The Gadsden Purchase

U.S. Minister to Mexico James Gadsden, and three envoys of the President of Mexico General Antonio López de Santa Anna Pérez de Lebrón, signed the Gadsden Purchase, or Gadsden Treaty, in Mexico City on December 30, 1853. Santa Anna needed money to help defray expenses caused by the Mexican War and ongoing rebellions, so he sold land to the United States. The treaty, amended and finally approved by the U.S. Senate on April 25, 1854, settled the dispute over the exact location of the Mexican border west of El Paso, Texas, giving the U.S. claim to some 29,600 square miles of land, ultimately for the price of $10 million. The land is what is now southern New Mexico and Arizona.

The Cathedral, City of Mexico. William Henry Jackson, photographer, between 1884-1900. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division
General D. Antonio Lopez de Santa-Anna, President of the Republic of Mexico. c1847. Popular Graphic Arts. Prints & Photographs Division

U.S. President Franklin Pierce, influenced by Gadsden’s friend, Jefferson Davis, sent Gadsden to negotiate with Santa Anna for this tract of land. Many supporters of a southern Pacific railroad route, including Davis, believed that a transcontinental route which stretched through this territory would greatly benefit southern states should hostilities break out with the north.

The first transcontinental railroad was, however, constructed along a more northerly route by the “big four” of western railroad construction—Collis P. Huntington, Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker. A southern transcontinental route through territory acquired by the Gadsden Purchase was not a reality until 1881 when the tracks of the “big four’s” Southern Pacific met those of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe in the Territory of New Mexico.

Southern Pacific Railroad Transfer Boat Carrier, New Orleans, La. [between 1905-1915]. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division

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John Peter Altgeld

Turn-of-the-century progressive reformer John Peter Altgeld was born in Germany on December 30, 1847. Despite his humble origins and a father who saw no benefit in education, Altgeld read law and was admitted to the bar in Anderson County, Missouri. There, he committed himself to politics and served as city attorney of Savannah, Missouri (1872-73) and county prosecutor (1874-75). Altgeld moved to Chicago in 1875 and continued his legal and political career, next getting elected to the Cook County Superior Court (1886-91). He won the Democratic Party’s nomination for governor in 1892.

Portrait of John P. AltgeldExternal. J. Schloss, photographer, ca. 1893. Haymarket Affair Digital Collection. Chicago Historical Society

As governor, Altgeld made improvements in state institutions and passed reforms in the penal and legal systems, as well as in early child and women’s labor legislation. However, he is most famous for his June 1893 pardon of the three surviving bombers involved in the May 1886 Haymarket Riot, a labor protest in support of the eight-hour day. The protest had escalated into a violent confrontation in which seven policemen were killed. Altgeld, whose law partner was Clarence Darrow, argued that the trial had been unfair because the judge was prejudiced and the jury stacked.

Parade Banner of Veterans of the Haymarket RiotExternal. Police Department Veterans of the Haymarket Riot, ca. 1895. Haymarket Affair Digital Collection. Chicago Historical Society

A year later, in May 1894, Altgeld refused to order the militia to intervene in the Pullman railroad strike when the American Railway Union protested a reduction in salary without an accompanying reduction in the cost of company-owned housing and other expenses. Ultimately, President Grover Cleveland sent federal troops to Chicago to suppress the strike, exercising his authority to protect mail and interstate commerce. Altgeld’s Progressive Era-legislation and commitment to the laboring classes made him a hero to activists, workers, and farmers, and an enemy of big business.

Using income derived from his legal work, Altgeld had successfully amassed a small fortune by investing in real estate and construction in Chicago in the second half of the nineteenth century. However, he suffered financial disaster in the late nineteenth century and lost almost his entire estate in 1900.

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