By Aubrey Hobart
Curator of Collections
and Exhibitions at the Roswell
Museum and Art Center
The history of the boundary between the United States and Mexico is complicated and contested. This long legacy has brought us to the present moment, where we are debating whether a wall should be erected along the border or not, but in the 19th century, we were just trying to figure out where the border was.
In 1836, the Republic of Texas declared its independence from Mexico, wanting to join the United States of America because the majority of its settlers by that point were Southerners from the U.S. However, the leadership of both U.S. political parties opposed the addition because it was a huge slave-owning region and would upset the balance of power in Congress. Additionally, no one wanted to start a war with Mexico, who refused to recognize Texas as a separate state.
Seven years later, U.S. President John Tyler, who was a political independent, decided to use the annexation of Texas as his reelection platform and it became a key debate during the 1844 election. Northern states saw the addition of Texas as part of Manifest Destiny, the idea that the United States was a blessed country that had the right and duty to occupy the entire continent from east to west. Southern states welcomed the additional slave-owning territory for political and economic reasons. There was also great fear among all the states that if the U.S. didn’t accept Texas, it would be influenced by Great Britain to free its slaves like the British had done in 1833, and that all those freed slaves would flood into the United States causing chaos and panic.
After much debate and political shenanigans, the United States government annexed Texas and admitted it into the Union in December of 1845. As expected, Mexico retaliated by sending troops, and the U.S. officially declared war on our southern neighbor. After three years, the Mexican-American war ended when American soldiers captured Mexico City. The two countries signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo which designated the Rio Grande as the southern boundary of Texas and gave the U.S. ownership of a huge territory, including what is today most of California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah and Colorado in return for $18.5 million (today it would be equivalent to $624,516,184.21 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index). Mexicans living in these new U.S. territories were given the option to relocate inside Mexico’s altered boundary or to stay in their homes and become American citizens with full rights. Many families chose the latter and their descendants still live in the region today, though they are sometimes mistaken as immigrants because of their Mexican heritage. An additional agreement, the Gadsden Purchase of 1853, added southern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico to the United States for another $10 million and then the border was more or less set.
The map above dates to 1851, so it shows the border after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo but before the Gadsden Purchase. It is one of several maps that will be on display at the Roswell Museum and Art Center in November as part of our new exhibit, “A Line in the Sand: Wildlife of the Borderlands.” If you have eagle eyes, you can see that Santa Fe is shown in the far left of the Texas panhandle with Albuquerque on the other side of the Rio Grande in California, and Las Cruces and El Paso are still part of Mexico. While this map may have accurately reflected the political situation of the time, with the glaring exception that Texas is still shown as a separate country, the actual geographic shapes are not quite right. This is partly because of the technology of the time. Without GPS systems or any transportation faster than a horse, explorers had to navigate by the stars and report back to cartographers (map-makers) through letters that took weeks or months to travel cross-country.
To have a better understanding of the border, the U.S. Government allocated funding for a project called the United States and Mexican Boundary Survey that ran from 1848 to 1855. Not only was this survey intended to determine for good where the border sat between the United States and Mexico, it also functioned as a useful reference for the War Department and railroad companies who were beginning to plan their cross-country routes. For eight years, surveyors, explorers and scientists traced the border across the American Southwest. During these travels, they encountered plants, birds, fish, reptiles and mammals that they had never seen before. They sketched dozens of these animals and eventually included prints of all the new and exotic species in the Boundary Survey that was published in 1857. However, the story of those prints will have to be continued in next month’s column. Stay tuned.