Excerpt: 'Line In The Sand'  

Excerpt: 'Line In The Sand'

Line In The Sand book
A Line In The Sand: A History of the Western U.S. - Mexico Border
By Rachel St. John
Hardcover, 304 pages
Princeton University Press
List Price: $29.95

Chapter One: A New Map for North America: Defining the Border

... the joint commission set out in 1849 to undertake an arduous task that would have challenged even the most well equipped nineteenth-century surveyors. Transportation difficulties, unforgiving terrain, extreme weather, inaccurate information, political challenges, and Native people who rejected their sovereign presumptions created an imposing obstacle course for the boundary commission. The problems they confronted would threaten their work and their lives, but perhaps most importantly would prove how little control the United States and Mexico actually exercised over the land they had fought so hard to possess.

The trouble started even before the commission met for the first time. Its members found themselves en route to San Diego just as the California gold rush got underway in the spring of 1849. Traveling via the Isthmus of Panama, the first U.S. commissioner, John B. Weller, became caught up in a swell of forty-niners who strained transportation and lodging facilities and left Weller and his party sweltering in Panama for two months before they were able to book passage to San Diego. The Mexican commission also experienced delays on its two-and-a-half-month journey from Mexico City to San Diego. Despite treaty stipulations requiring the work to commence no later than May 30, 1849, the commission did not even meet in San Diego until early July.

Traveling did not get any easier once the commission reached land. Upon finally beginning work in July, Weller dispatched a surveying party led by Lieutenant Amiel Whipple to survey the confluence of the Gila and Colorado rivers. This stage of the boundary survey took the commission into a landscape of rocky passes, extreme temperatures, and little water. Leaving the coast, the new boundary line between California and Baja California cut through the rugged mountains of the Peninsular Range, reaching heights of more than 3,000 feet before dropping below sea level into the western edge of the Sonoran Desert. As Whipple's company skirted the mountains, following a wagon road used by U.S. troops during the war and now rapidly filling with immigrants en route to the gold fields, they faced flash floods, temperatures over one hundred degrees, and long stretches devoid of water or forage. While in his own account Whipple was stoic, the commander of the army escort, Lieutenant Cave J. Couts, mocked Whipple's lack of preparation. "[Whipple] finds himself in a terrible stew because I am going to march over the desert by night," he wrote. "Washington City dandies with white kid gloves, etc., don't like roughing it any more than having to get up early in the morning, saying nothing of losing a night's sleep."

Confronted with these environmental challenges, the boundary commissioners scaled back their plans for the demarcation of the line. Weller and Garcia Conde concluded that the arid and mountainous border between California and Baja California could never be settled and thus required no more than seven boundary markers. Yet determining even these few points was not the simple task that the treaty makers had foreseen. Surveyors Gray and Salazar Ylarregui discovered that a discrepancy between Don Juan Pantoja's 1782 map of San Diego Harbor on which the treaty was based and the current shape of the harbor necessitated a lengthy survey of the bay before they could determine the initial point. It was not until five months after arriving in San Diego that they accomplished this task.

As these struggles suggested, the treaty writers' selection of geographic points that they perceived to be both natural and known did not make it easier to locate them on the ground, and in fact posed unexpected challenges to the surveyors. U.S. secretary of state James Buchanan's assumption that "the middle of the Rio Gila, where it unites with the Colorado, being a natural object, there can be but little difficulty in ascertaining this point" proved to be decidedly wrong. Rather than "distinctly marked," the location of the middle, or even the main channel, of the Gila was difficult to determine. The center of the Gila, dependent as it was on the river's flow, was not constant. With the river's banks eroding continuously, Gray explained, "The middle, therefore, to-day, may not be the same as yesterday."

The difficulty in locating these few strategic points was so time consuming that the commission, despite the protests of both surveyors, failed to mark all of the seven designated points before they suspended their work in the spring of 1850. With the U.S. commissioner deeply in debt, having exhausted his $50,000 budget in just a few months, and with both commissioners wary of crossing the desert, Weller and Garcia Conde decided to begin the next stage of the survey from El Paso the following November. When they adjourned, the commission had only completely surveyed and marked the initial point south of San Diego Bay and the confluence of the Gila and Colorado Rivers. Far from a boundary, what the joint commission had begun to stake out was a dotted line, a few clearly defined points that suggested, but did not delineate, a legible border.

Excerpted from Line in the Sand: A History of the Western U.S.-Mexico Border by Rachel St. John. Copyright 2011 Rachel St. John. Reprinted with permission of Princeton University Press.

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Line In The Sand: A History of the Western U.S. - Mexico Border
Rachel St. John

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