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The Xenophile Historian

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The Anglo-American Adventure

Chapter 3: Pioneer America, Part 3

1783 to 1861 (USA), 1783 to 1867 (Canada)

This paper is divided into four parts, which cover the following topics:

Part I

Unfinished Business With the Tories
Canada Reaches the Pacific
The Articles of Confederation
The Writing of the Constitution
"First In the Hearts of His Countrymen"
John Adams at the Helm
Republicanism, Jeffersonian Style
The Lewis & Clark and Pike Expeditions
Aaron Burr Kills Hamilton

Part II

The War of 1812
       Preliminary Activities
       Campaigns of 1812
       Campaigns of 1813
       The Creek War
       Campaigns of 1814
       The Battle of New Orleans
The Era of Good Feelings
Adams Redux
Old Hickory's Democrats

Part III

Deep in the Heart of Texas
Old Kinderhook, Tippecanoe, and Tyler Too
The Canadian Rebellions of 1837
The Search for a Northwest Passage (revisited)
Westward Ho!
The Cheerful Forties
"From the Halls of Montezuma"
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Part IV

Mormons, Doughfaces, and the California Gold Rush
The Free Soil Republicans
A House Divided
The Utah War and the Colorado Gold Rush
Meanwhile, North of the 49th Parallel
Early American Demographics

Deep in the Heart of Texas

During the War of 1812, some Americans took part in an unsuccessful revolt against Spanish rule in Texas (the battle of Medina). Consequently, not every American was happy with the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819, which gave Florida to the US and Texas to Spain. One of them was James Long, a veteran of the battle of New Orleans, who had settled down on a plantation in Mississippi. In 1820 he recruited several hundred followers (he even tried to recruit the pirate Jean LaFitte, but LaFitte said no), invaded Texas, occupied the community of Nacogdoches, and declared Texas an independent republic, with himself as its first elected president. Of course, Spain did not ignore this provocative move; one month later 500 Spanish soldiers went into Texas and drove Long and his followers out. That wasn't the end of the story, though, because Long immediately recruited another army--300 men plus his pregnant wife, Jane Long. While he was away, Mexico declared independence from Spain, so Texas was now technically part of Mexico. This time Long occupied the Presidio la Bahia, the military fort at Goliad. Not long after that, Long was captured and taken to a prison in Mexico City, where he was shot by a guard six months later. His widow Jane and the others held out through the winter of 1821-22, firing off a cannon each day to scare away the Karankawa Indians (see footnote #42). Finally, when they heard that Long was dead, they abandoned Texas (Jane Long returned a few years later as a settler, though).

Though Texas had been under Spanish rule for nearly three hundred years, there were only three settlements (San Antonio, Goliad and Nacogdoches) and an assortment of missions to show for it. Indeed, the first thing Mexico did with Texas after the James Long affair was to merge it with another underpopulated Mexican state, Coahuila, to form a state called Coahuila y Tejas. However, the Mexican government could not find a way to persuade Mexicans from elsewhere to move into Texas. Anglo-Americans still wanted to move in, though, so there was a real danger that Mexico might lose Texas to them, the way Spain had lost Florida. In the end the government decided that letting in the Gringos would be safer than leaving Texas empty, if they could be turned into good Mexican citizens. Almost immediately after independence, Stephen Austin negotiated a contract to bring 300 American families into Texas, so Mexico introduced the empresario system. Like the patroons of New Netherland (see Chapter 2), an empresario recruited settlers in exchange for land he could call his own; for every 100 Roman Catholic families he brought in, he would receive 23,000 acres.

The system worked too well; in just fifteen years the population of Texas increased from about 4,000 to at least 35,000, four fifths of them Anglo-American immigrants. Worse than that, the Gringos refused to assimilate: they spoke English instead of Spanish, many only pretended to be Catholic (there weren't that many Catholics in the United States yet), and they tended to question authority rather than show respect for it. Worst of all, most of the settlers came from the southern states, and they brought their slaves with them; slavery was already illegal in Mexico. As early as 1826, there was an attempted revolt, the Fredonian Rebellion, in which some Anglo settlers in Nacogdoches defeated the local Mexican garrison, only to flee to Louisiana when Mexico City sent reinforcements. The Mexican government also responded by passing a law that restricted further Anglo-American immigration, and banned the importation of slaves completely. In 1832 there was a skirmish at Anahuac, near modern Galveston, between settlers and the local garrison, (the battle of Velasco) in which 8-10 Texans and five Mexicans were killed.

Unfortunately for the settlers, there had been little talk of freedom when Mexico declared independence from Spain, and Mexico's military strongman, Antonio López de Santa Anna, wasn't interested in freedom now. As far as he was concerned, if the settlers wanted to stay, they must free their slaves, and convert to Catholicism, if they weren't Catholics already. Stephen Austin went to Mexico City with a petition calling for a repeal of the anti-immigration law, but instead the authorities got hold of a letter he had written, advising the settlers to organize a separate state, so they put him in jail for nearly two years. By the time Austin got back to Texas, in 1835, Santa Anna had done away with the 1824 constitution that had guaranteed the rights of Texans. This convinced Austin that force was the only remaining answer. In October 1835 Mexican troops went to Gonzales, TX, to confiscate a small cannon, that had been given to the settlers four years earlier to keep the Indians away. The settlers made for themselves a flag that showed the cannon and the words "Come and take it," and they won the resulting battle. The community of Goliad declared independence from Mexico in December, and in March 1836, a convention representing all Texans signed the Texas Declaration of Independence, at Washington-on-the-Brazos, and chose David G. Burnet to be their provisional president.

Expecting to fight a defensive war, the Texans gathered the troops they had at San Antonio and at Goliad. Man for man, the Texan soldiers were better, no question about that. They were all volunteers, while the Mexicans were conscripts, and the Mexican draft board was so corrupt that all but the poorest soldiers managed to bribe their way out of serving. A lot of those who stayed in the army were Maya Indians from the other side of Mexico, who did not speak Spanish and suffered badly in the Texas winter, which was cold by their standards. One historian described the typical Mexican private's prospects by saying that all he could look forward to was "bad leadership, poor pay, and no glory." For guns, they were issued English muskets that had seen use in the battle of Waterloo, which had a maximum range of seventy yards, compared with two hundred yards for a Texas long rifle. Finally, the Texans had a new invention, the Colt revolver; in the time it took for a Mexican to fire one or two shots with his older pistol, the Texan with his revolver could fire six. Still, Santa Anna's army outnumbered the Texan force by more than twenty to one, so the outcome of the first battle was never really in doubt. While the Texas Declaration of Independence was being signed, four thousand Mexican soldiers arrived at San Antonio. 184 Texans withdrew to the Alamo, an abandoned mission, where they withstood a twelve-day siege before they were wiped out. After the Alamo was captured, the Mexicans shot the last living soldiers, which included the famous frontiersman, Davy Crockett (alas, he did not go down "fighting like a tiger," as one legend put it), spared a handful of civilians that had been caught inside when the fighting started, and stripped and burned the bodies.

While most of the men at the Alamo were remembered as fallen heroes, the scene at Goliad was simply a massacre. Two weeks after the battle of the Alamo ended, 280 Texan soldiers tried to retreat from Goliad, were intercepted by the Mexicans, and surrendered on a promise of fair treatment. Instead, they were marched back to Goliad, where on Santa Anna's orders, they were all shot. The Texas government abandoned Washington-on-the-Brazos in favor of Galveston, where they could escape by sea, if the last defenses failed. Most of the civilian population (Tejanos as well as Texans) abandoned their homes when they heard the news, and headed east, toward the United States, in a panic known as the "Runaway Scrape." Less than a thousand troops remained with Sam Houston, the commander of the Texas armed forces. They stayed loyal because Santa Anna's actions convinced them they would die for sure if they surrendered.

What Sam Houston had in his favor was that Santa Anna, who called himself the "Napoleon of the West," was one of the worst generals of all time. Despite the defeats, volunteers from the United States continued to arrive, so that by the time Houston camped at the San Jacinto River (near the modern city of Houston), his army had grown slightly, to 900 men. There was also an American force assembling on the Louisiana border, in case Santa Anna got too close. By contrast, Santa Anna divided his force into three parts; one unit went for Galveston, one was kept behind to protect the supply lines, and Santa Anna pursued the fleeing Anglos with the third. As a result, when he reached San Jacinto, he had just 1,300 men with him--a 3:2 advantage. Then, thinking that the Texans were hopelessly trapped, Santa Anna told his troops to take a siesta, and did not bother to post guards, thereby canceling what advantage he had. This was an opportunity Houston could not pass up, and he attacked on April 21. Shouting "Remember the Alamo!" and "Remember Goliad!", the Texans killed half of their (literally sleeping) Mexican opponents in twenty minutes, and captured the rest. Santa Anna, whose attention was focused on Emily (the original "Yellow Rose of Texas"), a pretty slave he had just captured, escaped in his underwear and red slippers, but was captured the next day.

San Jacinto was the decisive battle; six weeks after the Texas War of Independence began, it was all over. Santa Anna signed a treaty in which he promised to evacuate Mexican troops from Texas, and lobby in Mexico City for recognition of Texas as an independent republic. However, the Texans did not let him go back right away; still a captive, he was sent to Washington first, where he met with President Jackson, a friend of Houston, before he was finally allowed to go back to Mexico in early 1837. Meanwhile, the Texans set up a government, elected Houston president, and spent much of the time moving the new republic's capital (the government finally settled down at Austin, its sixth location, in 1839). They also sent a petition to join the United States, thinking they would be quickly accepted. However, this would not be the case, because it brought back the slavery issue. Two states had recently come in (Arkansas as a slave state in 1836, Michigan as a free state in 1837), meaning that the number of slave vs. free states was still balanced; Texas, however, had slaves, so it would disrupt the balance, the same way Missouri had threatened to do. Opponents of slavery in Congress blocked the bill to annex Texas, and the next nine years saw several debates involving Texas, states' rights and slavery. In the time left for his presidency, all Jackson could do was recognize the independence of Texas. So did several European nations, but not the government of Mexico, which rejected the treaty Santa Anna had signed while being held prisoner. That would lead to another war over Texas before long.(42)

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Old Kinderhook, Tippecanoe, and Tyler Too

Martin Van Buren had an easy time succeeding Andrew Jackson, as the Democratic candidate for president in 1836. Basically, all he had to do was tell the voters, "If you liked Jackson you'll like me." On the other side of the aisle, having failed to win the past two elections, the National Republicans merged with the Anti-Masons, the last of the Federalists, and anyone else who thought Jacksonian politics were crude and dangerous, to form a new party, the Whigs (named after the Whig Party in England, of course). Whereas the Federalists and the National Republicans had been conservative parties, the Whigs offered a more liberal platform, but at the same time tried to be all things to all voters. About the only thing they agreed on was that Jackson had channeled too much power into the presidency. The first time they took part in an election, however, they bungled badly; they nominated not one, but three candidates, a Northerner (Daniel Webster), a Westerner (William Henry Harrison), and a Southerner (Tennessee Senator Hugh Lawson White).(43) Even more confusing, two of the Whig candidates had the same running mate for the vice-presidential spot--former Virginia Senator John Tyler. The idea was that each part of the country would have a favorite son to vote for, and if nobody got a majority, the election would go to the House of Representatives, where the congressmen were inclined to vote for a Whig. It didn't work that way, because Van Buren won by a simple majority. Needless to say, no party has tried such a strategy since then.

We saw the beginning of a more populist era with the Jackson presidency; as for Van Buren, he symbolized a new generation taking over. First, all previous presidents were born before the American Revolution, and thus had been British citizens originally, but Van Buren was the first president born in the new America (1782). Second, he was the first president whose ancestry could not be traced to the British Isles; coming from a Dutch family in Kinderhook, New York, in childhood he spoke Dutch, rather than English, as his first language. Third, he was a career politician, whereas his predecessors had all held non-political jobs, usually as soldiers or as lawyers, at some point in their lives. His political skills earned him more than his share of nicknames, like the "Little Magician" and the "Red Fox of Kinderhook."(44)

Van Buren came into the White House with much good will. To remind everyone that he was Jackson's heir apparent, he kept all but one member of Jackson's cabinet. However, nothing else seemed to go right. Right after he took office, the nation was hit by the "Panic of 1837," the worst economic depression that the United States had suffered so far. Hundreds of businesses and factories closed, causing widespread unemployment; banks stopped making payments to investors trying to withdraw their money, because they did not have enough gold and silver to cover the withdrawals; many states were unable to meet their financial obligations, because they had put much of their money in canal and railroad-building projects. Businessmen blamed it on Jackson's anti-Bank policy, while the Democrats called it Nicholas Biddle's revenge. Unlike today's politicians, Van Buren refused to bail out those citizens who fell on hard times, because he did not believe that was the federal government's responsibility. As he explained in a September 1837 speech: "Those who look to the action of this government for specific aid to the citizen to relieve embarrassments arising from losses by revulsions in commerce and credit, lose sight of the ends for which it was created, and the powers with which it is clothed. It was established to give security to us all. . . . It was not intended to confer special favors on individuals. . . . The less government interferes with private pursuits, the better for the general prosperity." All he could do was establish an independent treasury system to deposit government funds in, because he felt that Jackson's rapid transfer of money from the National Bank to less reliable state banks was the real cause of the depression.

And if that wasn't enough, there were two disputes with the British: the Caroline Affair (more about that in the next section), and the "Aroostook War," a series of skirmishes along the hazy Maine-New Brunswick border (winter of 1838-39). Here was an area encompassing 12,000 square miles, and it wasn't clear who owned it. Maine farmers wanted to cultivate the land around the Aroostook River, while Canadian lumberjacks wanted to keep the land for logging. When Maine sent some land agents to remove the lumberjacks, the lumberjacks seized one of them, and both Maine and New Brunswick called up their militias. Van Buren sent General Winfield Scott, a respected hero from the War of 1812, to command federal forces on the scene, and in March 1839 Scott and the governor of New Brunswick agreed to let a boundary commission negotiate a peaceful settlement, before anyone was killed. Some history texts call this bloodless conflict the "Pork and Beans War," because that is what the US troops ate during the dispute.

With all the bad news, it's no surprise that Van Buren wasn't reelected. For the 1840 election, the Whig Party got its act together, and held its convention unusually early, even by today's standards--in December 1839. At first Henry Clay was the favorite, but then the delegates decided that William Henry Harrison would be a more attractive candidate, because of his war record, so they nominated "Old Tippecanoe" instead, and picked John Tyler for his running mate; hence their campaign slogan for 1840, "Tippecanoe and Tyler too."(45) The campaign that followed had no platform, and never talked about the issues, running instead on sheer emotions; the campaign managers made it a point to "keep Harrison vague and Tyler quiet." Still confident of victory, the Democrats unanimously voted at their convention to run Van Buren again, and coined the slogan "Old Kinderhook," from which we get the expression "O.K." They tried to put down Harrison as a person who was too ordinary to be president, and one Democratic newspaper claimed that if you gave Harrison plenty of hard cider and a pension of $2,000 a year, he would be content to spend the rest of his life in a log cabin. The Whigs turned this to their advantage by portraying Harrison as another Andrew Jackson. Soon the myth sprang up that Harrison had been born in a log cabin (he wasn't), and log cabins became the symbol of the campaign; it worked so well that another Whig, Daniel Webster, once apologized to a crowd for not being born in a log cabin! The Whigs also introduced class warfare; they portrayed Van Buren as someone who did not care about how the American people had suffered under his presidency, eating with golden forks and spoons in the White House and "wallowing in raspberries" (then, as now, the raspberry was a rather uncommon and expensive fruit). Thus, the Democrats, who in the days of Jackson were seen as the common man's party, were now seen as the party of the rich.

Tippecanoe commemorative glass whiskey bottle.
The E. C. Booz Distillery made a profit off the 1840 Whig campaign by putting whiskey (not hard cider, mind you!) in bottles shaped like log cabins. The slang term "booze" came from this company, too. Source:

Harrison gave the longest inaugural address in history, lasting nearly two hours. It was a cold and rainy day in Washington, and after having been exposed to the weather for so long, "Old Tippecanoe" contracted pneumonia. He died on April 4, 1841, having been president for only 31 days. John Tyler now moved in to take his place, and rather than call for an immediate election, as some expected, he announced he would serve out the remainder of Harrison's term, setting a precedent that has been followed by every vice president who succeeded his boss.(46)

Like George W. Bush, 160 years later, many Americans had trouble taking John Tyler seriously; they called him the "Acting President" or "His Accidency." Because he vetoed most of the Whig Party's agenda (which called for a new National Bank, higher tariffs, and more government funding for roads), the Whigs accused him of acting like a Democrat and expelled him before 1841 was over; this was the only time a sitting president had ever been kicked out of his party! In September his entire Cabinet resigned, except for Secretary of State Daniel Webster; in 1843 the House of Representatives tried unsuccessfully to impeach him, on a charge of using too many vetoes.

Despite all this, Tyler made some positive accomplishments. In May 1842, a dispute over who won the governor's election in Rhode Island led to revolt (Dorr's Rebellion), but Tyler managed to talk the rebels out of it before he had to send in any federal troops. Later in the same year, Daniel Webster negotiated a treaty with the British (the Webster-Ashburton Treaty) that finally settled the border dispute between Maine and New Brunswick. Finally, Tyler favored the annexation of Texas, and managed to keep that issue alive, despite Whig opposition in Congress, and Florida became a state on the last day of his presidency.

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The Canadian Rebellions of 1837

Whereas a few hundred French Canadians (but not a majority of that community) fought with the Patriots during the American Revolution, Canada's whole population was resentful toward the United States when the War of 1812 ended, because half of the land battles took place on Canadian soil. This, along with the invasion that took place during the American Revolution, encouraged a sense of rivalry; whatever the "Yankees" could do, Canadians could do better. Edward Winslow, a Loyalist judge who had been the first to suggest making New Brunswick a separate province, predicted that New Brunswick would become "the envy of the United States." John Graves Simcoe, the first lieutenant governor of Upper Canada, welcomed American settlers because he believed that Upper Canada would show them that the British combination of limited monarchy and representative government was superior to American republicanism.(47) Even in French-speaking Lower Canada, the church, landed aristocracy and rural farmers accepted British rule, because Britain was going to protect their way of life for the foreseeable future.

Upper Canada, the future province of Ontario, became the fastest growing colony after it was separated from Lower Canada. Immigrants were encouraged to settle there by reports that Upper Canada was "a good poor man's country" where valuable farmland was available for those willing to work hard for several years. Many immigrants also went to the Maritime provinces, but this trend was a by-product of the timber industry. During the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, Britain got most of the timber it needed from Canada, especially from the forests of New Brunswick, because previous sources of wood in Europe and the United States were no longer available. As important as timber is, it is bulky and not worth very much, so merchant ships taking a load of timber to Britain had a challenge finding a profitable way to fill their cargo holds for the return voyage. Some ships brought back a cargo of salt, some even carried bricks, and some carried nothing but ballast. Then merchants found a solution by offering the empty space to passengers. By fitting cargo holds with bunks, the typical timber ship could carry up to 200 westbound immigrants at little cost, since passengers in those days were expected to bring their food and bedding with them. Unfortunately timber ships were often the oldest in the British merchant fleet, and in poor condition, so the trip was extremely unpleasant and dangerous. Epidemics of diseases like cholera were common on such ships, but once the ads for tickets went out, ship captains did not have trouble finding people willing to travel that way, because it was so cheap. As a result, immigrants came across the ocean in far greater numbers than had previously been possible.

After the Napoleonic Wars, timber remained important; now that many fur-bearing animals like the beaver had been overhunted, timber replaced furs as Canada's main export. Great Britain, for example, needed wood badly for railroad ties. The demand grew until New Brunswick by itself could no longer satisfy it, so other areas developed lumber industries, especially in the Ottawa River valley, and sent their logs down the St. Lawrence by putting them together to form rafts; once the logs arrived at Quebec City, they would then be delivered to ports like Halifax for the transatlantic journey on ships. The timber industry did not start to decline until after 1850, because by then the United Kingdom had finished building railroads at home.(48)

To avoid a second American Revolution, Britain hoped to set up a British-style aristocracy in Canada, from which the future leaders of the colonies would be selected. However, this didn't happen; in fact, the colonists resented how the colonial governments were dominated by officials appointed by London, with no input from them on who should get the jobs. Even immigrants from the United States felt that some form of elected republic would be better (although they had to take an oath of loyalty to the Crown before they were allowed to own land, the political sentiments of the immigrants didn't change). Reformers started calling for "responsible government," meaning a government that would be responsible to the people, not the Crown or Parliament; they saw the appointed councils as self-seeking officeholders. The most important reformers were Anglo-Irish lawyer W. W. Baldwin in Upper Canada, journalist Étienne Parent and jurist/statesman Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine in Lower Canada, and journalist Joseph Howe in Nova Scotia. Council members responded by pointing to the prosperity and growth the colonies had under British rule, and declared that changes in the system sounded too much like disloyalty and Americanism.

When the reformers failed to make progress toward achieving their goals, a radical faction appeared among them, which called for eliminating all forms of privilege, like titles of nobility, and if they did not get a more egalitarian society, they were willing to break with London and establish an American-style republic. The radical leaders were William Lyon Mackenzie, a fiery Scots-born journalist and politician in Upper Canada, and Louis-Joseph Papineau, the speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada since 1815. As the 1830s went on, tensions grew in both Upper and Lower Canada. Upper Canada's farms suffered from overcrowding and soil exhaustion, while French Canadians saw a decline in living standards and increasing poverty, because British immigrants controlled both the government and the economy. Many French Canadians blamed their problems on the British, and declared that an independent, French-speaking nation was the solution.

Louis-Joseph Papineau made the first move, which is surprising when you consider that he was a seigneur (French for "Lord"), and wanted to preserve traditional French Canadian society; aristocrats make reluctant revolutionaries. He had become leader of the Patriote Party, a party known for advocating reform, in 1826; in 1831 he sponsored a law granting equal rights to Jews, 27 years before their equality was guaranteed anywhere else in the British Empire. His position as speaker put him on the committee that in 1834 wrote the Ninety-Two Resolutions, a list of grievances that the Assembly had against the British colonial administration. London rejected the Resolutions, and Papineau organized a boycott of all British imports to Lower Canada. In response, the colonial government ordered Papineau's arrest, an illegal act, and the Patriotes launched the Lower Canada Rebellion in the fall of 1837. They were no match for British regular troops, though, which broke resistance in three battles (St. Denis, St. Charles and St. Eustache, all in the Montreal area), just three weeks after the rebellion started. By this time Papineau had fled across the border, into the United States; while staying at a friend's house in Saratoga, New York, he tried enlisting the support of President Van Buren, only to see the United States declare itself neutral in the conflict between Britain and her Canadian colonies, so he went to France after that. A second Patriote rebellion occurred in 1838, when the Frères chasseurs ("Hunter Brothers"), a paramilitary organization made up of Patriote members, tried invading Lower Canada from the United States, but the British easily put down this revolt as well.

Meanwhile in Upper Canada, York was renamed Toronto in 1834, and William Lyon Mackenzie was elected mayor in the same year. 1835 saw a very bad harvest, followed by an economic recession, and popular support for reform increased accordingly. However, the lieutenant governor, Sir Francis Bond Head, disliked reform movements, both radical and moderate, and in 1836 he dismissed the current leader of the moderates, Robert Baldwin (W. W. Baldwin's son), from Upper Canada's Parliament. Then he called for new elections, which led to conservatives winning a majority of Parliament's seats. Seeing all chance for peaceful change fading away, Mackenzie decided on armed action when he heard about Papineau's revolt in Lower Canada. He saw it as the signal to act when Bond Head sent away many of the British troops stationed in Toronto, to put down the Lower Canada Rebellion.

On December 4, 1837, Mackenzie and his followers captured a Toronto armory, and marched down Yonge Street, starting at Montgomery's Tavern (hence the other names for the battle over Toronto, the "Confrontation at Mongomery's Tavern" and the "Bar Fight on Yonge Street"). Colonel Robert Moodie, a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812, happened to live near the tavern and attempted, with six other Loyalists, to ride past the rebels and warn Bond Head; he fired his pistol in the air to disperse the rebels, and several rebels returned fire, killing him. After that, though, Mackenzie hesitated, uncertain about what to do next. Most of the city's population remained loyal, and the British still had at least 1,000 soldiers available, outnumbering Mackenzie's rebel force (estimates of the number of rebels range from 400 to 700). They tried marching on the heart of the city, only to be turned back when 27 Loyalist soldiers stood their ground, causing the rebels to panic. Then reinforcements from Hamilton came in, increasing the size of the Loyalist force to 1,500 men.(49) Led by Colonel Allan Napier McNab, they advanced to Montgomery's Tavern on December 7, scattered the rebels who hadn't fled by that time, and burned down the tavern. The final battle took half an hour, and resulted in three rebel deaths, while the British didn't lose anybody besides Colonel Moodie. There was still a group of rebels on the way from London, Ontario, led by Charles Duncombe, but McNab dispersed them on December 13, and the rebellion was as good as over.

From the American point of view, however, the trouble was just beginning. Mackenzie, Duncombe, and 200 followers escaped to Navy Island in the Niagara River, and declared themselves leaders of the Republic of Canada. American sympathizers supplied them with money, provisions, and arms, delivered by an American steamboat, the Caroline. Two weeks later, McNab and Captain Andrew Drew of the Royal Navy led a group of militiamen who seized the Caroline, killed one American aboard, set her on fire, and let the wreck go over Niagara Falls. False reports claimed that dozens of Americans had been killed, outraging American opinion. In May 1838, American forces retaliated by burning a British ship, the Sir Robert Peel, while it was in US waters. This incident, known as the Caroline Affair, led to some bad feelings between the Americans and British, that did not go away until the signing of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty in 1842. Mackenzie tried to follow Papineau's example by fleeing to the United States, but there he was arrested and imprisoned for creating an international incident.

The Canadian rebellions not only discredited the radicals, who had failed to win any victories, but also the office-holding cliques whose behavior had caused the rebellions in the first place. Thus, the moderate reformers came out the winners, because they had not participated. To prevent more unrest, the British recalled Bond Head and replaced him with a reformer, John George Lambton, Lord Durham, in 1838. Part of Durham's assignment was to find out what the grievances of the colonists were, and how to appease them. His report called for replacing the ruling elites in both Upper and Lower Canada with responsible governments, and because Lower Canada contained "two nations warring in the bosom of a single state," the French Canadians would have to be assimilated to prevent future ethnic strife. London acted on this report by passing the Act of Union in 1841. Upper and Lower Canada were reunited into one province, simply called Canada; Upper Canada was renamed Canada West, and Lower Canada became Canada East. To help turn the French Canadians into English-speaking Canadians, English was declared the only official language, and each region got 42 seats in the newly created Legislative Assembly, though Canada East still had more people. The assimilation program did not work, but giving the province more autonomy did; this would be the first step in preparing the Canadians to govern themselves later on.

Over on Newfoundland, it was during this period that the local Indian tribe, the Beothuk, became extinct. We noted in Chapter 1 that the Beothuk could not get along with the Europeans who came to Newfoundland's shores, and went inland to avoid them. This cut them off from their two favorite food sources, fish and seals, so they hunted the third food source available to them, caribou. Eventually they overhunted the caribou, and many starved to death as a result. Then in the 17th century, when Europeans (mostly the British and the French) built permanent settlements, the Beothuk sometimes attacked them in raids, though they usually suffered more casualties than the settlers did. For some reason the Beothuk never showed much interest in acquiring guns, perhaps because they would become dependent on their enemies for powder, bullets and spare parts. In addition, now that the Beothuk were seen as a threat to their settlements, the Europeans encouraged the nearest mainland tribe, the Micmac, to join them in dislodging the Beothuk from their traditional lands. Finally, like other indigenous peoples, the Beothuk were decimated by the white man's diseases, especially tuberculosis, smallpox and measles. Tribal groups shrank until there was only one individual left from each.

By the early 1820s, the Beothuk were rarely seen, and the local government became concerned about their plight. They offered a "reward" for the capture of live Beothuks, the idea being that the captives would be well treated, would learn that the Europeans are not bad people, and better relations would result after they were allowed to return to their families and spread the word. There were two serious problems with this plan: the Beothuk would kill members of their tribe who made peace with the Europeans, and the offer of the reward led to the deaths of more Beothuks because the settlers took it to mean they could use any method to take captives. For example, the last Beothuk man we know of was shot and killed while defending his wife and infant child, both of whom died soon afterwards.

The story of the Beothuk ends with the capture of three women, a mother with two daughters, in April 1823. They were starving, and went to a white trapper for food. Taken to St. Johns, Newfoundland, the mother and one of the daughters quickly died of tuberculosis, a disease for which there was no cure in those days, but the remaining daughter, Shanawdithit, was renamed Nancy April and lived as a servant in the home of a fisherman, John Peyton Jr. William Cormack, an explorer and philanthropist, founded the Beothuk Institute in 1827, as a last-ditch attempt to save the Beothuk and their culture, and when he learned about Shanawdithit, he began paying for her support, and brought her to the institute so he could learn from her. She estimated that at the time of her capture, only a dozen members of her tribe were left. Cormack sent expeditions to find and bring back Beothuk artifacts, while Shanawdithit drew pictures illustrating Beothuk tools, homes and scenes from myths, and taught him words from the Beothuk language. Shanawdithit in turn died of tuberculosis in 1829. With her passing, the last full-blooded member of the tribe was gone, but their DNA may still exist, because there are Canadians today who claim partial Beothuk ancestry.

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The Search for a Northwest Passage (revisited)

After Britain finished exploring Canada's western fringe, efforts were made to explore the northern fringe, but there the results weren't as profitable. The principal explorer of the Canadian Arctic, John Franklin, was a British sea captain who already had several accomplishments under his belt; he was a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812, and had explored the coast of Australia with his uncle, Captain Matthew Flinders, from 1801 to 1803. In 1818 he got his first taste of the Arctic as a lieutenant under John Ross, who sailed there to follow up on the discoveries made two centuries earlier by William Baffin. They were also trying to find the fabled "Northwest Passage." In the first two chapters of this work, we saw what happened to the sixteenth and seventh-century explorers who looked for the Northwest Passage, and you would be correct in guessing that Ross didn't do too well, either. Ross got as far as Lancaster Sound, the strait between Baffin Island and Devon Island, and then saw a mirage of mountains blocking the other end of the strait; he named them the "Crocker Hills" and went back to England, despite the protests of his officers. Franklin wanted to see more, and came back to lead an overland expedition into the Northwest Territories (1819-22). This was a disaster; they explored the Coppermine River, which flows north from Great Slave Lake to the Arctic Ocean, and eleven of the party's twenty men died. Most simply starved, but there was at least one murder and suggestions of cannibalism. The survivors ate lichens and even tried to eat their leather boots, earning Franklin the nickname of "the man who ate his boots."

Franklin came back for another land expedition in 1825-27, and this one, being better supplied, was more successful; he followed the MacKenzie River to the Arctic and explored the shore of the Beaufort Sea, from Bathurst Inlet in the east to longitude 150o W. After his return he was knighted for his achievements, and spent the next two decades on other continents, including seven years as governor of Tasmania.

Back in North America, there was still about 300 miles of the Arctic coast that had not been seen or explored by anybody except the Inuit, and Franklin felt that if a Northwest Passage existed, whoever surveyed this area would find it. Accordingly, he was appointed command of another naval expedition, one with 129 men and two ships, the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror. The Terror, like Franklin, was a veteran of the War of 1812; she had taken part in the bombardment of Fort McHenry. Both ships were luxuriously equipped, compared with those of previous expeditions; they had steam heating for the crews, plenty of reading materials, and enough food to last for three years. They were last seen by whalers at Baffin Bay on July 26, 1845.

The Admiralty waited until 1848 to send a search party, thinking that Franklin and his crew might show up before their supplies ran out. A reward of 20,000 was also offered, and songs like "Lady Franklin's Lament" were written about Franklin's fate and his dedicated second wife, capturing the public's imagination. Over the next decade, 17 expeditions went looking for Franklin (even John Ross came back to lead one), until the number of ships and men lost exceeded those under Franklin's command. In 1850 the graves of three men from the expedition were found. An examination of the bodies suggested they had died of tuberculosis; a second set of autopsies, done in 1981, identified the real causes of death as lung disease and lead poisoning; the latter may have come from the lead solder used in their cans of food. Then in 1854, John Rae, an explorer for Hudson's Bay Company, came to the Boothia Peninsula, and learned from an Inuit that a large party of white men, numbering between 35 and 40, had died of starvation at the mouth of the Back River; the Inuit also showed him some objects that had belonged to Franklin's men.

In 1857, Lady Jane Franklin financed her own expedition, involving one ship, the Fox. Under Francis Leopold McClintock, the Fox went first to the Boothia peninsula, where it obtained from the Inuit much of the equipment from Franklin's expedition. Then in the summer of 1859, on nearby King William Island, they found a cairn of stones containing a message. The message was dated April 25, 1848, and it told the rest of the story. According to it, the Erebus and Terror had navigated Peel Sound and Franklin Strait, heading south, only to be stopped by ice between Victoria Island and King William Island; the summer of 1846 was cooler than usual, so the ice from the previous winter did not completely melt. Then in September 1846, the two ships became trapped in the ice, and remained icebound for nearly two years. While waiting in vain for their ships to become free, 24 men died, including Franklin, who died on June 11, 1847. At the time the message was written, the survivors had decided to abandon the ships, setting off in two different directions, but apparently they all died within a few days after their attempted overland march began.

There remained some unanswered questions for subsequent expeditions to answer. Two expeditions sent in the 1860s found camps, graves, and relics on the southern coast of King William Island, and gathered hundreds of pages of testimony from the Inuit. The ships themselves evaded discovery until the twenty-first century; the wreckage of the Erebus was only found in 2014, and the Terror was finally found in 2016. Most disturbing are the reports from nineteenth-century Inuit, and from recent anthropologists, that some of the bones found have cracks and burn marks, indicating that crew members resorted to cannibalism, in a desperate last-ditch attempt to stay alive.

Little else remains to be told about this quest. In 1850 Captain Robert McClure tried to get through the passage from the Pacific end, sailing into the Bering Sea and turning east. His ship, the HMS Investigator, got stuck in the ice in Viscount Melville Sound for three winters, until McClure and his crew were rescued by another ship, one of those looking for Sir John Franklin's expedition! He returned to England on this ship in 1854, and thus technically was the first to make it through the Northwest Passage, except that he did it partly by ship and partly on sleds. Still, it was good enough to get McClure knighted, and he shared with his crew an award of 10,000 granted by Parliament. It wasn't until the twentieth century that any ships made it all the way through the passage, from one end to the other (see Chapter 2, footnote #3), and they showed that even if you can get through the ice, going around the Arctic end of North America is such a long, roundabout path that it isn't worth the trouble.

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Westward Ho!

The 1840s saw Americans get the urge to move west again. Because the Oregon territory, in the Pacific Northwest, was in dispute, these pioneers no longer stopped before they reached the Rockies. Now they believed that Oregon would someday become theirs as well. John O'Sullivan, the Democratic editor of the New York Morning News, put this feeling in words, when he wrote in 1845 that it was "our manifest destiny to overspread and possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the . . . great experiment of liberty."(50) When reports came back of Oregon's mild climate and spectacular scenery, it made the lands beyond the Rockies much more appealing than the western lands the US already had (Major Stephen Long, who explored much of the Great Plains in 1819, called that region "the Great American Desert" and "unfit for human habitation"). Because of that advertising, much of the Great Plains was only inhabited by Indians, until decades after the more distant west coast had been settled.

Over the course of the 1820s and 1830s, fur traders (the so-called "Mountain Men"), missionaries, and military expeditions blazed a path across the plains and through the Rockies that proved to be easier than the path Lewis and Clark had taken. This would become the famous Oregon Trail, which started at Independence, Missouri, and ran through modern-day Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming and Idaho, before finally stopping at Oregon City in Oregon. Between 1841 and 1869, when the first transcontinental railroad was completed, so many "covered wagons" (also called Conestoga wagons) traveled west on this trail, that the ruts they left in the ground are still visible in some places. An alternate route, the California Trail, later split off from the main trail in Idaho, for those who wanted to go to California instead of Oregon.(51)

The first wagon train left in 1841 with sixty-nine men, women and children; half of them went to Oregon and half to California. A larger party, the Elm Grove expedition, left in 1842; reports disagree on whether this wagon train had 105 or 160 people with it. This one made it to Fort Vancouver, a Hudson's Bay Company outpost that later became the city of Vancouver, WA. Company policy was to discourage American immigration, but the local factor, John McLoughlin, didn't want to see otherwise healthy people starve, so he offered food and farming equipment to the settlers, which they could pay him back for later. Not long after that, the Company ordered McLoughlin and his operation to move to Victoria, BC, to avoid any future fights between American and British settlers, but after he retired from the Company in 1846, McLoughlin headed south again, where he ran a store in Oregon City, and even served as mayor of that town during the last years of his life.(52)

The largest wagon train was the one of 1843, which had between 800 and 900 pioneers, 120 wagons, and 5,000 head of cattle. Their destination was the valley of the Willamette River, a southern tributary of the Columbia, because the settlers already there were offering free land: up to 640 acres for married couples and 320 acres for single people. More followed, so that by 1846 there were 4,000 American citizens in Oregon, outnumbering British citizens by more than five to one.

Meanwhile in California, the most important figure was John Sutter, a German-born immigrant who had arrived at Yerba Buena (San Francisco's original name) in 1839. In 1841 he bought Fort Ross from the Russians, and set up a farming community where modern Sacramento is located, which grew so large that it soon became the western terminus for the California Trail. By the mid-1840s, the estimated population for Upper California was 30,000 Indians, 5,000 Californios (Mexican settlers) and 700 Americans. Thus, the Americans did not have the advantage of numbers that they had in Oregon, but the United States now had a small naval squadron in the Pacific, which could come to the rescue of the Americans, if necessary. This was demonstrated in 1842 when the commander of that squadron, Commodore Thomas Jones, heard that the US and Mexico were at war; without hesitation he sailed to Monterey, the Mexican capital of Alta (Upper) California, and captured it. Unfortunately for him, it turned out to be a false rumor; he was four years too early, and there was no war, so he gave Monterey back the next day.

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The Cheerful Forties

Besides physical exploration and colonization, the 1840s were a time of mental and spiritual exploration, as many Americans experimented with new ideas. The Victorian age had just begun, nothing threatened Western Civilization, and new inventions were leading to more rapid progress than had ever been seen before. It also was a time of reform; an effort was made to turn insane asylums and prisons into more civilized places, and more public schools were built. Many were optimistic that more improvements were on the way, because mankind had reached a stage where he would be able to create a perfect society--a utopia--through his own efforts. Most folks at this time did not give politics anywhere near the amount of attention it has gotten in this work, and they did not worry about wars because they usually happened in the Old World, rather than on this side of "The Pond." An 1845 editorial from a New York newspaper even declared that history was over: "The world has become stale and insipid. The ships ought to be all captured, and the cities battered down, and the world burned up, so that we can start again. There would be fun in that."

Most Americans felt that life was going to get better, no matter what their politicians did--or did not do. More books were read at this time than ever before; the 1840s were the decade of Edgar Allen Poe and Henry David Thoreau. Americans also danced the European polka, and sang new songs. They didn't mind when P. T. Barnum lured in suckers to see a bunch of fakes in his New York City Museum, and many saw it as just entertainment when a series of articles by Richard Locke in the New York Sun (the "Great Moon Hoax" of 1835) claimed that a new giant telescope had seen all kinds of amazing things on the moon, like creatures that were half-man and half-bat. As for the new inventions, they included the telegraph (for the first time communication was instantaneous, rather than dependent on the speed of transportation), ether, vulcanized rubber, envelopes, air conditioning, and an incubator for eggs, which was then called the Eccaleobion.

Some of the ideas floating around in Europe at this time were discussed in the Americas as well. But whereas European attempts at utopia concentrated on economic or political efforts (socialism and communism were the motivating ideologies here), American utopias were more often religious or social experiments. There had been a religious revival in the early nineteenth century, called the "Second Great Awakening," and it encouraged a number of lay persons to found sects of their own, while others set up communities to put their beliefs into practice. They were especially active in western New York, to the point that evangelists called that area the "Burned-Over District" because it was so saturated with preachers and movements, it was like a burned forest with no fuel left for future fires (the "fuel" in this case being unconverted people). Nonconformist movements in western New York at this time included the Mormons and their founder, Joseph Smith; the Millerites (better known as the Seventh Day Adventists); the evangelical crusades of Charles Finney; the Fox sisters, who founded Spiritualism; Shaker communal farms; the Oneida community, a religious community that practiced group marriage and had its children raised communally; and the Skaneateles Community, a nonreligious commune. Some of them did not last more than a generation (the Shakers, for example, doomed themselves by prohibiting marriage and procreation), but they showed how imaginative early Americans could be. The Mormons and the Adventists are still going strong today; you can read how they got started in Chapter 8 of my history of Christianity.

When it came to economic reform, the biggest advance was in labor. Labor unions had been around at least since the American Revolution, but not until the beginning of this period did they succeed in making their voice heard. During Jackson's first term as president, a minor party formed to represent them, first in New York City and later in other cities on the east coast. Its official name was the Working Men's Party, and its members were immediately dubbed "Workies." Their platform called for a ten-hour work day for factories, abolition of imprisonment for debt, and for the children, more and better public schools. The conservative editors of newspapers saw them as anarchists or socialists, calling them names like the "Infidel Party' and the "Dirty Shirt Party." This is probably because the Workies expected to get what they wanted through the ballot box, but their speeches called for violent revolution, if necessary. As one Workie put it, "Great wealth ought to be taken away from its possessors on the same principle that a sword or a pistol may be wrested from a robber."

The Workies did not remain a separate party for long, because they found a sympathetic ear in the left wing of the Democratic Party, and most of them became Democrats before Jackson left the White House. Van Buren was even more receptive, and one of the positive achievements of his presidency was an executive order which declared that no one should labor for more than ten hours a day on federal public works. This would be followed by a Supreme Court resolution in 1842 that made it legal for labor unions to go on strike. Ever since then, labor has been a significant part of the Democratic Party coalition.

We have already talked about the Abolitionist movement. Two other political causes got started in the 1840s: the women's movement and prohibition. The women's movement came about because women often spoke at Abolitionist meetings, but because many thought it wasn't proper for women to be heard in public, women speakers weren't always welcome. Gradually female Abolitionists realized that slaves weren't the only people deprived of their rights--they were, too! In 1848, five of them (Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Jane Hunt, Martha Wright and Mary Ann McClintock) held the first women's rights convention, at Seneca Falls, New York. Although the meeting was a success, there would be a long, uphill struggle for the first feminists, so we will come back to them in the next chapter of this work.

Prohibitionist sentiments had been a part of American society since the Puritans ran New England, but because several popular temperance stories, which talked about the evils caused by drinking, were written in the 1840s, efforts to restrict or ban alcohol were at an all-time high. Bands of ex-drunkards traveled from one mass meeting to another, calling on people to take a pledge to stay sober, while angry wives smashed taverns. But they weren't going to stop there. In 1838 Tennessee passed a statewide prohibition law, which lasted for eight years before it was repealed. Then in 1851, Portland, Maine elected Neal Dow, the state's leading prohibitionist, as its mayor. The "Cold Water Mayor" passed an even tougher law in Portland, which caused temperance activists to call him the "Napoleon of Temperance." A mob made up mostly of Portland's sailors and shipbuilders protested in 1855, and Dow gave the state militia the order to fire, killing one man and injuring seven others (the "Portland Rum Riot"). A year later the prohibition law was repealed, but the prospect that it would come back, or be introduced elsewhere, made it a constant threat to drinkers. Still, as with women's rights, the temperance activists wouldn't get what they wanted until the early twentieth century.

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"From the Halls of Montezuma"

A "dark horse" is a politician people don't know much about, and James Knox Polk was the first dark horse president. Polk first got noticed in Tennessee in the mid-1820s, when he campaigned for Andrew Jackson. Soon he was associated so much with Old Hickory that people started calling him "Young Hickory." After Jackson became president, Polk ran for the congressional seat Jackson once held, and when he became speaker of the House of Representatives, he was seen as Jackson's strongest supporter in Congress. In 1839 he was ready to try something else, and got himself elected governor of Tennessee, but because the Whigs were so popular after the 1840 presidential election, he failed to hold that job for more than one term. When the 1844 convention rolled around, Martin Van Buren was the front runner, having gotten rid of the bad image that caused him to lose last time, but he had also become the Democratic Party's leading Abolitionist, so he opposed the annexation of Texas. Van Buren's rivals were James Buchanan(53) and George Dallas, two candidates from Pennsylvania, and Lewis Cass, a hero of the War of 1812 and former governor of Michigan; they were in favor of annexation, but none was likely to get more votes than Van Buren. After seven ballots, nobody had the two-thirds majority needed for the nomination, so somebody suggested that Polk, then a delegate who was looking to become the vice-presidential candidate, be nominated. He won on the ninth ballot, and Dallas got the number two spot Polk had been seeking. The platform the Democrats put together was blatantly expansionist; to please Southerners, it called for the annexation of Texas, and it gave Northerners something to like by calling for the taking of the Oregon country.

For the 1844 election, the Whigs rallied behind Henry Clay one more time. They made fun of Polk's obscurity by making the question "Who is James K. Polk?" a campaign slogan. Because the Democratic platform was pro-expansion and tended to be pro-slavery, it made sense for the Whigs to adopt the anti-expansion, anti-slavery attitude of many northerners. However, Clay wasn't the candidate for such a platform; he owned slaves, was a notorious gambler and drinker, and rumor had it that he was not even a Christian. Not exactly the person who would appeal to those opposed to slavery, since most did so for moral reasons. To court the so-called "Conscience Whigs," the party picked Theodore Frelinghuysen, a New Jersey minister and prohibition activist, as Clay's running mate. Unfortunately, the long-winded reverend had the opposite effect; instead of bringing in the saints to vote for Clay, he drove away Catholics and sinners!

And that wasn't all. John Tyler ran for reelection as an independent, since he was now the "man without a party," only to drop out of the race in August, when he realized he didn't have enough support to win. Joseph Smith, the Mormon founder, also ran, until his murder in June removed him as a contender. Finally, the Abolitionists had a party of their own, the Liberty Party, with James G. Birney, a repentant Alabama slaveholder, as its presidential candidate. Birney had already run in 1840, but then he only got 7,069 votes out of more than two million cast. This time, however, Birney is believed to have been a spoiler; he took away enough votes from Clay in New York to give that state--and the election--to Polk. When the electoral votes were counted, Polk had a clear majority, 170-105. He won because most Americans felt that it would be foolish to lose Texas over the slavery issue, though it was growing more heated every year. Congress got the message, and passed a bill to make Texas a state on March 3, 1845, the same date that Florida became one.(54)

James K. Polk.

One fact not reported in American history books is that Polk was the only US president (so far) with a mullet! That hairstyle got its name a century and a half later, in a song by (of all people) the Beastie Boys.

Even so, Polk had plenty to do. Besides annexing Texas, he had made five campaign promises:

  1. He would acquire California from Mexico.
  2. He would resolve the dispute over the Oregon territory.
  3. He would lower tariffs.
  4. He would establish a sub-treasury.
  5. He would retire from office after four years.
Remarkably, he kept all his promises, something very few politicians can do. Since most people don't remember Polk today, that makes him the most underrated president in US history.(55)

The lower tariffs and the independent treasury were the easiest things to get; thanks to Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, legislation for those acts had been passed by 1846. However, there were only two ways to get the Oregon and California territories--diplomacy or war. In the case of Oregon, Polk and his supporters wanted the entire territory west of the Rockies, up to latitude 54 40' N, the southern tip of Russian Alaska, and they coined the slogan "Fifty-four forty or fight!" The British responded to this threat by bringing back James Monroe's more moderate proposal, which simply continued the border drawn at 49 N from the Rockies to the Pacific. They had said no to it a generation earlier, when most of the non-Indians living in the territory were British citizens, but the local population was rapidly turning American, so they said they would now accept a line drawn at 49 if they could keep all of Vancouver Island. Polk didn't think this was good enough, but few people really wanted a third war between Great Britain and the United States, and the US was already at war with Mexico, so the Senate accepted the British proposal in 1846.

Regarding California, Polk's first proposal was to send an envoy to Mexico with an offer of $50 million for California and the lands between it and Texas (mainly New Mexico). Mexico said no, the idea was simply preposterous. Their response is understandable. No government could sell half the land it ruled and expect to remain in power; the people would vote it out--or throw it out--at the earliest opportunity. All the Mexicans were willing to do was negotiate a settlement regarding Texas; during the period that the Republic of Texas existed as an independent nation, relations between it and Mexico had never been good. The main dispute was over borders; Texans said that the Rio Grande marked the southern and western boundaries of Texas, while Mexico insisted that the southern border had always been at the Nueces River, and that the western border should be drawn at longitude 100 W (these borders, if enforced, would have reduced Texas to less than half of its present-day size). In 1841 Mexico arrested a group of Texas merchants who were traveling from Austin to Santa Fe, correctly guessing that one of their goals was to secure Texan control over the upper Rio Grande valley; they were forced to march to Mexico City, where the survivors of the march were imprisoned. Between 1836 and 1844, Mexican soldiers also staged raids into Texas, briefly occupying San Antonio, Goliad, and Refugio.

Republic of Texas.
The Republic of Texas and its border dispute, superimposed on a modern map.

In a courtroom, Mexico probably would have had the better case. On the geopolitical scene, however, it was asking for trouble. Polk was a big believer in the "Manifest Destiny" idea; as far as he and most Americans were concerned, the American people were now an unstoppable, westward-moving force. If Mexico wasn't willing to sell or even reach a compromise, the American steamroller would run right over it. When Texas officially became a state, the US government accepted the Texan claim that the border was on the Rio Grande. After all, the treaty Santa Anna had signed in 1836 put the border at the Rio Grande, even if his government had not accepted it. Mexico, as intransigent as ever, responded by breaking diplomatic relations. Even before the annexation took place, Polk ordered General Zachary Taylor to move from Louisiana to Corpus Christi, Texas. Then in March 1846, Taylor was ordered to lead 3,900 troops into the disputed territory. They marched from the Nueces to the north bank of the Rio Grande, just across the river from Matamoros; the Mexicans attacked, and the Mexican War was on.

The first battle, at Palo Alto on May 8, pitted Taylor and 2,200 Americans against 3,200 Mexicans. Here, as in all battles of the war, superior American ordinance eliminated the Mexican advantage in numbers. The copper cannonballs fired by the Mexicans were so slow that the Americans could often jump out of the way as they saw them coming. And the typical Mexican soldier was still armed with a Napoleonic-era musket; a lieutenant named Ulysses S. Grant said about the muskets that "A man might fire at you all day without your finding it out."(56) As a result, Matamoros fell ten days later, and Taylor advanced into northeast Mexico.

So far, so good, but the territory the Americans wanted wasn't where Taylor was headed. To acquire this a second front was opened up in June; General Stephen Kearny led 1,700 men on the Santa Fe Trail, and captured Santa Fe without firing a shot on August 19. Then he headed to California, where the American settlers were already in revolt; in mid-June thirty of them captured the Mexican fort at Sonoma, raised a flag with a bear on it, and proclaimed the "California Republic." A week later John C. Frémont, who had been on his way to Oregon when he heard of the war, arrived on the scene with sixty American soldiers, and announced that the US Army was now in control. In July the US Navy arrived to take Yerba Buena, and the commander, John D. Sloat, handed over leadership of the expedition to Commodore Robert Stockton, because he was in poor health. Stockton then placed Frémont's troops under his orders, completing the unification of US forces in northern California; by the end of July the Americans also had Monterey and Sacramento.

Stockton captured Los Angeles without a battle in August, but he only left twenty-one men to garrison that spot, so in September the Californios drove them out again. In December Kearny arrived at San Diego, his force reduced to one hundred cavalry. There was a battle at San Pascual where eighteen of these exhausted troops were killed, and Kearny himself was wounded. Stockton rescued the rest of them before they were annihilated, and together they went on to retake Los Angeles. Three days later, the last of the Californios surrendered to Frémont (January 13, 1847). There was a bad episode immediately after that when Stockton appointed Frémont military governor of California, and Kearny, who believed he was the actual governor, arrested Frémont and took him to Washington. There Frémont was courtmartialed on a charge of mutiny, but President Polk pardoned him, because of all that he had done to make the war a success.

The United States was now in control of all the land it would keep when the war ended. However, it still had to convince the Mexicans beyond a doubt that those territories were lost, something that had not been fully accomplished with Texas in the previous war. This was Taylor's job, and he was facing forces much larger than those which had defended New Mexico and California. While Kearny, Frémont and Stockton were advancing on the western front, Taylor captured the Mexican cities of Monterey (no connection with the Monterey in California), and Saltillo. In late 1846, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna returned from Cuba, where he had been living in exile for the past year. In return for safe passage through the area Taylor controlled, he promised to use his influence to end the war and sell the New Mexico and California territories to the United States. Once he arrived in Mexico City, however, he refused to keep his promises, got himself appointed general, and prepared to continue the war.

Despite his successes, Taylor had only moved forward 500 miles since the war started. At this rate, it would take him forever to crush the Mexicans. Even worse, from Polk's point of view, Taylor had become the war's most popular hero, and the Whigs were starting to talk about making Taylor their next presidential candidate, though he had never voted in his life. Unfortunately Polk didn't have any good generals who were also Democrats, so the best he could do was divide the glory between Taylor and another Whig general, Winfield Scott. At the beginning of 1847, half of Taylor's troops were transferred to Scott, for an attack on the heart of Mexico. When Santa Anna heard that Taylor's force had been reduced, he marched north from San Luis Potosi to challenge Taylor. He found Taylor in the Buena Vista mountain pass on February 23, 1847. Santa Anna had 15,000 troops to Taylor's 4,600, but another successful artillery performance saved the day for the Americans. At one point during the battle, when Santa Anna asked Taylor to surrender, Taylor told his translator, "Tell Santa Anna to go to hell," thereby ensuring that somebody would nominate him in the next presidential election. Eventually, Santa Anna withdrew after suffering heavy losses, leaving Taylor in control of northern Mexico.

Polk's actions may have been motivated by politics, but launching a third front did prove to be the quickest way to win the war; after Buena Vista, the nearest Mexican soldiers to Taylor were 600 miles away. Scott took 10,000 soldiers and their auxiliaries on the first successful amphibious invasion in American history, landing just outside Veracruz, Mexico's main port, in March 1847. Twelve days later, Veracruz was taken in a battle that was a lopsided American victory: 67 Americans were killed or wounded, while the Mexicans had between 1,000 and 1,500 civilian and military casualties. At this point, Santa Anna returned to Mexico City, persuaded the Mexican people that he had stopped Taylor's advance at Buena Vista (he didn't), broke another promise by seizing the presidency, and got a loan from the Catholic Church to raise another army. Then he rushed off to deal with Scott, who was now marching on the road from Veracruz to the capital. They met in mid-April at a mountain pass near Cerro Gordo, about 50 miles northwest of Veracruz, and Scott won with a flanking attack so rapid that Santa Anna barely escaped capture. He fled to Puebla, the nearest city, but the citizens there refused to help him, so he had to keep going, and Scott took Puebla unopposed on May 15.

The Americans enjoyed a summertime break at Puebla, and then pushed on to the outskirts of Mexico City in August. They knocked a larger Mexican force out of a strong defensive position at Contreras, and won the next battle, at Churubusco, through hand-to-hand combat. In early September came the bloodiest battle of the war, at Molino del Rey, a mill located on the present-day site of the Mexican president's residence. Scott heard a rumor that the mill had been converted into a foundry, and church bells were being melted down there to cast cannon. Molino del Rey was also on the approach to Chapultepec Castle, the citadel that guarded the west side of Mexico City, so Scott had more than one reason to take it out. In the resulting assault against the suspected foundry and Casa Mata, a strong building nearby, the Americans lost 729 men but continued their approach. Chapultepec itself was the location of the National Military Academy, so among its 800 defenders were cadets, some as young as thirteen. 13,000 Americans scaled and took it on September 13, 1847; six cadets chose to die fighting rather than withdraw when the regular Mexican soldiers abandoned the castle, and they are remembered in modern-day Mexico as Los Niños Héroes, the "Child Heroes." Next the Americans placed cannon on the rooftops of the surrounding monasteries, and Mexico City surrendered to prevent the bombardment that was sure to follow. Scott finished the campaign by leading his army to the Zocalo, the great square that has marked the center of the city since Aztec times. Aside from an unsuccessful Mexican attempt to retake Puebla in October, the war was over.

Back in Washington, Whig politicians viewed the war as a blatant act of aggression. Those who opposed slavery saw the war as an exercise to please the South, by creating "bigger pens to cram with slaves."(57) Thomas Corwin, a Whig senator from Ohio, called Polk a modern-day Tamerlane, sitting on a throne of 70,000 skulls. Abraham Lincoln, a 38-year-old congressman from Illinois, demanded that Polk show him the exact spot where American blood had first been shed, so they would know if it was on land rightly claimed by Mexico. For most of the American people, however, it was a very popular war, and they eagerly read the latest news, brought to them by telegraph. The newspapers gave the generals nicknames, according to their dressing habits. Zachary Taylor had grown increasingly shabby as he rose through the ranks; his idea of a uniform now included a non-regulation battered straw hat and a blue-checked gingham coat. Winfield Scott, on the other hand, always wore the finest outfit regulations allowed, including the maximum number of medals, a plumed hat, and a cavalry sword. Thus, Scott came to be known as "Old Fuss and Feathers," while Taylor became "Old Rough and Ready."

Old Fuss and Feathers,
General Winfield Scott
Old Rough and Ready,
General Zachary Taylor

13,000 U.S. soldiers died in the course of the Mexican War, but only 1,733 were killed in action; most of the rest fell victim to disease, especially yellow fever. Mexican casualties are estimated at 25,000. Negotiations went on until February 1848, because the Mexicans refused to admit defeat until it looked like the US negotiator was going to walk out (they feared a new round of hostilities if he returned to Washington without a treaty). Finally representatives from both countries signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The terms of the treaty enlarged the United States by 66 percent, giving it all Mexican territory north of the Rio Grande and Gila Rivers. Besides the disputed part of Texas, the Mexican Cession included lands that would become the states of New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah and Colorado.

Because the land gained was roughly the same size as the Louisiana Purchase, the United States got Mexico to accept the treaty by paying the same amount in compensation that it paid for Louisiana ($15 million), and paying the $3.25 million in debts that Mexico owed to US citizens. However, the Mexicans could have gotten three times as much money if they had accepted Polk's first offer, and they knew it.

This is the end of Part III. Click here to go to Part IV.


42. In Chapter 1 we noted that some of North America's poorest Indians lived in Texas. Well, the Texas War of Independence showed that the Indians could suffer, even when the white man tried to help them. One hero of the war, Captain James Dimmit, owned a ranch near the mouth of the Lavaca River. He got along well with the Karankawa tribe, which lived on the coast between Galveston and Corpus Christi, and gave them some beef whenever their migrations took them near the ranch. In 1836 he went off to fight for Texas, and the Karankawa found the ranch deserted when they showed up. Not knowing that there was a white man's war going on, they rounded up a few cattle and had themselves a barbecue. Some Mexican soldiers arrived while they were still eating, and when asked what they were doing, the Indians innocently answered, "Oh, it's all right; we are Captain Dimmit's friends."
In response, the Mexicans attacked, thinking the Indians were on the Texans' side in this war. Those who weren't killed in the Mexican charge fled and regrouped. Soon after that, the Karankawa met a party of armed Anglo-Americans. Not wanting another fight, they played it safe and shouted to this group of whites, "Viva Mexico!" Of course the Gringos attacked, and this time only a few Indians survived. The Karankawa tribe was never seen or heard from again; two errors in communication caused its extinction.

43. Making a habit of what it had done in the previous election, South Carolina gave its electoral votes to a fourth Whig who wasn't a candidate, North Carolina Senator Willie Mangum, because he supported states' rights.

44. Richard Johnson, Van Buren's vice president, taught us that a family man isn't always a good choice for the job. Johnson never married, but he had many children, from more than one mother. Worse than that, both the children and their mothers were his slaves. Worst of all was an episode that happened after he became vice president; when he discovered that his current black mistress was unfaithful, he sold her at an auction and took her sister to be his next mistress.
Johnson was dropped from the ticket when the 1840 election came around, as you might expect. However, the Democrats couldn't agree on a suitable replacement at the convention, so for his reelection campaign, Van Buren ran alone. When the Electoral College met, the electors pledged to Van Buren split between three vice presidential choices.

45. Today Clay is best known for saying, "I would rather be right than president," but that didn't keep him from running for president four times. When he learned that the Whigs had passed him over in favor of Harrison, he shouted, "My friends are not worth the powder and shot it would take to kill them! . . . I am the most unfortunate man in the history of parties, always run by my friends when sure to be defeated, and now betrayed for a nomination when I, or any one, would be sure of an election."

46. In the late twentieth century, there was some talk about "Tecumseh's curse," due to an unverified story that after the battle of Tippecanoe, Tecumseh put a curse on William Henry Harrison's government, predicting that every president elected in a year ending in zero would die before completing his term. Sure enough, among the eight US presidents who died in office, all of them except Zachary Taylor won "0-year elections":

  • W. H. Harrison = elected 1840, died 1841
  • Abraham Lincoln = elected 1860, died 1865
  • James A. Garfield = elected 1880, died 1881
  • William McKinley = reelected 1900, died 1901
  • Warren G. Harding = elected 1920, died 1923
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt = reelected 1940, died 1945
  • John F. Kennedy = elected 1960, died 1963
I'm doubtful of the story myself. First, the battle of Tippecanoe happened 29 years before Harrison got elected, so he probably wasn't thinking much about becoming president while Tecumseh was alive. Second, a "0-year election" came up in 1820, but no misfortune fell on James Monroe. The president elected in 1980, Ronald Reagan, was shot a few weeks after taking office, but he survived because his doctors were fully competent. That apparently broke the "curse." Many people wanted something bad to happen to the president elected in 2000, George W. Bush. There was a movie made about his assassination; in Tblisi, Georgia, an Armenian named Vladimir Arutyunian threw a grenade, which did not explode, at both Bush and the Georgian president; on his last trip to Iraq, an Iraqi journalist threw his shoes at him. Despite all this, Bush completed two terms without suffering any personal tragedies.

47. Simcoe offered cheap land and assistance in getting food, clothing, building materials and seeds, for any immigrants from the United States who had not fought the British in the American Revolution. He particularly liked those who had given life in the new US a try but didn't like it, because that scored a minor propaganda victory for Britain. Those American settlers who arrived between 1790 and 1812 were called "Late Loyalists," as opposed to the "First Loyalists" or "United Empire Loyalists" that came previously. By 1812, American settlers in Upper Canada outnumbered the original Loyalists by more than ten to one; that's why the "War Hawks" in the US Congress thought that conquering Upper Canada in the War of 1812 would be a "mere matter of marching."

48. The first Canadian passenger railroad was built near Montreal in 1836; in the 1850s thousands of miles of tracks and telegraph lines were laid, matching those put down in the United States at the same time.

49. One of the Loyalist soldiers involved here was 22-year-old John Alexander MacDonald, the future prime minister of an independent Canada.

50. Thomas Jefferson had similar feelings, predicting that the US would someday stretch from coast to coast, but he didn't think it would happen until 2050, because the east by itself had enough land and resources to last the country for a good long time. He was two hundred years off.

51. Water transportation was also available, for those who could afford a ticket. In the days before the Panama Canal, ships traveling between the Atlantic and the Pacific had to go all way down the coasts of North and South America, sail around Cape Horn, and then go up the coasts of both continents on the other side until they reached the right latitude. Clipper ships, sailing ships built for maximum speed (a sleek hull, lots of sails), were introduced just in time for the California gold rush, and they cut travel time by more than half. Although passengers on the clipper ships did not have to worry about Indian raids, the way pioneers on the Oregon Trail did, they had to face the awful weather that has made Cape Horn a notorious graveyard for ships. An alternate route involved sailing just as far as Central America, traveling by land across Nicaragua or Panama, and boarding a ship on the other side for the rest of the journey.

52. The area around the Oregon Trail wasn't fully explored when wagons started using it. To fill the gaps in knowledge, John Charles Frémont, a young army officer, led three expeditions into the Oregon territory from 1842 to 1845, with Christopher "Kit" Carson, the famous scout, as his guide. In Wyoming Frémont climbed the 13,730-foot-high mountain that is now named after him, and then they went to the Sierra Nevada range in California, where they became the first white people to see Lake Tahoe, and proved that the Great Basin has no outlet to the sea. We'll be hearing more from Frémont shortly.

53. After becoming president, Polk made Buchanan his Secretary of State. This got former president Jackson angry, and Polk protested, "But General, you yourself appointed him minister to Russia in your first term." Old Hickory answered, "Yes I did. It was as far as I could send him out of my sight and where he could do the least harm! I would have sent him to the North Pole if we had kept a minister there."

54. Later in Polk's term, Iowa (1846) and Wisconsin (1848) became states. Both of them declared themselves free, so that restored the balance between free and slave states, with fifteen of each.

55. It's a good thing Polk kept the promise to be a one-term president, because he was also one of the hardest workers to occupy the White House. Apparently he wore himself out; he died in the summer of 1849, only three months after his term ended.

56. Grant's future opponent, Robert E. Lee, also served in the Mexican War, as a captain under General Winfield Scott. In fact, most of the Civil War's officers saw action here first, as well as two future presidents: Franklin Pierce and the Confederacy's Jefferson Davis.

57. One Democrat who felt the same way was David Wilmot of Pennsylvania. In 1846 he attached a rider to a routine congressional bill, the Wilmot Proviso, which prohibited slaves in any new territory gained by the war. It was not passed, but politicians talked about it for years afterward. Eight years later, Wilmot would become one of the founders of the Republican Party.

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