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: The Potowatamie Massacre

May 24, 1856


John Brown gains his nickname, Potowatamie Brown, when he leads his followers in the massacre of five pro-slavers at Potowatamie Creek, Kansas, in retaliation for the killing of an abolitionist in Lawrence, Kansas.

John Brown, Abolitionist, first American 'terrorist', author of the Harper's Ferry Insurrection, and spark stat started the Civil War
John Brown, Abolitionist, first American ‘terrorist’, author of the Harper’s Ferry Insurrection, and spark stat started the Civil War

The Pottawatomie massacre occurred during the night of May 24 and the morning of May 25, 1856. In reaction to the sacking of Lawrence, Kansas by pro-slavery forces,  John Brown and a small band of abolitionist settlers—some of them members of the Pottawatomie Rifles—killed five settlers north of Pottawatomie Creek in Franklin County, Kansas. This was one of the many bloody episodes in Kansas preceding the American Civil War, which came to be known collectively as Bleeding Kansas. Bleeding Kansas was largely brought about by the Missouri Compromise and Kansas–Nebraska Act.

A Free State company under the command of John Brown, Jr., set out, and the Osawatomie company joined them. On the morning of May 22, 1856, they heard of the sack of Lawrence and the arrest of Deitzler, Brown, and Jenkins. However, they continued their march toward Lawrence, not knowing whether their assistance might still be needed, and encamped that night near the Ottawa Creek. They remained in the vicinity until the afternoon of May 23, at which time they decided to return home.

On May 23, John  Brown Sr. selected a small party consisting of John Brown Sr., his sons Frederick, Owen, Salmon, and Oliver, and Thomas Weiner and James Townsley, to go with him on a private ex-pedition.  Late in the next evening, they called at the house of James P. Doyle and ordered him and his two adult sons, William and Drury (all former slave catchers) to go with them as prisoners. The three men were escorted by their captors into the night, at which time Owen Brown and one of his brothers killed them with broadswords. John Brown, Sr. fired a shot into the head of the fallen James Doyle to make certain he was dead.  Brown and his band then went to the house of Allen Wilkinson and ordered him out, where he was slashed and stabbed to death by Henry Thompson and Theodore Winer, possibly with help from Brown’s sons.  Following this murder they crossed the Pottawatomie, and after midnight, they forced their way into the cabin of James Harris. Harris had three house guests: John S. Wightman, Jerome Glanville, and William Sherman, the brother of Henry Sherman (“Dutch Henry”), a militant pro-slavery activist.  After questioning all four men, William Sherman was led to the edge of the creek and hacked to death with the swords by Winer and Thompson.

In the two years before Brown’s raid, there had been 8 killings in Kansas Territory attributable to slavery politics, and none of those were in the vicinity of the massacre.  Brown murdered five in a single night, and this was the flash point to the powder keg that exploded into violence.  Over the next three months, 29 people died in a series of retaliatory raids and battles.

John Brown wasn’t done and he wouldn’t be done until October 18, 1859, when he would lead an un-successful slave revolt at a little town called Harper’s Ferry in Virginia.  This future raid would make his name a household word and he would forever be viewed as either a hero or a terrorist, depending upon where you stood on the issue of the day, which was, of course, slavery. 



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Today In Western History: Congress Passes The Missouri Compromise

March 3 —

After months of bitter debate, Congress passes the Missouri Compromise, today in 1820, a bill that temporarily resolves the first serious political clash between slavery and antislavery interests in U.S. history.

Rep. James Tallmadge, Jr. (1778-1853)
Rep. James Tallmadge, Jr. (1778-1853)

In February 1819, Representative James Tallmadge of New York introduced a bill that would admit Missouri into the Union as a state where slavery was prohibited. At the time, there were 11 free states and 10 slave states. Southern congressmen feared that the entrance of Missouri as a free state would upset the balance of power between North and South, as the North far outdistanced the South in population, and thus, U.S. representatives. Opponents to the bill also questioned the congressional precedent of prohibiting the expansion of slavery into a territory where slave status was favored.


Even after Alabama was granted statehood in December 1819 with no prohibition on its practice of slavery, Congress remained deadlocked on the issue of Missouri. Finally, a compromise was reached. On March 3, 1820, Congress passed a bill granting Missouri statehood as a slave state under the condition that slavery was to be forever prohibited in the rest of the Louisiana Purchase north of the 36th parallel, which runs approximately along the southern border of Missouri. In addition, Maine, formerly part of Massachusetts, was admitted as a free state, thus preserving the balance between Northern and Southern senators.

The Missouri Compromise, although criticized by many on both sides of the slavery debate, succeeded in keeping the Union together for more than 30 years. In 1854, it was repealed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which dictated that slave or free status was to be decided by popular vote in the territories of Kansas and Nebraska; though both were north of the 36th parallel.


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Western History Today: The Missouri Compromise Passes

The Senate passes the Missouri Compromise, an attempt to deal with the dangerously divisive issue of extending slavery into the western territories today, February 17,  in 1820.

From colonial days to the Civil War, slavery and western expansion both played fundamental but inherently incompatible roles in the American republic. As the nation expanded westward, the Con-gress adopted relatively liberal procedures by which western territories could organize and join the union as full-fledged states. Southern slaveholders, eager to repli-cate their plantation system in the West, wanted to keep the new territories open to slavery. Abolitionists, concentrated primarily in the industrial North, wanted the West to be exclusively a free labor region and hoped that slavery would gradually die out if confined to the South. Both factions realized their future congressional influence would depend on the number of new “slave” and “free” states admitted into the union.

Consequently, the West became the first political battleground over the slavery issue. In 1818, the Territory of Missouri applied to Congress for admission as a slave state. Early in 1819, a New York congressman introduced an amendment to the proposed Missouri constitution that would ban importation of new slaves and require gradual emancipation of exist-ing slaves. Southern congressmen reacted with outrage, inspiring a nationwide debate on the future of slavery in the nation. Over the next year, the congressional debate grew increasingly bitter, and southerners began to threaten secession and civil war. To avoid this disastrous possibility, key congressmen hammered together an agreement that became known as the Missouri Compromise. In exchange for admitting Missouri without restrictions on slavery, the Compromise called for bringing in Maine as a free state. The Compromise also dictated that slavery would be prohibited in all future western states carved out of the Louisiana Territory that were higher in latitude than the northern border of Arkansas Territory.

Although the Missouri Compromise temporarily eased the inherent tensions between western expansion and slavery, the divisive issue was far from resolved. Whether or not to allow slavery in the states of Texas, Kansas, and Nebraska caused the same difficulties several decades later, leading the nation toward civil war.



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