Gadsden Purchase Completes the U.S.-Mexican Border Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The U.S. purchase of what became the southern parts of the states of New Mexico and Arizona resolved festering problems in U.S.-Mexican relations and completed the acquisition of all the territory that would eventually constitute the continental United States.

Summary of Event

In 1853, newly elected president Franklin Pierce appointed James Gadsden of Charleston, South Carolina, as minister to Mexico. Along with other diplomatic duties, Gadsden’s immediate task was to negotiate a new treaty with Mexico, which the United States had defeated in the Mexican War only five years earlier. The need for such an arrangement had grown out of imperfections and conflicting interpretations of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo Guadalupe Hidalgo, Treaty of (1848);and Gadsden Purchase[Gadsden Purchase] , which had formally ended the Mexican War. These problems had severely strained U.S.-Mexican relations, seriously threatening the peace between the two countries. Gadsden Purchase (1853) Mexico;Gadsden Purchase (1853) Mexico;and United States[United States] Borders, U.S.;with Mexico[Mexico] Gadsden, James Arizona;Gadsden Purchase New Mexico;Gadsden Purchase Railroads;and Gadsden Purchase[Gadsden Purchase] [kw]Gadsden Purchase Completes the U.S.-Mexican Border (Dec. 31, 1853) [kw]Purchase Completes the U.S.-Mexican Border, Gadsden (Dec. 31, 1853) [kw]Completes the U.S.-Mexican Border, Gadsden Purchase (Dec. 31, 1853) [kw]U.S.-Mexican Border, Gadsden Purchase Completes the (Dec. 31, 1853) [kw]Mexican Border, Gadsden Purchase Completes the U.S.- (Dec. 31, 1853) [kw]Border, Gadsden Purchase Completes the U.S.-Mexican (Dec. 31, 1853) Gadsden Purchase (1853) Mexico;Gadsden Purchase (1853) Mexico;and United States[United States] Borders, U.S.;with Mexico[Mexico] Gadsden, James Arizona;Gadsden Purchase New Mexico;Gadsden Purchase Railroads;and Gadsden Purchase[Gadsden Purchase] [g]United States;Dec. 31, 1853: Gadsden Purchase Completes the U.S.-Mexican Border[2960] [g]Central America and the Caribbean;Dec. 31, 1853: Gadsden Purchase Completes the U.S.-Mexican Border[2960] [g]Mexico;Dec. 31, 1853: Gadsden Purchase Completes the U.S.-Mexican Border[2960] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;Dec. 31, 1853: Gadsden Purchase Completes the U.S.-Mexican Border[2960] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Dec. 31, 1853: Gadsden Purchase Completes the U.S.-Mexican Border[2960] Pierce, Franklin [p]Pierce, Franklin;and Gadsden Purchase[Gadsden Purchase] Marcy, WilliamL. Davis, Jefferson [p]Davis, Jefferson;and Gadsden Purchase[Gadsden Purchase] Bonilla, Manuel Diez de Santa Anna, Antonio López de

The major objective in Gadsden’s mission, however, was acquisition of a land cession from Mexico. The United States desired territory to resolve a potentially explosive dispute arising from the failure of the Mexican-American Boundary Commission to mark satisfactorily the southwestern boundary between the two countries along the Rio Grande Rio Grande after the Mexican War. The disagreement over the border threatened peaceful relations among the mixed Anglo-American and Mexican peoples living in and around the border area of the Mesilla River Valley. Even more important to Gadsden’s quest was his goal to acquire enough additional Mexican territory to facilitate constructing a transcontinental railroad through the Gila River Valley. This was the long-talked-about extreme southern route favored by many prominent southerners.

President Franklin Pierce.

(Library of Congress)

In many ways, there was no person better fitted for these diplomatic tasks than Gadsden. Gadsden was not an experienced diplomat, but his diverse background had provided him with abilities adequate for the post. His career included military service as a close adviser to former president Andrew Jackson, minor political offices in Florida’s territorial government, and an extensive business background as president of the Charleston Railroad Company. He was not widely known outside his native southern soil, but he was a close acquaintance of Secretary of War Jefferson Davis Davis, Jefferson [p]Davis, Jefferson;and Gadsden Purchase[Gadsden Purchase] , the Mississippi states’ rights leader and perhaps Pierce’s Pierce, Franklin [p]Pierce, Franklin;and Gadsden Purchase[Gadsden Purchase] most influential adviser. Davis and Gadsden shared similar political views: They both supported the expansion of slavery into the western territories of the United States, and both were southern nationalists. Moreover, Gadsden owed his diplomatic appointment to Davis’s influence.

Perhaps the major factor in Davis’s recommendation of Gadsden resulted from their mutual interest in the development of southern railroads. From his position as president of the Charleston Railroad Company, Gadsden had become, by 1850, perhaps the most conspicuous champion of southern railroads and was instrumental in promoting virtually every contemporary railroading venture in the region. Like many railroad supporters of the antebellum period, Davis and Gadsden increasingly came to see the economic and military value of a railroad connecting the two coasts. Such a road would facilitate better defense of the Pacific settlements, but just as important, it would advance the commercial interests of the nation, providing an opportunity to develop better trade and commerce with the Far East.

The Gadsden Purchase Territory





Both Davis Davis, Jefferson [p]Davis, Jefferson;and Gadsden Purchase[Gadsden Purchase] and Gadsden had long believed that the best route for the nation’s proposed transcontinental railroad lay in the South, but their views were not shared by all Pacific railroad enthusiasts. After the end of the Mexican War and the acquisition of California, California;railroads the question of building a transcontinental railroad was one of the nation’s major political and economic issues, one that divided the country along sectional lines. Several feasible routes came under discussion, including a northern route that proposed cities such as Milwaukee or Chicago as the eastern terminals, and a southern route with Mississippi River cities St. Louis St. Louis, Missouri[Saint Louis, Missouri];and railroads[Railroads] , Memphis, Vicksburg, and New Orleans all vying for contention. The terrain and natural barriers might present special engineering and construction problems in some regions, but each route had its champions—people who understood the potential economic benefits that would accrue to proposed eastern terminus cities and the geographical section through which the road would run.

Gadsden advocated a southern route, with Memphis as the eastern terminus on the Mississippi River. Traversing the countryside along the thirty-second parallel through El Paso, Texas, Texas;railroads and the Gila River Valley of northern Mexico, this route had some advantages over its rivals. In particular, Gadsden and his supporters talked about the proposed southern route’s shorter distance to the West Coast, its year-round temperate climate, and its relative lack of formidable natural obstacles that could impede track construction. As secretary of war, Davis sanctioned the thirty-second-parallel route as the most practicable and economical location for the railroad. All that was needed to give the extreme southern route the best chance of being adopted was U.S. ownership of the route’s entire right-of-way.

Gadsden was instructed not only to resolve the southern boundary dispute but also to purchase a sufficient amount of land to facilitate the southern route. Exactly how much land was sufficient and what price the United States was willing to pay for it were not clear, but Secretary of State William Marcy Marcy, William L. thought Gadsden could make the purchase for a moderate cost because the barren region was of little value for anything other than a railroad line.

Mexican leaders did not entirely share the U.S. view about the land in question. Since the end of the Mexican War, Mexico’s attitudes toward its northern neighbor had been marked not only by hostility but also, more significantly, by an inclination to be suspicious of the territorial designs of the United States. In the United States, southern expansionists, desiring to increase slave-holding territory, were noticeably evident; this presence made Mexico, already victimized by U.S. imperialism, even more apprehensive. In the United States, the notion of “manifest destiny” Manifest destiny;and Mexico[Mexico] had lost little of its luster, and Mexican officials realized that.

Despite Mexican fears, Gadsden believed that a satisfactory treaty could be obtained. If the United States were willing to pay liberally, he said, an agreement embracing all of the administration’s objectives, not just a land purchase, could be achieved. The fact that General Antonio López de Santa Anna Santa Anna, Antonio López de , Mexico’s president, was governing a country in a desperate financial condition made Gadsden more optimistic. Justifying his actions on the grounds that the United States needed a more defensible natural boundary separating the two nations, Gadsden actually pursued a course of territorial acquisition that far exceeded the U.S. need to adjust the boundary and to acquire the coveted railroad route.

Gadsden sought to purchase, for fifty million U.S. dollars, 250,000 square miles of Mexican territory, an amount that certainly would have been consistent with the wishes of Jefferson Davis Davis, Jefferson [p]Davis, Jefferson;and Gadsden Purchase[Gadsden Purchase] and others who were interested in the expansion of slavery. However, Santa Anna Santa Anna, Antonio López de remained adamantly opposed to both Gadsden’s personal territorial desires and all but the most minimal demands later advanced by the Pierce administration. The Mexican people were unwilling to see any further unnecessary dismemberment of their country and would tolerate selling only enough land to satisfy the most limited U.S. goals.

Complicated by a web of intrigue, chicanery, and blusterism, negotiations ensued for several months. The three-man Mexican negotiating team headed by Minister of Foreign Relations Manuel Diez de Bonilla Bonilla, Manuel Diez de proved equal to its task. Gadsden failed to achieve all that either he or the administration sought. Especially disappointing to him was his inability to purchase two or more border states in order to achieve the desired natural boundary between the two countries.

Nevertheless, on December 31, 1853, Gadsden and the other plenipotentiaries assembled at the American Legation Headquarters, where they signed what was to be referred to in the United States as the Gadsden Treaty. The purchase area agreed to in the treaty consisted of 55,000 square miles of territory in what would become the southern parts of New Mexico and Arizona. Domestic politics, largely influenced by the sectional issue of slavery, later caused Congress to reduce the cession by approximately 9,000 square miles. The final price tag for the lands covered in the treaty was $10 million.


Although Gadsden had failed to accomplish all that either he or the administration had hoped, most people in the United States had reasons to be pleased with the treaty’s provisions. The agreement had resolved all the immediate and potentially dangerous issues with Mexico and thus preserved peaceful relations. It also provided for the acquisition of the much-coveted southern route for the Pacific railroad, although because of the regional rivalry, many regarded this feature to be of minimal value. Article VII granted U.S. citizenship Citizenship, U.S.;and Gadsden Purchase[Gadsden Purchase] with full constitutional rights to the Mexicans living in the ceded territories and guaranteed them ownership of their land—although the courts and Congress allowed government agencies, ranchers, land speculators, and the railroad magnates to take possession of much of their acreage. Apart from the purchase of Alaska;purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867 and the annexation of Hawaii Hawaii;annexation of in 1898, the Gadsden land cession constituted the last major acquisition of territory within the present-day continental boundaries of the United States.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davis, William C. Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour. New York: HarperPerennial, 1991. Contains some material on Davis’s relationship with Gadsden and the treaty.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Devine, David. Slavery, Scandal and Steel Rails: The 1854 Gadsden Purchase and the Building of the Second Transcontinental Railroad Across Arizona and New Mexico Twenty-Five Years Later. Lincoln, Nebr.: iUniverse, 2004. Study of how Gadsden advocated the need for a southern cross-country railroad that explains his role in acquiring land from Mexico to construct the route and shows what happened afterward.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fogel, Robert W. Railroads and American Economic Growth. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1964. Good introduction to the important issue of railroading in the antebellum period and its role in the expansion of the nation’s economy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Garber, Paul Neff. The Gadsden Treaty. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1959. Although dated in many ways, this work remains the most comprehensive published study of all aspects of the Gadsden purchase.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Potter, David M. The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861. New York: Harper & Row, 1976. This book is primarily an account of the sectional crisis of the antebellum period, but it also provides insights into the role of Gadsden’s treaty in the controversy.

Louisiana Purchase

Burr’s Conspiracy

Mexican War of Independence

Mexican War

United States Occupies California and the Southwest

Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo Ends Mexican War

Pacific Railroad Surveys

Lincoln Signs the Homestead Act

Russia Sells Alaska to the United States

Hawaii’s Last Monarch Abdicates

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Jefferson Davis; James Gadsden; Franklin Pierce; Antonio López de Santa Anna. Gadsden Purchase (1853) Mexico;Gadsden Purchase (1853) Mexico;and United States[United States] Borders, U.S.;with Mexico[Mexico] Gadsden, James Arizona;Gadsden Purchase New Mexico;Gadsden Purchase Railroads;and Gadsden Purchase[Gadsden Purchase]

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