Don’t Cry for Me, California — Mexican/American War, Part II

By Jay Holmes

We remember the Mexican-American War as a fight between the USA and Mexico. However, the UK and France were directly involved in the region, as well.

France and Great Britain both recognized Texas’ independence, and they both encouraged Mexico to do the same. Simultaneously, both countries wanted California for themselves. Given Great Britain’s strong naval presence in the North Pacific, their takeover of California was by no means farfetched.

Map of Mexico 1842 Hpav7 wikimedia public domain

Mexico, 1842, image by Hpav7, public domain

Concurrent to Britain’s salivating over the fertile areas of California, the USA wanted to expand its territories in the area that we now refer to as the states of Washington and Oregon. In 1844, James K. Polk of the Democratic Party ran for the presidency on a platform of expanding America’s western borders. Polk won the election, and he and his party began badgering Great Britain over the Oregon territory.

The area was a net economic loss to Great Britain based on the diminishing fur trade profits and the high cost of maintaining a large military presence in southwestern Canada. However, Great Britain was not inclined to sustain any damage to her prestige by acceding to demands by the uppity ex-colonists.

Polk’s administration continued to negotiate, but offered nothing real in exchange for the disputed lands. The British Navy had a local superiority and several strong forts in the disputed area against an American population that was growing quickly. In the end, dollars and food settled the issue.

Great Britain depended on food imports from Ireland and profited fantastically from its trade with the USA.  Given the situation in Ireland, Great Britain did not want North Atlantic trade disrupted by the sort of tactics that the US Navy had employed in the war of 1812.

After a series of compromises, Great Britain, while under economic pressure caused by a series of crop failures in Ireland, agreed with the USA and quit its claims up to the longitude of 54 degrees 44 minutes north. The settlement of the “54-40” issue left the USA in a better position to press any claims, fabricated or legitimate, against Mexico. Polk had no intention of missing out on the opportunity. Trade with the USA continued profitably for both sides.

Most of the political factions in Mexico were opposed to Texas becoming a state of the USA. They informed the US government that they would declare war on the USA if Texas were ever annexed. While the Texas-Mexican drama continued, more uninvited immigrants from the USA entered southern California, Arizona, and New Mexico.

In 1845, President Polk sent John Sidell and a large sack of gold to Mexico on a clandestine mission. Sidell was to negotiate the purchase of New Mexico, Arizona, and California and take any measures possible to prevent the French or British purchase of California. He was authorized to pay up to $30,000,000.

However, Mexico was unable to maintain a government long enough to negotiate with anyone. In 1846, the presidency of Mexico changed hands 4 times. Sidell failed in his mission, but he at least created enough intrigue and confusion to divert the Mexican government from selling California to France or Great Britain.

John C. Fremont Portrait William Smith Jewett cliff1066 wikimedia

Portrait of John C. Fremont by William Smith Jewett

photograph by cliff1066, wikimedia commons

In the winter of 1845-1846 in what we would call today a “covert operation by special forces,” John C. Fremont took a band of soldiers posing as civilians into California. Fremont first claimed that he was slightly off track on his trip to Oregon and was just visiting to buy supplies. After moving further west to Salinas he offered the excuse that he was actually shopping for seaside property for his mother. You have to love John Fremont. It’s tough to maintain a sense of humor when you’re badly outnumbered behind enemy lines, but Fremont managed to do it.

Of course, one thing that helped Fremont to laugh was the fact that so many of California’s residents did not support the Mexican government in maintaining control of California. The Mexican government ordered Fremont to leave California, but Fremont set up a makeshift fort at Gavilan Peak. Eventually, the Mexican government in California brought sufficient troops to the area so the US government ordered Fremont to withdraw.

On April 14, 1846, California, with the acquiescence of some of its Mexican officials, declared its independence at Sonoma. Fremont returned to California with 60 soldiers and took command of the rebels. The independent Republic of California, after its long and distinguished three-week history, became part of the USA.

The Mexican government tried to muster support from Mexicans in California, but the vast majority of Mexicans in California supported the rebels. They preferred to be part of the USA. Mexico sent a small force of less than 60 soldiers to reconquer California, but with no local support, they were quickly defeated.

While losing California, Mexico was simultaneously occupied with its attempts to recapture Texas. Mexico never accepted the Treaties of Velasco that Mexican President Santa Ana signed after his humiliating defeat at San Jacinto. The USA claimed the Rio Grande as its southern border, while Mexico claimed the Nueces River further north as the border.

In June, 1845, multiple intelligence sources indicated that Mexico was preparing to invade the USA in Texas. James Polk ordered the battle-hardened General Zachary Taylor to take 1,800 men to the Nueces River in anticipation of a Mexican invasion. Taylor kept most of his troops near Corpus Christi, but sent a small detachment to build what became Fort Brown on the Rio Grande, across the river from the Mexican town of Matamoros.

Both Mexico and the USA sent reinforcements to the area and attempted to negotiate, but the Mexican military was badly hampered by the lack of a believable government in Mexico City.  On April 25, 1846, a patrol of about 70 USA soldiers was attacked and defeated by a force of 2000 Mexican soldiers north of the Rio Grande. In response to Sidell’s failed negotiations and the attack by Mexican forces, Congress approved a Declaration of War against Mexico on  May 13, 1846.

To be continued. . . .


12 comments on “Don’t Cry for Me, California — Mexican/American War, Part II

  1. I am a serial lurker on several fine posts and often don’t comment other than to hit the “like’ button (when I do, of course). I wanted to say how much I enjoy your historical recaps and political opinions. They are a nice balance to Piper’s always entertaining and often provocative posts. Cheers!

  2. mairedubhtx says:

    Thanks for continuing the series on the US-Mexican War. It explains why the border is NOT at the Nueces River but at the Rio Grande River, a point the Mexicans still have a problem with. Texas still have a problem with the fact that the US has to send an army in to fight the Texans battles for them (its’s a matter of pride so we don’t celebrate the victories, etc. the way we do Texas Independence–we just ignore them). But they are important because of the involvement of other nations who had designs on the former Mexican territories in the West, which we rarely mention in our schools as being part of the war (we’re rather parochial).

  3. Well done: history with a story teller’s touch….
    (hmmmm, maybe a series of books for school age children? about 3-4th grade reading level would work K-12)

  4. tomwisk says:

    As an Eastcoastphile I beleive we wouldn’t be all the worse off without California. Texas is another story, basic training, Austin City Limits, Kinky Friedman and ‘que make it indispensible.

  5. Great write up, Holmes. Fremont sounds like a great character – “shopping for seaside property for his mother” – brilliant. The idea of Mexico sending 60 soldiers to retake California is a bit of a laugh, too!


    • Jay Holmes says:

      Hi Nigel. Freemont was indeed a character of sorts. He also had a bit of a megalomaniacal side but one would need that to take such a small expedition into Mexico and do what he did. No truly reasonable person would have dared to conduct such an operation.

      For their part Mexico was plagued by a degree of internal corruption in their national government that would make us consider our modern Beltway bandits to be something like “statesmen”.

  6. Dave says:

    We kind of skipped all of these finer points in my US history class in high school. Keep ’em coming. This is great stuff.

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