The history of the Mexican/American War of 1846 to 1848 in Baja California is often forgotten. This is due to the fact that the war and most of the more sensational battles were fought in the interior of Mexico. But some little know facts about the war in Baja California
The United States under President James K. Polk, had attempted to purchase the territory which now forms parts of the states of California, Arizona and New Mexico from the Mexican government for $25 million dollars, but the Mexicans had refused. Mexico had been actively recruiting North Americans to settle and develop the privatize regions and now the U.S. government wished to assume the territory.
The situation had been tense along the border for some time, as the Mexicans assumed the U.S. would attempt to seize the territory if negotiations failed. While negotiations were still in progress, a detachment of U.S. soldiers established a position inside the disputed territory. On April 24, 1846, U.S. soldiers were allegedly fired on by Mexican troops in the disputed land between the Nueces and Rio Grande rivers*. The U.S. seized the opportunity to blame hostilities on Mexico and on May 13, President James Polk signed a declaration of war against Mexico.
That summer, the U.S. Fleet established control of the Pacific coast of California from San Francisco to San Diego. In August, Commodore Robert F. Stockton (for which Stockton, CA is named) declared that region by default of control, the Territory of California and property of the United States.
Meanwhile, the war had stagnated on land in the east and it became clear that occupation of Mexico City would be the only way to end hostilities. Stockton ordered two second-class sloops to blockade Mazatlan and San Blas with the aim of taking Acapulco. Acapulco would serve as a base to invade Mexico City.
Minor skirmishes ensued and two Mexican vessels were seized in San Blas and a brig in Mazatlan. In late September, 1846, Samuel F. Du Pont, commander of the second-class sloop-of-war “Cyane” made port of call in La Paz and received a pledge of neutrality from Colonel Francisco Palacios Miranda, governor of Baja California. On October 1, Du Pont seized two Mexican navy vessels in Loreto and days later attacked Guaymas with canon fire.
The blockade of the two ports didn’t work. It lasted about 4 weeks, during the peak of tropical cyclone season. The U.S. vessels were under equipped and had to leave station often to re supply. This allowed the Mexicans to reopen the ports as soon as the two U.S. ships left. The two U.S. sloops returned to San Francisco, Following the shelling of Guaymas the ships returned to San Francisco.
On February 2, 1847, Stockton ordered Commander John B. Montgomery on the first-class sloop-of-war Portsmouth to resume the blockage of Mazatlan and to raise the American flag over San Jose del Cabo, La Paz, Pichilinque and Loreto. In March, Montgomery left his station outside Mazatlan and proceeded to La Paz.
A group of Baja residents, displeased with the pledge of neutrality, met north of San Jose del Cabo and declared Colonel Miranda a traitor. They appointed Mauricio Castro the governor of Baja California on February 15. Castro later tried in vain to raise a volunteer force to expel the Americans from La Paz. Montgomery accepted the surrender of La Paz on April 14, 1847 from Colonel Miranda, who had previously pledged neutrality. The city fathers soon signed an agreement of capitulation and in turn were guaranteed the rights of U.S. citizenship and to keep their own local government and laws. The American flag was raised over La Paz and Pichilinque on April 15, 1847. Land at the tip of the Pichilinque peninsula was seized as a base of operations for the U.S. Fleet. The chunk of land was purchased or leased from Mexico following the end of the war and was used as a U.S. coaling station for the fleet through WWI. Worn remnants of the U.S. presence there can still be seen today.
In Early June, the two largest ships of the regional fleet returned to San Francisco to re-supply leaving just the Second Class Sloop Cyane to protect the residents of San Jose del Cabo and La Paz while also enforcing the blockade of Mazatlan. The Cyane was forced to sail back and forth between the mainland and San Jose del Cabo, thus making the blockade of Mazatlan ineffective.
* There is a great deal of evidence to the contrary, but history is written by the winners. It is more likely that a US incursion prompted Mexican troops to defend themselves.
On July 21, 115 U.S. Army Volunteers landed peacefully in La Paz where the commander of the brigade was very impressed with the prettiest town he had seen in the Californias. "The houses were all of adobe, plastered white, and thatched with the leaves of the palm tree, and were most delightfully cool. The whole beach was lined with palms, date, fig, tamarind and coconut trees, and their delicious fruit hanging down on them in clusters."
A private schooner Libertad, chartered from a U.S. citizen living in La Paz harassed trade between Guaymas and Mulegé but was as ineffective in retraining trade there as the fleet had been in Mazatlan. On September 30, the Dale, a third class sloop, ran in to
Mulegé under English colors. After it was anchored, it lowered that flag and raised the Stars and Stripes. Lieutenant Tunis Augustus Macdonough Craven, U.S. Navy, tried to go ashore, but was prevented by a party of Mexicans. Local lore says that the Mexicans found every sombrero in town and posted them on sticks behind the fortification making their numbers look larger and thus thwarting the American invasion.
Colonel Don Manuel Pineda was in command of the Mexican forces and local conscripts and rejected a call to lay down their arms and proudly stated he would not only repel the invasion of Mulegé, but liberate La Paz as well. On the afternoon of October 1, U.S. troops and the Mulegé forces exchanged fire for several hours without casualties. The U.S. troops were forced to withdraw at sunset. On November 10, the tiny Libertad and the crew of eleven captured the sloop Alerta, about twenty-five miles north of Mulegé
Meanwhile, resistance to the U.S. occupation grew in Baja Sur, rooted in Todos Santos. San Jose del Cabo declared the occupation at an end on October 23 but changed their minds back when three U.S. warships arrived three days later. A detachment of 31 men was sent to Todos Santos to investigate. While there, the troops were plied with wine and women while word was sent to Pineda to ambush the U.S. troops when they returned to San Jose del Cabo. The ambush never happened and the U.S. forces returned to San Jose on November 7, after a pleasant ‘outing’.
On November 16, 150 Mexicans attacked the 21 U.S. sailors left to defend San Jose del Cabo. In an valiant attack on the positions young Lieutenant José Antonio Mijares was shot and killed. Today he is still revered as a Mexican hero and a statue in his honor can be seen in San Jose del Cabo. The attack on the garrison was abandon after two U.S. whalers appeared in the harbor, which the Mexican believed to be U.S. warships. Six to twelve of the Mexican attackers were killed and none of the American defenders.
At the same time the 115 man U.S. garrison at La Paz was attacked and put under siege. The attack was repulsed under fire from the U.S. 6 pound guns. One American was killed and four or 5 Mexicans. Six days later the troops repulsed in San Jose joined the attack on
the La Paz positions bringing the number of Mexicans to an estimated 500. The U.S. garrison was under regular attack until relieved by the Cyane on December 21. During the siege no Americans were killed and a reported 36 graves were discovered left by the attackers. Much of La Paz was burned or plundered by the Mexican troops before their withdrawal.
On January 22, 1848 8 of Hayward’s men in San Jose were captured by the Mexican insurgents. And laid siege to the U.S. positions there. By February 11 the Mexicans had recaptured most of San Jose del Cabo except for the U.S. fortifications including the water supply and surrender of the U.S. forces seemed imminent. On February 14 the Cyane reached San Jose and 115 U.S. troops advanced to rescue the garrison. A long fire fight ensued. By the end of the siege three Americans and 13 to 35 Mexicans had been killed.
On March 15th, U.S. forces raided Pineda’s camp in San Antonio and freed the 8 soldiers captured earlier in San Jose del Cabo. On March 27 a detachment of 115 men set out for Todos Santos to suppress the insurrection. On the first day Pineda was captured by an advance party and on November 30, U.S. troops captured Todos Santos costing 10 Mexicans and no U.S. casualties.
Around the first of April, town leaders of Mira Flores surrendered Mauricio Castro, who assumed leadership of the Mexicans following Pineda’s capture. By the end of April all was quiet in Baja.
Strangely enough, the defining actions in Baja occurred AFTER the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on February 2, 1848 which ended the war and Baja was not included in the land successions to the U.S.. During the 18 month battle for Baja, President Polk, Commodores Stockton and Shubrick, and Commander Montgomery promised that Baja California would become part of the United States. Many of the residents of Baja California had anticipated being annexed by the United States, along with the California Territories. Such was the support for the U.S. occupation that when the U.S. troops withdrew later that summer 130 Mexicans were evacuated as refugees, back to Monterey. (CA).
The United States had offered $25 million dollars for the land later seized in the Mexican American War. In the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo Mexico lost half it's territory to the United States and in return received $18.6 million dollars in restitution. The war served to provide the United States with two important Pacific Ports; San Francisco and San Diego. (the pueblo of Los Angeles was so small at the time it didn't matter)
For Mexico, it was a significant blow to it's position in the western hemisphere, but the war served to provided a unifying factor to the states of the country that had been missing since the independence movement some years before. About 1700 Americans were killed in combat, another 11,300 died of disease and about 4100 were wounded. The Mexican losses were estimated around 25,000 of which about 2500 were civilians.
Franklin D. Roosevelt Library
San Diego Historical Society
U.S. Naval War Records
History of Ancient and Lower California
by Francisco Xavier Clavijero