Gadsden Purchase

The acquisition of this territory was essential for the construction of a southern transcontinental railroad, eventually built by the Southern Pacific during the early 1880’s. It is also a land rich in copper and valuable for agriculture and grazing.

The United States emerged from the Mexican War (1846-1848) with an additional one-half million square miles of territory containing excellent ports on the Pacific Ocean and tremendous mineral resources. Entrepreneurs in all sections of the nation saw the promise and viability of transcontinental railroads. It was also in the national interest to tie together the vast regions of the country. Proponents of these railroads competed to establish the eastern terminus at Chicago, St. Louis, or New Orleans.Gadsden Purchase

Advocates of the southern route had an advantage during the early 1850’s in that most of the route lay in organized territories and states. It also avoided extremely rugged mountain ranges and brutal winter weather. When the surveyors mapped out the best route, however, a substantial stretch lay south of the New Mexico Territory.

In May, 1853, James Gadsden, JamesGadsden, a former railroad executive from South Carolina, was appointed minister to Mexico;Gadsden PurchaseMexico by President Franklin Pierce. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis particularly encouraged Gadsden to negotiate the purchase of a substantial amount of land between Texas and the Pacific. Gadsden found President Antonio López de Santa Anna, Antonio López deSanta Anna of Mexico in need of funds to prop up his regime. The initial agreement in December, 1853, would have cost $15 million, but the U.S. Senate reduced the amount of land and price to $10 million.

Sectionalism during the late 1850’s prevented the construction of the southern route. The honor of the first transcontinental Railroads;transcontinental (southern route)Transcontinental railroad;southernrailroad went to the Union Pacific and Central Pacific in 1869. The advantages of a southerly route remained strong. Beginning at Los Angeles, the Southern Pacific reached the Arizona Territory in 1877. Despite political problems and occasional lack of steel rails, the Southern Pacific pursued a path through the Gadsden Purchase. It linked with the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad at Deming, New Mexico Territory, on March 8, 1881, to become the second transcontinental route. The last 219 miles had been completed in less than nine months, which testifies to the geographical advantage of the Gadsden Purchase territory. Overall, railroad construction through that territory probably cost one-fifth that of the first transcontinental route. Remarkably, it was accomplished without federal land grants. El Paso was reached on May 19, 1881. The Southern Pacific pushed across Texas to connect with New Orleans on January 12, 1883, finally fulfilling the dreams of southern entrepreneurs before the American Civil War and justifying the wisdom of the Gadsden Purchase.

Further Reading

  • Devine, David. Slavery, Scandal, and Steel Rails. New York: iUniverse, 2004.
  • Garber, Paul N. The Gadsden Treaty. Reprint. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1959.
  • Schmidt, Louis B. “Manifest Opportunity and the Gadsden Purchase.” Arizona and the West 3, Autumn (1961): 245-264.

Mexican trade with the United States

Mexican War


Texas annexation

Transcontinental railroad