The Controversial ‘Gadsden Purchase’
By Tom Morrow
Imagine the Mexican cities of Tijuana, Ensenada, La Paz, even Cabo San Lucas being part of the U.S. — it almost happened.
The 1854 “Gadsden Purchase” was a 29,670-square-mile region of present-day southern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico. The proposal was made to Mexican President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna by James Gadsden, U.S. ambassador to Mexico. The original proposal included the entire Baja California peninsula and northern Mexican states. The U.S. wanted the land to build a railroad between El Paso and San Diego
The financially strapped Mexicans finally agreed to the sale, which netted $10 million (equivalent to approximately $300 million in present-day dollars). Santa Anna thought it was better to yield territory by treaty and receive payment rather than have the territory simply seized by the U.S. Army.
Ambassador Gadsden and business-oriented Southerners saw a railroad linking the South with the Pacific Coast would expand trade opportunities. However, the southern portion of the then-existing U.S. border was too mountainous for a direct route.
President Franklin Pierce, strongly influenced by Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, a Southerner, saw an opportunity to acquire significant territory from northern Mexico, but there was a controversial debate whether any new territory would be slave or free.
The earlier “Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo,” which ended the Mexican-American War, contained a guarantee the United States would protect Mexicans by preventing cross-border raids by local Comanche and Apache tribes.
President Pierce appointed Ambassador Gadsden to Mexico with specific instructions to negotiate the acquisition of additional territory. Mexico was going through political and financial turmoil and Santa Anna was willing to deal with the United States because he needed money to rebuild his army for defense against (who else) the Americanos.
As originally envisioned, the Gadsden Purchase would have encompassed a much larger region, extending far enough south to include most of the current Mexican states of Baja California Norte, Baja California Sur (south), the states of Coahuila, Chihuahua, Sonora, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas. But, Mexico opposed Gadsden’s proposed boundaries, as did northern anti-slavery U.S. Senators, who saw the purchase as acquisition of more slave territory.
Santa Anna rejected the extension of the border and insisted on reparations for the damages caused by American Indian raids, but agreed to let an international tribunal resolve this problem. President Pierce finally authorized Gadsden to purchase any of six proposed parcels.
Ironically, the $15 million the amount was the price President Thomas Jefferson paid France for the “Louisiana Purchase” a half-century earlier. Gadsden’s orders were to buy the 38,000 square miles of desert necessary for the railroad plans. However, his “antagonistic manner” alienated Santa Anna, who balked at any large-scale sale of territory. The Mexican President felt threatened by U.S. Army renegade William Walker’s bold attempt to capture Baja California and annex the northern state of Sonora – all with only 50 troopers. Ambassador Gadsden disavowed any U.S. government backing of Walker, who ended up being cashiered by the Army and placed on trial as a criminal.
Even the sale of a relatively small strip of land angered the Mexican people, who saw Santa Anna’s actions as a betrayal of their country. They watched in dismay as he squandered the funds generated by “the Purchase.” Today, some historians believe the Gadsden Purchase partially contributed to the negative relationship that has existed between our two countries.
The final “Purchase included the cities of Tucson, Yuma, Bisbee, Douglas and Tombstone. For many years an outlaw band known as “The Cowboys,” frequently robbed stagecoaches and brazenly stole Mexican cattle in broad daylight, scaring off Mexican ranchers who were watching over their herds. Accordingly, Mexican authorities complained to the U.S. about those “Cowboy” raids. The 1880s conflict, known as the “Cochise County War,” came to an end by the Earp and Clanton families with Tombstone’s historic Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and Wyatt Earp’s infamous “Vendetta Ride” against the “Cowboys.”
The included counties in Arizona do not follow the northern boundary of the Gadsden Purchase. Pima County, which includes Tucson, is Arizona’s second most populated county. Four of these also contain areas north of the Gadsden Purchase, but they have relatively low population densities, with the exception of northeastern Pinal County’s towns of Apache Junction and Florence. Maricopa County south of Phoenix also extends into the area of the Purchase, but this area also is thinly populated. Tucson is the largest city in the Gadsden Purchase.
It 2009, it was estimated the purchased land had not been profitable for the United States. Historical accounts take it for granted the Purchase has been a boon to the United States, but that region produces very little tax revenue and most mines are on Indian reservations which receive all royalties. The federal government spent a great deal of money during the 19th century to defend the territory from Apaches which might not have been necessary without the Purchase.
The Gadsden Purchase remains a little-known nugget of U.S. history.