Whereas: Stories from the People’s House

Early Hispanic Americans in House Records

As the United States expanded westward over the course of the 19th century, many new people became part of the country. The role of these new residents increased, although not without challenges. House records document these early events and the journey of Hispanic Americans in what became the Southwest United States, and in Congress.

Western Expansion

Map of Western Territories/tiles/non-collection/M/Map-of-Western-Territories.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration
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Map of Western Territories
The 500,000 square miles of land acquired by the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War, was a major territorial acquisition that changed the landscape, politics, and population of the country and situated it as a dominant power in the world. On December 5, 1848, in his annual message to Congress, President James K. Polk transmitted this map as an exhibit to illustrate his desired plan for the land, including the present-day states of California, Nevada, and Utah, as well as parts of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming. The map shows the latitude of 36°30' established in the Missouri Compromise of 1820: Slavery was prohibited in the Louisiana Territory in areas north of this latitude, and Polk advocated extending the prohibition to the Pacific Ocean to cover the newly acquired acreage. The Compromise of 1850, actually a series of different bills, arose in response, resolving the status of the new territory and diffusing sectional tension over slavery for a time.

Surveying the Land

Mexican Boundary Survey Sketch/tiles/non-collection/M/Mexican-Boundary-Survey-Sketch.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration
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Mexican Boundary Survey Sketch
Although the Compromise of 1850 resolved the status of the new territory in terms of slavery for the moment, the nearly 2,000-mile boundary between Mexico and the United States remained largely unexplored and unmapped. Between 1848 and 1855, the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers surveyed the land under the direction of U.S. Boundary Commissioner William H. Emory. Part of their mandate was to illustrate the border between the United States and Mexico. The red line in this sketch shows the U.S.-Mexico border before the land was purchased from Mexico. The area south of the Gila River is present-day Arizona. The lengthy and extensive survey resulted in the Report on the United States and Mexican Boundary Survey, published in volumes from 1857 to 1859. The report was published as House Executive Document No. 135 during the 34th Congress. Richly illustrated with flora, fauna, and inhabitants of the region, it remains one of the foremost publications on exploration of the West.

Representation in Congress

New Mexico Territory Contested Election: Page 1/tiles/non-collection/N/New-Mexico-Territory-Contested-Election-1.xml
Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration
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New Mexico Territory Contested Election: Page 1
New Mexico Territory Contested Election: Page 2/tiles/non-collection/N/New-Mexico-Territory-Contested-Election-2.xml
Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration
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New Mexico Territory Contested Election: Page 2
Not only was the border for the new land undefined by the United States, the country was forced to deal with representation for new populations, including Hispanos and American Indians, who had little cultural common ground with white Americans living in the more settled parts of the country. In many cases, they did not even share the same language. Acquired as part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the New Mexico Territory, where many Mexicans and American Indians resided, was especially rife with struggles related to representation in Congress. The first page of this 1853 House record is written in Spanish. The document verified the votes of Valencia, a New Mexico county, for José Manuel Gallegos, the first Hispanic Delegate from the territory elected to the House. In Valencia, Gallegos received 453 votes and William Carr Lane received 765. Territory-wide, however, Gallegos garnered a margin of 445. Lane challenged the outcome before the Committee on Elections, as part of a campaign to discredit Gallegos by alleging improprieties and electoral irregularities. Gallegos faced linguistic challenges during his terms in Congress: Unable to speak or read English, and not permitted an interpreter on the House Floor, Gallegos relied on the assistance of bilingual colleagues to translate legislation and interpret debate. The challenges Gallegos faced in the House mirrored the struggles of his constituents and other Hispanic populations to establish identities and equality both in Congress and in their new country.

The breakneck pace of continental expansion in the 19th century collided with the realities of governing a largely unsettled and more diverse nation. These House records document the acquisitions that affected Hispanos and how these new inhabitants came to be represented in Congress.

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