T is for Treaties, Traditional Arizona, Tucson and a Transcontinental Railroad – The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ratified July 4, 1848 ended the Mexican-American War and transferred almost half the territory of Mexico, Including New Mexico and California, to the US. What most folks don’t know is that the territory gained by the US did not include “Traditional Arizona”, defined as the land south of the Gila River to what is the present US-Mexican border. This land came under American control through the Treaty of Mesilla which resulted in the Gadsden Purchase of that territory in 1854. The land was little more than a desert filled with cactus, sidewinders, scorpions and marauding Apache. It was hardly worth notice until the following decade.
In the run up to the War Between the States on March 28, 1861 a final draft of an ordinance of secession was ratified in Tucson. Arizona organized its first Territorial Government and petitioned the Confederate States of America for admission. Arizona’s first Capital was in Mesilla, most remarkable because that city lies in the present day State of New Mexico. In a bizarre twist of history in which the Southwest imitated the rest of the nation, the current landmass comprising Arizona and New Mexico was divided north and south along the 34th parallel (above right)and not east and west as it is today(below left). War between the Territories raged in this part of the country as it did between the states east of the Mississippi. Rebels established firm control of their territory following the First Battle of Mesilla and on Valentine’s Day 1862, Jeff Davis declared Arizona a Territory of the CSA – more than a year before the US would recognize an Arizona Territory. Confederate troops and not blue clad cavalry first fought the great Apache leader Cochise. Federal forces eventually pushed the Rebels out of Mesilla and the second Capital of Arizona Territory was established, again outside her boundaries, in El Paso, Texas.
So why did anyone care about the cactus and desert countryside of Arizona filled with little water and hostile Apache? It was the Transcontinental Railroad. The Gadsden Purchase had been arranged because all territory north of the strip was covered in mountains thought too difficult to accommodate a railroad line. And the US government wanted a railroad to link California to the East. The Transcontinental Railroad was meant to cross today’s southern New Mexico and Arizona.
With the war the US government abandoned their planned southern route as advances in nitroglycerin blasting made tunneling the Sierra Nevada Mountains possible. But Arizona was the Southerners’ only Link to California and the Pacific, and they desperately fought to keep it. So, the South lost more than the war. The New Orleans to California rail line was lost until 1883 keeping the cotton states from easy access to transcontinental transport and holding back the economic development which fueled northern industrialization. The people of the Southwest lost out as well. The unruly territories of Arizona and New Mexico would not be admitted as states until 1912.
But there was one fantastic benefit from the railroad’s path cutting a swath so far to the north. The ranchers of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona were forced into long cattle drives to get their beef to market and so the iconic character of the American Cowboy riding herd was born. Without the cowboy and the cattle drive it is hard to imagine the Western as we know it in literature and film could ever have developed. The biggest down side of no western literature or film is:
Then what the heck would I write about?