Thursday, September 27, 2012

Shaping the Trans-Mississippi West: 1850-1859.

The lands of the Mexican Cession, acquired by the United States in 1848, came into the country without definite internal political organization. It soon became clear that there was a need to break this vast area into organized political entitles. Not only was the region too large to govern as a single unit, but a number of significant issues of the day made this a pressing yet knotty question for the federal government.

First was the flood of new immigrants into California after the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848. The gold rush increased the population in northern California dramatically and it was clear that there needed to be local organization and governance. The Mexican province of California was the most advanced and unified part of the lands acquired by the United States in 1848, and its citizens applied to Congress to be admitted as a state.

However, this could not be done easily because of the issue of slavery. By 1849 there were thirty states, fifteen free and fifteen slave. Neither the proponents nor foes of slavery were prepared to let in new political entities which would wreck this equilibrium. California would come in as a free state and that would upset the balance of power in Congress. At the same time, because of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, where slavery was prohibited north of the 38°30” degree line, it seemed that most of the land in the Mexican Cession would also be non-slave, a situation unacceptable to many Southerners.

At the same time, the Mormons were pressing to have a huge chunk of the Mexican Cession admitted as the state of Deseret, which would, naturally, be dominated by them. The Mormons had settled in the Great Basin, around the Great Salt Lake, beginning in 1847. Brigham Young, who had led the Mormons to this distant place so they would escape persecution, intended his follows to establish dominion over the vast lands lying between the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada Mountains, from the Oregon Territory in the north to Mexico in the south.

Hearing that California was petitioning for statehood, Young sent his representatives to Congress to ask that this region be admitted as the state of Deseret, which he thought should include also a bit of the southern California coastline. The name “Deseret” came from a word in the Book of Mormon meaning “honeybee,” representing industry. Congress, which was strongly anti-Mormon at the time, refused to accept any such state dominated by Young and his followers.

It was Stephen Douglas who came up with a plan which would—-in theory-—solve all these problems, the Compromise of 1850, which passed Congress in September of that year. California came in as a state, while Texas gave up its claims to the Mexican province of New Mexico and cut off its northern border at the 38°30” parallel. Its border had previously run much further north, into today’s Colorado, but with the new border the entire state would lie below the Missouri Compromise line and thus not contravene its slavery clause. In return, Texas was relieved of its huge public debt.

The lands of the Mexican Cession outside of California were divided into two large territories, separated at the 37° parallel, with Utah to the north and New Mexico to the south. It was here that the Southerners were paid back for the admittance of the free state of California, for these two new territories were brought in under principle of “popular sovereignty,” where their own citizens would be able to vote on whether to allow slavery or no. Some of the New Mexico territory and all of the Utah territory was north of the Missouri Compromise line, but it was argued that that compromise did not apply to these territories as these lands lay outside of the original Louisiana Purchase.

Southerners had long hoped for a railroad from Texas to the Pacific Ocean, but surveys in southern New Mexico made it clear that the best route for such a line lay south of the Mexican-American border as established with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. This led, at the end of December, 1853, to the Gadsden Purchase, where the United States acquired an extra 29,000 square-miles south of the original border, creating what is today’s southern border of Arizona and New Mexico.

Also that same year, there was a new political border drawn in the northwestern part of the country. Emigration had steadily increased the population in the very large Oregon Territory, and those in the northern part, feeling cut off from the territorial government located in Salem, well south of the Columbia River, called for the creation of their own territory. In 1853, that part of the Oregon Territory, north of the Columbia River in the west and then north of the 46th parallel further east, was created as the Washington Territory.

With the addition of the western part of the country just before mid-century, extending the United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, it became clear that there was a need for a transcontinental railroad. Most of the proposed lines for this railroad went through the large, unorganized section of the county that stretched north of Texas to the Canadian border, that is, the original Indian Territory. In order to build this railroad, this area would need to be politically organized.

By 1853, a number of attempts had been made to form a Nebraska Territory in this region, but Southerners stonewalled any such territory for it would, by the Missouri Compromise, have to be a free territory. The need to develop these lands created a pressure situation in Congress which was finally relieved in 1854 by Stephen Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act.

By this act, the Indian Territory was shrunk down to extend between Texas and the 37th parallel, and the area to the north of that was divided into two large territories. Kansas essentially was comprised of the lands west of Missouri to the continental divide and Nebraska encompassed all the territory running from Kansas north to the Canadian border. This was fairly straightforward, but the sticky point was the compromise that Douglas put in place so that the Southerners would support this act.

That compromise was to bring in these new territories under “popular sovereignty.” That is, the citizens of the Kansas and Nebraska territories could vote on whether to be free or slave. Since both these territories were part of the original Louisiana Purchase and lay north of 36°30”, this compromise was in direct contravention to the Missouri Compromise. This act infuriated many Northerners, and it not only led to the formation of the Republican Party, but it was one of the primary causes of the Civil War six years later.

This was the climatic event of the 1850s, but two other political changes did occur in the West before the end of the decade. In 1858, the eastern part of the large Minnesota Territory, which had by then become fairly well settled, was brought in as the thirty-second state, the western part of the original territory then left as unorganized territory called Dakota.

In the northwestern part of the country a similar thing occurred, where settlement in the western part of the Oregon Territory developed enough that it was brought in as the state of Oregon in 1859, the eastern part then attached to Washington Territory, which took on the shape of a tipped-over “L.”

While two states were created in the 1850s after the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, no new territories appeared, something which would change quickly in the 1860s, as discussed in the next post in this series.

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