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On February 2, 1848, Nicholas Trist, a representative of the United States government, signed a treaty ending the Mexican-American War. This conflict had claimed more than forty thousand lives, most of them civilians, and arose out of an American desire to acquire more territory westward to the Pacific Ocean. The expansionism that caused the war was described by the phrase ”Manifest Destiny,” which highlighted the belief that God had given the white Anglo-Saxon American the mission to ”civilize” all of the ”lesser peoples” of North America, to bring them the benefits of Protestant Christianity and democracy, and in the process to take over their lands.
As a result of the war, the United States forced Mexico to cede about half of its territory, or more than 500,000 square miles. In particular, the Mexican Cession included the territories of California and New Mexico. In return, the United States agreed to pay Mexico fifteen million dollars. The treaty set new boundaries between the two countries, which created geographic ambiguities that necessitated the renegotiation of the international boundary a few years later in the Gadsden Treaty of 1853. Most significantly, Articles VIII and IX of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which Trist had signed, set the terms by which residents of the newly acquired territories would retain their property and be incorporated politically into the United States. The treaty stipulated that absentee Mexican landholders would have their property ”inviolably respected,” and that it would ”be maintained and protected in the free enjoyment of their liberty and property.” The treaty affected some 100,000 Mexicans in the new territories, including a large number of Hispanicized as well as free-ranging Indians.
As provided by Article VIII, a person had one year to ”elect” his or her preference for Mexican citizenship. If this were not done, it was stipulated that they had elected, by default, to become United States citizens, and that they would be granted citizenship by Congress at some future time. As early as 1849, the nature of the citizenship rights of these Mexicans became the subject of controversy. In California, the delegates to the state constitutional convention wrestled with the problems of race, rights of citizenship, and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Six of the delegates were native Californios who were aware that Mexicans who looked like Indians faced the prospect of racial discrimination. Ultimately, they argued for the protection of Mexican Californians, even if it meant endorsing the racist views of their Anglo colleagues toward Indians and blacks.
There was some concern over whether the Mexicans remaining in the territories were in fact citizens of the United States. The delegates finally agreed that ”it would seem that they are not in fact American citizens, but require some further action of Congress to make them citizens of the United States.” The ambiguous citizenship of the Cal-ifornios meant that they could not expect the full protection of the laws during this stressful and violent period in California’s history. It was not until 1870, with the California Supreme Court case of People v. de la Guerra, that the status of the former Mexican citizens finally was resolved when the court ruled that Mexicans had become citizens in 1850.
The formal recognition of the rights of U.S. citizenship were somewhat abstract blessings for Mexican Americans, considering that most Anglo-Americans treated them as foreigners, regardless of their legal status. A more tangible promise offered by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, included in Articles VIII and IX and the Protocol of Queretaro, was the promise of protection for private property. And it was in the realm of property rights promised by the treaty that the greatest controversies erupted.
Lands And The Treaty: California
In California, thousands of gold-rush migrants encroached on the original Mexican land grants and demanded that something be done to ”liberate” the land. The result was the passage in Congress of the Land Act of 1851. This law set up a Board of Land Commissioners to adjudicate the validity of Mexican land grants in California. Every grantee was required to present evidence supporting title within two years. Those failing to do so would have their property pass to the public domain. The land commissioners were instructed by law to govern their decisions according to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the law of nations, Spanish and Mexican laws, and previous decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Although the Board of Land Commissioners eventually approved many of the Mexican grants, most Californio holders lost their title due to legal expenses. Other individuals held perfect titles to their land and were able to survive economically, but then lost their holdings because they had not fulfilled the terms of the 1851 land law. A number of court cases involving Mexican and Spanish land grants emerged in regard to this issue, but the most famous one pertaining to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was Botiller et al. v. Dominguez (1889). In that case the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the laws of Congress (in the form of the Land Act) took precedence over the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and that the court had no power to enforce the treaty. Thus, although Dominga Dominguez had a ”perfect title” to her land, in the form of a grant from the government of Mexico dated August 28, 1835, she lost her title because she did not bring her papers before the Court of Land Claims within the specified time provided for in the 1851 law. Botiller et al. v. Dominguez was an important precedent, guiding the court in its future interpretation of conflicts between treaty obligations and domestic laws. In this case, the protection of private property ostensibly guaranteed by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidaglo was essentially invalidated.
New Mexican Lands And The Treaty
In the territory of New Mexico, federally appointed officials had to have their decisions approved by Congress, a lengthy and often politicized process. Ironically, New Mexico’s more direct link to the national government meant that the property-rights guarantees under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo would be even less secure. In 1848, private and communal land grants in New Mexico covered about fifteen million square miles. In order to determine the federal domain, Congress established the office of Surveyor General, who was given broad powers to ”issue notices, summon witnesses, administer oaths, etc.,” and to report to the Secretary of Interior and, ultimately, Congress regarding the status of New Mexico land grants. Until Congress acted to confirm the findings of the Surveyor General, all lands were to be withheld from sale. By 1880, one thousand claims had been filed by the Surveyor General but only 150 had been acted upon by the federal government.
On March 3, 1891, Congress passed a law to establish a Court of Private Land Claims. The court was made up of five judges plus an attorney representing the interests of the U.S. government. Unlike the California Land Commission, the New Mexico Court of Land Claims did not require those holding perfect titles to apply to the court for confirmation; only those who had not fulfilled all the regulations of the Spanish and Mexican laws had to do so. Those not presenting their claims within two years would be considered to have abandoned their grant. But as a result of politically tainted maneuvers, the New Mexico court rejected two-thirds of the claims presented before it.
Ultimately, only eighty-two grants received congressional confirmation. This represented only 6 percent of the total area sought by land claimants. Thus, through the Court of Private Land Claims, the U.S. government enlarged the national domain at the expense of hundreds of Hispano villages, leaving a bitter legacy that would fester through the next century.
In the first half-century after ratification of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, hundreds of state, territorial, and federal legal bodies produced a complex tapestry of conflicting opinions and decisions. What was clear was that the citizenship rights seemingly guaranteed by the treaty were not all that they seemed. The property rights for former Mexican citizens in California and New Mexico proved to be quite fragile. Within a generation, the Mexican Americans who had been under the ostensible protections of the treaty became a disenfranchised, poverty-stricken minority, as the promises of the treaty remained only promises.
- Drexler, Robert W. 1991. Guilty of Making Peace: A Biography of Nicholas P. Trist. Lanham, MD: University Press of /America.
- Griswold del Castillo, Richard. 1990. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo: A Legacy of Conflict. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
- Mahin, Dean B. 1997. Olive Branch and Sword: The United States and Mexico, 1845-1848. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
- Miller, Hunter, ed. 1931—1948. Treaties and Other International Acts of the United States of America. 8 vols. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.
- Pletcher, David M. 1973. The Diplomacy of Annexation: Texas, Oregon, and the Mexican War. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.
- Rives, George Lockhart. 1913. The United States and Mexico, 1821-1848. 2 vols. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
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