When looking at a map of the southern boundaries of Arizona and New Mexico, one might wonder about the reasons for the curious jogs and angles. Actually, as is often the case, a knowledge of history can provide significant perspective. The boundary in question was a result of the 1853 Gadsden Purchase, by which the United States bought nearly thirty thousand square miles of land from Mexico for $10 million. American history textbooks commonly explain that this purchase was necessary to secure the route of a proposed southern transcontinental railroad. This is also the area through which the Mormon Battalion had marched only seven years earlier, mapping a potential wagon road as they went. One scholar who painstakingly traced the battalion’s precise route described the Mormons’ map and its link to the Gadsden Purchase as one of the significant “achievements of the battalion.”1 Still, the best-known histories do not acknowledge any connection between the battalion’s map and the Gadsden Purchase. Nevertheless, the march of the Mormon Battalion is directly related to the irregular shape of the U.S. southern boundaries.
As hostilities broke out with Mexico, five hundred Mormons were recruited by Captain James Allen during July of 1846. They were to join the “Army of the West,” headed by Colonel Stephen W. Kearny (whose rank had been raised to brevet brigadier general when his march to the Pacific commenced).
General Kearny’s March
Leaving Fort Leavenworth with his main force on June 27, just over one month ahead of the Mormon Battalion, Kearny headed west along the Santa Fe Trail and occupied Santa Fe, the New Mexican capital, on August 18 without bloodshed.
After setting up a military government, Kearny departed from Santa Fe on September 25. Superiors in Washington suggested that Kearny follow the Old Spanish Trail from Santa Fe through present-day Colorado, Utah, and Nevada to southern California. However, such a trek would have involved a difficult crossing at Green River, “a sandy ninety mile desert, and possible snow in the higher elevations during the late season.”2 Kearny opted for a more southerly route. As he headed south along the Rio Grande, he was following the well-traveled Camino Real, which for two centuries had connected Santa Fe with Chihuahua City. In contrast to this well-known north-south route, the region to the west was essentially terra incognita:
Though the Spaniards, the Indians, and the mountain men had traversed the country between the Rio Grande and the Pacific, an accurate knowledge of the whole area did not exist. There were no dependable maps, and it was difficult even to visualize a line of communication through the Southwest to the Pacific.3
People believed, however, that following the Rio Grande and Gila Rivers would provide a route with adequate water most of the way to California.
When Kearny left Santa Fe, he took with him a force of three hundred dragoons (heavily armed cavalry), baggage wagons, and two howitzers. His army also included a party of topographical engineers under Lieutenant William H. Emory, whose extensive descriptions of the country, together with his careful observations of latitude, longitude, and elevations, were badly needed sources of information. On October 6, only two weeks after Kearny had left Santa Fe, he met Kit Carson, who had been dispatched from California to carry the news that the war in that area was over. Realizing that his first priority should be reaching California as quickly as possible to secure the peace, the general cut his force to just one hundred dragoons plus Emory’s forty men, ordering the remainder back to Santa Fe.
After only three more days of travel down the Rio Grande, the road became more difficult—the wagons bogged down in sandy stretches. Carson estimated that at their present rate, at least four months would be required to reach the West Coast. Kearny therefore decided to abandon the wagons and remained in camp four days until pack saddles could be obtained from Santa Fe. The army then continued a few miles further south along the Rio Grande before turning west toward the Gila. While traversing the mountains, the troops examined the rich copper mines at Santa Rita, which would become a point of contention during the peace negotiations following the war.
Mormon Battalion Arrival at Santa Fe
The Mormon Battalion was outfitted at Fort Leavenworth and followed Kearny. Sadly, soon after leaving the fort, Allen died and the battalion was placed under the leadership of an officer for whom they had much less respect. When Kearny heard of Allen’s death, he bestowed the rank of lieutenant colonel on Philip St. George Cooke, who was still at Santa Fe, and appointed him to assume command of the Mormon Battalion upon their arrival.4 Cooke’s orders were to “open a wagon road by the Gila route to the Pacific,” the task that Kearny had originally planned to accomplish himself.5
The first contingent of the battalion arrived in Santa Fe on October 9, two weeks after Kearny had departed. Colonel Alexander W. Doniphan, who had befriended the Saints at a critical juncture during their persecutions in Missouri eight years earlier, had been left in charge at Santa Fe. As the battalion marched into the central plaza, Doniphan ordered his men to give them a one-hundred-gun salute from the rooftops of surrounding old adobe buildings. Just ten days later, the battalion continued its march south and west.6
Choosing a Route. The original plan was for the Mormons to follow Kearny’s route as closely as possible as they blazed the way for a wagon road. However, Kearny with his streamlined force, and without wagons, found the going in the mountains quite difficult—even after his troops arrived at the relatively easier terrain along the upper reaches of the Gila River on October 20. The rattling sound of spurs and mule shoes in the deep, dark ravines; the looming, black peaks; and the ever-present thorny cactus all combined to make the soldiers feel as though they were, as one of Kearny’s men wrote, “treading on the verge of the regions below.”7 Thus, when Kearny dispatched his scout Antoine Leroux to guide the Mormons, his directions were to continue further south along the Rio Grande in order to skirt the mountains.
The battalion was about twenty miles south of Socorro when Leroux met them on November 2. Cooke found his report to be “very discouraging.” At least a ninety-day march would be required to reach the Pacific, some twelve hundred miles distant. According to Leroux, the battalion would have to continue seventy or eighty miles further down the Rio Grande before turning west. They would then need to cross four hundred miles before reaching the Gila—a distance largely “unexplored and unknown by any of the guides.”8
Four days later, the battalion passed the place where Kearny had abandoned his wagons, and after three more days, the spot where his army had turned west from the Rio Grande. The battalion then continued further south four more days before also leaving the river on November 13.
As they skirted the south end of the mountains, their route took them in a generally westward direction for about a week. The battalion spent November 20 at Ojo de Vaca, or Cow Spring, a well-known watering hole on the north-south road connecting the Santa Rita copper mines with the Mexican frontier town of Janos. Colonel Cooke recorded that he spent “an anxious day” in camp pondering his course.9 Cooke knew that General Kearny “wished me to come the Gila route, that a wagon road might be established by it.”10 At this point, the Gila lay west and a little north of the battalion’s location. But Cooke’s guides favored heading southwest to the San Bernardino Valley (in the extreme southeastern corner of present-day Arizona) and then to the headwaters of the San Pedro, a tributary of the Gila. Eleven days earlier, Cooke had referred with some misgivings to the prospect of taking the San Pedro route: “By patience and perseverance and energy to accomplish the undertaking . . . in a very few days I commence a route of above three hundred miles to the San Pedro River, of which the guides know little or nothing.”11 The guides reported that the only water they could find ahead lay in this southwesterly direction.
Cooke decided to take the southerly San Pedro route rather than follow Kearny along the Gila River. A group of Mexican traders that happened to come by Cow Spring on November 20 gave a little more information on the country through which the soldiers would need to pass. In some places, they would need to go as far as thirty miles, or two days, without water.12 To the north, on the other hand, was the more difficult mountainous topography as well as the stronghold of the often hostile Apache. The colonel was apprehensive as he headed out. The guides’ information, he wrote, “is very obscure, if not contradictory. They can convey no ideas of distance, but it would seem that my greatest risk is not to find enough of water.”13 Cooke’s decision to swing further to the south would have a direct impact on the future territorial limits of the United States.
Pioneering a Road. The battalion continued through the desolate country of what is now southwestern New Mexico. On November 25, they crossed the Continental Divide, which at that point is formed by the Animas Mountains. Three days later, the battalion came to the “edge of a massive precipice separating the level Animas tableland from the rough and confused mass of rocks and arroyos of the Guadalupe Mountains.”14 The men spent the next two days constructing a road and lowering the wagons down the incline. Cooke wrote that “the descent was steeper than I have ever known wagons to make (ropes, of course, were used); one [wagon] was very near turning over, the hind part over the fore part.”15 The scouts subsequently discovered that the true Guadalupe Pass they had been seeking was only a mile south of where they made this precipitous descent. Cooke therefore prepared careful instructions to help future groups avoid making the same mistake.
For the next week, the battalion continued pioneering their road through the rocky, sandy, cactus-covered terrain of the San Bernardino [Arizona] Valley. Finally reaching the San Pedro River on December 9, their going became a little easier; their main challenge was an encounter with wild bulls two days later. Near present-day Benson, Colonel Cooke had to make another choice. He could follow the San Pedro River to its junction with the Gila, but this route would take him through the Gila Canyon, where his men would be forced to cross the river several times. The other choice was to strike out on a more westerly, shorter route even though this path risked a confrontation with Mexican forces at Tucson and would take the troops through seventy miles of the most desolate country so far. The colonel opted for the shortcut.
The Mormons were relieved to arrive at Tucson peacefully on December 16. At the Tucson presidio, members of the battalion posted an American flag, the first time the Stars and Stripes were raised over a town in what would become Arizona. Five days later, the battalion finally reached the Gila River in the vicinity of the Pima Indian villages. At this point, they rejoined Kearny’s route, the general having passed this area just over a month earlier.
On January 10, 1847, the battalion crossed the Colorado River into California and, two and a half weeks later, had their eagerly anticipated first view of the Pacific. They had fulfilled their commission to open a wagon road from the Rio Grande, successfully pioneering a route through the relatively unknown country between the rugged mountains and hostile Indians to the north and the fortified Mexican frontier to the south. Standing in front of the old Spanish mission in San Diego, Philip St. George Cooke commended the battalion in these words:
The Lieutenant-Colonel commanding congratulates the battalion on their safe arrival on the shore of the Pacific Ocean, and the conclusion of their march of over two thousand miles.
History may be searched in vain for an equal march of infantry. Half of it has been through a wilderness where nothing but savages and wild beasts are found, or deserts where, for want of water, there is no living creature. There, with almost hopeless labor we have dug deep wells, which the future traveler will enjoy. Without a guide who had traversed them, we have ventured into trackless table-lands where water was not found for several marches. With crowbar and pick and axe in hand, we have worked our way over mountains, which seemed to defy aught save the wild goat, and hewed a passage through a chasm of living rock more narrow than our wagons. . . . Thus, marching half naked and half fed, and living upon wild animals, we have discovered and made a road of great value to our country.16
The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo
In the postwar boundary negotiations with Mexico, the Americans got almost everything they wanted. On the west coast, the United States claimed San Diego, which had traditionally been regarded as the southern end of Alta (Upper) California; the international border would begin just one league (about three miles) below the bay, with its excellent harbor. From the Gulf coast, the boundary followed the Rio Grande, which the Texans had always insisted was their true southern frontier.
The central portion of the boundary was influenced by the mounting interest in a transcontinental railroad. The pending acquisition of territory from Mexico and the recent agreement with Great Britain defining the northern boundary of Oregon combined to focus attention on the need for improved lines of communication to the Pacific. Several potential rail routes were actively considered.
Interest in the southernmost rail route was stimulated by a map drawn by Major William H. Emory, who had marched with Kearny’s forces. He provided the first accurately drawn map of the Gila River region. It corrected the errors in Alexander von Humboldt’s atlas and modified John Frémont’s widely circulated 1845 map. “In compiling his map Emory was, in most cases, careful not to include anything that he or his subordinates did not actually observe, so that his map was with some exceptions a trustworthy view.”17 The report of his scientific reconnaissance “first raised the question of a railroad along the 32nd parallel in official circles.” During the summer of 1847, his “glowing reports” of the Gila River route excited members of President James K. Polk’s cabinet. This interest prompted Secretary of State James Buchanan to instruct U.S. negotiator Nicholas P. Trist “that provision for such a railroad route be included in the peace treaty.”18 The Mexicans agreed, inasmuch as their missionary work with the natives had generally been confined to the area south of the Gila. This river was the traditional northern boundary of the Mexican state of Sonora (earlier known as Estado Occidente).19 The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed February 2, 1848.
A great controversy arose because of imprecision contained in the treaty concerning the precise location of the boundary between the Gila River and the Rio Grande. Article V in the treaty stipulated that the boundary would run along the main channel of the Rio Grande to the southern boundary of New Mexico, which was “north of the town called Paso,” then to the western boundary of New Mexico and north along that line to the first tributary of the Gila.20 These boundaries were marked on a map of Mexico that had been published by J. Disturnell at New York in 1847. His map showed the southern boundary passing eight miles north of El Paso.
The Disturnell map, however, was not accurate. El Paso was shown at the latitude of 32°15′ N, which was about thirty-four miles north of its true location at 31°45′. Therefore, it was unclear whether the New Mexico line should be placed eight miles north of the actual location of El Paso (which would be 31°52′) or thirty-four miles further north at the latitude of 32°22′. Both of these could be justified by Disturnell’s map. Between these two latitudes was the agricultural Mesilla Valley (the present-day Las Cruces area), which had always been considered part of Chihuahua rather than New Mexico.21
Disturnell’s map showed the New Mexico line continuing three degrees of longitude west from the Rio Grande, but this river was placed two degrees too far to the east. Therefore, New Mexico’s western boundary could be put either at about 108° west longitude as shown on Disturnell’s map, or at about 110°, three degrees west of the Rio Grande’s true location. Between these two meridians lay the rich Santa Rita copper mines.
The treaty specified that each country should appoint a boundary commissioner and an official surveyor. Within a year, they were to meet in order to “run and mark the said boundary.” The line they would agree on “shall be deemed a part of this Treaty.”22 Thus these appointees would have the power to resolve the problem of New Mexico’s proper limits and hence the new international boundary.
The Bartlett-Conde Compromise
However, the U.S. boundary commissioner, John R. Bartlett, and his Mexican counterpart, General Pedro Garcia Conde, did not meet until December 3, 1850, and then they could not agree on the treaty’s meaning. Bartlett demanded that the line be drawn just eight miles north of El Paso and then proceed three degrees of longitude west before turning north, as shown on Disturnell’s map; the U.S. would thus gain both the Mesilla Valley and the Santa Rita mines. Conde, on the other hand, insisted that the coordinates on the map be followed—placing New Mexico’s southern border at 32°22′ and having it run only one degree of longitude west from the Rio Grande; in this way, Mexico could retain both prizes. Finally, both commissioners agreed on a compromise: the more northern line was accepted, but it would continue the full three degrees west from the river. Thus the United States would get the copper mines, but Mexico could keep the Mesilla Valley.
Despite this agreement, the controversy still was not resolved. Article V stipulated that the commissioner and surveyor had equal authority and needed to agree on all decisions. But because of illness, Lieutenant A. B. Gray of Texas, the United States’ designated surveyor, did not reach El Paso until July 1851. He utterly refused to accept the compromise, believing that Bartlett had allowed the U.S. to be swindled. Gray “was interested in a southern railroad route to the Pacific through his state,” and he had actually served as the engineer for eastern companies promoting such a line. He worried that the “surrender of the Mesilla valley to Mexico would result in the loss of the only practicable railroad route to the Pacific through American territory.” In his official survey report, he declared that “the Mesilla valley, from the standpoint of territory, was of little value, but that this disputed region embraced the most accommodating gateway over the Rocky Mountains and the most feasible railroad route from the Rio Grande to California.”23
In the midst of this debate, Nicholas P. Trist, the treaty’s original negotiator, spoke out. In a letter to a New York newspaper, he declared that finding the correct boundary simply “consists in going upon the right bank of the Rio Grande and there finding the point of beginning,” a “spot whose latitude is 32°22′.” He explained that rather than specifying a certain latitude, the negotiators simply marked on Disturnell’s map “where they had agreed the boundary should run.” Then, recognizing the map’s errors, they inserted the words “north of the town called Paso” to demonstrate “the ‘good faith’ of the United States” that Mexico should retain this key outpost.24
Trist’s explanations, though also confusing, might have supported the appropriateness of Bartlett’s compromise. But, because the U.S. commissioner and surveyor could not agree, this settlement never became official. The dispute was finally resolved through the Gadsden Purchase of 1853.
The 1853 Gadsden Treaty
The years following the Mexican War witnessed an increase in railroad fervor. Rail mileage in the United States mushroomed from 8,800 miles in 1850 to 21,300 miles just four years later.25 This increased activity intensified interest in a rail link with the Pacific. Various cities on the Great Lakes and along the Mississippi River vied for the honor of becoming the Midwestern jumping-off point. Each section of the country wanted the anticipated economic advantage the transcontinental railroad and trade with the Far East would bring. Because it was generally assumed that the economy could support only one road, their rivalry became intense.26
Jefferson Davis of Mississippi was an ardent supporter of the southern route. As local and national politicians heatedly argued the merits of their favored routes, Davis, who served as secretary of war during the Franklin Pierce administration, advocated a series of surveys to scientifically compare the advantages of the respective proposals. He anticipated that an impartial investigation would demonstrate the superiority of the 32nd parallel route. On March 2, 1853, Congress authorized the surveys and directed the secretary of war to report the results of these explorations within ten months.27
As the southern route received closer scrutiny, even its proponents recognized some difficulties. A. W. Whipple, one of the government’s early surveyors west of the Rio Grande, insisted that a railroad could not be built entirely along the route Emory had mapped through the New Mexico mountains and along the Gila River; the route would need to dip south into Sonora in order to get around the mountains.28 Even Major Emory, one of the route’s earliest advocates, agreed. Because of the “broken and rocky nature of the country” along the upper Gila, he realized the only practical route must follow the San Pedro Valley east to the Guadalupe Pass in order to reach the tablelands west of the Rio Grande. This was precisely the road opened and mapped by Colonel Cooke and the Mormon Battalion. “The fact that wagons had made the journey,” Emory argued, “did much to confirm the opinions of those who deemed it suitable for a transcontinental road.”29 He also emphasized that this preferred route lay “far south” of both the Bartlett-Conde compromise and the line favored by Gray. Hence “an additional slice of Mexican land was needed.”30
Therefore, during the summer of 1853, a few months after Franklin Pierce was inaugurated and probably with the influence of Jefferson Davis, James Gadsden was named as the U.S. envoy to Mexico. He was president of the South Carolina Railroad and had long been interested in a southern transcontinental line. As early as 1845, he had proposed building a railroad across Texas and along the Gila River.31 Gadsden was now instructed to purchase as much of northern Mexico as he could. Santa Anna, president of Mexico, later reported that “Gadsden told him that if Mexico negotiated it would receive a ‘good indemnity;’ if Mexico would not negotiate then ‘imperious necessity would compel [the United States] to occupy it one way or another.’”32 Although Santa Anna’s government was bankrupt, he refused to consider selling any more territory than the small amount specifically needed for the rail route. Gadsden was instructed that if he could not get more, he should hold out for a boundary just above the latitude of El Paso, giving the U.S. a seaport on the Gulf of California.33
Various factors dictated the final boundary line. Mexico insisted that it should have a land connection to Baja California. Because of powerful tidal currents in the lower Colorado, the southernmost point where a bridge could be built was twenty miles below the mouth of the Gila River at Yuma. The single most significant consideration was the United States’ demand that it control at least the land through which Philip St. George Cooke and the Mormon Battalion had pioneered their wagon road.
Cooke recalled that he had made a “map and sketch” of his 474-mile route from the Rio Grande to the Gila—having no instruments other than a compass. Nevertheless, he reported with obvious satisfaction that “my rude map . . . chanced to get into Captain Emory’s hands.” The captain verified its accuracy and incorporated it with the official map made by his group of topographical engineers during their march with General Kearny. Hence, Cooke observed, the Pierce administration had access to his map, which gave them the key to exactly what they were seeking—a practical southern rail route that “would avoid both the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada, with their snows, and would meet no obstacle.”34
The Gadsden Treaty, signed December 30, 1853, transferred nearly thirty thousand square miles to the United States. The irregular frontier reflected the concerns of the negotiators. (New Mexico’s southern boundary east of the Rio Grande had already been set at 32˚ N as part of the Compromise of 1850.) Proceeding west from the Rio Grande, the border was placed at the latitude of 31°47′, allowing a rail route to extend almost directly west from the American side of El Paso and at the same time barely leaving the Mexican side of the community, across the river, in Mexican territory. The boundary continued west one hundred miles and then abruptly dropped south to 31°20′—just at the right point to include the area where the Mormon Battalion had headed south in order to get through the mountains. Hence this conspicuous jog was “deliberately drawn in the hope of securing the entirety of Cooke’s Wagon Road for the United States.”35 The line continued west at that latitude far enough to include the battalion’s route from Guadalupe Pass to where it turned north along the San Pedro River to reach the Gila. At the 111th west meridian, the boundary began angling northwest to a point on the Colorado River twenty miles below the mouth of the Gila. This jog gave Mexico its land bridge to Baja California but denied the United States its hoped-for seaport on the Gulf of California. Thus the Gadsden Purchase brought into U.S. jurisdiction virtually the entire route of the Mormon Battalion—believed at that time to be the only practical alignment for the southern transcontinental railroad.
Although there had been keen interest in and several explorations of the southern route before negotiations for the Gadsden Purchase were completed, specific data on potential railroad grades and resources along the way were still lacking. Consequently, on December 20, 1853, just ten days before the Gadsden Treaty was signed, Lieutenant John G. Parke of the Topographical Corps received orders to make a more thorough survey of the route between the Gila River and the Rio Grande. He completed this assignment during the early months of 1854, paying particular attention to the recently discovered “Nugent’s cutoff” through the mountains east of Tucson. He reported that there were no obstacles such as excessively steep grades or high passes. The only problem would be scarcity of timber and water, so he recommended experimenting with artesian wells.36 The trail he surveyed soon became part of the Southern Overland Route to California, used by thousands of travelers. Beginning in 1858, the famed Butterfield Stages followed the battalion’s route from Santa Fe to Southern California, except for a short distance east of Tucson where they took advantage of Nugent’s cutoff.37
A quarter of a century would pass before the Southern Pacific Railroad (SP) would push its “Sunset Route” through the Gadsden Purchase area from Yuma to El Paso. Curiously, the rails were laid by California business interests rather than by the promoters in the Old South who were the original proponents of the southern route. The SP followed the Mormon Battalion route from Yuma through Tucson to Benson but then took a more northerly cutoff, as had Nugent, through the mountains into New Mexico. A second railroad, however, the El Paso and Southwestern, which was built just after the turn of the century, followed the battalion’s more southerly route quite closely through Benson, Douglas, and Hachita.
The area acquired in the Gadsden Purchase was occupied slowly and only sparsely. At least fourteen members of the Mormon Battalion eventually returned to live in the country that they had first seen during their historic march.38 Tucson, passed peacefully by the Mormon Battalion in 1846 and reached by the SP tracks in 1880, became the largest city in the territory. On December 14, 1996, following an eight-year campaign in which a local group raised $200,000, a monument to the battalion was erected in Tucson’s El Presidio Park. The monument, “designed by Clyde Ross Morgan, . . . is a 2-ton, 19-foot-tall bronze statue of battalion members Christopher Layton and Jefferson Hunt raising the U.S. flag and engaging in peaceful trade with Teodoro Ramirez, a prominent Tucson merchant.”39 Gordon B. Hinckley, President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, dedicated the monument in honor of the battalion’s “terrible suffering on pitiful rations, their lack of water, their exposure to the heat and the cold of these desert areas, [and] their backbreaking labors in cutting a road through the mountains.”40 Even though the Mormon Battalion did not have to fight—fulfilling a promise Brigham Young had made to the recruits—it nevertheless influenced the shape of the southwestern boundary of the United States.