“…we tend to treat these two mid-nineteenth-century narratives as geographically distinct: a battle over slavery engulfs the East while mineral rushes and migration transform the West.” (Susan Schulten, “The Civil War and the Origins of the Colorado Territory,” Western Historical Quarterly, 44, p. 21)
As Dr. Schulten points out, contrary to the usual narrative, slavery was one of the major factors in determining the political transformation of the American West in the nineteenth century. I would argue that it was the major factor in the political development of the West, from its earliest days right through to the Civil War.
The issue of slavery was contentious between the northern and southern states from the very beginning of the nation, though many of the founding fathers hoped that slavery would slowly fade away over time. Then Eli Whitney’s 1793 invention of the cotton gin made the slave-based cotton industry profitable, as evidenced by the increase in the number of American slaves rising from 697,897 in 1790 to 1.2 million in 1810.
This question was of great importance to both the North and the South. Those who wanted to abolish slavery hoped that by pinning this institution in the Southeast, it would eventually fade away. Those in the South were concerned both to maintain the vigor of the slave economy through expansion, but also to provide a new market for excess slaves they wished to sell.
The first state created from the new territory was Louisiana, a slave state, in 1812, but this simply balanced Ohio, a free state admitted in 1803. Later in the decade, new settlement and development in the territories to the east of the Mississippi River led to the admittance of four new states, Mississippi, Alabama, Indiana and Illinois, keeping the number of free and slave states equal, now with eleven in each camp.
In the first two decades of the nineteenth century, Southern emigrants brought their farming economy, including slaves, up into the region around St. Louis, and west along the Missouri River, in what became known as “Little Dixie.” This was the most developed area of the Missouri Territory, with St. Louis—-a major center for trade and commerce-—growing into a city of over 10,000 citizens by the end of the second decade of the nineteenth century. In 1818, the citizens around St. Louis petitioned Congress for admission as a new, slave state of Missouri.
The Northerners in Congress were unwilling to allow such a new slave state. It was more than simply the fact that this would upset the balance of free and slave states. Louisiana had long had a slave economy, but the idea of opening up the lands further north to slavery threatened the long-held belief that the institution could be limited to the South, eventually to fade away. Northerners were adamant in trying to prevent this.
Still, however, Northerners were adamant against the expansion of slavery into the lands in the northern part of the Missouri Territory, so as part of the compromise it was agreed that no new slave states—-other than the new state of Missouri—-could be carved out of the original Louisiana Purchase north of the 36°30′ parallel—the line which separated Virginia from North Carolina, Kentucky from Tennessee, and Arkansas from Missouri.
Compromise of 1850
About this time Americans began to move into Texas, the province of Mexico bordering Louisiana and Arkansas. While slavery was outlawed in Mexico in 1829, the new Texans ignored this prohibition. The American pro-slavery faction could not help but covet Texas-—almost half the size of the Louisiana Purchase—-already inhabited with slave owning American emigrants, especially when it declared itself an independent republic in 1836.
Texans themselves were strongly in favor of being annexed into the United States, and pro-slavery American politicians dreamed of adding Texas to the Union as a single or perhaps even multiple slave states. Their plans took on added urgency when Britain decided it would recognize Texan independence and push for the abolition of slavery there. The desire by Southerners to add Texas to the Union led finally, in 1845, to the annexation of Texas as the 28th state. As U.S. Grant wrote, “The occupation, separation and annexation were…a conspiracy, to acquire territory out of which slave states might be formed for the American Union.”
Prompted in part by a desire for even more land which would be open for slavery, the United States provoked Mexico into the short-lived Mexican War. At the end of the war, by the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexico, in return for a payment of just over $18 million, not only recognized Texas as part of the United States, but ceded their provinces of Alta (or Upper) California and New Mexico.
The acquisition of these new lands to the west of the original Louisiana Purchase immediately raised the issue of how they were to be politically organized and, of course, what role slavery would play there. During the war, Congressman David Wilmot had introduced a bill to prohibit slavery in any territory captured from Mexico. Naturally, this bill was fought against by Southerners and though it passed the House, it failed in the Senate.
One sore point for Northerners was that Texas, which allowed slavery, extended above the 36°30′ line—-when it first was annexed, Texas claimed as far north as present-day Wyoming-—which they argued was contrary to the Missouri Compromise. Northerners were thus determined that there would be no slavery allowed in the new territories acquired from Mexico. Southerners felt like the Northerners were running roughshod over the previous balance of power between the two sides by wanting to admit a new free state of California while at the same time excluding slavery from the rest of the Mexican Cession.
The solution to this conundrum was devised by Henry Clay and Stephen Douglas, who pushed through what is known as the Compromise of 1850. This was based on Douglas’ avocation of the use of the principal of “popular sovereignty” to get around the slavery question in the new territories. By that policy, citizens of the new territories would be able to decide for themselves whether their new states would be free or slave, writing this into the state constitutions as determined by democratic vote. Thus, when the territories were admitted as states, they would “be received into the Union, with or without slavery as their constitution may prescribe at the time of their admission.”
Many Northern Congressmen found this an unsatisfactory agreement, both because of the Fugitive Slave Act, but also because the possibility of slavery in the new territories, both of which had lands above 36°30′, seemingly a repudiation of the Missouri Compromise. Douglas, however, argued that the Missouri Compromise applied only to the lands of the original Louisiana Purchase, not to the Mexican Cession, and assuring fellow Northerners that the Missouri Compromise would continue in force there. He further sweetened the deal by including a clause into the new compromise for the abolition of slave trading in the District of Columbia.
The Compromise of 1850 did finally allow for the political organization of the lands gained in the Mexican War, and it was hailed by some as solution to how to keep the South and North from falling out over the issue of slavery. That was a premature and false hope, for the possibility that slavery might be allowed north of the 36°30′ line, together with the strong Slave Fugitive Act, lit a smoldering fuse of passion in the North, a fuse which would burst into flame just a few years later, sparked by another Congressional act shepherded through by Stephen Douglas.
Within a few decades of the Louisiana Purchase, inspired in part by Stephen Long’s description of much of the lands west of the Mississippi River as the “Great American Desert,” the Federal Government decided that this area would make a perfect place to locate not only the western Indian Tribes, but also those from the East whose land was confiscated. The Indian Intercourse Act of 1834 set aside for Indian territory "…all that part of the United States west of the Mississippi and not within the states of Missouri and Louisiana, or the territory of Arkansas…"
This region comprised most of the Great Plains lying between the Rocky Mountains and those states and territories just to the west of the Mississippi River. As Americans began to move towards the west coast, it soon became evident that there was the need for the extension of U.S. law, especially related to property, to that part of the Indian lands through which emigrants traveled and where a railroad could be built.
For this to happen, at least a band of land crossing the plains had to be organized as a U.S. territory. The designation of this proposed territory was to be "Nebraska," a name first used by Frémont with reference to the Platte River, which was for much of its length the main route for the emigrants heading west. "Nebrathka" was an Otoe word for ‘flat water' and was used by them as the name for the Platte. A bill to create a Nebraska Territory was first introduced in 1844, with another put forth in 1848; both bills failed because this territory would be north of the Missouri Compromise line and Southerners were loath to create such a large, free-soil territory.
With the acquisition of California in 1850, the need to organize such a territory became even more urgent. For both economic and social reasons the country needed to connect the East and West Coasts with a railroad. Thus pressure to organize these lands continued to grow.
This was acceptable to many Northerners, especially those who were keen to have a trans-continental railroad built, for they believed these two proposed territories were situated too far north to prove hospitable to slavery. Ironically, many Southerners accepted this compromise because they thought that at least the Kansas Territory would be favorable to the introduction of slavery, as it lay directly west of the slave state Missouri.
In order to make sure Kansas voted to come in as a slave state, Southerners were encouraged to move into Kansas, while abolitionists in the North did the same thing, promoting antislavery settlements there. Thousands poured into the new Kansas Territory, armed and ready for a fight over slavery. “Bloody Kansas” was the immediate effect, but another more lasting consequence was that many antislavery proponents in the north—both Democrats and Whigs—left those parties to form a new Republican Party, specifically organized to prevent the expansion of slavery into the new territories.
In the years leading up to the Civil War, an increasing movement to create new territories ran smack into a Congressional blockage caused by the hardening sectional conflict between the supporters and abhorrers of slavery.
New emigrants were pouring into the large territories of the West, many prompted by gold discoveries, and this generated strong pressure to create smaller territories for these populations. Many of these new settlements were located well away from the centers of power in the old territories and the emigrants wanted to have local control. The New York Times reported on Jan. 11, 1859 that there were six applications for new territories before Congress, five for trans-Mississippi regions.
Despite these, and other petitions for territorial creation, Congress would not act. With a roughly equal balance between the free and slave states, neither side was willing to let in a territory or state which would lead to one side gaining a significant advantage in Congress. No new territory was created between the Kansas-Nebraska Act and 1860.
The final political alteration in the American West that was specifically related to the issue of slavery was the creation of the Territory of Arizona in 1863. About a decade before, in 1854, the Gadsden Purchase added about 30,000 square miles to the southern part of the New Mexico Territory. This area was called either “Gadsdonia” or “Arizona.” The settlers who moved into this area felt alienated and neglected by the territorial government in Santa Fe, located well to the north. These settlers, most of whom were originally from the South, were not particularly keen to be administered by a government which had a large Hispanic element to it and which was anti-slavery.
From this brief history, it is clear that slavery played a preeminent role in almost all the changes to borders, territories and states in the trans-Mississippi West from 1803 through the Civil War. Other factors, of course, did play significant roles, but the issue of slavery was always there, greatly determining outcomes. It was certainly in the eastern U.S. that slavery drove the hammer of conflict most strikingly, but the West too was greatly shaped by the chisel of the fight against bondage.