On this day in 1853, James Gadsden, the U.S. minister to Mexico, and Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna, the president of Mexico, cut a deal to turn over 45,000 square miles of what would be parts of New Mexico and Arizona to the United States. The treaty provided the flat desert land needed to build a southern transcontinental railroad and attempted to resolve conflicts stemming from the Mexican-American War, which the Mexicans lost in 1848.
The treaty, known as the Gadsden Purchase, was signed in Mexico City. It settled a lingering dispute over the demarcation of the border west of El Paso, Texas, by setting an agreed-upon boundary between the two nations. The treaty, however, also stirred fresh tensions over the expansion of slavery into the American West that could be finally resolved only by the Civil War.
Jefferson Davis, the secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce, had authorized Gadsden to negotiate with Santa Anna. The draft treaty called for the United States to pay Mexico $15 million, or about $5 billion in today’s dollars.
The Pierce administration, which had taken office in March 1853, had a pro-Southern, pro-expansion mind-set. Davis was on record as favoring a southern route for a transcontinental railroad. (It also sent Louisiana Sen. Pierre Soulé to Spain to negotiate in vain to acquire Cuba, which Spain eventually lost to the U.S. in 1898.)
Some U.S. industrialists saw the need for a railroad linking the South with the Pacific Coast that skirted Western mountains. In also sensing an opportunity to build a railroad through the region, Gadsden drove a hard bargain. At the time, the Mexican economy was going through a rough patch. The Mexicans desperately needed the money, leaving Santa Anna in a weak negotiating position. Still, the bargain disgusted many Mexicans and led to Santa Anna’s downfall.
Gadsden (1788-1858) was the grandson of American Revolutionary patriot Christopher Gadsden. In 1823, after a career as a U.S. Army officer, he was commissioned to help move the Seminole tribe westward from Florida to reservations. While president of the South Carolina Railroad Co. from 1840 to 1850, he advocated construction of a transcontinental railroad via a southern route.
Strife between the Northern and Southern states delayed ratification of the treaty until April 25, 1854. As revised by the Senate, the treaty reduced the amount to be paid to Mexico to $10 million and the land to be purchased to 29,670 square miles. It also removed any mention of Native American attacks and private claims. Pierce signed the revised treaty and Gadsden presented it to Santa Anna, who signed it on June 8, 1854.
In 1861, capitalizing on the successful purchase, the chief figures behind the drive to build railroads through the West — Collis Huntington, Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker — formed what became the Southern Pacific branch of the Central Pacific Railroad.