The U.S. Colonization of Northern Mexico and the Creation of Mexican Americans
The morning of April 9, 1847, was in many respects a typical spring day in Taos. The early morning air was crisp and the big sky was blue except for some fleeting clouds. Snow-covered Wheeler Peak, the highest point in New Mexico, would have been clearly visible from the village center.1
That Friday was anything but ordinary, however, in this far northern Mexican territory that the United States had recently invaded. On that day in 1847, the Americans executed six Mexican men for their roles in the attack on the highest ranking American civilian in the region. During Holy Week, these Catholic men were tried and convicted under American law; four days after Easter, they were given their last rites by the local priest and hanged.2
The Americans erected the scaffold in the central plaza so that the hangings would be visible not only to those present, but also to those who watched from more distant rooftops.3
The hangings of García, Lucero, the two Romeros, Salázar, and Trujillo must have been a spectacle, probably drawing people from near and far to witness this violent exercise of American power. The sole surviving eyewitness account of the executions offers a vivid description of the men’s last moments: “The bodies swayed back and forth, and coming in contact with each other, convulsive shudders shook their frames; the muscles contracting would relax, and again contract, and the bodies writhed most horribly. While thus swinging, the hands of two came together, which they held with a firm grasp till the muscles loosened in death.”4
Their martyred bodies remained hanging for forty minutes before the American sheriff cut them down, sending a clear message to the Mexican and Indian people of the Taos Valley.
A few months earlier, dozens of Mexican and Pueblo Indian men had joined together to attack the American civil governor, Charles Bent, murdering Bent and five other Americans and American sympathizers
(those killed included three Euro-Americans, one Mexican, and the half-Mexican teenage son of a prominent Euro-American).5
Bent, a Taos merchant, had been appointed civil governor by the army commander who had invaded New Mexico nine months earlier. In the weeks following Bent’s assassination, thousands of Mexican and Indian people, including many civilians, died from attacks by American soldiers. Dozens more eventually were arrested on charges of murder, despite the fact that there was little evidence as to Bent’s actual killers. The same men were charged with being traitors to the United States, despite the facts that they were Mexican citizens and that Mexico was at war with the United States. In 1847 when the Taos executions occurred, the United States claimed military authority over New Mexico, but it did not establish political sovereignty over the region until May 1848, when a peace treaty officially ended the war. Congress did not authorize a territorial government or a legal system until late 1850.
The first American executions in the Southwest raise questions about how Americans imagined themselves at mid-nineteenth century and about how they collectively recall this era. In the main, Americans tend not to think of themselves as colonizers—and when they do, they tend to associate America’s colonial exploits with places like the Philippines or Puerto Rico. Americans tend, perhaps conveniently, to forget that their nation attacked Mexico in a war of aggression and that Americans were unwelcome invaders of Mexico’s northern frontier. Popular culture and mainstream American history teach that the “frontier” (a concept connoting an empty, unpopulated region) was “settled” by brave and hearty pioneers (with the notion of settlement itself implying a benign presence, rather than a military occupation).6
Writing three decades ago, historian Patricia Nelson Limerick presented a different account, self-consciously using the word “conquest” to describe Euro-Americans’ entry into the American West at midcentury. Limerick foregrounded the conflict inherent in the American colonization of northern Mexico, as well as the competition over land and labor that was heavily shaped by race.
Happily or not, minorities and majorities [in the American West] occupied a common ground. Conquest basically involved the drawing of lines on a map, the definition and allocation of ownership (personal, tribal, corporate,
state, federal, and international), and the evolution of land from matter to property. The process had two stages: the initial drawing of the lines (which we have usually called the frontier stage) and the subsequent giving of meaning and power to those lines, which is still under way. Race relations parallel the distribution of property, the application of labor and capital to make the property productive, and the allocation of profit.7
Whereas Limerick provided a general account of this process, here I consider the American conquest of Mexico from a different vantage point, with the aim of situating the subsequent formation of Mexican Americans as a racial group. The common misperception of Mexicans as an ethnic group new to the United States obscures the legacy of American colonization in shaping the Mexican American experience. The evidence reveals that the U.S. colonization of northern Mexico should be understood as the moment in which Mexican Americans first became constituted as an American racial group.
The Mexican Problem and the Outbreak of War
The acquisition of northern Mexico, and especially of New Mexico, as an American colony raised thorny questions of inclusion and exclusion in the American nation and polity. These questions led elite Euro-Americans to engage in conversations about the racial character of American citizenship and of national belonging more generally. As sociologist Rogers Brubaker has explained, citizenship “is inevitably bound up with nationhood and national identity, membership of the state with membership of the nation.”8
Questions about race, citizenship, and belonging were at the heart of the national debates about the U.S. declaration of war against Mexico and about the ratification of the peace treaty that ended the war. The core issue, both for prowar Democrats and for antiwar Whigs, was the “Mexican problem”: what was to become of the more than 115,000 Mexicans who lived in the conquered lands?
What animated both the pro- and antiwar factions was a racist fear about incorporating Mexicans as rights-holders. This had not been viewed as a problem with the annexation of Texas because Euro-Americans (largely immigrants from southern states) had established both demographic and political dominance more than a decade prior to Texas’s
admission as a state in 1845.9
For the prowar faction, the goal was to maximize the acquisition of Mexican territory while minimizing the acquisition of Mexicans.10
Many of those who opposed the war did so in part because the annexation of territory also meant the acquisition of Mexican people. In the end, Congress compromised by ratifying the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo to achieve two ends: the cession by Mexico of half its territory along with the barest guarantees regarding the citizenship and property rights of the Mexican people living in those lands, two-thirds of whom lived in New Mexico.
The origins of the U.S.–Mexico War lay in the breakaway of Texas from the Mexican Republic. Although Texas declared independence in 1836 and became a U.S. state nine years later, Mexico did not abdicate its claim over the territory until its legislature ratified the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. In the 1820s, Mexico had adopted liberal immigration policies designed to encourage Euro-Americans to settle its northern frontier.11
These efforts were most successful in Texas, where by 1831 Euro-Americans outnumbered Mexicans.12
These Euro-American settlers, who came disproportionately from the southern states and brought with them large numbers of slaves, resented the regional and national efforts to curtail slavery, culminating in 1829 with the abolition of African slavery in Mexico.13
Their response was to flaunt Mexico’s antislavery laws and, at the same time, to foment rebellion against the central Mexican government among Euro-American settlers and elite Mexicans. These activities reached a climax in 1836, when a group of Americans, backed by some Mexican supporters, declared the establishment of the Republic of Texas and independence from Mexico. Mexico refused to recognize the new state and pursued a number of military and diplomatic avenues to pull Texas back into its fold. After independence, Mexicans increasingly feared that the United States would annex Texas, and that this, in turn, would lead to American claims on its other northern territories, Nuevo México and Alta California.14
In 1845, Mexico’s fears were realized when Texas was admitted to the Union as a slave state. Between 1850 and 1860 the U.S. Census showed a threefold increase in the number of black slaves residing there.15
Historian Reginald Horsman concludes that “the Texas Revolution was from its beginnings interpreted in the United States and among
Americans in Texas as a racial clash
, not simply a revolt against unjust government.”16
The American senators who eventually would come to play a major role in backing the declaration of war against Mexico received their training during congressional debates about Texas, in which Senators Thomas Hart Benton, Sam Houston, and Robert J. Walker played prominent roles. Walker, a Mississippi senator and a Democrat, frequently compared Mexicans to American blacks and Indians. Arguing in favor of American recognition of Texas’s independence from Mexico, Walker urged that Americans rejoice that “our kindred race, predominated over that fair country, instead of the colored mongrel race, and barbarous tyranny, and superstitions of Mexico.”17
A few years later when he argued for the annexation of Texas as a slave state, Walker characterized “five-sixths” of Mexico’s people as “the mixed races, speaking more than twenty different languages, composed of every poisonous compound of blood and color” and, ultimately, “semi-barbarous hordes.”18
From the Mexican point of view, the U.S. annexation of Texas was tantamount to an act of war.19
For the Americans’ part, there was an ongoing debate about the southern boundary between Texas and Mexico, made more urgent with Texas statehood.20
Historians on both sides of the border acknowledge that President James Polk sought to provoke Mexico by moving U.S. troops into the disputed boundary zone.21
Mexico responded by firing, and on May 9, 1846, Polk informed his cabinet that he would seek a declaration of war from Congress. Although some historians suggest that opposition to the war with Mexico was substantial, the declaration easily passed both houses of Congress.22
Ultimately, even the antiwar Whigs found it hard to oppose the war with Mexico, as this wartime passage from the American Whig Review
reveals: “Mexico was poor, distracted, in anarchy, and almost in ruins—what could she do to stay the hand of our power, to impede the march of our greatness? We are Anglo-Saxon Americans; it was our ‘destiny’ to possess and to rule this continent—we were bound to it!”23
The U.S.–Mexico War of 1846 to 1848 was a landmark war for the United States in several respects. It was the first American war fought on foreign soil.24
It was the first in which the United States occupied a foreign capital, first holding Mexico City on September 14, 1847.25
As the first American military conflict since the War of 1812, it gave the nation
an opportunity to test its new weaponry and other technology. Moreover, the war provided crucial experience to both military branches that existed at the time, the army and the navy. While the army moved west and south into Mexico, American naval forces proceeded to California and to Mexico’s eastern coast to erect a blockade.26
For American naval forces, the Mexican exercises represented their first large-scale operations and proved a training ground for the Civil War.27
The timing of the U.S.–Mexico War was important to national development more generally. Historian Robert Johannsen argues that the war, which began just over half a century after the ratification of the Bill of Rights, became “an exercise in self-identity” for the young nation.28
By this time, the revolutionary generation had passed the torch to a new generation of political and military leaders who would prosecute the Mexican War and then go on to hold prominent positions in national affairs. Two key officers in the Mexican War went on to become U.S. presidents, and countless numbers of officers and soldiers went on to become congressmen. General Franklin Pierce, who led supply convoys into Mexico City as part of the American occupation, served as president from 1853 to 1857. One of the war’s greatest heroes, according to some American historians, was Zachary Taylor, who ran successfully for president just as the peace treaty was being ratified, serving from 1849 to 1850. Johannsen notes that Taylor’s upbringing in Kentucky may have prepared him well to be a soldier, since “his nursery tales were stories of Indian butchery.”29
Like many officers from the southern states, Taylor was accompanied by his slave Ben on his Mexican campaigns.30
Many of the officers who led the Union and the Confederate armies during the Civil War honed their skills in the U.S.–Mexico War. The best known are Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. Grant fought under General Taylor in the earliest battles along the Rio Grande; Lee was an aide to General Winfield Scott, who led the assault on Mexico City, and was twice promoted during the war (first to major and then to lieutenant colonel). During the Civil War, Grant rose to be the general-in-chief of the Union Army and Lee commanded the Confederate forces. Once comrades in arms, the two men ultimately met in battle during the Civil War, with Grant gaining Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on April 9, 1865. More generally, the war with Mexico served as a training ground for military officers who were among the first generations trained at the
West Point Academy.31
Grant and Lee both studied at West Point; the Mexican War in some respects legitimized elite military academies, which many had previously criticized as anti-republ...