Friday, September 25, 2009


THE BRACERO PROGRAM: One Chapter of a Conquered Nation
1942 to 1964
     Dependence on Mexican labor has been a source of great opportunity as well as great conflict for Mexicans and Americans. In 1942, facing labor shortages caused by World War II, the United States initiated a series of agreements with Mexico to recruit Mexican men to work on U.S. farms and railroads. These agreements became known as the bracero program. (Bracero is a term used in Mexico for a manual laborer.)
     Between 1942 and 1964, an estimated two million Mexican men came to the United States on short-term labor contracts. A little-known chapter of American and Mexican history, the bracero program touched the lives of countless men, women, families, and communities. Both bitter and sweet, the bracero experience tells a story of exploitation but also of opportunity.
     Begun in 1942 to fill labor shortages in agriculture and the railroads caused by World War II, the bracero program eventually became the largest guest worker program in U.S. history. Small farmers, large growers, and farm associations in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas, and 23 other states hired Mexican braceros to provide manpower during peak harvest and cultivation times.
     By the time the program was canceled in 1964, an estimated 4.6 million contracts had been awarded. Bittersweet, the bracero experience tells a story of both exploitation and opportunity to earn money. The exhibition draws extensively from the Museum's collection of photographs taken by photojournalist Leonard Nadel in 1956, as well as oral histories, documents, and objects collected by the Bracero Oral History Project.
     The program was initially prompted by a demand for manual labor during World War II, and begun with the U.S. government bringing in a few hundred experienced Mexican agricultural laborers to harvest sugar beets in the Stockton, California area.
     The program soon spread to cover most of the United States and provided workers for the agriculture labor market (with the notable exception was Texas, who initially opted out of the program in preference of an "open border" policy, and were denied braceros by the Mexican government until 1947 due to perceived mistreatment of Mexican laborers[1]).
     As an important corollary, the railroad bracero program was independently negotiated to supply U.S. railroads initially with unskilled workers for track maintenance but eventually to cover other unskilled and skilled labor. By 1945, the quota for the agricultural program was more than 75,000 braceros working in the U.S. railroad system and 50,000 braceros working in U.S. agriculture at any one time.
The railroad program ended with the conclusion of World War II, in 1945.
     At the behest of U.S. growers, who claimed ongoing labor shortages, the program was extended under a number of acts of congress until 1948. Between 1948 and 1951, the importation of Mexican agricultural labors continued under negotiated administrative agreements between growers and the Mexican Government.
     On July 13, 1951, President Truman signed Public Law 78, a two-year program which embodied formalized protections for Mexican laborers. The program was renewed every two years until 1963, when, under heavy criticism, it was extended for a single year with the understanding it would not be renewed. After the formal end of the agricultural program lasted until 1964, there were agreements covering a much smaller number of contracts until 1967, after which no more braceros were granted.[2]
     The program in agriculture was justified in the U.S. largely as an alternative to undocumented immigration, and seen as a complement to efforts to deport undocumented immigrants such as Operation "Wetback", under which 1,075,168 Mexicans were deported in 1954.[7] Scholars who have closely studied Mexican migration in this period have questioned this interpretation[8], emphasizing instead the complementary nature of legal and illegal migration.[9]. Scholars of this school suggest that the decision to hire Mexicans through the Bracero Program or via extra-legal contractors depended mostly on which seemed more suitable to needs of agribusiness employers, attributing the expansion of the Bracero Program in the late 50s to the relaxation of enforcement of regulations on Bracero wages, housing, and food charges[10].
     The workers who participated in the Bracero Program have generated significant local and international struggles challenging the US government and Mexican government to identify and return deductions taken from their pay, from 1942 to 1948, for savings accounts which they were legally guaranteed to receive upon their return to Mexico at the conclusion of their contracts. Many never received their savings. Lawsuits presented in federal courts in California, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, highlighted the substandard conditions and documented the ultimate destiny of the savings accounts deductions, but the suit was thrown out because the Mexican banks in question never operated in the United States.
     Even though the United States had made use of migrant Mexican labor in its agricultural sector since the early 1900s, such labor tended to be both migratory and seasonal with many workers returning back to Mexico in the winter. The situation changed with the involvement of the United States in WWII that created a massive labor shortage in all sectors of the economy with the withdrawal of much of the nations active labor force into the various armed services. The extreme labor shortage forced a change in immigration policy for the United States that resulted in development of the Bracero Program in conjunction with Mexico. The Bracero Program was a guest worker program that ran between the years of 1942 and 1964. Over the twenty-two year period, The Mexican Farm Labor Program, informally known as the Bracero Program, sponsored some 4.5 million border crossings of guest workers from Mexico (some among these representing repeat visits by returned braceros).
     The growing realization among businesses was that provisions within the program ensured an increase of costs for the imported labor. The program mandated a certain level of wages, housing, food and medical care for the workers (to be paid for by the employers) that kept the standard of living above what many had in Mexico. Not only did this enable many to send funds home to their families, but it also had the unintended effect of encouraging illegal immigration when the USA's workers quotas were met. These new illegal workers could not be employed "above the table" as part of the program leaving them open for exploitation.
     This resulted in the lowering of wages and not receiving the benefits that the Mexican government had negotiated to insure their legal workers well being under the bracero program. This in turn, had the effect of eroding support for the program in the agricultural sector for the legal importation of workers from Mexico in favor of hiring Illegal immigrants to reduce overhead costs. The advantages of hiring illegal workers were that they were willing to work for lower wages, without support, health coverage or in many cases legal means to address abuses by the employers for fear ofdeportation.                     
     Nevertheless, conditions for the poor and unemployed within Mexico were such that illegal employment was attractive enough to motivate many to leave in search of work within the United States illegally, even if that directly competed with the legal workers within the bracero program leading to its discontinuation.
     Labor unions which tried to organize agricultural workers after WWII targeted the Bracero program as a key impediment to improving the wages of domestic farm workers[11]. These unions included the National Farm Laborers Union (NFLU), later called the National Agricultural Workers Union (NAWU), headed by Ernesto Galarza, and the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), AFL-CIO. During his tenure with the Community Service Organization, César Chávez was given a grant by the AWOC to organize in Oxnard, California which culminated in a protest of domestic U.S. agricultural workers of the U.S. Department of Labor's administration of the program.[12] In January of 1961, in an effort to publicize the effects of bracero labor on labor standards, the AWOC led a strike of lettuce workers at 18 farms in the Imperial Valley, an agricultural region on the California-Mexico border and a major destination for braceros.[13]
     The end of the Bracero program in 1964 was followed by the rise to prominence of the United Farm Workers, and the subsequent transformation of American migrant labor under the leadership of César Chávez. Dolores Huerta was also a leader and early organizer of the United Farm Workers. According to Manuel Garcia y Griego, a political scientist and author of The Importation of Mexican Contract Laborers to the United States 1942-1964, [14] the Contract-Labor Program left an important legacy for the economies, migration patterns, and politics of the United States and Mexico.”
Griego’s article discusses the bargaining position of both countries, arguing that the Mexican government lost all real bargaining power after 1950.
     The guest worker program continued until 1964. [15] 


     Wetback is a derogatory term for a recent illegal alien of Mexican descent. Commonly referring to illegal alien Mexicans, although applicable to all Latinos, who have crossed the border illegally, the term originated with those who entered Texas from Mexico by crossing the Rio Grande,[1] presumably by swimming or wading across and getting his or her back wet in the process.
     The first mention of the term in The New York Times is dated June 20, 1920.[2] It was used officially by the US government in 1954, with Operation Wetback,[3] a project where a large number of Mexican nationals were deported.
     Wetback became a popular slur in other states with large illegal alien populations, such as California, Arizona and New Mexico, especially among those who were adversely affected, whether by crime, loss of employment, or supposed diminution of American culture, by the large influx of illegal aliens in the late 20th century.
An equivalent Spanish term, mojado,[4] is sometimes used by legal immigrants and native-born Hispanic Americans as an insult to illegal immigrants. Another equivalent colloquial term for an illegal immigrant who crosses the border into the US is alambrista [5] or sudaca.
WETBACK: Etymology
      The word "wetback" is a relatively new disparaging term for "an illegal Mexican immigrant or worker who crosses the Rio Grande into the United States, sometimes swimming to get across" (Hendrickson, 1997). There is some debate as to when the word was first recorded. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded use of the word was in 1929 when Foreign Affairs used it to refer to a peon that walks or swims across and is welcomed by countrymen as a ‘wetback’. However, according to the Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, the first recorded use was in 1948 when the number of illegal Mexicans swarming the United States increased by a significantly large percentage.
     The word "wetback" became widely used when the United States became involved in a military operation known as Operation Wetback. Post World War II, millions of Mexicans swarmed to the United States as the demand for cheap agricultural laborers increased. Between 1944 and 1954, known as "the decade of the wetback," "the number of illegal Mexican alien workers swimming across the Rio Grande to the United States increased by 6,000 percent" (Operation Wetback, 1997).
     As a result, in 1954 Operation Wetback got under way as a national reaction against illegal immigration. Commissioner of INS, Joseph Swing oversaw the Border patrol, and organized state and local officials along with the police. The purpose of border enforcement was "illegal aliens," but Operation Wetback became strictly focused on Mexicans in general.
     Officials swarmed Mexican American neighborhoods in southeastern states. Some Mexicans, "fearful of the potential violence of this militarization, fled back south across the border" (Operation Wetback, 1997). In 1954, the agents discovered over one million illegal immigrants. Many of the illegal immigrants were deported to Mexico by trucks, buses, trains, and even ships.
     In some cases, "illegal immigrants were deported along with their American-born children, who were by law U.S. citizens" (Operation Wetback, 1997). The agents used a broad criterion for determining who were potential aliens. They began racial profiling of Mexicans on the street. This practice incited and angered many U.S. citizens who were of Mexican American descent. "Opponents in both the United States and Mexico complained of "police-state" methods, and Operation Wetback was abandoned" (Operation Wetback, 1997).
     Cultural Adoption
     After Operation Wetback, the term became very popular among American culture as a way of defining Mexicans. Eventually, the term began to be used to refer to all Hispanics in general. To a Hispanic, the word "wetback" is just as derogatory as the word "nigger" to an African American. In fact, in 1997, Mary Ann Vigil took her employer to court after she claimed that while "working as a department clerk typist at the Las Cruces International Airport, her supervisor "frequently" referred to Hispanics as "wetbacks," and, in response to complaints that Hispanic customers were overcharged, stated, "I didn't know that Mexicans had rights."" (Mary Ann Vigil v. City of Las Cruces, 1997).
Judges ruled against Vigil in this case because they felt that a couple of isolated comments did not truly constitute racial discrimination or bigotry. However, the case is worthy of mention because it shows the anger that a term like "wetback" arises among the Hispanic community.
     In certain parts of the United States, the word appears to be more prominent than in other places. For instance, according to Dan Marlowe, a Sante Fe attorney from Oakland, "he didn’t know what racism was until he came to New Mexico and noticed how often New Mexicans referred to Mexicans as "mojados," or wetbacks" (Not Much of a Joke, 1999, pg. 3).
     Similarly, during an Assembly Ways and Means Committee hearing in Nevada, politician John Marvel "averred as to how ‘wetback’ laborers might be hired to do repair work because they were good at working with adobe" (Not Much of a Joke, 1999). The assemblyman tried to explain that he was just trying to "make a joke." However, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, as an educated man and politician, John Marvel surely knew that "referring to immigrants as "wetbacks" is offensive to Hispanics and non-Hispanics alike" (Not Much of a Joke, 1999).
     Unfortunately, many Hispanics grow up in communities where they are constantly haunted by the use of the term "wetback". For instance, Rafael Espinoza is Salvadoran, born in El Salvador. He came to the United States on his own at the age of 15. He is now a 30-year-old union leader, the father of the three children, and married to a Caucasian woman. He explained in an interview that the first word he learned when arriving in this country was "wetback." (Steinberg, 1998). Similar to Rafael, many Hispanics, even Hispanic-Americans, are exposed to this term daily. Regardless of nationality, if a person does not look Caucasian and speaks perfect Spanish, chances are they will be called a "wetback" at some point.
     Discrimination among Hispanics is very prominent in the United States. For this reason, many Hispanics have band together to bring awareness to the problem. For instance, one Latin music band, Los Nortenos de Ojinaga, wrote a song called "La Discriminacion" which translates to "The Discrimination". The lyrics say: "We will always be the same, even if you become a citizen, even if some carry permits and others are already arranged, in the gringo’s eyes, we will always be wetbacks" (Lyrics Reflect Social Issues in Mexico, 2002, pg. 8).
     As a result, the term "wetback" is a racial slur that is very offensive to the Hispanic community. It is almost as offensive as calling a Hispanic a "spic". Although the word has gained popularity in the United States, it is a word that has a negative connotation for many Hispanics.
     Works Cited
     Lyrics reflect social issues in Mexico. (2002, February 27). Los Angeles Times: Wednesday Home Edition; Part 5, pg. 8. Lexis-Nexis. 27 Feb. 2002. Not much of a joke: Assemblyman utters slur. (1999). Las Vegas Review-Journal retrieved February 26, 2002 from the World Wide Web: Steinberg, Gale. (1998). If the shoe doesn’t fit. Retrieved February 26, 2002 from the World Wide Web: Hendrickson, Robert. (1997). The facts on file: Encyclopedia of word and phrase origins: Revised and expanded edition. New York: Facts on File. Operation wetback. (1997). The handbook of Texas online. Retrieved February 26, 2002 from the World Wide Web:
Vigil v. city of Las Cruces. (1997, July 24). United States Court of Appeals: Tenth Circuit. No. 96-2059. Retrieved February 26, 2002 from the World Wide Web:
compiled by Patricia Montane February 28, 2002
     Rhetoric of Race Dictionary Project home
     Operation Wetback was a 1954 operation by the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to remove about one million illegal immigrants from the southwestern United States. It focused on Mexican nationals.[1]
     Burgeoning numbers of Mexican immigrants prompted President Dwight D. Eisenhower to appoint his longtime friend, General Joseph Swing, as INS Commissioner. According to Attorney General Herbert Brownell Jr., Eisenhower had a sense of urgency about illegal immigration upon taking office. In a letter to Sen. William Fulbright, Eisenhower quoted a report in The New York Times that said, "The rise in illegal border-crossing by Mexican 'wetbacks' (rooted from the watery route taken by the Mexican immigrants across the Rio Grande) to a current rate of more than 1,000,000 cases a year has been accompanied by a curious relaxation in ethical standards extending all the way from the farmer-exploiters of this contraband labor to the highest levels of the Federal Government."[2] The operation was modeled after a program that put pressure on citizens of Mexico to move back to Mexico during the Great Depression because of the bad economic situation in the United States. (See Mexican Repatriation.)
The effort began in California and Arizona and coordinated 1075 Border Patrol agents, along with state and local police agencies, to mount an aggressive crackdown, going as far as police sweeps of Mexican-American neighborhoods and random stops and ID checks of "Mexican-looking" people in a region with many Native Americans and native Hispanics.[3] 750 agents targeted agricultural areas with a goal of 1000 apprehensions a day.
     By the end of July, over 50,000 immigrants were caught in the two states. Around 488,000 illegal immigrants are claimed to have left voluntarily for fear of being apprehended. By September, 80,000 had been taken into custody in Texas, and the INS estimates that 500,000 to 700,000 had left Texas on their own.
     To discourage re-entry, buses and trains took many deportees deep within Mexico before releasing them. Tens of thousands more were deported by two chartered ships, the Emancipation and theMercurio. The ships ferried them from Port Isabel, Texas, to Veracruz, Mexico, more than 500 miles (800 kilometers) to the south. Some were taken as far as 1,000 miles. Deportation by sea was ended after seven deportees jumped overboard from the Mercurio and drowned, provoking a mutiny which lead to a public outcry in Mexico.[4]
The above accounts chronicle part of the history of the southwest, which was preceded by the Mexican American War of 1846 to 1848.
The Mexican-American War

     The Mexican–American War (notice hyphenation), also known in the United States as The Mexican War and in Mexico as La Intervención Norteamericana (the North American Intervention), was a military conflict fought between the United States and Mexico from 1846 to 1848, in the wake of the 1845 U.S. annexation of Texas.
Mexico had not recognized the secession of Texas in 1836 and announced its intention to take back what it considered a rebel province.
     In the United States, the war was a partisan issue, supported by most Democrats and opposed by most Whigs, with popular belief in the Manifest Destiny of the United States ultimately translating into public support for the war. In Mexico, the war was considered a matter of national pride.
     The widespread view that America's "destiny" was to become a continental nation stretching to the Pacific was fed by public confidence in the nation's founding ideals of free and representative government (Manifest_Destiny), the development of steam power and the telegraph (1844), and additions to American territory, most notably the Louisiana Purchase. But nationalistic and, arguably, racist attitudes also justified ambitions for land. Mexico, in contrast, was recently independent from Spain and had seen a succession of weak and ineffective governments. It's northern territories were sparsely populated and its economy and industrial base were relatively undeveloped
     The most important consequence of the war was the Mexican Cession, in which all the Mexican territories from California to southwestern Wyoming, west of Texas along the Rio Grande River and south of the 42nd parallel were ceded to the United States—almost 15 percent of the nation's total area. The United States paid $15,000,000 for the land, half of what it had offered prior to the war. Throughout subsequent history, the American Southwest has retained much of its Hispanic heritage, while growing economic inequities between the neighboring countries have encouraged widespread legal and illegal immigration of Mexicans into the United States.
     Prior to the Mexican-American War, what is now Texas was the northernmost province of Mexico. Texas and other northern territories of Mexico were visited by mountain men from the U.S. and tradesmen who traversed the Santa Fe Trail. U.S. citizens were already in California, coming by way of the California Trail, and U.S. ships had been exchanging goods for hides and tallow along the coast of California. For the 25 years subsequent to Mexico's independence from the Spanish Empire, this area had been a part of the first  Mexican republic (1823-1861) or the First Mexican Empire (1822-1823) that preceded it. The Spanish Empire had gained these territories by conquering the Aztec Empire and various other Native American peoples.
     In the years following the Louisiana Purchase by the United States, U.S. settlers began to move westward into Spanish territory, encouraged by Spanish land grants and the United States government. After the Mexican War of Independence, Mexico inherited ownership of the provinces of Alta California, La Mesilla, Nuevo Mexico and Tejas, from Spain, and the westward migration of U.S. settlers continued. Since the times of New Spain, the Spanish Crown gave permission to U.S. settlers to obtain land in Texas provided they declared themselves to be Catholic and manifested their obedience to the king. In the mid-1830s, the government of Mexico, under General Santa Anna, attempted to centralize power. However, several Mexican states rebelled against his government, includingTexas, California, San Luis Potosí, Querétaro, Durango, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Yucatán, Jalisco, and Zacatecas. Texans had multiple grievances, including the abolition of slavery by Mexico in 1829 and the abolition of the federalist Constitution of 1824 for a centralist government under Santa Anna. The violent insurgency that started in Texas is known as the Texas Revolution.
     The new Mexican government, weakened and virtually bankrupt from the Mexican War of Independence, found it difficult to govern its northern territories, which in any case were hundreds of miles from the capital of Mexico City.

Republic of Texas

The Republic of Texas. The present-day outlines of the U.S. states are superimposed on the boundaries of 1836–1845.
     The Republic of Texas. The present-day outlines of the U.S. states are superimposed on the boundaries of 1836–1845. In the successful 1836 Texas Revolution, Texas won its independence after defeating Santa Anna and the Mexican army. General Santa Anna was taken captive by the Texas militia and only released after he promised to recognize the sovereignty of the Republic of Texas. When Santa Anna returned to Mexico however, the government refused to recognize the loss or independence of the Republic of Texas, the rationale being that Santa Anna was not a representative of Mexico and that he signed away Texas under duress. Mexico declared its intention to recapture what it considered a breakaway province.
     In the decade after the war, Texas consolidated its position as an independent republic by establishing diplomatic ties with the United Kingdomand the United States. Most Texans were in favor of annexation by the United States, but anti-slavery Northerners feared that admitting another slave state would tip the balance of national power to the slave-holding South, and they delayed Texas's annexation for almost a decade. Consequently, Texas was not admitted to the union until 1845, when it became the 28th state.
     The Mexican government complained that by annexing its "rebel province," the United States had intervened in Mexico's internal affairs and unjustly seized its sovereign territory. The major European powers, led by Britain and France, recognized the independence of Texas and repeatedly tried to dissuade Mexico from declaring war. British efforts to mediate were fruitless because additional political disputes (particularly the Oregon boundary dispute) arose between Britain and the United States.
     In 1845, the new U.S. President, James K. Polk, sent diplomat John Slidell to Mexico City in an attempt to purchase Mexico's California and New Mexico territories. U.S. expansionists wanted California to thwart British ambitions in the area and to have a port on the Pacific Ocean, which would allow the United States to participate in the lucrative trade with Asia. Polk authorized Slidell to forgive the $4.5 million owed to U.S. citizens from the Mexican War of Independence and pay another $25 to $30 million in exchange for the two territories.
     However, Mexico was neither inclined nor in a position to negotiate, largely because of political turmoil. In 1846 alone, the presidency changed hands four times, the war ministry six times, and the finance ministry sixteen times. According to historian D.F. Stevens, both Mexican public opinion and Mexican political factions and leaders were hawkish on the issue of North American territories. Mexicans opposing open conflict with the United States such as President José Joaquín de Herrera and others were considered traitors. When President de Herrera considered receiving Slidell in order to peacefully negotiate the problem of Texas annexation, he was deposed after being accused of treason and trying to hand over part of national territory.
     Military opponents of President José Joaquín de Herrera considered Slidell's presence in Mexico City an insult. After a more nationalistic government under General Mariano Paredes y Arrillaga came to power, the new government publicly reaffirmed Mexico's claim to Texas, and Slidell left in a temper, convinced that Mexico should be "chastised."

Opening hostilities

     An agreement between Mexican and U.S. government had established the border between Mexico and Texas at the Nueces River. Texas, though, set the border at the Rio Grande River, giving itself more land. Rival claims over the disputed territory would lead to the Mexican-American War.
     President Polk had sent General Zachary Taylor and 1,500 American troops to stay in the border along the Nueces River. Taylor arrived with his forces in July 1845, but then was ordered by President Polk to cross into disputed territory. Taylor marched to Corpus Christi, just north of the Rio Grande, as he did not want to provoke an attack. Then in March 1846, Taylor was ordered to march to the Rio Grande with 4,000 troops. Just one month later, the Mexicans attacked, but Taylor's forces were too much for the Mexicans and he drove them back beyond the Rio Grande River. President Polk took advantage of the skirmish and asked for a declaration of war.
     By then, Polk had received word of a skirmish between a small contingent of American troops commanded by Captain Seth Thornton and some two thousand Mexican soldiers under the command of Colonel Anastasio Torrejónwas. The greatly outnumbered U.S. forces surrendered after several hours of fighting. Thornton and several officers were taken prisoner, and this incident along with the rejection of Slidell's diplomatic mission were taken as the casus belli.
     A message to Congress on May 11, 1846, stated that Mexico had "invaded our territory and shed American blood upon the American soil," and a joint session of Congress approved the declaration of war. Democrats overwhelmingly supported the war, but 67 Whigs voted against it on a key amendment. On the final vote only fourteen Whigs voted no, including first-term Illinois Representative Abraham Lincoln. The United States declared war on Mexico on May 13, 1846, and Mexico declared war on July 7 (sometimes the manifest from President Paredes on May 23 is construed as the declaration of war, but only the Mexican congress had that power).
     Whigs in both the North and South generally opposed the war, while Democrats mostly supported it. Whig Abraham Lincoln contested the causes for the war and demanded to know the exact spot on which Thornton had been attacked and U.S. blood had been shed. Whig leader Robert Toombs of Georgia charged the president with "usurping the war-making power [and] seizing a country . . . which had been for centuries, and was then in the possession of the Mexicans. . . . Let us put a check upon this lust of dominion. We had territory enough, Heaven knew." (Beveridge 1:417)
     After the declaration of war, U.S. forces invaded Mexican territory on two main fronts. The U.S. war department sent a cavalry force under Stephen W. Kearny to invade western Mexico from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, reinforced by a Pacific fleet under John D. Sloat. This was done primarily because of concerns that Britain might also attempt to occupy the area. Two more forces, one under John E. Wool and the other under Taylor, were ordered to occupy Mexico as far south as the city of Monterrey.

War in California

After war was declared on May 13, 1846, it took almost two months (mid-July 1846) for definite word of war to get to California. U.S. consul Thomas O. Larkin, stationed in Monterey, on hearing rumors of war tried to keep peace between the Americans and the small Mexican military garrison commanded by José Castro. American army captain John C. Frémont with about 60 well-armed men had entered California in December 1845, and was making a slow march to Oregon when they received word that war between Mexico and the U.S. was imminent.

On June 15, 1846, some 30 settlers, mostly Americans, staged a revolt and seized the small Mexican garrison in Sonoma, raising the "Bear Flag" of the California Republic. It lasted one week until the U.S. Army, led by Frémont, took over on June 23. (The California state flag today is based on this original Bear Flag and retains the words "California Republic.")
     Commodore John Drake Sloat, on hearing of imminent war and the revolt in Sonoma, ordered his naval forces to occupy Yerba Buena (present San Francisco) on July 7, and raise the American flag. On July 15, Sloat transferred his command to Commodore Robert F. Stockton, a much more aggressive leader. Stockton put Frémont's forces under his orders, and on July 19, Frémont's "California Battalion" swelled to about 160 additional men from newly arrived settlers near Sacramento. He entered Monterey in a joint operation with some of Stockton's sailors and marines, while American forces easily took over the north of California. Within days they controlled San Francisco, Sonoma, and Sutter's Fort in Sacramento.
     In southern California, Mexican General José Castro and Governor Pío Pico fled from Los Angeles. When Stockton's forces entered Los Angeles unresisted on August 13, 1846, the nearly bloodless conquest of California seemed complete. Stockton, however, left too small a force (36 men) in Los Angeles, and the Californios, acting on their own and without help from Mexico, led by José Mariá Flores , forced the small American garrison to retire in late September. More than 200 reinforcements sent by Stockton, led by U.S. Navy Capt William Mervine were repulsed in the Battle of Dominguez Rancho (October 7–9, 1846) near San Pedro, where 14 U.S. Marines were killed. Meanwhile, General Kearny with a much reduced squadron of 100 dragoons finally reached California after a grueling march across New Mexico, Arizona, and the Sonora desert.
     On December 6, 1846, They fought the Battle of San Pasqual near San Diego, California, where 18 of Kearny's troop were killed—the largest American casualties lost in battle in California.
Stockton rescued Kearny's surrounded forces and with their combined troops, they moved northward from San Diego, entering the Los Angeles area on January 8, 1847. Linking up with Frémont's men and with American forces totaling 660 troops, they fought the Battle of Rio San Gabriel, the next day the Battle of La Mesa. On January 12, 1847, the last significant body of Californios surrendered to American forces. That marked the end of the war in California. On January 13, 1847, the Treaty of Cahuenga was signed.
     On January 28, 1847, U.S. Army lieutenant William Tecumseh Sherman and his army unit arrived in California as American forces in the pipeline continued to stream into the territory. On March 15, 1847, Col. Jonathan D. Stevenson’s Seventh Regiment of New York Volunteers of about 900 men start arriving in California. At the conclusion of the war, all of these men would be joined by thousands more when word went out that gold was discovered in January 1848, launching the California Gold Rush.

War in Northeastern Mexico

     The defeats at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma caused political turmoil in Mexico, which Antonio López de Santa Anna used to revive his political career and return from self-imposed exile in Cuba. He promised the U.S. military leaders that if allowed to pass through their blockade, he would negotiate a peaceful conclusion to the war and sell the New Mexico and California territories to the United States. Once he arrived in Mexico, however, he reneged and offered his military services to the Mexican government. Santa Anna was promptly appointed general, but instead of taking to the field, he seized the presidency.
     U.S. troops led by Taylor crossed the Rio Grande after some initial difficulties in obtaining river transport. He occupied the city of Matamoros, then Camargo where, while waiting, the soldiery suffered the first of many problems with disease. He then proceeded south and besieged the city of Monterrey, with Mexican forces under General Pedro de Ampudia. The Battle of Monterrey was a hard fought engagement during which both sides suffered serious losses.
     The Americans light artillery was ineffective against the stone fortifications of the city. The U.S. infantry division and the Texas Rangers captured four hills to the west of the town and with them heavy cannon. That lent the U.S. soldiers the strength to storm the city from the west and east. Once in the city, U.S. soldiers fought house to house: each was cleared by throwing lighted shells, which worked like grenades. Eventually, these actions drove and trapped Ampudia's men into the city's central plaza, where howitzer shelling forced Ampudia to negotiate.
     Taylor allowed the Mexican Army to evacuate and agreed to an 8-week armistice in return for the surrender of the city. Under pressure from Washington, Taylor broke the armistice and occupied the city of Saltillo, southwest of Monterrey. Santa Anna blamed the loss of Monterrey and Saltillo on Ampudia and demoted him to command a small artillery battalion.
     On February 22, 1847, Santa Anna personally marched north with 20,000 men to fight Taylor and his 4,600 men, entrenched at a mountain pass called Buena Vista. Santa Anna suffered desertions on the way north and arrived with 15,000 men wearied by the forced march. He demanded and was refused surrender of the U.S. army, and then attacked the next morning. Santa Anna flanked the U.S. positions by sending his cavalry and some of his infantry up the steep terrain that made up one side of the pass, while a division of infantry attacked frontally along the road leading to Buena Vista. Furious fighting ensued during which U.S. troops were almost routed, but were saved by artillery fire against a Mexican advance at close range by Captain Braxton Bragg, and a charge by the mounted Mississippi Riflemen under Jefferson Davis. Having suffered discouraging losses, Santa Anna withdrew that night, leaving Taylor in control of Northern Mexico.
     Polk distrusted Taylor, whom he felt had shown incompetence in the Battle of Monterrey by agreeing to the armistice, and he may have considered him a political rival for the White House. Taylor later used the Battle of Buena Vista as the centerpiece of his successful 1848 presidential campaign.

Scott's campaign

     Rather than reinforce Taylor's army for a continued advance, President Polk sent a second army under General Winfield Scott, which was transported to the port of Veracruz by sea to begin an invasion of the Mexican heartland. Winfield Scott became an American national hero after his victories in the Mexican War, and later became military governor of occupied Mexico City. Scott performed the first major amphibious landing in the history of the United States in preparation for the Siege of Veracruz.
     The city replied as best it could with its own artillery. The effect of the extended barrage destroyed the will of the Mexican side to fight against a numerically superior foe, and they surrendered the city after 12 days under siege. U.S. troops suffered 80 casualties, while the Mexican side had around 180 killed and wounded, about half of whom were civilian. During the siege, the U.S. side began to fall victim to Yellow Fever.
     Scott then marched westward toward Mexico City with 8,500 healthy troops, while Santa Anna set up a defensive position in a canyon around the main road at the halfway mark to Mexico City, near the hamlet of Cerro Gordo. Santa Anna had entrenched with 12,000 troops and artillery that were trained on the road, along which he expected Scott to appear. However, Scott had sent 2,600 mounted dragoons ahead, and the Mexican artillery prematurely fired on them and revealed their positions. Instead of taking the main road, Scott's troops trekked through the rough terrain to the north, setting up his artillery on the high ground and quietly flanking the Mexicans. Although by then aware of the positions of U.S. troops, Santa Anna was unprepared for the onslaught that followed. The Mexican army was routed. The U.S. army suffered 400 casualties, while the Mexicans suffered over 1,000 casualties and 3,000 taken prisoner.
     In May, Scott pushed on to Puebla, the second largest city in Mexico. Because of the citizens' hostility to Santa Anna, the city capitulated without resistance on May 15. Mexico City was taken in the Battle of Chapultepec and subsequently occupied.

Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo

     The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed on February 2, 1848 by American diplomat Nicholas Trist, ended the war and gave the U.S undisputed control of Texas, established the United States–Mexican border of the Rio Grande River and ceded more than forty two percent of its pre-war territories to the United States. California, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Colorado,Arizona, New Mexico, and Wyoming were given to the U.S. In return, Mexico received $15,000,000. This exchange is known as the Mexican Cession.
     Mexicans living in the conquered lands were given the option of returning to Mexico or staying and become American citizens. Part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago, notably Article X, was struck from the treaty before it was ratified by the United States Senate. These articles had promised that the United States would recognize Mexican and Spanish land grants.
     Five years later, negotiations began to complete the purchase of what is modern day Arizona and New Mexico. The Gadsden Purchase provided for the payment by the United States of $10,000,000 to the Mexican Government for more than 29,000 square miles (76,900 sq km). By contrast the Mexican Cession yielded approximately 554,000 square miles (1,435,500 sq km).
     Although 13,000 U.S. soldiers died during the course of the Mexican War, only about 1,700 were killed in combat. Ninety percent died of disease, such as yellow fever. Mexican casualties are estimated at 25,000.
     One of the contributing factors to loss of the war by Mexico was the inferiority of their weapons. The Mexican army was using British muskets from the Napoleonic Wars, while U.S. troops had the latest U.S. manufactured rifles. Furthermore, Mexican troops were trained to fire with their musket held loosely at hip-level, while U.S. soldiers used the much more accurate method of butting the rifle up to the shoulder and taking aim along the barrel.
     The Saint Patrick's Battalion (San Patricios), was a group of several hundred, the majority of which were Irish immigrant soldiers who deserted the U.S. Army and joined the Mexican army. Most were killed in the Battle of Churubusco; about 100 were captured and hanged as deserters.


     Mexico lost more than 500,000 square miles (1,300,000 square km) of land, almost half of its territory. The annexed territories contained about 1,000 Mexican families in California and 7,000 in New Mexico. A few moved back to Mexico; the great majority remained and became U.S. citizens.
     A month before the end of the war, Polk was criticized in a United States House of Representatives amendment to a bill praising Major General Zachary Taylor for "a war unnecessarily and unconstitutionally begun by the President of the United States." This criticism followed congressional scrutiny of the war's beginnings, including factual challenges to claims made by President Polk. The vote followed party lines, with all Whigs supporting the amendment.
     In much of the United States, victory and the acquisition of new land brought a surge of patriotism (the country had also acquired the southern half of the Oregon Country in 1846 through a treaty with Great Britain). Victory seemed to fulfill citizens' belief in their country's Manifest Destiny. While Whig Ralph Waldo Emerson rejected war "as a means of achieving America's destiny," he accepted that "most of the great results of history are brought about by discreditable means." Although the Whigs had opposed the war, they made Taylor their presidential candidate in the election of 1848, praising his military performance while muting their criticism of the war itself.
     The war had been widely supported by Democrats and opposed by Whigs. Many Northern abolitionists attacked the war as an attempt by slave-owners to expand slavery and assure their continued influence in the federal government. Henry David Thoreau wrote his essay Civil Disobedience and refused to pay taxes to support the war. Former President John Quincy Adams also expressed his belief that the war was an effort to expand slavery. In 1846, Democratic Congressman David Wilmot introduced the Wilmot Proviso to prohibit slavery in any new territory acquired from Mexico. Wilmot's proposal did not pass, but it sparked further hostility between the factions.


  • Bauer K. Jack. Zachary Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest. Louisiana State University Press, 1985. ISBN 9780807112373
  • Crawford, Mark, David Stephen Heidler, and Jeanne T. Heidler. Encyclopedia of the Mexican-American War. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO 1999. ISBN 9781576070598
  • Fowler, Will. Tornel and Santa Anna the writer and the caudillo, Mexico, 1795-1853. Contributions in Latin American studies, no. 14. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press 2000. ISBN 9780313002977
  • Krauze, Enrique. Mexico: biography of power : a history of modern Mexico, 1810-1996. New York, NY: HarperCollinsPublishers 1997. ISBN 9780060163259
  • Robinson, Cecil, The View From Chapultepec: Mexican Writers on the Mexican-American War, University of Arizona Press (Tucson, 1989) ISBN 9780816510832
  • Schroeder John H. Mr. Polk's War: American Opposition and Dissent, 1846-1848. University of Wisconsin Press, 1973. ISBN 9780299061609
  • Winders, Richard Bruce. Mr. Polk's army the American military experience in the Mexican War. Texas A & M University military history series, 51. College Station, Tex: Texas A & M University Press 1997. ISBN 9780585147406

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