THE HISPANIC EXPERIENCE
Perspective on the Frontier
Houston Institute for Culture
Stolen Birthright: The U.S. Conquest and Exploitation of the Mexican People
By Richard D. Vogel
"The right of conquest has no foundation other than the right of the strongest."
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract
Land and Wealth
During the early 19th century, when the conflict between the United States and Mexico began, most wealth was produced by agriculture and arable land was in great demand. The United States, a new nation then, was growing geometrically. The initial population of less than 4 million in 1776 had increased to 7 million in 1810 and nearly 13 million by 1830. It was largely a population of poor European immigrants who were hungry for land. Territorial expansion, held in check by the British government before the American Revolution, became a juggernaut after independence, crushing the indigenous population in its path and challenging the claims of all other nations on the North American continent.
The early immigrants, predominately Anglos, displaced the indigenous peoples by force and legal manipulation. In addition to the overt wars against the Native Americans, the Anglo-Americans undermined Native culture by degrading the status of the land from being the foundation of the community to just another marketable commodity. The indigenous practice of communal trusteeship of land was replaced by the concept of land as private property. Native people who were not swept aside by the first wave of invading Anglos were granted title to a fragment of their ancestral land and evicted shortly thereafter. The armed forces of the various states and the national government enforced these land expropriations. Resistance to the Anglo takeover was severely punished and, in many instances, resulted in genocide. Alienated from their communal lands, the indigenous people fell into rapid decline. Their fate was sealed when attempts to enslave them and exploit their labor power on Anglo-owned plantations failed. Of no use to the new masters of the land, the native people of America were either removed to reservations or exterminated.
The 19th century was the era of the great American land-grab. Northern capitalists and mid-western land speculators exploited the demands of poor European immigrants for subsistence farms by concocting the myth of Manifest Destiny (the claim that white people had the exclusive right to occupy North America) and promoting the invasion and occupation of the American West. Southern land speculators and slaveholders, who sought large tracts of land for the establishment of plantations, dominated and directed territorial expansion in the South and Southwest. Profiteering from land sales to poor freemen and agricultural commodity production utilizing slave labor created immense fortunes. Many of the richest and most powerful Americans of the time, including many U.S. presidents, profited from both forms of exploitation.
To the people of Mexico both the practice of land speculation and the institution of slavery were anathemas. Like their indigenous neighbors to the north, most Mexicans never treated land as a commodity, and, as early as 1810, Father Hidalgo, the patriarch of Mexican independence, advocated death to any man who would enslave another. It is this contradiction -- irreconcilable views on the basic issues of land and slavery -- that brought the Anglos and Mexicans into conflict and ultimately led to the invasion and conquest of Mexico.
An Empire for Slavery
Andrew Jackson -- Indian exterminator, slaveholder, land speculator, U.S. Senator, and seventh President of the United States -- was the Machiavellian champion of the southern U.S. slave empire that inevitably came into open conflict with Mexico. The expansion of slavery required increasingly more land and the territory occupied by the Indian nations of the Southeast became the slaveholders' first target. Jackson's takeover strategy was simple but effective. First, land-hungry immigrants would be encouraged to settle in the coveted territory. When these settlements met resistance from the indigenous inhabitants, military force would be used to punish the defenders and force them to cede their land to the United States. As soon as a treaty was in effect, the government would turn the land over to the slaveholders and speculators who would reserve the best parcels for plantations and sell the rest at exorbitant prices to the hoard of poor European immigrants that would flood into the new territory.
Jackson implemented his takeover strategy during the Creek War of 1813-14. Under steady assault from whites in their native homelands, the Upper Creek indigenous nation began to fight back, raiding the encroaching settlements. The situation was exacerbated by the fact that runaway slaves found sanctuary with the Upper Creeks and often joined the ranks of their warriors. Jackson, then a general in the U.S. Army, organized and led a punitive expedition against the Upper Creek nation. At the culminating Battle of Horseshoe Bend, he pitted his army of 3,300 well-armed U.S. Army regulars, state militiamen, and both Cherokee and Lower Creek allies, against 1,000 Upper Creek warriors who were making a final stand to defend their homeland. The Upper Creeks fought bravely, but over 800 of them were slaughtered. In the aftermath of the battle, Jackson forced his Lower Creeks allies, as well as the defeated Upper Creeks, to sign a treaty with the United States that surrendered nearly 8 million hectares (20 million acres) of land in what later became the slave states of Alabama and Georgia. It was also at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend that Jackson noticed a wounded young lieutenant named Sam Houston whom he adopted as a protégé and who would later become an undercover agent in Jackson's scheme to steal Texas from Mexico and add it to the U.S. empire of slavery.
The expansion of slavery into Florida was the driving force behind the First Seminole War of 1817. The inhabitants of northern Florida, the Seminoles, were themselves refugees from Anglo oppression and wholeheartedly offered sanctuary to fugitive slaves. These runaways established their own villages among the indigenous population and became known as Black Seminoles. Their freedom and prosperity were intolerable to southern slaveholders who demanded the return of their human property. Again General Jackson mobilized his troops and championed the cause.
Jackson invaded the Spanish territory of Florida in 1817 with three purposes: to capture and return Black Seminoles to their former owners, to encourage immigrants and poor southern whites to occupy the land, and to harass the Spanish in preparation for an impending U.S. takeover. General Edmund P. Gaines, another future player in Jackson's scheme to steal Texas, had pursued runaway slaves into Florida the year before. When the Black Seminoles surrounded at Fort Negro on the Apalachicola River refused to surrender to Gaines, he shelled the fort with heavy artillery, killing over 300 men, women, and children. At the conclusion of his brutal siege, Gaines returned the survivors of the massacre to their former masters.
Jackson's campaign in Florida was much more ambitious than Gaines's foray. Jackson staged his invasion from Fort Scott and established a fortified base at Fort Negro. From there, he marched his army to St. Marks and seized the Spanish fort where he arrested a Scotsman by the name of Alexander Arbuthnot who traded with the Seminoles and whom Jackson suspected was an English spy. Two days later, Jackson headed for his next objective, Suwannee, the feared and fabled mecca for runaway slaves. He was exasperated when he got there -- forewarned, his prey had vanished into the safe haven of the deep swamp. Jackson blamed his failure on the Scotsman Arbuthnot and an Englishman named Robert C. Ambrister and summarily hanged them both. Although Jackson's brash action sparked an international uproar and he was brought up on charges in the U.S. House of Representatives, his imperialistic adventures had strong backing in the U.S. and he was exonerated.
Jackson failed to recover or punish any runaway slaves in the First Seminole War, but his harassment of Spain was successful. Faced with the prospect of losing Florida to the landhungry Americans without any compensation, Spanish foreign minister Luis de Onís signed a treaty with the Secretary of State John Quincy Adams in 1819 ceding Florida to the U.S. in return for official recognition of Spanish claims to Texas, California, and the vast territory of New Mexico. The acquisition of Florida added 151,670 square kilometers (58,560 square miles) to the American empire of slavery and another 34,817 square kilometers (13,443 square miles) to the American West. Thirteen years later, as President of the United States, Jackson would subvert the Adams-Onís Treaty in order to expand the empire of slavery into Texas.
Stephen F. Austin, founder of the first Anglo-American colony in Texas, was well aware of the danger that the liberal Mexican republic presented to the U.S. empire of slavery. In a letter written to his cousin, Mary Austin Holley, on the eve of the Texas insurrection against Mexico, Austin confided his ambitions for the Mexican territory:
Texas must be a slave country. It is no longer a matter of doubt. The interest of Louisiana requires that it should be, a population of fanatical abolitionists in Texas would have a very pernicious and dangerous influence on the overgrown slave population of that state.... A great immigration from Kentucky, Tennessee etc, each man with his rifle or musket, would be of great use to us -- a very great use indeed.... To conclude -- I wish a great immigration this fall and winter from Kentucky and Tennessee, every where, passports or no passports, any how. For fourteen years I have had a hard time of it, but nothing shall daunt my courage or abate my exertions to complete the main object of my labors -- to Americanize Texas. This fall, and winter, will fix our fate -- a great immigration will settle the question.In Texas, the Mexican dream of a democratic republic that would include Europeans, Africans, and Native Americans -- a dream that came to life after independence from Spain in 1821 -- clashed with the nightmare of a racist Anglo-American society founded on exploitation and slavery and bent on expansion and the eradication of all opposition. The Anglo invaders of Texas later canonized as revolutionary heroes were a gang of land speculators, slaveholders, slave traders, and Indian killers. Austin, the first of the land speculators in Texas, took slaves with him when he immigrated there in 1821 and did more than any other American to establish and defend the institution of slavery in Mexican Texas. James Walker Fannin, who established a slave plantation at Velasco and commanded the presidio at Goliad under a bloody pirate flag, was personally involved in the illegal African slave trade from Cuba. James Bowie, the notorious knife-fighter and murderer, was a land speculator and unscrupulous slave trader who made his fortune by subverting the ban on the slave trade in the U.S. Bowie bought captured slaves from the pirate Jean Laffite in Galveston and sold them for immense profit in Louisiana and Mississippi. William Barret Travis, later commander of the ill-fated Anglo garrison at the Alamo, entered Texas illegally and, immediately upon his arrival, began trading in slaves. As an attorney, he attempted to secure the return of runaway slaves from Louisiana who had been granted asylum in the Mexican fort at Anahuac. David (Davy) Crockett, former U.S. congressman and Indian killer who had participated in the massacre of the Creek town of Tallussahatchee under Andrew Jackson, went to Texas seeking his fortune in land speculation. And last, but not least, there was Sam Houston, who entered Texas in 1832 as an undercover agent for Jackson (who had been elected President of the U.S. in 1828) and was rewarded handsomely for his part in the American takeover of Texas -- he became a wealthy landowner and slaveholder with an illustrious political career in the Republic of Texas and, after annexation, as a U.S. Senator from the State of Texas.
The strategy employed to steal Texas was the one tested and proven in the Southeast and Florida -- first to occupy and then to seize political control by threat or force of arms. Mexico fell into the trap when it opened Texas to immigration in 1821 by granting contracts to empresarios (Austin was the first Anglo-American empresario) who were to settle the land and supervise the immigrants. At that time, the U.S. economy was in a deep depression, and the prospect of inexpensive land attracted new immigrants and poor Americans to Texas where the head of a family, male or female, could claim 1,865 hectares (4,605 acres) of land at a total cost of $184 (about four cents per acre) payable in six years. This contrasted sharply with the cost of undeveloped land in U.S. territory at the time -- $1.25 per acre for 80 acres ($100), payable to the land speculators at the time of purchase.
Mexico's land offers were more than generous, but there were strict limitations on the immigrants -- Mexican law required them to actually work the land and specifically prohibited land speculation. Initially, the law allowed immigrants to bring slaves with them, but it declared that children born to slaves in Mexican territory would be free at the age of fourteen. The law also prohibited slave trading in Mexican territory. When Austin received a permit to settle 300 families in Texas in 1821, the floodgate was opened, not only to Anglo-American immigration, but to slavery and land speculation as well. By 1829 the free population of Texas was approximately 20 thousand, and the slave population numbered about 11 hundred.
The Anglo colonists in Texas were divided into two camps -- the majority were subsistence farmers and ranchers willing to live and work with their Mexican neighbors. These colonists were, by and large, loyal Federalists who wanted to establish an independent state within the Mexican republic. The minority camp of Anglo colonists -- the slave owners and land speculators -- feared for their fortunes under Mexican law and saw annexation by the United States to be their only hope.
General José María Tornel, who investigated Texas for the Mexican government in 1828-1829, saw trouble coming and identified the danger posed by the lawless Anglo immigrants. He knew how important the rich territory was to the future of the Mexican people and clearly understood the corrupting influence of slavery and land speculation: "The land speculators of Texas have tried to convert it into a mart of human flesh where the slaves of the South might be sold and others from Africa might be introduced, since it is not possible to do it directly through the United States." Mexican President Guerrero's subsequent edict of 1829, abolishing slavery in the republic, galvanized the Anglo slaveholders and land speculators and paved the way for open insurrection.
Help was waiting for the conspirators in the U.S. White House. President Jackson, who could not aid the conspiracy openly because of the raging debate over slavery in the United States and the legal restraint of the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819, initiated the first covert action against a foreign nation in U.S. history. To execute his plan he utilized Sam Houston, his political protégé and agent inside Texas and General Edmund P. Gaines, now the military commander of the Southwest Division of the U. S. Army.
Jackson's Texas scheme was a refinement of the strategy that he developed in Florida. After Mexico repeatedly refused to sell Texas to the U.S., Jackson laid the foundation for his covert takeover plan by openly asserting that the Adams-Onís Treaty had been written incorrectly and that the actual border between the United States and Mexico was not the Sabine River (which was clearly marked as the international boundary on the original treaty map) but the Neches River 139 kilometers (86 miles) to the west. Jackson's agents openly encouraged Americans to occupy this "disputed" territory. If the Mexican army could be lured across the Neches, Jackson would order General Gaines to cross the Sabine to engage the enemy in order to "protect American lives and territory". The war would be on and the U.S. would begin the conquest, not only of Texas, but also as much of Mexico as the army could seize. The vast Mexican lands of Upper California and New Mexico, in addition to Texas, had long been coveted prizes.
The political situation was already tense in 1832 when Sam Houston, coming directly from a meeting with President Jackson in Nashville, entered Texas and immediately joined the faction of Anglo colonists advocating war with Mexico. He set up a law practice in Nacogdoches and became a delegate to the colonists' Convention of 1833. For the next two years, he agitated unrelentingly for war. Under intense pressure from other Jackson confederates, the Consultation of 1835, the second convention of the colonists, appointed Houston to the post of Major General and authorized him to organize a regular army and prepare it for war.
The showdown with Mexico came when General Santa Anna crossed the Rio Grande at the head of the Mexican army to quell the insurrection in the North. Contrary to Texas legend, Houston had no intention of fighting Santa Anna -- his job was to bait him. As soon as Houston took command of the Texas army in Gonzales, he ordered a retreat. News of the defeat of the Anglo garrison at the Alamo and rumors that Santa Anna intended to free all of the slaves in Texas and encourage them to occupy the lands of their former masters precipitated a mass exodus towards Louisiana. In what became known as The Runaway Scrape, the panicked Texans, under the shepherding of Houston, drove their cattle and slaves towards Nacogdoches, located across the Neches River and inside Jackson's "disputed" territory.
As soon as President Jackson received a dispatch on the situation in Texas, he ordered General Gaines to muster his forces and prepare to cross the Sabine. Gaines was ready. He had scouted the site of his ambush carefully -- San Augustine, located 45 kilometers (28 miles) inside Mexican territory. The fate of Texas -- no, all Mexico -- would be decided in battle deep in the dense pine forest 58 kilometers (36 miles) east of Nacogdoches. The odds were in Gaines's favor; Santa Anna's troops would be exhausted from the long march and operating in unfamiliar terrain, while Gaines's troops were fresh and armed with superior weapons. In addition, Gaines would enjoy the tactical advantages of cover and surprise.
The trap was set and baited but never sprung. The Texas colonists in The Runaway Scrape discovered Jackson's plan. They realized that if they followed Houston to Nacogdoches the control of Texas would fall into the hands of the President and his cabal of large slaveholders and land speculators. When the Texas militia spurned Houston and turned back to confront Santa Anna, he had no choice but to follow them. The defeat of the Mexican Army at San Jacinto sealed the fate of Texas. Shortly after the surrender of Santa Anna, the land speculators and slaveholders of Texas called for immediate annexation by the U.S., but their call went unanswered because of the opposition by abolitionist forces in the U.S. Senate. Texas would not officially become part of the U.S. empire of slavery for another nine years.
The Texas land grab was frenzied. Granting Mexican land to whites had begun a month before the Battle of San Jacinto. Under the Constitution of 1836, all heads of families living in Texas on March 4, 1836, "except Africans, descendents of Africans, and Indians", were granted 1,865 hectares (4,605 acres) of land, while single men were granted, 598 hectares (1,476 acres). In the following year, the Republic of Texas parceled out more land as the spoils of war -- 2.6 square kilometers (one square mile) of land was granted to each and all persons who had participated in the Battle of San Jacinto, men who had been wounded the day before, or those who has been detailed to guard the baggage train. Additional bounty warrants were granted to all men who had participated in the siege of Bexar, either of the two Goliad campaigns, the battle of the Alamo, or to their survivors. Later laws provided generous land grants to attract new settlers and encourage slavery. Despite the disputed borders in the West and South, the Texas insurrection transferred another one million square kilometers (over 390,000 square miles) of Mexican territory into Anglo hands.
The seizure of Texas proved to be a boon to the southern empire of slavery. Although there is no reliable census of the Anglo population in early Texas, tax rolls indicate that the slave population expanded from an estimated 5,000 in 1836 to 22,555 in 1845, an increase of over 450 percent. Just five years later, in1850, slaves outnumbered freemen in six Texas counties and represented between 25 and 50 percent of the population in 29 others. By 1861, when Texas seceded from the United States and joined the Confederacy, the slave population, which had grown more rapidly than that of free citizens, was approaching 200,000.
The Dispossessed: Exile and Repatriation
The Mexican population that remained in the Texas republic faced open hostility and the constant threat of violence. Many families were forced to abandoned their land, cattle, and possessions and flee for their lives. Regardless of their social status, no Mexicans in the territory were safe. The family of Martìn De León, empresario and founder of the prosperous Mexican colony at Victoria on the lower Guadalupe River, fled to Louisiana after Agapito, one of the sons, was murdered by Mabry B. "Mustang" Gray, who was caught rustling De León cattle, and, Fernando, another son, was wounded in a similar confrontation. Other prominent Mexican residents of Victoria, including the Benavides and Carbajal, families were driven from their farms and ranches and into exile.
Juan Seguín, who had organized the Mexican unit of the Texas militia that served as a the rear guard of Sam Houston's retreating army and fought bravely at the battle of San Jacinto, and who was the only Mexican to serve in the senate of the Texas republic, eventually had to flee to safety in Mexico and take his family with him. By the end of 1840s over 200 prominent Spanish families that had lived in San Antonio since the early 1800s, were gone, their properties seized by whites. The only sanctuary for refugees in the interim republic was in the Mexican settlements along the Rio Grande, especially in the lower river valley.
Armed conflict between Mexico and Anglo-Texas continued throughout the period between the insurrection in 1836 and the invasion of Mexico ten years later. Mexico did not accept the loss of Texas, and the Texans sought to expand their territorial claims through military action. The Mexican army entered Texas in 1842 in an unsuccessful campaign to recover the lost territory, and the Anglo-Texans sent an expansionist expedition into the territory of New Mexico in 1841 that resulted in a fiasco at Santa Fe. Anglos also launched a punitive expedition into the Mexican state of Tamulipas in 1842 that ended in disaster at Ciudad Mier. Ultimately the fate of Texas was not sealed until the United States waged all-out war against Mexico in 1846-1848.
Slavery continued to be a hot issue on the southern frontier. Runaway slaves from the plantations of east Texas and Louisiana knew that freedom awaited them across the Rio Grande. And even though patrols of Texas Rangers, bounty hunters, armed vigilantes, and the natural barrier of the south Texas chaparral stood between them and freedom, the slaves continued to flee, often with the aid of sympathetic Mexicans. The runaways were granted asylum in Mexico and gunfights were not uncommon when gringo slave hunters crossed the river in pursuit of their fugitive prey. Continued pressure to defend and expand the southern empire of slavery was a major factor in the U.S. decision to invade and conquer Mexico.
Copyright © 2004 by Richard D. Vogel.
Richard D. Vogel is a retired teacher who writes about current social and political issues. Other articles by the author are available at monthlyreview.org.
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