New Mexico Was Never Part of Texas
Growing up in New Mexico I took my identity rather for granted. My food was New Mexican, beans and squash and corn and deep fried sopapillas dripping in red and green chile. My family was New Mexican, descendants of Spanish colonists tracking back to the late 16th century who settled along the bosque of the Rio Grande before British settlers had set roots in Massachusetts or Virginia.
The woven blend of cultures in New Mexico were especially evident in my hometown of Taos. In summers we celebrated the 4th of July with fireworks and star spangled flags, Las Fiestas de Don Fernando de Taos with Spanish music and flair, and the harvest celebrations of San Geronimo Day with traditional dances and pole climbing at the Taos Pueblo. My father, a history professor at the University of New Mexico-Taos, was proud to point out our deep roots in the region spanned Native history, Spanish governance, Mexican revolution, and eventually American statehood.
So imagine my surprise when I came across variations of a map that showed a very different world. These maps purported to display the boundaries of the Republic and State of Texas in and around the years 1836 through 1850. And the boundaries indicated everything east of the Rio Grande in modern day New Mexico, including the cities of Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Taos, were all once part of Texas.
Had we once been part of Texas? I inquired on the issue with my father and he listed a few points to put my confusion at ease.
First, New Mexico had never been under the military or legal control of the Republic or State of Texas.
Second, the flag of Texas, Republic or State, had never flown over any part of present day of New Mexico.
Third, no resident occupying New Mexico between the years of 1836 to 1848 would consider themselves within Texas sovereignty. Most residents at the time would probably not even know where Texas was, or had ever met a Texan. Residents of Nuevo Mexico paid their taxes to the Mexican government and were governed by officials appointed from Mexico City.
Those points left me more frustrated than placated. If they were true then the maps I saw were wrong, or at least misleading. What grated me the most was how it impacted my own sense of self. Texans, as anyone who has encountered a native of the state may know, are a proud, boastful bunch with their own distinctive culture that had little relation to my own. This felt like a foray into something they did not own, the more modest, rustic New Mexico world I had grown up in. So I set out to find out the true story behind the map.
To understand this map, what it represented, and how it has persisted through the last century required taking a step back and learning the history of another far flung part of the Spanish Empire, the colonial province of Tejas.
Texas, as it is better known, was located several hundred miles southeast of La Ciudad de El Paso, the most southern city in Nuevo Mexico. It was claimed by the Spanish Empire in the 16th century, but overshadowed for investment by far more financially lucrative regions across Central and South America.
It took a century for the Spanish to begin settling missions across the region, primarily to counter French and British interests encroaching in from the east. The early Texas settlements were fruitless things, harangued by the Natives of the region and rife with disease and poverty. After several failed ventures the first successful settlement of San Antonio de Béxar was founded in 1718. Even then it remained painfully poor, failing to attract much in the way of settlement and in constant fear of raids from nomadic tribes.
In 1762 the French sold their interest in the region to the Spanish in the form of French Louisiana. For the next four decades the Spanish took control of the Mississippi valley , including the crown jewel of New Orleans. Texas, which had existed as a buffer region, found itself overshadowed by the new territory further to the east and many settlements were disbanded or relocated to San Antonio.
French Louisiana eventually returned to France in 1799, who promptly re-sold it to the fledgling United States of America in 1803 in one of the most notable land purchases in history. The Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the new nation, and Spain now had an aggressively expanding neighbor at their doorstop.
In 1819 the Spanish negotiated the Adams–Onís Treaty to clarify disputes on the borders of the purchase, trading their claim to Florida to re-take full control of the regions in modern day New Mexico and Colorado.
The Spanish had just enough time for the Treaty to vest before promptly losing control of the entire territory during the War of Mexican Independence in 1821. The new nation of Mexico laid claim to all the northern territory of it’s Spanish predecessor, including New Mexico and Texas.
Coahuila y Tejas, as it was named under Mexican rule, saw a reversal in immigration policies. The Spanish, ever concerned by imperial expansion by neighbors, had stringent policies preventing settlement by Anglo Americans. The Mexicans, more fearful of the continuing incursions of powerful nomadic tribes such as the Comanche and Apache, loosened immigration restrictions to allow Anglo Americans to settle across the region and serve as a human buffer against raids deeper into Mexican territory.
Americans proceeded to flood into Texas through the 1830’s, quickly outnumbering the original Mexican settlers. The American immigrants brought an energy to the region it had never known under Spanish rule, building new towns and proving to be formidable fighters against the nomadic raiders. It was not long before Mexican officials began to question if the immigrants were a prelude to permanent annexation by the United States.
It was in this tumultuous period that the Republic of Texas was born. The United States saw a number of filibuster expeditions this era, military minded southerns adventuring into former Spanish territories trying to take hold and mold them into Republics under Anglo American leadership. Texas, due to close proximity, was always the most likely of the group to succeed.
The territory teetered through the 1830’s as skirmishes between the white immigrants and Mexican authorities grew more consistent. Mexico stepped up military presence in the region, which further increased tensions until the full outbreak of the Texas Revolution in 1835. Mexican President and General Santa Anna himself rode north to lead the Mexican military effort to suppress the rebellion in 1836 (including the famous Battle of the Alamo), and in the same year the Texan rebels officially declared their independence to establish a government under the Republic of Texas.
The original territorial boundaries of the Republic of Texas mirror closely to what is now south and eastern Texas. The ambitions of the new nation did not stop there however. The Congress of the Republic of Texas contained many strong advocates for further expansion of the state all the way to California, led primarily by the third president of the nation Mirabeau B. Lamar.
In 1841 Lamar funded the ill fated Texan-Santa Fe Expedition, a direct attempt to invade New Mexico. A hodgepodge group of 320 government commissioners, traders, and armed adventurers crossed the sun burnt plains of the Comanchería of modern north Texas and eastern New Mexico. The expedition was an abject failure, losing men to poor logistical planning and sporadic Native attacks on the group. Expecting a warm welcome from the locals, the survivors were instead clamped into chains by the waiting Mexican military and marched 2,000 miles to Mexico City, where they were eventually sent released due to diplomatic efforts from the United States.
The Texans didn’t have to wait long for a second chance to make claims to New Mexico. The 1840’s were the start of the final major territorial shifts in the region that would last to the modern day.
Meanwhile, in New Mexico.
While New Mexico and Texas had little direct interaction before the 1841 Texan-Santa Fe Expedition, the two shared similar histories before the Mexican period. Both were poor, sparsely populated provinces of Spain in the New World, contributing little to the coffers of the Spanish King but serving as buffers against other European incursions in North America.
If anything New Mexico was initially the more promising territory, settled in 1598 by the Oñate Expedition (including my maternal ancestor) and buoyed by neighboring Pueblo Native American tribes who had numerous towns dotting the green belt of the Rio Grande. The Pueblo Natives, in their large adobe brick houses, were one of the few permanently settled peoples north of the Rio Grande, and the Spanish were nearly entirely reliant on them for their early survival. The relationship between the groups worsened over the 17th century, and the Pueblo tribes united in 1680 to destroy the fledgling Spanish settlements and cast the survivors all the way down to El Paso.
In 1692 the Spanish returned during their Reconquista under the leadership of Don Diego de Vargas with descendants of the original settlers and new recruits from Mexico (including my paternal ancestor) and re-occupied much of the region. The territory grew over the 18th century but never found the ability to support a large population of settlers. Those that did settle in Nuevo Mexico during this time lived an isolated life on the edge of western European civilization, thousands of miles from the larger cities of central Mexico and surrounded by even greater distances of unknown land entirely inhabited by Native peoples.
Life in New Mexico was thus quietly provincial up through the 1840’s. The Spanish settlers and Pueblo Natives began to form a distinct culture distinct from the heartland of the Empire to the south. Some French traders did slip through in the the 1700s from the Mississippi regions, as did later American traders from Missouri who established the famous Santa Fe Trail, contributing to the unique culture of the otherwise isolated region.
Outside of the failed Texan-Santa Fe Expedition in 1841 there was little in the way of communication between New Mexico and Texas. The vast steppes between the two areas were ruled by the Comanche and Apache, the two had separate local governments, and the political current of both regions ran through Mexico City rather than directly to each other. Republic of Texas President Lamar did attempt overtures to Santa Fe to stir up potential unrest and revolution, but these fell on deaf ears as governors of the region remained staunchly loyal to Mexico. Texas, and the Americans, would need to find a different way to take the territory.
The Mexican-American War
President James K. Polk wanted a war with Mexico.
A passionate adherent of American Manifest Destiny, the belief that America had the moral agency to expand westward and control both Pacific and Atlantic coasts of the North American continent, he saw the Republic of Texas as another opportunity to continue territorial expansion against the last adversary in the region — Mexico. First he had to sell the skeptical American people on the war. And the match to light that fire lay with the Republic of Texas.
Though Texas had never received recognition as an independent nation from Mexico, it functioned as one from 1836–1845 and was recognized by other powerful nations, including the United States. In 1845 President Polk took office and immediately attempted to purchase both California and New Mexico from Mexico. As part of the agreement he also agreed to formally establish the border between nations as the Rio Grande, which was built on a prior claim by the Texans and the cause of much tension with Mexico.
Back in 1836 the victorious Republic of Texas army forced defeated Mexican President Santa Anna to sign the Treaty of Velasco which required the retreat of his south of the Rio Grande to establish it as the border between the two nations. Santa Anna returned to Mexico City and never ratified the treaty, disputing the Rio Grande referred to was actually the Rio Nueces, which put the considerable land between the rivers in dispute.
The Rio Grande runs north to south from Colorado through New Mexico before curving east toward the Gulf of Mexico. Much of President Lamar’s intrigues were meant to formalize control of all land east and north of the river to the Republic of Texas, doubling the size of the new Republic and swallowing nearly half of New Mexico Territory. Though the Texan Santa Fe expedition failed, Texas maintained it’s claims despite the lack of even a cursory presence in New Mexico to support it’s position.
Such semantics mattered little to President Polk. When Mexico turned down his attempt to purchase the land he shifted his efforts to finalizing the annexation of the Republic to Texas into the United States as a new state. The United States had been attempting such an annexation for years, but the issue of creating a new state was contentious due to the overriding issue of slavery during the era and disputes regarding expansion of the practice into new western territories.
In 1945 the annexation was finally completed. However, due to the ongoing border dispute the exact borders of the new state were deliberately left undefined in the ordinance of annexation. Congress included the language:
“The territory properly included within, and rightfully belonging to the Republic of Texas”, and the new State of Texas is to be formed “subject to the adjustment by this [U.S.] government of all questions of boundary that may arise with other governments.”
President Polk did not believe this was a time for speaking softly however. He remained adamant that the new steward of the region, the United States of America, support the prior claim of the Republic of Texas in full and that border be established to claim all lands east and north of the Rio Grande in the annexation.
And thus, the infamous map based on the Republic of Texas 1836 claim stakes a place in the American historical record:
And it endures, in many maps to this day.
As a reminder, during this period the Texas claim was based on the non-ratified Treaty of Velasco. The Republic of Texas did not have any physical presence in New Mexico in 1845 — not a flag, not a solider, not a governor to be seen. They had no control of the territory in any way that would be recognized as a legitimate sovereign of the region. What they did have was a heavily politicized claim, and the powerful backing of the United States to maintain it even if it was a fiction.
In 1946 President Polk would continue his aggressive stance against Mexico, ordering future president Zachery Taylor to lead his men into the disputed territory between the Rio Nueces and the Rio Grande and establish a fort at the northern mouth of the river. This was an act of aggression Mexico could not abide by, and after early skirmishes the two nations were soon at war.
Concurrently, a separate American collection of military forces moved to occupy distant New Mexico. General Stephen Kearney and a force of 2,500 men marched into New Mexico in the summer of 1846 and swiftly took control of the region. Kearney followed the northern route that originated from Missouri into the state, not Texas. The standing Mexican army fled south and soon New Mexico was under the American flag.
The battle over territorial lines was not over however. The war ended two years later at the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Mexico formally ceded California and New Mexico to the Americans, though it intentionally did not list out the specific land granted as to never formally recognize the Texan original boundary claims above the Rio Grande.
The State of Texas was still eager to press it’s claim to New Mexico even after both were under American control. This was hotly contested in Washington DC, as allowing the claim to proceed would nearly double the size of the state and thereby increase the reach of slavery far west into America. As such, the claim was now less convenient than when the region had been in dispute with Mexico. Polk was also out of office, and political tides were turning in the aftermath of the war as the nation once again found itself grappling with the issue of slavery.
The matter remained unsettled until 1850, when Whig senator Henry Clay and Democratic senator Stephen Douglas brokered a compromise with the support of President Millard Fillmore. The Compromise of 1850 formally resolved the dispute, with Texas surrendering all claims to New Mexico in return for the federal government assuming all standing Texas public debt from when it had been an independent nation. The new map did allow them to creep their border up the Rio Grande and grab one historic part of New Mexico however, snatching the El Paso settlements north of the river while Mexico maintained ownership of the historic city to the south.
And so the two states took their forms that roughly track to the current day. Texas remained a slave state until the conclusion of the American Civil War and New Mexico entered the Union as a free territory. Texas would attempt another ill fated invasion of New Mexico during that Civil War, fighting under the flag of the Confederacy all the way to Pecos before having their supply lines destroyed and their army forced to retreat in defeat.
In the end my ancestors were never Texan in any recognizable way, despite the maps President Polk and Lamar pushed to legitimize their claims for expansion. They were Native, and Spanish, and Mexican, and American of the northern Rio Grande, which ultimately made them and me New Mexican.
Even so, when researching this history I often found myself wondering if the distinctions I searched for really even mattered. Reviewing the maps I found the Spanish and French and Americans all tended to claim massive amounts of territory they had no real presence in just like the Texans had. Those lands were not empty of course, they had other histories long before my European ancestors arrived, with people who would not recognize any of the maps above as being based in reality any more than I recognized the Texas claim.
Worse even were the maps that laid out the slavery disputes of the era, drawing colored lines to distinguish where Americans could be legally owned by other human beings, often missing the messy, shifting battles between.
Most maps are convenient fictions in one way or another. The ones that troubled me as a boy told the story Texas and the advocates of western American expansion wanted to hear. I looked at them and saw another. Maybe that’s the key to all maps in the end. They are telling a story, but it is up to the reader to look deeper and find their own truth within.