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  • Writer's pictureBruce Boyce

The 1850 Border Crisis

"We would now inform our Texas friends that it is not necessary to send us a judge, nor a district attorney, to settle our affairs...for there is not a citizen, either American or Mexican, that will ever acknowledge themselves as citizens of Texas...New Mexico does not belong, nor had Texas even a right to claim her as a part of Texas."

The Santa Fe Republican, September 1848 (From the Niles Weekly Register, LXXIV, 1848)

With the westward expansion beginning with the Louisiana Purchase, the United States faced a vexing question. As new territory was acquired, organized, and then admitted to the Union, there was continued debate on the issue of slavery. As the abolitionist movement gathered momentum, it became imperative for both sides to maintain the political balance in Congress or tip it to one's advantage. This was all made worse by Texas independence and the Mexican-American War. Disputes over the boundaries of Texas would get caught up in the larger national conversation regarding the future of slavery. The resolution of these disputes would get wrapped into the larger Compromise of 1850.

The question of the boundaries of what would become Texas had its roots before the United States even existed. From the beginning of Spanish occupation, Spain felt no obligation to firmly establish the northern limits of the colonial empire in North America. By the start of the 18th century, there were four main provinces: New Mexico, Nueva Vizcaya, Coahuila, and Nuevo Leon. They all roughly correspond to the area now occupied by Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, and Colorado. But the borders of these provinces were fluid, and no specific border was ever directly specified. This was the frontier, and this region acted as a buffer zone. Therefore the northern limits were subject to the movements of the Native American tribes that occupied the central portion of the United States. The Mission San Francisco de los Tejas was established in 1690 on the Neches River, and the kernel of what would become Texas was the territory that surrounded the mission.

The Louisiana Purchase by the United States from France and increased settlement in the region brought Spain a renewed sense of urgency in determining definitive boundaries for the province of Texas. In 1811, Spain declared the Red River the northern border and the Rio Nueces the southern border. In a zigzag fashion, the western limits were set from the southeastern corner of present-day New Mexico northeasterly toward the Red River. But not much was known about this area, and no survey was done. The line on official maps was based on estimations and speculation and would end up being nearly 2 degrees of latitude off. The east side was roughly the Sabine River, but the Jefferson administration hoped to push the Louisiana Purchase to the Rio Grande. After years of back-and-forth negotiation, Spain and the US came to an agreement in 1819. The United States would give up any claim on Texas in exchange for Spain giving up any slim claims on the Oregon Territory. The new Texas borders were set from the mouth of the Sabine River up to the Red River, then the south bank of the Red River to the 100th Meriden, north to the Arkansas River, and then to the source of the Arkansas believed to be about 42° North latitude. From there, the border ran to the Pacific Ocean.

Not long after, Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821. When a new constitution was written for the Mexican government in 1824, it was assumed that the borders established back in 1811 still applied. Much of the area in western Texas was barren and attracted little in the way of settlement. Like Spain, Mexico did not feel the immediate need to delineate firm boundaries.

Treaty of Velasco, 1836

During this period, settlers from the United States poured into the region. The territory had been open to Anglo settlement through the efforts of Stephen Austin and others. Tensions between white settlers in Texas and the Mexican government resulted in Texas declaring independence in 1836. The Treaty of Velasco in May of that year secured the withdrawal of Mexican troops and the creation of the independent Republic of Texas. The treaty established the Texas-Mexican border as the Rio Grande, from its source in the Rocky Mountains, down to the Gulf of Mexico. The problem was that Mexico did not recognize Texas's independence and maintained that the border between Texas and Mexico was further north, along the Nueces River, about 150 miles north of the Rio Grande. The Nueces River is much smaller than the Rio Grande and runs through a less hospitable area of Texas than the Rio Grande.

Despite Mexico's objections, Texas continued to assert that the Rio Grande was its southern border throughout its period as an independent country. There was a desire by the Texas government to gain access to part of the trade along the Sante Fe Trail. Sante Fe offered Texas the trade and markets it needed. There were efforts to have the citizens of New Mexico join the Republic of Texas. In 1841, a group of settlers gathered to open a trade route and encourage New Mexicans to join Texas. Among other hardships, the party faced armed opposition from the people of New Mexico. Mexican authorities took the expedition's members prisoner, and the affair became a diplomatic point of contention between the US and Mexico.

Disputes over the border did not end after Texas joined the United States as a state in 1845. When the Mexican-American War broke out in 1846, Texas supported the United States and sent troops to fight against Mexico. The United States also recognized the Rio Grande as the border between Texas and Mexico. It used the conflict to assert control over much of the Southwest, including the New Mexico territory. Federal troops under General Stephen Kearny occupied the New Mexico territory early in the war. Kearny helped establish a civil government over the objections of Texas governor J. Pinckney Henderson. Secretary of State James Buchanan acknowledged that Congress would need to settle the issue, but Kearny's actions should not be seen as a rejection of Texas's claims.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the war in 1848 and set the US-Mexican border as the Rio Grande River. Mexico also ceded the territory now occupied by California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, and parts of Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, and Oklahoma. However, the exact borders of Texas and the new territories acquired by the United States were still unclear. With their acquisition by the United States, these new territories immediately became embroiled in the issue of slavery. Southern leaders wanted these areas open to slaveholders. Freesoilers and abolitionists wished to prevent the spread of slavery into the territories. Therefore, they opposed any claims by Texas, already a slave state, to the newly acquired domain. As soon as the war ended, Texas organized Santa Fe County, which took up most of present-day New Mexico east of the Rio Grande. Meanwhile, citizens in New Mexico petitioned the federal government to organize them into a federal territory. In 1850, Texas Governor Peter H. Bell appointed Robert Neighbors, a former Indian agent, to organize first the county of El Paso and then other counties in New Mexico. Neighbors succeeded in El Paso but wasn't welcomed in the rest of New Mexico.

Governor Peter H. Bell of Texas

When the results of Neighbors's mission were made public in June 1850, there was a public outcry in Texas. Many called for military intervention, and a few urged secession. Governor Bell called a special session of the Texas legislature, but before the session could begin, the people of New Mexico had ratified a constitution for a proposed state. The boundaries of this new state included lands claimed by Texas. Newly sworn-in President Millard Fillmore reinforced the territory's Federal forces and openly vowed to use military force if any Texas militia entered the disputed area. This had the effect of bringing the rest of the southern states squarely behind Governor Bell.

While all this transpired, Congress was also trying to resolve the issue. In January, a bill was introduced that required Texas to cede all land west of 102° longitude and north of the Red River in exchange for $15 million. Texas would then be divided into two states. Shortly afterward, another resolution divided Texas into three states. A Senate committee passed a bill that would have provided Texas with an unspecified amount for ceding lands northwest of a straight line from El Paso to the 100th Meridian, where it intersected the Red River. None of these efforts went forward.

The Boundary Act of 1850

Finally, a proposal was made that would give Texas $10 million to give up claims to any land north and west of a boundary beginning at the intersection of the 100th Meridian and the 36°30' parallel, then running west to the 103rd Meridian, south to the 32nd parallel, and from there to the Rio Grande. The Texas Congressional delegation, moderates in both the North and South, and the Republic of Texas debt holders all supported the measure, especially since part of the financial settlement would pay off the debt. The United States would establish a new territorial government in New Mexico to organize the territory for eventual statehood. The bill, known as the Boundary Act of 1850, passed both houses of Congress, and Fillmore signed it late summer.

President Millard Fillmore

In September, Fillmore sent John M. Clayton, the Secretary of State, to negotiate with Texas officials. Clayton offered the terms of the newly passed bill and promised to support Texas's efforts to pay off its debts and retain ownership of its public lands. Texas officials initially rejected the offer, but after further negotiations, they eventually agreed to the terms of the compromise. During a special election, Texas voters approved the settlement by a margin of 3-1. The state legislature passed a resolution to accept it, and Governor Bell signed it on November 25, 1850.

The settlement was seen as a victory for the federal government, which had successfully prevented Texas from expanding its territory and asserting its authority over New Mexico. It also helped to clarify the boundaries between states and territories in the region and paved the way for eventual settlement and development. The Boundary Act of 1850 was grouped with four other bills passed at the same time. Collectively, these comprised the Compromise of 1850. The Compromise of 1850 was designed to resolve several conflicts related to territorial expansion, slavery, and statehood.

Along with settling the dispute over the border of Texas and New Mexico, the compromise allowed California to enter the Union as a free state. The territories of New Mexico and Utah were created, and the popular vote of the citizens of each territory would decide the issue of slavery. The slave trade was abolished in the District of Columbia, but a stricter version of the Fugitive Slave Act was passed. The Compromise of 1850 helped to maintain the balance of power between the slaveholding and non-slaveholding states, at least temporarily. However, it did not resolve the underlying tensions between the North and the South over the issue of slavery, and it ultimately proved to be an insufficient compromise.


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