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In This Chapter
War with Mexico.
The Mormon Trek.
The Gold Rush of 1849.
Phrases enter and exit the American language as if it were a revolving door. But one phrase, used in 1845 by New York Post editor John L. O’Sullivan to describe America’s passion for the new lands of the West, rang out loudly and in tones that echoed through-out the entire century. “It is our manifest destiny,” O’Sullivan wrote, “to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.” Under the banner of “manifest destiny,” the American West would be won—the obstinacy of prairie soil, the harshness of the elements, the lives and life-ways of the Indians, and the rights of Mexico notwithstanding.
After Texas gained its independence, the United States was reluctant to accept the new-born republic’s bid for annexation. Not only would the Union be adding a slave state, but it would surely ignite war with Mexico. However, when France and England made overtures of alliance to Texas, outgoing President John Tyler urged Congress to adopt an annexation resolution. Tyler’s successor, James K. Polk, admitted Texas to the Union on December 29, 1845. In the meantime, England and France also seemed to be eyeing California, held so feebly by Mexico that it looked to be ripe and ready to fall into the hands of whomever was there to catch it.
“Mr. Polk’s War”. Polk was moved to action. He offered Mexico $40 million for the California territory. The Mexican president not only turned down the offer, but he refused even to see President Polk’s emissary. Thus rudely rebuffed, Polk commissioned the U.S. consul at Monterey (California), Thomas O. Larkin, to organize California’s small but powerful American community into a separatist movement sympathetic to annexation by the U.S. In the meantime, John Charles Fremont, an intrepid western explorer surveying potential transcontinental railroad routes for the U.S. Bureau of Topographical Engineers, marched onto the stage with the so-called Bear Flag Rebellion. California’s independence from Mexico was proclaimed.
As far as Mexico was concerned, the independence of California merely added insult to injury. Mexico disputed with the United States the boundary of the new state of Texas. President Polk dispatched troops to Texas and, on May 13, 1846, declared war on Mexico. But even before the official declaration, Mexican forces laid siege against Fort Texas—present-day Brownsville—on May 1.
General Zachary Taylor, marching to the relief of the fort, faced 6,000 Mexican troops with a mere 2,000 Americans, but he nevertheless emerged victorious in the May 8 Battle of Palo Alto. The battle set the pattern for the rest of the conflict. Usually outnumbered, the Americans almost always outmatched the poorly led Mexican forces.
In the meantime, early in June, official U.S. action commenced against the Mexicans in California as Stephen Watts Kearny led the “Army of the West” from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to California via New Mexico. Near Santa Fe, at steep-walled Apache Canyon, New Mexico’s Governor Manuel Armijo set up an ambush to destroy Kearny’s column, but the governor’s ill-disciplined and ill-equipped troops panicked and dispersed. Kearny passed through the canyon unopposed, Santa Fe was taken, and on August 15, New Mexico was annexed to the United States, all without firing a shot.
General Taylor attacked Monterrey (Mexico) on September 20, 1846, taking the city after a four-day siege. Taylor declined to capitalize on what he had gained and allowed Mexican forces to withdraw. In the meantime, the remarkably resilient Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, who had been living as an exile in Cuba after a rebellion had ended his dictatorship of Mexico, made a proposal to the government of the United States. He pledged to help the U.S. win the war, to secure a Rio Grande boundary for Texas, and to secure a California boundary through San Francisco Bay. In return, Santa Anna asked for $30 million and safe passage to Mexico. American officials were prudent enough not to pay him, but Santa Anna was allowed to return to his homeland—whereupon he began assembling an army to defeat Zachary Taylor.
By January 1847, Santa Anna had gathered 18,000 men, about 15,000 of whom he hurled against Taylor’s 4,800-man force at Buena Vista. After two days of bloody battle, Taylor—incredibly—forced Santa Anna’s withdrawal on February 23. Despite this signal victory, President Polk was distressed by Taylor’s repeated reluctance to capitalize on his victories and also worried lest he make a military celebrity out of a potential political rival. So Polk replaced Taylor with General Winfield Scott, hero of the War of 1812. On March 9, Scott launched an invasion of Veracruz, beginning with the first amphibious assault in U.S. military history. He laid siege against the fortress at Veracruz for 18 days, forcing Santa Anna to withdraw to the steep Cerro Gordo canyon with 8,000 of his best troops.
Scott declined the frontal attack the Mexicans expected. Instead, he sent part of his force to cut paths up either side of Cerro Gordo and attacked in a pincers movement, sending Santa Anna’s troops into headlong retreat all the way to Mexico City. Scott took the kind of gamble Taylor would not have taken and boldly severed his rapidly pursuing army from its slower-moving supply lines. On September 13, Chapultepec Palace, the seemingly impregnable fortress guarding Mexico City, fell to Scott. (The Palace had been defended by a force that included teenage cadets from the Mexican Military College. These cadets are celebrated in Mexican history as “Los Ninos,” the children.) On September 17, Santa Anna surrendered.
The Mexican War ended with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which was ratified by the Senate on March 10, 1848. Mexico ceded to the United States New Mexico (which also included parts of the present states of Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and Colorado) and California. The Mexicans also renounced claims to Texas above the Rio Grande.
God and Gold. The Mexican War was controversial. Citizens in the Northeast, especially in New England, saw the war as an unfair—somehow un-American—war of aggression, and they protested it. Southerners and Westerners, however, thrilled to the cause, volunteering to fight in such numbers that recruiting offices were overwhelmed and had to turn eager men away. Right, wrong, or somewhere in between, the war vastly expanded the territory of the United States.
A Trek. The force of war was not the only engine that drove “manifest destiny.” The West likewise lured seekers of God and those who lusted after gold. In March 1830, a young Joseph Smith, Jr. published something he called The Book of Mormon. One month later, he started a religion based on the book, which relates how, in 1820, the 15-year-old Smith was visited by God the Father and Jesus Christ near his family’s farm in upstate New York. Three years after this, young Smith was visited by an angel named Moroni, who instructed him to dig in a certain place on a nearby hill. There Smith unearthed a book consisting of beaten gold plates engraved with the words of Moroni’s father, Mormon. The book told of a struggle between two tribes, one good, the other evil, which took place in the New World long before the arrival of Columbus. Moroni emerged as the sole survivor of the tribe of the good. Whoever dug up The Book of Mormon would be charged with restoring to the world the true Church of Christ.
The church Smith founded in April 1830 consisted of six members. By 1844, 15,000 members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints—popularly called Mormons—were settled in Nauvoo, Illinois, the separatist community they had built. Persecuted wherever they went, the Mormons always lived apart. Particularly distasteful to “gentiles” (as Mormons called those outside of the faith) was the Mormon practice of polygamy (multiple wives).
Opposition to the Mormons often grew violent. On June 27, 1844, a “gentile” mob murdered Joseph Smith and his brother. Smith’s second-in-command, the dynamic Brigham Young, realized that the Mormons would have to move somewhere so remote that no one would ever bother them again. Over the next two years, under his direction, a great migration was organized. The destination, which Young had read about in an account by John C. Fremont was near the Great Salt Lake in the present-day state of Utah.
Young planned and executed the Mormon Trek with the precision and genius of a great general in time of war. Hundreds of wagons were built, and a staging area, called Camp of Israel, was set up in Iowa. Emigrant parties were deployed in groups of a few hundred at a time and sent 1,400 miles across some of the most inhospitable land on the face of the planet. During the 1840s and 1850s, Saints—as Mormons called themselves—poured into the Salt Lake region. Young oversaw the planning and construction of a magnificent town, replete with public squares, broad boulevards, and well-constructed houses, all centered around a great Temple Square. In addition, Young and his followers introduced into the arid Salt Lake Valley irrigation on a scale unprecedented in American agriculture. By 1865, 277 irrigation canals watered 154,000 square miles of what had been desert.
All That Glitters. Johann Augustus Sutter had bad luck with money. Born in Kandern, Germany, in 1803, he went bankrupt there and, to escape his many creditors, fled to the Mexican Southwest, where he tried his fortune in the Santa Fe trade. Twice more Sutter went bust, before finally settling in Mexican California in 1838, where he managed to build a vast ranch in the region’s central valley.
Presumably, January 24, 1848, started like any other day on the ranch. James Wilson Marshall, an employee of Sutter’s, went out to inspect the race of a new mill on the property. He was attracted by something shiny in the sediment collected at the bottom of the mill race. It was gold.
Within a month and a half of the discovery, all of Sutter’s employees had deserted him, in search of gold. Without a staff, Sutter’s ranch faltered. Worse, his claims to the land around the mill were ultimately judged invalid. While everyone around Sutter (it seemed) grew instantly rich, Sutter himself was, yet again, financially ruined and would die, bitter and bankrupt, in 1880.
It was not Marshall or Sutter, but a Mormon entrepreneur who did the most to stir up the great Gold Rush of 1849. Sam Brannon was one of a very few Mormon men brash enough to challenge the authority of Brigham Young. In defiance of Young, Brannon had set up his own Mormon community in the vicinity of San Francisco—then called Yerba Buena (good herb). Brannon saw in the discovery of gold a chance to profit from serving the needs of hopeful prospectors and other settlers. Fresh from a trip to Salt Lake City, where Young had excommunicated him from the church, Brannon took a quinine bottle, filled it with gold dust, and ran out into the streets of his town. “Gold!” he yelled. “Gold! Gold from the American River!” For good measure, he covered the gold story in The California Star, a newspaper he owned. Within two weeks, the population of Yerba Buena plummeted from a few thousand to a few dozen, as men dropped their tools and left their jobs to prospect on the south fork of the American River.
From the West Coast, word of gold spread east. The scene played out in San Francisco was repeated in city after city. Employment was unceremoniously terminated, wives and children were left behind, and seekers set out on the long trek to California. The journey was characteristically filled with hardship and heartbreak, whether the traveler chose the tedious overland route, the treacherous sea passage around stormy Cape Horn, or the boat to Panama (and a trek across the disease-ridden Isthmus to meet another ship for the voyage to the California coast). For some, the trip was worthwhile; great fortunes were made. Most prospectors, however, found only hard lives, mean spirits, and barely enough gold to pay for meals, shelter, and clothing. Many didn’t even find that much.
The fact was that most men made the mistake of looking for their fortune on the ground, while the real money was made by those, like Brannon, who sold groceries, hardware, real estate, liquor, and other necessities to the ’49ers. Collis Huntington and Mark Hopkins made a fortune in miner’s supplies. Charles Crocker used the profits from his dry goods operation to start a bank. Leland Stanford parlayed his mercantile pursuits into a political career culminating in the governorship of California and the founding of the university that bears his name. Together—as the “Big Four”—Huntington, Hopkins, Crocker, and Stanford provided the major financing for the Central Pacific Railroad—the western leg of the great transcontinental railroad completed in 1869.
The California Gold Rush lasted through the eve of the Civil War. The rush populated much of California, and then, as gold was discovered farther inland in Nevada, Colorado, and the Dakotas, yet more of the frontier West was settled. But as the bonds of union grew stronger between East and West, those uniting North and South steadily dissolved. Still basking in the reflected glory of western gold, the American nation was about to enter its darkest hours.
The Least You Need to Know
While controversial, the war with Mexico greatly expanded the western territory of the United States.
In addition to agriculture, the promise of religious freedom and the promise of gold lured many thousands out west in the years between the Mexican War and the Civil War.
Main Event. The Norman Trek was accomplished with great efficiency and very little loss of life. The church established a Perpetual Emigrating Fund to lend money to those lacking the means to finance their own way west. By 1855, the church realized that outfitting fully equipped wagon trains would soon break the fund. Brigham Young hit on a solution. He directed Mormon carpenters in Iowa to build handcarts as cheap substitutes for the horse-drawn prairie schooners. The emigrants would walk to Salt Lake City.
The small, boxlike carts looked like miniature covered wagons. They were equipped with only two oversize wheels, designed to roll easily over rough terrain. Approximately 500 handcart “Saints” left Iowa City on June 9 and 11, 1856. Although the trek took longer than anticipated (the emigrants did not arrive in Salt Lake City until late in September), the emigrants arrived safely, and Young was encouraged.
Departure of the next two “Handcart Brigades” was delayed until July and August because of a shortage of carts. Faced with a scarcity of seasoned lumber, the carpenters had to use green wood, which shrunk in the hot, and air of the plains. Filled to overflowing, the carts broke down or simply fell apart, supplies ran short, and, worse still, the delayed departure from Iowa put the emigrants in Wyoming during the first snows. Of the 1,000 emigrants in the second Handcart Brigade, 225 died.
Word for the Day. People who participated in the great California Gold Rush of 1849 earned the name ’49er or Forty-niner. The 1849 rush was not the country’s first, however; nor would it be the last. Western Georgia was the scene of the first rush would occur elsewhere in California and throughout the West during much of the 19th century. In 1896, the Klondike drew thousands of prospectors, and two years later, more came to Alaska in search of the yellow ore.