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"Part VII, Chapter 76." by Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall (1876-)
From: This country of ours; the story of the United States by Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall (1876-) New York, George H. Doran company, 1917.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom


CHAPTER 76
POLK–HOW MUCH LAND WAS ADDED TO THE UNITED STATES

IN 1845 Tyler's term expired and James Knox Polk became President. He had been a long time in Congress, and had been Speaker of the House for four years. Yet nobody had heard very much about him, and nearly everyone was surprised when his party succeeded in electing him.

 

During Polk's term of office three states were admitted to the Union. The first of these was the great State of Texas. After the Louisiana Purchase the United States had claimed Texas as part of Louisiana. But the Spaniards to whom all Mexico belonged disputed their claim, and declared that Texas belonged to them. The dispute went on until the United States bought Florida from Spain. Then in part payment for Florida the Americans gave up all claim to Texas.

Texas admitted to the Union, 1845

But really this agreement could matter little to Spain, for the Mexicans were already in revolt, and in 1821 declared themselves independent.

 

Meanwhile many Americans began to settle in Texas. The United States Government began to feel sorry that they had given it up, and they tried to buy it from the Mexicans. The Mexicans, however, refused to sell it. But many men in the southern states became more and more anxious to get Texas. Because they saw that if they did not get some more territory free states would soon outnumber slave states. For all the land south of the Missouri Compromise line had been used up, the only part left being set aside as Indian Territory. In the north on the other hand there was still land enough out of which to carve four or five states.

 

All the Americans who had settled in Texas were slave holders. And when Mexico abolished slavery Texas refused to do so. This refusal of course brought trouble, and at length the Texans, declaring that the government of Mexico was tyrannical, rose in rebellion against Mexico, and declared themselves a republic.

The Texans rebel against Mexico, 1836

But the Mexicans would not allow this great territory to revolt without an effort to keep it. So they sent an army to fight the Texans. The leader of the Mexican army was Santa Anna, the Mexican President. The leader of the Texans was General Sam Houston.

Sam Houston, 1793-1863

Sam Houston was an adventurous American who a year or two before had settled in Texas. He had had a varied life. He had been a soldier, a lawyer, a Congressman, and finally Governor of a state. Then he had suddenly thrown everything up, had gone to live among the Indians, and was adopted into an Indian tribe.

 

While he was living with the Indians wild stories of his doings were spread about. One story was that he meant to conquer Texas, and make himself Emperor of that country. But Houston had really no intention of founding a nation.

 

In the war with Texas the Mexicans were at first successful, and the terrified people fled before them. But at the battle of San Jacinto the Texans utterly defeated the Mexicans. The rout was complete and the Mexicans fled in every direction, among them their leader, Santa Anna.

Battle of San Jacinto, 1836

Mounted on a splendid black horse he fled toward a bridge crossing a river which flowed near. But when he reached the bridge he found that the Texans had destroyed it. He was being hotly pursued by the enemy. So without pausing a moment he spurred his horse into the river, swam across, and to the surprise of his pursuers climbed the steep cliff of the opposite side, and disappeared.

Santa Anna escapes;

Darkness now fell and the Texans gave up the pursuit. But next morning they set out again to scour the country in search of fugitives. Meanwhile Santa Anna, having abandoned his horse and changed his clothes in a forsaken cottage, was trying to make his way to the Mexican border. Presently, however, one of the search parties came upon a little man dressed in blue cotton coat and trousers, a leather cap and red woolen slippers. He was a miserable looking object, and when he saw the Texans approach, he tried to hide himself in the grass. He was soon found, however, and when the Texans asked him who he was he said he was a private soldier.

he is captured;

The Texans then told him to follow them to the camp. And when he said he could not walk he mounted on one of their horses, and, riding behind a Texan, he was led into camp.

 

The Texans had no idea who they had captured until they reached their camp. Then when the Mexican prisoners saw the queer little figure they exclaimed, "The President! the President!" Only then did the Texans discover what a great man they had captured.

 

Houston had been wounded in the battle, and was lying on a mattress under the tree when Santa Anna was led before him.

 

"I am General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna," said the prisoner, "and a prisoner of war at your disposal."

 

Houston looked at him in silence, and then signed him to sit down on a box which stood near. And there under the spreading branches of the tree a truce was arranged, and Santa Anna wrote letters to his generals telling them to cease fighting.

 

The Texans wanted to hang Santa Anna for his cruelties during the war, but Houston saved him from their wrath, and after he had signed a treaty acknowledging the independence of Texas he was set free.

he acknowledges the Independence of Texas

Texas now declared itself a republic, and of this new State General Sam Houston–"Old Sam Jacinto," as he was affectionately nicknamed–was chosen President. The flag chosen for the Republic was blue with a single yellow star in the middle, and from this flag Texas came to be called the Lone Star State.

The Lone Star

The Texans had declared themselves a free and independent nation. But as a republic Texas was very small, and the Texans had no intention of remaining a lonely insignificant republic. What they desired was to join the United States. And very soon they asked to be admitted to the Union.

 

But Texas lay south of the Missouri Compromise line, and although small for an independent republic it was huge for a state, and might be cut up into three or four. Therefore the people in the North were very much against Texas being admitted to the Union as it would increase the strength of the slave states enormously. But the Southerners were determined to have Texas, and at last in 1845 it was admitted as a slave state. The two last states which had been added to the Union, that is, Florida and Texas, were both slave states. But they were soon balanced by two free states, Iowa and Wisconsin.

 

Iowa is an Indian name meaning "Sleepy Ones." The state was called after a tribe of Indians of that name who were there when the Frenchmen first explored the country. It was the first free state to be carved out of the Louisiana Purchase.

Iowa admitted to the Union, 1845

Wisconsin was part of the Northwest Territory and was the last part of it to be organised as a state. Like many other states Wisconsin takes its name from its chief river, which means "Gathering Waters." There are many lead mines in Wisconsin and these had been worked in a poor sort of way by the Indians, and when white people began to work them there was trouble between them and the Redmen.

Wisconsin admitted to the Union, 1846

At different times Red Bird and Black Hawk rose against the whites, but both were defeated. At length the disputes were settled by treaties with the Indians and the land began to be peopled by whites.

 

Wisconsin is often called the Badger State. It got this name not because badgers are to be found there, but because the lead miners, instead of building houses, used to dig out caves in the hillsides and live in them summer and winter. From this they were nicknamed Badgers, and the state became known as the Badger State.

 

Besides Texas, another great territory was added to the States at this time, and another boundary dispute between British America and the United States was settled.

The Oregon country

For many years both Britain and the United States had claimed the Oregon Territory. The Americans claimed it by right of Captain Grey's discovery of the Columbia River, and also by right of the exploration of Lewis and Clark. The British claimed it by right of the discoveries of Sir Alexander Mackenzie, and also on the ground that it had been occupied by Hudson's Bay Company.

Claimed by both British and Americans

Three times attempts had been made to settle the boundary, but each time the attempts had failed. At length the two countries agreed to occupy it jointly. This arrangement was to come to an end by either country giving a year's notice.

 

President Polk's appetite for land was huge. He wanted the whole of Oregon for the United States. So in 1846 the joint agreement came to an end, and new efforts for a final settlement began.

 

Many others were as eager as the President to have the whole of Oregon, and "Fifty-four Forty or Fight" became a battle-cry. Fifty-four Forty was the imaginary line or parallel of latitude on the north of the disputed territory. So that the cry "Fifty-four Forty or Fight" meant that these hotspurs demanded the whole of Oregon or war with Great Britain.

"Fifty-four Forty or Fight"

On the other hand some people thought a ridiculous fuss was being made over an utterly useless piece of land.

 

"What do we want with it?" they said. "What are we to do with it? How could a bit of land five thousand miles away ever become part of the United States? It is absurd!"

 

Steam, said someone, would make it possible. Railways would bring Oregon near to the seat of government.

 

"Steam!" cried the objectors. "Railways across the Rocky Mountains! Rubbish!"

 

The British on their side did not want the whole of Oregon, but they wanted the land as far south as the Columbia River.

 

However in the end both sides gave way a little. It was agreed to halve the country, and the parallel 49 was taken as the boundary. Thus another large territory was added to the States and the northern frontiers peacefully settled from east to west.

A settlement made

But Polk's land hunger was not yet satisfied. He had half of Oregon, he had the whole of Texas, but he wanted more. He wanted California, but California belonged to Mexico. He tried to buy it from Mexico, but Mexico would not sell it. Polk, however, was determined to have it. So determined was he that he made up his mind to fight for it, if there was no other way of getting it.

Polk wants California

It was easy to find an excuse for war. The boundaries of Texas were very uncertain, and a tract of land lying east of the Rio Grande River was claimed by both Texas and by Mexico. In 1846 Polk sent an army to take possession of this land.

 

General Zachary Taylor was in command of this expedition. And when he arrived near the mouth of the Rio Grande and began to build a fort the Mexicans were very angry. They sent him a message ordering him to be gone in twenty-four hours.

General Zachary Taylor, 1784-1850

Of course Taylor refused to go, and he began to blockade the river, so as to stop trade with Mexico.

 

The Mexicans then made ready to fight, and next morning they attacked and captured a scouting party of Americans.

Blood shed

When the news reached Washington there was great excitement. "Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States," declared the President, "has invaded our territory, and shed American blood on American soil."

 

"War exists," he said, "notwithstanding all our efforts to avoid it, exists by the act of Mexico herself."

 

Some of the people, however, did not believe that Mexico was wholly to blame for beginning the war. And a young Congressman named Abraham Lincoln asked the President to state the exact spot on American territory where American blood had been spilled. This was called the "Spot resolution."

Abraham Lincoln, 1819-65

The Spot resolution

But in spite of any protest that was made war was declared, and volunteers came pouring in from every side.

war declared

The war lasted for a year and a half, and from the first the Mexicans had the worst of it. Throughout the whole war they never won a battle. Besides General Taylor's army the Mexicans soon had two more to fight. In the north General Kearney marched into New Mexico and took possession of it in the name of the United States. Then he marched into California and claimed that also. In the south the Commander-in-Chief, General Scott, landed at Vera Cruz. And after taking the town he marched triumphantly on, conquering everything on his way till he reached Mexico City, and the war was practically at an end.

 

It was not, however, until February of the following year that the treaty of peace was signed in Mexico and not till the 4th of July was it proclaimed in Washington. By it a great tract of land was given to the United States, stretching from the borders of Texas to the shores of the Pacific and from the present northern border of Mexico to Oregon.

Treaty of Peace, Feb. 2nd, 1848

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom