Historical Errors and Omissions

In the new Smithsonian Magazine: “South to the Promised Land,” the “other” Underground Railroad, the one that went overland and across the Rio Grande to Mexico.

Mexico won its independence in 1821. And, fatefully, soon opened its doors to Anglo-American settlers in the northern frontier state of Texas. Some mixed American families—Whites who had freed and sometimes married their slaves—came to the remote lands to ranch, and became stops on that railroad. But most of the new settlers brought slaves, which resulted in confrontations with the Mexican government. In 1824, Mexico banned the importation of slaves. Anglo settlers called for a revolution, and in 1836 won independence from Mexico and wrote slavery into its constitution. The Alamo wasn’t all about freedom, especially for slaves and former slaves.

In 1973, Alvin Josephy published an essay, “The Forked Tongue in U.S. History Books,” in a magazine called Learning: The Magazine for Creative Teaching. This is the place where Josephy explained, with chapter and verse, how American history text books lied about Indians when they didn’t omit them completely.

In a recent family zoom meeting, a brother, two sisters and I tried to remember what we had been taught about American Indians in California schools in the 1950s and 60s. It wasn’t much. Then we talked about California statehood and the treaty of Guadalupe Hildago (1848) that concluded the Mexican American War (1846-48) and led to California statehood in 1859.

More broadly, according to Wiki, the treaty

“gave the United States the Rio Grande as a boundary for Texas, and gave the U.S. ownership of California, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado, as well as an area comprising most of New Mexico, and approximately two-thirds of Arizona. Mexicans in those annexed areas had the choice of relocating within Mexico’s new boundaries or receiving American citizenship with full civil rights.”

This seems like a pretty important chunk of American History. And one would think that four college educated siblings who’d been educated in California’s schools and universities would have stronger recollections of the role of this War and its treaty than we could find in our zoom conversation. That it might warrant at least as much historical attention as the Louisiana Purchase and Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery.

The size of the land transfer is astounding, and thinking of the United States today without those states and parts of states is impossible. Yet the last line in the treaty description above, the one about Mexicans having the choice of “relocating within Mexico’s new boundaries or receiving American citizenship with full civil rights,” might be more illuminating in understanding the border controversies that are with us today.

I wonder how many Americans today understand that many “Mexican-American” citizens have lived in the United States for generations, that their ancestors were here long before many or most of the Germans, Swedes, and Italians who are responsible for the rest of us being citizens of the United States.

And while speaking of citizenship, the border skirmishes with tribes fighting for land and their own independence in the 1830s and 40s, that were supposed to have been halted by the 1846 War, continued through the period that we now call the “Indian Wars.” Indians, Native Americans, did not become citizens of the Nation that grew in their lands until 1923. This story too, as Alvin Josephy explained in his 1973 article, was not, and as far as I know is still not, part of the standard American textbook history.

That history follows Jefferson, Lewis and Clark, Marcus Whitman, the Oregon Trail, the Gold Rush, and the flurry of new states across the continent. Manifest Destiny marched north of Mexico and enfolded the Southwest as it marched—White, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant, to the Pacific. Mexicans, Indians, Black slaves escaping to Mexico—and Catholics—were mere blips and hurdles along the way.

# # #

Leave a Reply