escalates the crisis.


Kansas and the Republican party: 1854-1860

During the 1840s the regions west of Missouri and Iowa are used by Americans for only two purposes. One is to travel through, either on the largely one-way Oregon Trail or on the great trading route, known as the Sante Fe Trail, which carries heavily laden wagons to and fro between Independence in Missouri and Sante Fe in New Mexico.

The other use of these open spaces, already home territory to many Indian tribes, is the removal here by federal authorities of Indians from the eastern states. Almost twenty tribes are relocated here in 1850 alone. A quarter of present-day Kansas is designated as Indian land - but not, as it turns out, for long. In the 1850s pressure from white settlers causes the situation to be reassessed.


By 1852 there are enough settlers in Kansas to request the official status of a US territory. The issue is the concern of Stephen Douglas, an ambitious senator who chairs the senate committee on territories. Needing southern votes for other undertakings with which he is involved (in particular a transcontinental railway), he devises a scheme which he believes will appeal to the south without having much practical significance.

He proposes the creation of two new territories, Kansas and Nebraska, in which (as in New Mexico and Utah in the recent Compromise of 1850) the settlers themselves will exercise 'popular sovereignty' in deciding whether to allow slavery.


Douglas's proposal becomes law in May 1854 as the Kansas-Nebraska Act. It has several immediate and inflammatory consequences. Since it supersedes the Missouri compromise of 1820 (by which congress has guaranteed that future states in this region will be free), it inflames the anti-slavery political factions of the north - who see it as a perfidious encroachment by the slave owners of the south, widely reviled as the 'slavocracy'.

Moreover by allowing the people of the new territory to decide, the act effectively invites both sides to send in their partisans. Heavily armed new settlers pour into the region. Within months Kansas is in a virtual state of civil war.


On the political front there is an even more lasting result of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Northern outrage is so immediate and so intense that opposition groups from within all the existing parties begin to organize 'anti-Nebraska' rallies.

By early July 1854, a mere six weeks after the act has become law, the new movement is strong enough for a mass meeting at Jackson, Michigan, to adopt the resonant name Republican party (recently dropped by the Democratic-Republicans). In the congressional elections of 1854 the new party sweeps the north. In February 1856 the Republicans hold their first national convention, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.


Their candidate fails to win the presidential election of that year, but the party platform is now clear on the anti-slavery issue. Republicans are not abolitionist. They do not argue that congress should attempt to abolish slavery in the existing slave states. Instead they say that in any territory (a region still aspiring to statehood) congress has the right and obligation to ban slavery on moral grounds.

The passion with which this view is held is heightened by the Dred Scott decision of 1857, in which the supreme court declares that congress has no such right. Slavery is the central theme when the Republicans gather for their national convention in Chicago in 1860. They nominate a local candidate, Abraham Lincoln.


Abraham Lincoln: to1860

Even more than Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln provides a stirring image of a new kind of president - a man of the people, representing the vigorous self-improving ideals of the American frontier.

He is born in a poor Kentucky family in 1809. His parents move west into Indiana in 1816 (the year in which Indiana becomes the nineteenth state). The family become squatters on public land, where the 7-year-old boy helps his father build the proverbial log cabin. The land is gradually hacked and tilled into shape to become a farm. When the family moves on again, in 1830, Abraham is a 21-year-old driving a team of oxen and one of the family wagons. The destination this time is Illinois.


Although as yet entirely uneducated, Lincoln now settles down to study law. He also develops political ambitions. By 1834 he is a member of the state assembly in Springfield, representing the new Whig party. In 1836 he passes his bar exams, and over the next twenty years builds up one of the state's leading practices.

Lincoln is therefore a well-known figure in Illinois when, in 1856, another new political group emerges dramatically and with unprecedented speed. He becomes an early member of the Republican party. In 1858 he is the Republican candidate for an Illinois seat in the senate. His opponent, another Springfield lawyer, is Stephen Douglas. But Douglas is already a national figure.


Douglas, senator for Illinois since 1847, is the man whose Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 brought the Republican party into existence on the issue of slavery in the territories. This more than any other is the question of the moment in 1858. Lincoln, as the Republican candidate challenging Douglas, finds himself at the centre of the nation's attention. He makes the most of it.

Since Douglas draws much bigger crowds than him, he adopts the very practical strategy of going to the same towns at the same time as his opponent. And he challenges him to public debate. Douglas accepts. It is agreed that they will share a platform in seven districts where they have not previously canvassed.


Douglas is brave in accepting this challenge since his position, if probed, is likely to alienate both wings of the national electorate. His support of 'popular sovereignty' means that congress should not legislate to ban slavery in the territories; yet on the same basis he argues against legislation to protect slave owners, expecting any existing slave plantations to be unworkable if there is popular hostility. This is too moderate a stance for anti-slavery and slavery factions alike.

Lincoln's position by contrast is clear. He does not propose to attack slavery in the south (he disapproves strongly of John Brown's adventure in the following year), but he would ban it in the new territories.


Though Lincoln badgers Douglas mercilessly on this issue in their famous series of debates, Douglas retains his senate seat. But Lincoln has publicly exposed the flaw which fragments the Democratic party in the presidential campaign of 1860.

The split results in two Democratic presidential candidates - Douglas for the northern wing of the party, and John Breckinridge for the south. Lincoln wins the Republican nomination at their convention in Chicago in May and goes on to win the presidential election in November, carrying the entire north and not a state in the south. The national divide is painfully evident, and is about to become more so.


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