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Borderlands: Gadsden Purchase Clarified U.S. Boundaries 18 (1999)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Gadsden Purchase Clarified U.S. Boundaries

Article first published in Vol. 18, 1999.

By Monique Finley, Francisco Martinez, Martha Berber, Rebecca Lewis and Rosa Martinez.

In 1836 during the war for its independence, Texas negotiated with Mexican President Antonio López de Santa Anna, who was a prisoner of war, for recognition of the Rio Grande as the boundary between Texas and Mexico. Once he was freed, Santa Anna renounced the Treaty of Velasco that he had signed.

Seventeen years later, Santa Anna, heading a financially bankrupt government, once again did what was expedient. This time he sold a valuable section of northern Mexico to the United States.

The Treaty of La Mesilla, also known as the Gadsden Purchase, finally clarified international boundaries that the Guadalupe Hidalgo Treaty left unclear. The strip of land added 29,649 square miles to the United States, including what is now southern Arizona and New Mexico.  Outside of Alaska, it was the last major American land acquisition on the North American continent.

After the War with Mexico, the United States appointed John R. Bartlett and Mexico named Pedro Garcia Conde as boundary commissioners to direct the surveying and establishment of the new international border. Bartlett and Conde found two major errors in the 1847 map by John Disturnell used by the negotiators of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

Errors in longitude and latitude placed present day El Paso at 32 degrees 15' north latitude and 104 degrees 38' west longitude. Its actual site was 31 degrees 45' north latitude and 106 degrees 29' west longitude. This error placed El Paso 34 miles north and 100 miles east of its real location.

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W. H. Timmons says Bartlett traded Conde latitude for longitude and Bartlett got a wide piece of land that included the copper mines of Santa Rita in today's Grant Country, New Mexico. Because Article V of the Guadalupe Hidalgo Treaty made it clear that modifications to the boundary could only be made by "consent of both nations", Bartlett was anxious for Conde to accept these changes on behalf of Mexico.

Surveying the border was difficult physical process, however. Bartlett's commission members continued their work west while he explored northern Mexico. Meanwhile, Conde died of typhoid fever. Bartlett was eventually recalled to Washington amid political wrangles. Meanwhile, the boundary question remained.

This disputed land became known as the Mesilla Strip, and in 1853, President Franklin Pierce appointed James Gadsden to purchase this land and more, if Mexico was agreeable. Another reason the United States wanted land in northern Mexico was to build a railroad connecting east to west. When gold was found in California in 1848, the desire for such a railway route was intensified. A transcontinental railroad would open the rest of the United States to trade with the Far East.

Gadsden, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, was President of the South Carolina, Louisville, Charleston and Cincinnati railroads. He was perfect choice for this task. President Pierce gave Gadsden authority to pay up to $50 million for large portions of the northern states of Coahuila, Chihuahua, Sonora and all of Baja California.

A preliminary agreement between Santa Anna and Gadsden encountered opposition from senators of antislavery states, concerned that the purchased territory would establish slavery within its boundaries and thus join the West with the South politically.

Gadsden and Santa Anna negotiated the treaty many times, changing boundaries and prices. Editors and politicians in the United States took sides. Finally, Gadsden and Santa Anna agreed on a narrow belt of land comprised of today's southern Arizona and New Mexico.

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The territory was bound on the east by the Rio Grande, on the north by the Gila River, and on the west by the Colorado River. The cost of this parcel of land was $10 million dollars, $7 million to be paid after the ratifications of the Treaty were exchanged, and the other $3 million once the border was surveyed.

Article I of the Gadsden Purchase established the southwestern boundary line of the United States as it appears today. Article II released the American government form its obligation to pay Mexican citizens for any damages from "American Indians", originally established in Article XI of the Guadalupe Hidalgo Treaty. Ratifications were exchanged in Washington, D.C., on June 30, 1854.

Although the east-west railroad route was built south of Mesilla, the Gadsden Purchase added the towns of Yuma, Tucson, Nogales, Wilcox, Douglas, Lordsburg, Deming and Mesilla, and rich copper deposits in Santa Rita. The Gadsden Purchase includes sections of the Southwest that are now among the fastest growing in the nation, part of the Sunbelt's phenomenal development.

The Gadsden Purchase, spawned from the aftermath of war and conflict between two nations, today serves as the link that unites them. The Gadsden School District, just inside the New Mexico State line, reflects the name of this treaty's negotiator, as do a middle school and high school. This part of the Rio Grande valley continues to draw industry and residents who form a bridge between Texas, Mexico and the rest of the United States.

Mexico's negotiator, Santa Anna, however, did not fare well. He squandered the first $7 million, without regard to his country's desperate financial status, angering Mexico's politicians. Historian David Pletcher says this sale of Mexican territory and instrumental in the loss of Santa Anna's presidency and in his exile in the Caribbean. He did not return to Mexico until 1874, where he died impoverished two years later.

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