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History minute: How Ambrose Sevier helped to broker peace at the border

October 13, 2021 at 12:00 a.m.

The Mexican War was fought between the United States and Mexico from 1846 to 1848. The war was short, fierce and bloody. At the end, it was an Arkansan, Ambrose Sevier, who helped broker the peace between the United States and Mexico.

Ambrose Sevier was born in 1801 in eastern Tennessee and arrived in Little Rock in 1821. He rose quickly in Arkansas politics, serving as a legislator, Speaker of the House and as the territorial delegate to Congress. He was the state's first U.S. Senator, beginning in 1836.

America was looking westward by the 1840s, anxious to spread from sea to shining sea. Mexico was a newly independent nation also looking to the future. For years, settlers had streamed into Texas, which was part of Mexico until it won its independence in 1836. Many settlers had moved along the Southwest Trail across Arkansas, which extended from the northeastern part of the state to what was then the Mexican border at the southwest corner of Arkansas.

When Texas was admitted into the Union in 1845, it claimed its border at the Rio Grande, which included all territory north of the river to the border with the United States. Mexico claimed that as a province, the border of Texas lay only at the Nueces River. So the hundreds of square miles of territory between what is now Corpus Christi and Brownsville, western Texas, and eastern New Mexico became the focus of an explosive border dispute between the two nations.

The fuse was lit in May 1846 at Rancho Carricitos just north of the Rio Grande as Mexican troops skirmished with American troops, leaving ten Americans dead. President James K. Polk declared the incident a provocation, and Congress declared war on Mexico. Sevier supported the war.

Tens of thousands of volunteers surged forward to enlist in the army, including Arkansas's lone congressman, Archibald Yell. Americans charged into Mexico, and by September 1847, they were marching on Mexico City. Military historians estimate that more than 1,700 American troops died in battle, while nearly ten times as many Mexican troops perished in the struggle.

Though some Democrats called for the total annexation of Mexico, many opposition Whigs opposed the entire war and the addition of any land. By February 1848, America signed a tentative peace treaty with Mexico, the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, but many details remained and the Senate still had to approve it.

In March, President Polk appointed Sevier and Attorney General Nathan Clifford as ambassadors to Mexico to oversee the last details of the treaty. Questions loomed over the final border and the status of Mexican citizens living in territory won by the U.S. Mexico gave up its claims on Texas, the border was set at the Rio Grande, and the U.S. gained lands from New Mexico to California, for which the U.S. would pay $10 million. Pre-existing land claims were respected under the treaty, and Mexican landowners would be given the opportunity to become American citizens.

Sevier helped negotiate further guarantees for landholders and helped convince the Senate to ratify the treaty. In the end, the United States gained what is now roughly the modern Southwest, nearly one-quarter of what would become the Lower 48 states.

The events of that year would have a profound impact on Arkansas and the nation as a whole. In the coming years, America struggled with questions over how to organize the new territory as the slavery question lay in the balance.

Sevier did not live long to help nurture the new peace. Weakened by the frantic pace of the previous months, he died at his home on New Years Eve 1848 at the age of 47.

With the loss of Yell in battle and the unrelated death of Sen. Chester Ashley, the state's other Senator that year, Arkansas politics would be transformed.

Dr. Ken Bridges is a professor of history and geography at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado and a resident historian for the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society. Bridges can be reached by email at [email protected] southark.edu.

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