CityDig: Border Problems—of the 19th Century

This 1847 Treaty Map depicts Alta California right before it became part of the USA
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In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, we present one of the few historically significant maps of Alta California made during the area’s short-lived, action-packed stint as part of Mexico. When Méjico, as it is shown here, declared independence from Spain in 1821, residents of California did not get the news until the following year. Locals had long been frustrated by the Spanish restrictions on trade, and with the Spanish Navy spread thin enacting the empire’s colonial ambitions, Californios were left feeling unprotected and neglected. They were leaning toward home rule when Mexico took over, quickly secularizing the missions and divvying up land holdings. Mexico handed out more than 650 such land grants and opened up trade with nations all over the world.

Mexican rule, however, proved to be just as unpopular as Spanish rule in the southern portions of Alta California. With the attention of Mexican leaders tied up in factional strife for control of their new republic, Californios took matters into their own hands. When Manuel Micheltorena arrived late in 1842 to take over as governor of Alta California, they revolted, and by 1845 Micheltorena thought it best to head back to his homeland. In the Ciudad de Los Angeles, sentiments were firmly in the Californio corner, despite the fact that the founders of the pueblo were from Sonora in Mexico. Meanwhile, further north in Alta California, a group of American settlers fought against the Mexican government, forming their own republic in the Bear Flag Revolt.

On a national level, U.S. President James K. Polk prompted a quest for land in the West that began with the Mexican-American War, a bloody, two-year affair that ended with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. This map is known as the “Treaty Map” and was used as the official cartographic reference in the negotiations. The treaty was led by the insubordinate diplomat Nicholas Trist, who, in defiance of Polk’s orders to return to Washington, saw to it that Mexico ceded a huge chunk of land—including California, Arizona and parts of Nevada and Utah—to the United States. The treaty was signed February 2, 1848 in Guadalupe Hidalgo, a city north of Mexico City where the government had fled to escape advancing American troops. On his return to the U.S., Trist was promptly fired.

Strangely enough, though, the Americanization of Alta California had begun long before it was part of the United States. The area began as a federal territory formed under the Mexican Constitution in 1824. When restrictions on shipping to the coast were relaxed, large numbers of non-Hispanics headed west. The discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill brought a flood of newcomers by sea from Europe or Asia and by land through westward trails and up through the Mexico seen here on the map. By 1849 over 100,000 new residents had come seeking gold or opportunity, and as more and more gold money flowed eastward, the United States became increasingly interested in the area. In September of 1850, new president Millard Fillmore signed a bill that gave California statehood.

This “Mapa de los Estados Unidos de Méjico” was created by John Disturnell, one of the preeminent cartographers of mid-nineteenth century America. He drew maps of Texas, Mexico, the United States, and the western territories, improving on earlier efforts of the 1820s by employing new printing techniques that allowed for the brilliant color seen here. Disturnell not only created maps but also “emigrant’s guides” that led hopeful pioneers around the new world.

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Los Angeles Public Library map librarian Glen Creason shares a map from the Central Library’s collection at CityThink each week.