Today In Western History: New Mexico Prohibits Slavery

May 25, 1850

New Mexico adopts a new constitution, one that prohibits slavery.

In 1846, during the Mexican-American War, the United States created a provisional government that lasted until 1850.  Although Mexico had officially ceded the territory when the war ended in 1848, the territorial boundaries were somewhat ambiguous.  

It wasn’t a smooth path to statehood for the territory as it had made this request earlier in the year using a constitution that permitted slavery, and while it was initially approved, it fell apart and died when Texas laid claim to the same territory.  The proposed state boundaries were to extend as far east as the 100th meridian West and as far north as the Arkansas River, thus encompassing the present-day Texas and Oklahoma panhandles and parts of present-day Kansas, Colorado, Utah, and Arizona, as well as most of present-day New Mexico.  In addition, slaveholders were worried about not being able to expand slavery to the west of their current slave states if this boundary was accepted.

On September 9, 1850, the Congressional Compromise of 1850 was accepted and this stopped the early 1850 bid for statehood from going any further. On the other hand, other provisions of the Compromise organized both New Mexico and neighboring Utah Territory, and also firmly established the previously disputed western boundaries of the State of Texas that are still in place.

The status of slavery during the territorial period provoked considerable debate, much of it hotly con-tested and acrimonious. The granting of statehood was up to a Congress sharply divided on the slavery issue. Some (including Stephen A. Douglas for the Democrats) maintained

Senator Stephen A. Douglas. He won the Lincoln- Douiglas Debates but lost the election.
Senator Stephen A. Douglas. He won the Lincoln- Douglas Debates but lost the election.

that the territory could not restrict slavery, as under the earlier Missouri Compromise, while others (including Abraham Lincoln for the 

Abraham Lincoln, 16th US President
Abraham Lincoln, 16th US President.  He lost the Lincoln- Douglas Debates but won the election.

Republicans) insisted that older Mexican Republic legal traditions of the territory, which abolished black, but not Indian, slavery in 1834, took precedence and should therefore be continued. Regard- less of its official status, actual slavery was rare in antebellum New Mexico and Black slaves never numbered more than about a dozen.

As one of the final attempts at compromise to avoid the Civil War, in December 1860, U.S. House of Representatives Republicans offered to admit New Mexico as a slave state immediately. Although the measure was approved by committee on December 29, 1860, Southern representatives did not take up this offer, as many of them had already left Congress due to imminent declarations of secession by their states.  

In the middle of the Civil War, Congress made an effort to sort things out.  They passed the “Arizona Organic Act“, which split off the western portion of the then 12-year-old New Mexico Territory as the new Arizona Territory, and abolished slavery in the new Territory on February 24, 1863, As in New Mexico, slavery was already extremely limited, due to earlier Mexican traditions, laws, and patterns of settlement. The northwestern corner of New Mexico Territory was included in the newly established Arizona Territory until it was added to the southernmost part of the newly admitted State of Nevada in 1864. Eventually Arizona Territory was organized as the State of Arizona.



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Today In Western History: Kit Carson Goes Under

May 23, 1868

Christopher Carson, legendary mountain man, trapper, explorer and soldier
Christopher Carson, legendary mountain man, trapper, explorer and soldier

Kit Carson dies of old age, at 58, in Fort Lyon, Colorado.

Christopher Houston “Kit” Carson was an American legend.  He lived in a time of change, when the West was opening up to exploration and development.  For most of his life he lived off the land, holding few actual paying jobs.  During his lifetime he had been a trapper, a mountain man, a wild-erness guide, Indian agent, and even an American Army officer.  As with many of the famous names of that period, their reputations were greatly enhanced by repeated embellishments of their exploits, sometimes by themselves or just normal story-telling by others to build up their own reputations, and sometimes by their biographers or people just looking to make a dollar by selling complete fiction.  Ned Buntline did this for Buffalo Bill Cody, Wild Bill Hickok and Wyatt Earp.

William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody, Frontiersman, creator of the Rodeo
William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, Frontiersman, creator of the Rodeo

Christopher left home at the age of 16 to become a mountain man and trapper in the vast and un-explored Western territories.  In the 1830s, he accompanied Ewing Young on an expedition to what was then Mexican California and later joined fur trapping expeditions into the Rocky Mountains.  To improve his chances of survival and acceptance by the carious tribes, Carson lived among and even married into the  Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes.  In the 1840s, based on his growing reputation as the one who knew the mountains, he was hired as a guide by John C. Fremont, the man who would become known as the Pathfinder.  Carson achieved national fame through Fremont’s accounts of his 

John C. Fremont, The Great Pathfinder"
John C. Fremont, The Great Pathfinder”

expeditions.While serving with Fremont, Carson took an active part in the uprising in California at the beginning of what became known at the Mexican-American War. Later in the war, Carson served as a courier and a scout, and became celebrated for his rescue mission after the Battle of San Pasqual and for his coast-to-coast journey from California to Washington, DC., to deliver news of the conflict in California to the U.S. government.  In the 1850s, he was appointed as the Indian agent to the Ute Indians and the Jicarilla Apaches.

During the American Civil War, Carson led a regiment of mostly New Mexico volunteers of Hispanic heritage supporting the Union at the  Battle of Valverde in 1862. When the Confederate threat to New Mexico was eliminated, Carson turned on the native Americans he had lived with and led forces to suppress the Navajo, Mescalero Apache, Kiowa and Comanche Indians.  For this service, Carson was breveted (a type of military commission conferred especially for outstanding service by which an officer was promoted to a higher rank without the correspond- ing pay) a Brigadier General, and given command of Fort Garland, Colorado, but after only a short time his declining health forced him to retire from military life.  Carson was married three times and had ten children.  Carson died at Fort Lyon, Colorado, of an aortic aneurysm on May 23, 1868. He is buried in Taos, New Mexico, next to his third wife Josefa Jaramillo.




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Today In Western History: Manifest Destiny

May 11 — — 1846

On this day in 1846, President James K. Polk sends a war message to Congress, charging that “Mexico has invaded our territory and shed American blood on American soil”.  He is asking that the United States go to war against Mexico.  At stake was President Polk’s vision of what became known as “Manifest Destiny”.  Essentially this meant that the US was destined to take Mexico’s land in order to expand from “sea to shining sea”.  This war would put a politically divided and militarily unprepared Mexico up against the expansionist-minded administration of U.S. President James K. Polk.  It started with a border skirmish along the Rio Grande and eventually ended with Mexico losing about one-third of its territory, including nearly all of present-day California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico.   

Texas had gained its independence from Mexico in 1836. Initially, the United States declined to incorporate it into the union, largely because northern political interests were against the addition of a new slave state. The Mexican government was also encouraging border raids and warning that any attempt at annexation would lead to war.  In 1844 James K. Polk, the newly-elected president, campaigned that Texas

President James K. Polk, Defender of "Manifest Destiny" and instigator of the Mexican-American War
President James K. Polk, Defender of “Manifest Destiny” and instigator of the Mexican-American War

should be “re-annexed” and  the Oregon Territory should be “re-occupied,” and he quickly initiated annexation procedures.  He also had his eyes on California, New Mexico and the rest of what is today the U.S. Southwest.  He tried to buy the land in question, but Mexico refused to sell.  Polk decided to just take the land he wanted, and he instigated a fight by moving troops into a disputed zone between the Rio Grande and Nueces River that both countries had previously recognized as part of the Mexican state of Coahuila.  This would become the model for US expansion into land held by Native Americans for the next hundred years. 

Not everyone was in favor of this military expansion at the expense of another country.  A brand new Whig  congressman from Illinois,  Abraham Lincoln, had contested the causes for the war and demanded to know exactly where Americans had been attacked and American blood had been shed. “Show me the spot”, he demanded. 

Abraham Lincoln, 16th US President
Abraham Lincoln, 16th US President

Ex-slave Frederick Douglass opposed the war and was dismayed by the weakness of the anti-war movement. “The determination of our slave holding president, and the probability of his success in wringing from the people, men and money to carry it on, is made evident by the puny opposition arrayed against him.  None seem willing to take their stand for peace at all risks.”

Frederick Douglass, born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. He was born a slave, but became an Abolitionist, Suffragist, Author, Editor, and Diplomat
Frederick Douglass, born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. He was born a slave, but became an Abolitionist, Suffragist, Author, Editor, and Diplomat

Most of the opposition came from the Northern politicians and abolitionists, who saw this war as a very thinly veiled attempt to expand slavery.  They lost, we went to war, and our country’s borders moved farther west.


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