President Franklin Pierce sent James Gadsden to Mexico City in 1853 with several proposals for buying from Mexico land to the south of the boundaries established by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The preferred options would have given the United States a port on the Gulf of California which would allow much more expeditious transport of such heavy items as mining machinery to the copper and silver mines. Mexico, however, refused these offers even though they would have brought a larger chunk of cash to the depleted Mexican treasury. According to J. Ross Browne’s account the U.S. Congress may also have impeded these better options due to false economy and sectional rivalries between the North and the South.
The plan eventually settled on was a boundary which added 27,305 square miles to Arizona and 2335 square miles to New Mexico and established the southwestern boundary of Arizona at Yuma, where it remains today. The price paid was $10 million, and the Senate ratified the treaty on June 24, 1854.
Below is a contemporary account of the purchase and conditions in Arizona between 1854 and 1864; from J. Ross Browne, in Adventures in the Apache Country: A Tour through Arizona and Sonora, 1864. (Published by Harper and Brothers in 1871)
But why is it, you cunningly ask, if the silver mines of Arizona are as rich as they are represented to be, that they are now deserted? Why have they failed to attract a mining population? Why has Arizona made no progress within the past ten years, while Washoe and Idaho have made such rapid strides within three or four years? [Washoe was the region of Nevada south of Reno which was the site of the legendary Comstock Lode; in the 1850s Virginia City was the principal town in the area. Washoe is the setting of many of Mark Twain’s stories in Roughing It.]
Let me answer these inquiries by a brief reference to the past and present condition of Arizona. It is true that the silver mines of Washoe attracted a population of ten thousand during the first year of their discovery; also true that Idaho now boasts a population of twenty thousand; while the melancholy fact can not be denied that Arizona has never yet had an American population of over three thousand, and not a very good one at that.
The Territory of Arizona was acquired by purchase from Mexico, under the Gadsden treaty made in September, 1853, and confirmed by Congress during the session of 1853-4. [For a number of years after the Gadsden Purchase, the term “Territory of Arizona” was applied only to the land south of the Gila River. The northern part of the present state of Arizona, ceded by Mexico in 1848, was included in the large Territory of New Mexico until 1863.] Prior to its purchase it formed a part of the Mexican state of Sonora. The cession was contained within certain parallels and boundaries, embracing some forty thousand square miles of land, with a length of four hundred and sixty miles and an extreme width of a hundred and thirty. In negotiating for the purchase of this territory Mr. Gadsden made strenuous efforts to secure a strip of country as far south as Guyamas, but he was not sustained by Congress, and thus the most important feature in the treaty was omitted — a port on the Gulf of California. The United States found itself in possession of a country which it was impracticable to reach except across extensive and inhospitable deserts, and over vast ranges of mountains, many of them covered with perpetual snow. It is possible that some vague notion prevailed in the halls of Congress that the difficulty might be remedied by a port at Fort Yuma or the Pimo villages. There being, during seasons of drought, from six to ten inches of water in the Colorado, and from four to six in the Gila, except at the two points above-named, where the navigation is further impeded by fluctuating sand-bars, it must be conceded that there is some ground for the idea. A port at either of these places would be of great benefit to the country if it had a bottom to it that would hold water, or a top that would prevent evaporation.
At the period of its purchase Arizona was practically a terra incognita [unknown land]. Hunters and trappers had explored it to some extent; but their accounts of its resources and peculiarities were of a vague and marvelous character, according well with their wild habits of life. Few people in the United States knew anything about it, save the curious book-worms who had penetrated into the old Spanish records. An impression prevailed that it was a worthless desert, without sufficient wood or water to sustain a population of civilized beings. Mr. Gadsden was ridiculed for his purchase, and it was very generally believed that Congress, in expending ten millions of dollars for such an arid waste, had in view some ulterior project of extension, based upon the balance of power between the Northern and Southern states. It was even hinted that this was to be a grand reservoir for disappointed office-seekers, who could be effectually disposed of by means of Territorial appointments. It was inhabited almost exclusively by savage tribes of Indians, from whose ravages the Texans and Mexicans had long suffered; and now, if our surplus of adventurous politicians could only be sent there, the more valuable of our possessions would no longer be subject to their injurious machinations. With this view Mr. Jefferson Davis did one of the few good things he did in his life. He organized various expeditions, and caused the newly acquired territory to be explored. It is possible he contemplated living in it himself upon his retirement from the Presidency of the slave Republic which even then he must have had in his eye. The reports of Lieutenants Whipple and Ives are among the most valuable of the contributions made to our knowledge of this interesting region. In 1853-4, Lieutenant Williamson made a survey of the country north of the Gila, in view of a route for a railway from the Atlantic to the Pacific states. Lieutenant A.B. Gray, in 1854, made a survey from Marshall, Texas to El Paso, and thence across the country to Tubac, from which point he made branch surveys — one to Port Lobos, on the Gulf of California, and the other to Fort Yuma and San Diego. Mr. Bartlett, of the Boundary Commission, also made some very important surveys, and added materially to our knowledge of the topographical peculiarities of the country, its climate and productions. His report is replete with interesting details of life, scenery, and adventure in Arizona. Few persons, save those who are familiar with the country, will complain of the minutiae of his camp experiences. Lieutenant Parke, in 1854-5, made a survey of the route from San Diego to Fort Yuma, the Pimo villages, Tucson, El Paso, and into Northern Texas. Lieutenant Edward F. Beale made numerous surveys and explorations through northern Arizona, the reports of which have been published from time to time by Congress. They are valuable for the information they contain in reference to the availability of the different routes proposed, as well as for important discoveries made by Mr. Beale himself.
In 1854 Mr. Charles D. Poston, a private citizen, landed at Navachista, on the Gulf of California, and explored the country as far as western Sonoita, and thence through the Papagoria to the Big Bend of the Gila, Fort Yuma, and San Diego. [Read Poston’s account of this exciting journey which included a shipwreck in the Gulf of California and a leisurely passage through Sonora to Tubac, where the party spent the winter of 1854.]
In 1855 the Boundary Survey was completed by Major Emory and Lieutenant Michler. In August, 1856, an exploring party outfitted at San Antonio, Texas, and after a perilous journey through the Apache Pass arrived at Tubac, and proceeded, under the direction of Mr. Poston, to examine the silver mines reported to exist in the Santa Rita, Cerro Colorado, and Arivaca mountains; and in 1857 companies were formed for the purchase and development of these mines. In August and September, 1857, the San Antonio and San Diego semi-monthly stage-line, under the direction of I.C. Woods, was established, James Burch acting as contractor. This continued till the Butterfield semi-weekly line was put upon the route, in August, 1858, under a contract of six years with the Postmaster-General, at $600,000 a year. An enterprise of greater importance than this had never been undertaken by any private citizen. It was one of the grand achievements of the age to span the continent by a semi-weekly line of stages, under bonds to perform, by the sole power of horse-flesh, a trip of nearly two thousand five hundred miles within the schedule time of twenty-five days. Few believed it could be done; and when the vast deserts through which the route lay, and the hostile tribes of Indians that inhabit them, are taken into account, it is a marvel that it was not only a success but a triumph. There was no failure from the beginning to the end — from St. Louis to San Francisco. The usual time was from twenty to twenty-two days; and on the occasion of the transmission of a Presidential Message, the entire trip was actually made within sixteen days! All praise to Butterfield! and all praise to that enterprising Postmaster-General who put him through!
From 1857 to 1860 a large amount of capital was expended in transporting and erecting machinery and developing the silver mines south of Tucson; but in consequence of the inaccessible nature of the country, and the high rates of duties levied upon all importations through Sonora, these enterprises were carried on at great expense and under extraordinary difficulties. Boilers weighing six thousand pounds and heavy engines had to be transported in wagons from Lavaca in Texas to the Rio Grande, and thence across the continent to the silver regions– a distance of twelve hundred miles. the roads were almost as nature had made them — rough and rocky, abounding in ruts and pitfalls and heavy sands, and every mile of the way from the Rio Grande was beset with dangers. Fierce and barbarous Indians lurked behind the rocks and the deep arroyos, ever on the alert to plunder and murder the little bands of white men who toiled wearily through the inhospitable deserts.
The sufferings of these hardy adventurers were almost without a parallel in the history of human enterprise. Hunger and thirst and burning suns and chilling nights were among the least of the trials to which they were subject; sudden death from hidden foes, or cruel and prolonged torture, stared them in the face at every step. The wayside was lined with the bleached bones of unfortunate men who had preceded them, straggling parties who had fallen victims to the various perils of the journey. When, after weary months of toil and suffering, the jaded teamsters arrived in Arizona with their precious freight — now literally worth its weight in silver — they found no established homes, no prosperous communities of families to greet them, but a country as wild as that through which they had passed, almost desolated by the ravages of Apaches. For three centuries these Bedouins of the desert had continued their depredations upon stock, robbing the ranches, killing the rancheros, and harassing emigrant parties. No industry could prosper under their malign influence. The whole state of Sonora was devastated, and the inhabitants in a starving condition. Arizona possessed at least the pretense of military protection. It soon became infested with the refuse population of Sonora — the most faithless and abandoned race, perhaps, on the face of the earth. What the Apaches left undone in the way of murder and robbery they seldom failed to complete, and indeed were regarded with more distrust by respectable citizens than even the barbarous Indians.
Nor was this all. The most desperate class of renegades from Texas and California found Arizona a safe asylum from arrest under the laws. The Vigilance Committee of San Francisco did more to populate the new Territory than the silver mines. Tucson became the headquarters of vice, dissipation, and crime. It was probably the nearest approach to Pandemonium on the North American continent. Murderers, thieves, cut-throats, and gamblers formed the mass of the population. Every man went armed to the teeth, and scenes of bloodshed were of everyday occurrence in the public streets. There was neither government, law, nor military protection. The garrison at Tucson confined itself to its legitimate business of getting drunk or doing nothing. Arizona was perhaps the only part of the world under the protecting aegis of a civilized government in which every man administered justice to suit himself, and where all assumed the right to gratify the basest passions of their nature without restraint. It was literally a paradise of devils. Under such circumstances it is not a matter of surprise that the progress of the country was slow. It was not a place for honest workingmen or for families. Good people feared to be there. The newspapers were filled with accounts of bloody affrays, robberies, and Apache raids.
Yet, despite all these drawbacks, men of enterprise began to learn the great natural resources of the Territory; the silver mines of Santa Rita and Cerro Colorado attracted attention as they became developed; and in 1860 Arizona seemed in a fair way of receiving a rapid increase of population, and obtaining through Congress what it had long needed — a Territorial form of government. Efforts had been made to effect this object as early as 1857, when Mr. Gwin, of California, introduced a bill in the Senate to organize the Territory of Arizona; but there were jealousies on the railroad question which resulted in the defeat of the bill. Mr. Green, of Missouri, in 1860, introduced a bill to provide a “temporary government for the Territory of Arizuma,” which also failed. Various other attempts were made, none of which were successful. Disaffection between the advocates of the different railroad routes, agitations on the slave question, and jealousies among the adventurers who sought political preferment, prevented the recognition of a great principle which should always govern a civilized nation in its councils — never to acquire territory until it can extend over it the protection of law.
While these questions so vital to the interests of Arizona were pending, public attention was suddenly attracted in another direction. The rich mineral discoveries in Washoe created a sensation throughout the length and breadth of the land. The rush from California to that region was unparalleled in the history of mining excitements. Of that memorable exodus, some few readers of this narrative may remember the description given in a series of articles under the title of “A Peep at Washoe.” Gold discoveries in California had become an old story. The placers were beginning to fail; surface digging no longer paid extraordinary profits; the honest miners had passed through so many excitements that the ordinary pursuits of industry no longer possessed a charm for them; and they, in common with the mass of citizens, were well prepared for a new field of enterprise and speculation. The results of investments in silver stock were immediate, if the silver itself was tardy of appearance. A few fortunes, rapidly made by adroit purchases and speedy sales, inspired thousands of enterprising speculators with the most extravagant hopes of success. Even sober businessmen lost their balance, and suffered themselves to be drawn into the whirl of excitement. Silver mining was a novelty. The surplus energy of the American people had never found a vent in that direction. It was an untried experiment, and promised to realize the fabulous stories of Spanish discovery in Mexico. There was no difficulty in reaching the newly discovered region of boundless wealth. It lay on the public highway to California, on the borders of the state. From Missouri, from Kansas and Nebraska, from Pike’s Peak and Salt Lake, the tide of emigration poured in. Transportation from San Francisco was easy. I made the trip myself on foot almost in the dead of winter, when the mountains were covered with snow. Stages laden with passengers inside and out crossed the Sierra Nevadas in twenty-eight hours from Sacramento to Virginia City. A telegraph line speedily followed, and speculation in stocks could be carried on between San Francisco and the Comstock metropolis by the shock of a battery. In the full tide of the excitement Arizona, neglected, suffering, and almost forgotten, received the heaviest blow of all. The rebellion broke out in April, 1861. The Butterfield overland mail line was stopped at the same time, in view of the dangers that threatened it; and an act of Congress was passed changing the route. During the month of July the only Federal troops in the Territory shamefully and without cause abandoned it, and marched from Forts Breckenridge and Buchanan to Cook’s Springs, where they heard the Texan rebels were coming. Without waiting to ascertain the number or prepare for any defense, they burned all their wagons, spiked their cannon, and packed their provisions on mules over the mountains to Fort Craig. There were four companies, numbering altogether four hundred and fifty men. They had heard of the surrender of Fort Fillmore toward which they were marching, and this caused them to take a different route. At Fort Fillmore five hundred Federal troops of the regular army surrendered to about two hundred and fifty renegade Texans, ragged, undisciplined, poorly armed, and badly equipped. A scattered company of these roving bandits, under the command of the guerrilla chief, Captain Hunter, numbering about one hundred, reached Tucson on the 27th of February, 1862, and took possession of the place. Most of the inhabitants had fled to Sonora for safety, or stood ready to join the rebels. It was a seccession stronghold, composed almost entirely of Southern outlaws, whose sympathies were naturally opposed to the existing Government. Hunter and his party held possession of the Territory, advancing as far as the Pimo villages and even threatening Fort Yuma, till the advance of the California column in May, when they retreated to the Rio Grande.
The few citizens and traders who remained loyal to the Government, and the managers and workmen employed at the mines being thus left at the mercy of lawless desperadoes, roving bands of Apaches and Sonoranians, fled from the country as fast as they could procure the means of escape. Many of them were imprisoned, and some were murdered. The hostile Indians, ignorant of our domestic disturbance, believed they had at length stampeded the entire white population. On the public highways they fell upon small parties and slaughtered them. It was their boast, and is still their belief, that they had conquered the American nation. The Sonoranians, greedy for plunder, rushed in from the borders by hundreds, and commenced ransacking the mines, stealing the machinery, and murdering the few employees that remained. At Tubac, the headquarters of the Arizona Mining Company, the Apaches besieged the town on one side, while the Sonoranians lurked in the bushes on the other. Twenty men held it for three days, and finally escaped under cover of night. There was nothing left. The troops had burned all the stores, provisions, and groceries, public and private that they could lay hands upon; tore down the mill at Tucson; burned the Canoa; and destroyed government stores at Breckinridge and Buchanan worth probably half a million of dollars. Treason, cowardice, or incompetency must have been the cause of these disgraceful proceedings. There was no satisfactory reason, that can now be seen, why they should have so precipitately evacuated the Territory, and yielded peaceful possession to the enemies of the Federal government.
From that date until the last session of the Thirty-seventh Congress, Arizona remained without a Territorial organization. Few people were left in the country, and there was no protection to the mines. They were all abandoned to the plundering Sonoranians, who stole the ore and destroyed the machinery. The ranchos were in ruin; south and east of Tucson there was not a single inhabited spot within the boundary lines. I have thus at some length attempted to account for the tardy growth of this interesting Territory. It will be admitted that there is good reason why Arizona failed to attract a population. With wonderful resources and a climate equal to that of Italy, it has suffered a series of misfortunes unparalleled in the history of our territorial possessions.
Browne, J[ohn] Ross. Adventures in the Apache Country. New York: Harper and Brothers, Publishers, 1871. Now available as a free e-book either illustrated with Browne’s original drawings or in a non-illustrated, text-only form. If you do not have the Microsoft e-book reader, you may download it free on the Microsoft website.
Bufkin, Don and Henry P. Walker. Historical Atlas of Arizona. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979.
Editors of Time-Life Books. The Old West: The Trailblazers. Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life Books, 1973.
Emory, W. H. Notes of a military reconnaissance, from Fort Leavenworth, in Missouri, to San Diego, in California, including of Part the Arkansas, del Norte and Gila Rivers. Download the free Notes of a military reconnaissance e-book now. If you do not have the Microsoft e-book reader, you may download it free on the Microsoft website.
Emory, W. H. et al. Report of the United States and Mexico Boundary Survey, Three volumes. (1856, 1859) This is a rare and collectible book. Some reprints have been made. If you are lucky enough to live near a really good university or research library, you may be able to find a copy there.
Harris, Benjamin Butler, The Gila Trail: The Texas Argonauts and the California Gold Rush. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1960.
Norris, L. David, James C. Milligan and Odie B. Faulk. William H. Emory: Soldier-Scientist. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1998.
Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ended the Mexican War
Utley, Robert M. A Life Wild and Perilous: Mountain Men and the Paths to the Pacific. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1997.