Old Times and Old Timers

by Don Bullis

New Mexico’s Old Times & Old Timers

Nicholas Trist & the Mexican War

When President James K. Polk was elected in 1844, it was understood that he supported the annexation of Texas by the United States. He was, after all, a protégé of former President Andrew Jackson and thus a strong supporter of the policy of Manifest Destiny which held that the United States should extend from the Atlantic to the Pacific. That policy did not sit well with Mexico. Specifically, the dispute began over the eastern boundary of Mexico: The United States, siding with Texas, held that it was the Rio Grande; Mexico held that it was at the Rio Nueces. President Polk ordered U. S. troops to a point on the Rio Grande opposite the Mexican town of Matamoros, well within the disputed territory. General Zachery Taylor then proceeded to blockade the Rio Grande which isolated the 3,000 man Mexican Army at Matamoros. Shots were exchanged and lives were lost, most of them American at that point.

On April 23, 1846, Mexican President Mariano Parendes y Arrillaga declared a “defensive war” with the United States.  President Polk, in a message on May 11, did not ask the congress for a declaration of war against Mexico, but he did ask for acknowledgement that a state of war already existed. While there was considerable northern Whig opposition to the conflict (Polk was a southern Democrat), congress approved 50,000 troops and $10 million to prosecute the war. Things moved so quickly that Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearny and the U. S. Army of the West captured New Mexico and occupied Santa Fe by August of the same year. Only a year later, by May 1847, General Winfield Scott had established his headquarters at Puebla, 70 miles southeast of Mexico City.

Nicholas Trist, President Polk’s negotiator, arrived at Vera Cruz about then. General Scott didn’t trust Trist, and for that matter he did not trust President Polk. Early on, Trist and Scott would not even speak to each other, and each spent considerable time in criticizing the other by mail to Washington. Things reached such a nadir by early June that Scott asked to be recalled. The president simply ordered the two men to quit bickering.

They did. General Scott, at one point, sent Trist a jar of guava marmalade as a peace offering. Both then sent letters to Washington begging that their earlier missives be deleted from the official record.

Initial talks between Trist and Mexican emissaries began in August 1847. Trist’s instructions from Washington were to set the border between Texas and Mexico at the Rio Grande, and to establish Mexico’s northern border at the 32nd parallel from the Rio Grande west to the Pacific Ocean. Trist’s early negotiations were not successful, and in November he was ordered back to Washington. Some historians are less than charitable about this event. Columbia University historian Henry Steele Commager said, “Trist’s blundering . . . led to his recall.”

No matter what led up to it, Trist simply ignored the order and continued to negotiate.

Meanwhile, back home, there was great debate about what Trist was doing in Mexico regarding new borders. Some people were opposed to the acquisition of any Mexican land. Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts orated that New Mexico (which then included what is now Arizona) and California were “not worth a dollar.”  On the other extreme, President Polk himself said at one point that the United States “might have to take the full measure of indemnity into its hands.” This was interpreted to mean than the United States might annex all of Mexico. Northern Whigs believed that Polk’s expansionist activities were intended to extend slavery into new territory and thereby increase the influence of southern states in congress. Polk was, after all, a slave owner.

Not only did Nicholas Trist continue to negotiate with the Mexican government—without authority but with General Scott’s blessing—he wrote a 65-page letter to his boss, Secretary of State James Buchanan, in which he denounced President Polk’s attempt to recall him as a “deadly blow to the cause of peace.”

In early January 1848, Trist got down to basics. He knew that his days as a negotiator were numbered but by the end of the month the two sides were still quibbling. Trist issued a “now or never” ultimatum: Mexico would surrender 500,000 square miles (essentially what was then New Mexico and California) in return for payment of $15 million, plus more than $3 million in Mexican debt to Americans would be forgiven. That was the offer, and the Mexicans accepted it. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed in a village of the same name on February 2, 1848, and sent off to Washington.

President Polk was outraged. He called Trist “an impudent and unqualified scoundrel.” The president could not deny, however, that he had a peace treaty in hand, and it would be difficult to ignore that fact. Besides, he acknowledged that the treaty delivered just about what he had hoped for at war’s start. He sent it on to the U.S. Senate where, after considerable debate, it was ratified on May 30, 1848.

For better or worse, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was a fact. Historian Rubén Sálaz Márquez believes that Polk recalled Trist because the president had decided to annex all of Mexico and Trist stood in the way. He cites Richard Griswold de Castillo who wrote, “Had it not been for Trist, all of Mexico might have been made part of the United States.”

Whatever the case, Nicholas Trist engineered the cessation of hostilities and saved countless lives, both Mexican and American. Some provisions of the treaty he negotiated, however, have been debated from that day until this.

Don Bullis is the author of ten books on New Mexico.
Go to www.DonBullis.biz
for more info.

George Baker. From Guadalupe Hidalgo to the Free Trade Agreement, New Mexico Historical Review, Vol. 68
Henry Steele Commager, Ed. Documents of American History
Paul Horgan. Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History
Paul Johnson. A History of the American People
David Nevin. “The Mexican War” The Old West (Time-Life Books)
Rubén Sálaz Márquez. New Mexico: A Brief Multi-History
Richard White. A New History of the American Wes