Manifest Destiny 

On its 150th anniversary, the original Gadsden Treaty comes to Tucson for exhibition.

It is a relatively small piece of paper, but one with a huge impact on our history. On June 30, 1854, the Gadsden Treaty transferred 29,640 square miles of territory to the United States, making Southern Arizona and New Mexico part of the nation.

To celebrate the 150th anniversary of this transaction, the original treaty is coming to town. At 10 a.m. on Feb. 12, Gov. Janet Napolitano is scheduled to unveil the document at the Gem and Mineral Show at the Tucson Convention Center. From there, it will move to the Arizona Historical Society and serve as the centerpiece of an exhibit that opens on Feb. 17.

"This is our 50th show," says Bob Jones, show chairman for the Gem and Mineral Society, "and when we were planning it, we realized the Gadsden Treaty had been ratified 150 years ago." Pointing out the importance of the treaty to Tucson, Jones adds that it also brought many mineral-rich mines into the United States.

Because of its significance, the society decided to pay to bring the treaty west. Meeting the stringent security requirements of the National Archives in Washington will cost them thousands of dollars.

The treaty itself cost the United States $10 million, and it was negotiated primarily to allow the laying of transcontinental train tracks. Southerners, including railroad executive James Gadsden of South Carolina, who was sent south by President Franklin Pierce in 1853 to improve relations with Mexico while also securing territory below the Gila River for the United States, hoped rails to California would improve the economy of the South. At the same time, they expected the railroad might allow the exportation of slavery to the West Coast, creating two or three more slave states in the region.

That, of course, didn't happen. With construction starting during the Civil War, the first transcontinental railroad was built through northern Utah and Nevada, and it wouldn't be until 1881 that a southern cross-country route was completed.

Another irony of history the Gadsden Treaty represents is that its namesake eventually disowned the document. He had negotiated a $15 million agreement with Mexico that included buying a bigger slice of land for the United States along with several mutually approved bilateral provisions. But the U.S. Senate totally rejected his efforts and completely re-wrote the treaty, imposing harsh U.S. conditions on its militarily weak southern neighbor.

While Mexican dictator Antonio López de Santa Anna was outraged by the changes made by the Senate, he needed the money to pay his army. Plus, he figured if he didn't sell the land, the United States would take it by force anyway. He accepted the deal, but was still driven from power a year later.

Initially, the largest impact of the treaty was on those who lived in the transferred region. The thousands of Native Americans who resided here, along with a several hundred Mexicans, would be switching countries. As some of their relatives now like to say, "We didn't cross the border; the border crossed us."

To explain the history behind the agreement, the Arizona Historical Society exhibit, financed in large part by the Southwestern Foundation for Education and Historical Preservation, will feature the original treaty. But how long it stays in Tucson remains uncertain.

"Its semi-miraculous we got it here," says Tom Peterson, Southern Arizona chapter director for the society, referring to his negotiations with the National Archives. "But it will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the public to see the document."

Among the federal requirements for protecting the treaty is 24-hour security. To pay that expense, the cash-strapped society has asked for donations, and has received a few, including a contribution from the Tucson-Pima County Historical Commission. But it now has only enough money to keep the original document here through mid-March. Once it leaves, it will be replaced by a facsimile.

In addition to the exhibit, the society is also holding a series of Wednesday night lectures on the history behind the Gadsden Treaty and its impacts on Southern Arizona. Beginning Feb. 4, the six talks will look at issues ranging from the various boundary lines contemplated during the negotiations to land fraud which followed the treaty's signing to the Mexican view of the transaction.

This is a considerably different celebration of the treaty than was held in Tucson 50 years ago. Then, to mark the document's centennial, a three-cent stamp was issued, with 500,000 sold on the first day.

Both ceremonies, however, point at just how far the region has come. In 1854, Chicago's Daily Tribune newspaper, while grossly exaggerating the size of the land transfer, said of the treaty and its financial transaction, "Pretty good pay, when it is considered that at least 30,000,000 of acres of the whole (new territory) is as sterile as can be imagined, and not worth that many cents."

More by Dave Devine

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