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The Mexican American War in Baja California Sur

(Click on images in this article to enlarge)
James K Polk
President James K. Polk

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.

Robert Stockton
Robert F. Stockton

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.  

US Cayne
USS Cyane takes San Diego 1846

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.

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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.

USS PortsmouthThe 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.

Us Troops in Central La Paz, Baja California Sur
U.S. flag flies over La Paz from April of 1847 to
July of 1848 William H. Meyers watercolor 1848

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.

Uss Dale and Libertad anchored in Ensenada de La Paz
USS Dale and Libertad sent marines ashore in Loreto
William H. Meyers watercolor 1847

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.

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