Perspective on the Frontier

Houston Institute for Culture 
Stolen Birthright: The U.S. Conquest and Exploitation of the Mexican People [4 of 6]
By Richard D. Vogel

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo

Mexico ultimately lost the war because of the ruthless application of superior firepower against both military and civilian targets by U.S. Army and Navy forces. It began as a war of attrition that American field commanders were willing to escalate into a war of annihilation. Hostilities officially ceased in late October of 1847, and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed on February 2, 1848, formally ended the conflict. The U.S. War on Mexico secured Texas as part of the southern empire of slavery and took another 1,370,154 square kilometers (529,017 square miles) of land, nearly half of the original territory of Mexico, as spoils of war. Including the land of the Spanish cession and the annexation of Texas, by 1848 the U.S. had expropriated a total of 2,567,111 square kilometers (almost one million square miles) of land from its southern neighbors.


Part I: Conquest - Land and Wealth

    U.S. Imperialism in the South and Southwest
    The U.S. War on Mexico
    The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo

Part II: Exploitation - Capital and Labor

    World War I and the Demand for Mexican Labor
    The Great Depression and Mass Deportations
    World War II and the Bracero Program
    The Maquiladora Industry
    Boomtowns and Busted Workers
    The Impact of NAFTA on Mexico

Part III: Exodo - Reclaiming the Mexican Birthright

    Essential Workers for U.S. Capitalism
    Another 50 Years of Mass Migration

Lost to Mexico were the fertile coastal plains of Texas and California and the bountiful high plains of the Edwards and Colorado plateaus and the Llano Estacado, vast areas that have produced enormous wealth in minerals, oil, beef, cotton, corn, sugar, and other agricultural commodities. Gone were the fecund Central Valley in California, Gila River Valley in Arizona the Mesilla Valley in New Mexico, and Rio Grande Valley in Texas, cornucopias that would come to feed so much of the U.S. population. Stolen from the Mexican people were the treasures of the Sierra Nevada, the lower Rocky Mountains, and the upper portions of Sonora and Chihuahua that have produced copious amounts gold, silver, copper, and other minerals. Expropriated were the important rivers and abundant forests of the American Southwest. Annexed to the U.S. were the key seaports of California and Texas -- San Francisco, San Pedro, San Diego, Port Isabel, Corpus Christi, and Galveston -- all destined to become thriving centers of commerce and industry. Denied to Mexico were the important trade centers of Sonoma, Santa Clara, San Juan Bautista, Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, San Fernando, Los Angeles, La Mesa, San Gabriel, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, El Paso, San Antonio, and Laredo -- the Spanish names protest the theft.

And, for some Americans, half of Mexico was not enough. President Polk himself was disappointed in the final terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. He wanted to partition Mexico along the 26th parallel due west from the mouth of Rio Grande all the way to the Pacific Ocean, an annexation plan that would have included almost all of the current Mexican states of Coahuila, Chihuahua, Sonora (with its important seaport of Guaymas), and most of Baja California. Additionally, he wanted that area of Mexico lying east of the Sierra Madre Oriental down to, and including, the port of Tampico (the present Mexican states of Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas). Polk considered the coastal plains of Tamaulipas to be fertile ground for slave plantations. All in all, the U.S President coveted, and almost secured, another 886,000 square kilometers (336,000 square miles) of Mexico as spoils of war.

There were many North Americans who wanted even more than that. A powerful faction of U.S. politicians and other elites called for the annexation and enslavement of all Mexico. On November 10, 1847 the Whig Party in the U.S. published its program for the defeated republic:
It is, therefore, declared, for the peace and quiet of this land, [Mexico] for the happiness of these people, and to end the effusion of human blood, that the United States, from this day forward, ends the war -- assumes the entire conquest of Mexico -- annexes it to the United States, and the people are required to repair to their respective homes, and there await the call of the proper authorities of their different States to organize their several State Constitutions, which, if Republican, will be accepted into the Union.... All in default, acting contrary to this manifesto, be traitors, whose lives and property will be confiscated.
Many of the American field commanders who participated in the invasion of Mexico supported total annexation. Brigadier General William J. Worth, a rabid expansionist and racist, was quite explicit:
That our race is finally destined to overrun the whole continent is too obvious to need proof.... After much reflection I have arrived at the conclusion that it is our decided policy to hold the whole of Mexico -- The details of occupation are comparatively unimportant -- I mean by occupation, permanent conquest and future annexation....
However, internal contradictions in the United States stymied the movement for the annexation of all Mexico. The issue of slavery continued to dog the U.S. Though many slaveholders advocated expansion, others feared that if all Mexico were annexed, it might be as free soil. Free soil advocates, on the other hand, were afraid that the conquered nation would become slave territory and vehemently opposed annexation. Western land speculators and northern capitalists were anxious to acquire all of Mexico and sell it for a profit as they had the American Mid-west and South and sided with the annexationists. The result was a bitter political struggle in the U.S. Senate. In the end, the extension of slavery, which initially drove U.S. expansion in the South and Southwest, was the issue that tipped the balance against the annexation of all Mexico.

The U.S. War on Mexico proved to be devastating enough without total annexation. The thirty-five year campaign against Spain and Mexico brought to a climax in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo guaranteed slavery in Texas and expanded the United States from the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. Americans like to dress up the land-grab and call it "Manifest Destiny", but history shows it for what it really was -- naked aggression by a superior power that robbed the Mexican people of their birthright in North America and crippled the future of their young republic.

Map Copyright  2006 by Richard D. Vogel

The Fate of the Conquered

The struggle for the ownership of the land in the stolen territories did not end with the conclusion of the war. Although the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo recognized the legitimacy of Spanish and Mexican land grants and offered the Mexican inhabitants in the ceded territories American citizenship, the influx of land-hungry and ruthless whites resulted in widespread oppression that sparked mass exile and repatriation. The exile of Mexican citizens from Texas that began after the Anglo takeover of 1836 intensified after the war in 1848. Besieged refugees abandoned their farms and ranches and moved across the Rio Grande to the old Mexican towns of Paso del Norte, Guerrero, Mier, Camargo, Reynosa, and Matamoros and established the new towns of Nuevo Laredo, Mesilla, and Guadalupe.

The Spanish-speaking population fared no better in post-war California. Descendents of the original Spanish settlers, known as Californios, faced problems similar to those of their compatriots in Texas and additional pressure from the gold rush of 1849 which attracted over 100,000 newcomers to the territory, including more than 80,000 whites from the U.S., 8,000 Mexicans from the state of Sonora, and 5,000 South Americans, mostly miners from Chile.

Much trouble in the goldfields of California stemmed from the fact that both the Sonorans and the Chileans were better miners than the whites and became targets of resentment and persecution. The Foreign Miners' Tax Law of 1850, passed by the California legislature, required foreigners to buy mining permits for $20 a month (a huge sum of money in those days). The legislation was intended to make the Mexicans and Chileans abandon their claims and reduce them to the status of wage laborers. The law, however, proved to be unenforceable and the work of disenfranchisement had to be completed by white lynch mobs and gangs of gunmen. Several of the local and regional leaders of these gangs knew how to get the job done -- they had been Rangers in Texas before joining the California gold rush.

Anglos in California denounced the Mexicans who fought back as bandits. The intensity of the conflict is reflected in the legend of the bandit Joaquín Murieta, who created havoc in the Anglo community as revenge for the murder of his wife and brother and theft of his gold mine by Anglo claim jumpers. Whether or not Joaquín Murieta actually existed is not important -- the historical cases of Juan Flores and Tiburcio Vásquez, bandidos caught and hanged by white vigilantes, are testimony to the desperation and rage of the dispossessed Mexicans in California.

In the end, most Chileans and many Mexicans were repatriated. The Mexican population that stayed in California, followed by their descendants and succeeding generations of immigrants from the South, provided the labor power to develop the states wealth much as their compatriots in Texas did.

At first, the future of the Mexican population in the territory of New Mexico looked bright. Numerical superiority, representational government, and the rights guaranteed in The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo initially offered them the possibility to hold on to their land, but ultimately the Anglo ranchers, land speculators, and eastern and foreign capitalists won out. After two decades of land wars and lawsuits, most native New Mexicans, like their compatriots in Texas and California, found themselves displaced and landless.

The Gadsden Purchase: Back For More

Not satisfied with the vast territorial concessions of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the U.S. demanded more land from Mexico in 1852. The discovery of gold in California renewed American interest in what remained of Mexican territory in the Southwest. Knowing that silver and gold are often found near deposits of common metals, American capitalists and speculators set their sights on the northern states of Sonora and Chihuahua which both had rich deposits of copper. The boundary set by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo had left Mexico in possession of the Santa Rita copper mine in upper Chihuahua and other known copper deposits across northern Sonora. In addition, the flat land south of the Gila River would provide an easy route for a southern U.S. trans-continental railroad. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, like the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819, stood in the way of American profiteers and had to be broken.

U.S. President Franklin Pierce appointed James Gadsden, a wealthy railroad tycoon from the South, as Minister to Mexico and sent him to negotiate armed with a carrot and a sword. The carrot included a purchase offer of up to $25 million for the land and a $200,000 bribe for Santa Anna, then president of the prostrate republic. The sword was the threat of another invasion.

The sword was poised to strike. Again, the U.S. employed the strategy that had proven so successful in Florida and Texas -- Anglo immigrants had been infiltrating across the Rio Grande and settling in the Mesilla Valley in the state of Chihuahua since the end of the war. Before Gadsden began negotiations, American soldiers were moved upstream from El Paso to a strategic position where they could quickly cross the river to "protect American lives". Santa Anna was aware of the situation in the Mesilla Valley. Knowing the ruthlessness of the Anglos and not immune to personal bribes, he took the money and instructed his ministers to sign whatever terms that the U.S. offered.

Gadsden returned to Washington with a treaty that cut deeply into remaining Mexican territory. The new treaty moved the international boundary from the Gila River approximately 200 kilometers (125 miles) south to its present location. This radical surgery cut off the tops of the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora, transferring another 78,000 square kilometers (30,000 square miles) of the Mexican republic to the United States. The U.S. ended up paying only fifty-three cents an acre for the land that became part of the states of New Mexico and Arizona. Santa Anna's sell-out so enraged the citizens of Mexico that he was ousted from office and had to spend the next twenty years of his life in exile.

As in the case of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, there were many powerful Americans who wanted to exploit the opportunity to take more. Gadsden compelled the Mexican government to sign three drafts of the treaty. The first draft, the one that Gadsden and his rich cronies lobbied for, set the international boundary on the 30th parallel from a point in the middle of the Rio Grande 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of the present Ojinaga-Presidio river crossing due west to the Gulf of California. This draft also ceded all of Baja California to the U.S. and would have swallowed up approximately 341,000 square kilometers (132,000 square miles) more than the draft that was finally adopted. The same issue that had foiled the annexation of all of Mexico likewise defeated the most onerous draft of the Gadsden Treaty -- the expansion of slavery in the U.S.

The Gadsden Treaty ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1854 completed the American landgrab in the American Southwest. By the end of the thirty-five year campaign against Spain and Mexico, the United States had dismembered her sister republic to the south, stealing more than 2.6 million square kilometers (over one million square miles) of land. In modern context, the final damage assessment to Mexico is staggering -- over one third (33.8 percent) of the land area of the lower forty-eight U.S. states is former Mexican or Spanish territory. Subtracting the land ceded by Spain still leaves over 31 percent of the land of the lower forty-eight U.S. states originally belonging to Mexico.

The Gadsden Treaty ended the great American land-grab but did not end the exploitation of Mexico. From the end of the war in 1848 to the present day, the U.S. has used its dominant position to systematically plunder the resources and exploit the labor power of the Mexican people.


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