During the summer and fall of 1855, Juan (Jean) Napoleón Zerman planned and led an expedition from San Francisco to Baja California. Zerman, like other adventurers before and after him, sought fame and fortune south of the border. Zerman claimed he led an expedition into Mexico at the invitation of Juan Alvarez and Ignacio Comonfort, who under the Plan de Ayutla were trying to overthrow Antonio López de Santa Anna. From the beginning, Zerman insisted he was not a filibuster.1
Zerman was born of Alsatian or Corsican parents in Venice, Italy, in 1795. He was educated at the Naval School of Venicia and was fascinated with military life and yearned for a military career. During his youth he lived in London, Greece, and France. In 1826 he claimed his French citizenship (his father had been a French military officer in Italy) and joined the French army as a lieutenant. In 1831 Louis-Philippe, King of France (1830-1848), sent the eager young Zerman to Italy to foment a revolution to unite Italy and France. Probably through his own carelessness--if later events were any indication of his character--his scheme was discovered and Zerman was arrested. He was held for eight years before the French were able to win his release. Zerman returned to France in 1839 anxious to serve Louis-Philippe, who accepted his enthusiastic devotion. In 1840 the king sent him on yet another mission--this time to Spain to carry out various intrigues with members of the Spanish government. Whatever his assignment, he accomplished little; the next year he was sent to Egypt and Syria on new assignments. Zerman was on this mission when the French king was deposed. Zerman returned to France and cast about for new ventures.2
Zerman made his first of several trips to the United States in the 1840s. He marched with General Winfield Scott to Mexico City during the war with Mexico. Attracted to the California gold fields and promise of easy wealth, he decided to move west in 1850. He arrived early in the year and looked for easy-money opportunities. He did not have the patience or dedication to hard work that would allow him to succeed, but he briefly tried commerce in San Francisco. In this foray into the world of business he probably met Roark (Roderick) Matheson, a successful entrepreneur in the fledgling city. Matheson had a vision of opening up new markets in Baja California, even of acquiring considerable land if the opportunity arose. Matheson claimed he was in contact with General Juan Alvarez and had volunteered to help the Mexicans fighting Santa Anna raise money for arms and ammunition if Alvarez would guarantee to him land in the state of Guerrero. Alvarez asked Matheson to help him raise 100,000 pesos to purchase needed supplies, but he would not grant land rights. According to Matheson, Alvarez offered to pay twelve percent interest on the money and promised that the state of Guerrero would begin repaying the money one year after Santa Anna's ouster.3
Zerman claimed that he had communicated directly with Alvarez in the early summer of 1855, telling Alvarez that he would raise a contingent of men and secure a sufficient number of ships to blockade all the Pacific coast ports still under Santa Anna's control. Zerman later insisted that Alvarez told him in August that he was interested in helping to supply troops struggling against Santa Anna's supporters in the interior of the country but that additional men would not be needed. Alvarez told Zerman that he had already made arrangements with Matheson to raise money to help his troops. Zerman was not discouraged. He went immediately to talk to Matheson. Exactly what occurred in the conversations is unknown. Zerman evidently explained his scheme to an eager Matheson. Matheson told him he was raising money for Alvarez and was also interested in Zerman's plan. Zerman responded that once in Mexico with his men he would organize and appoint officials for his government. He hoped to become a permanent official after the mission was completed.4
Matheson had access to the brig Archibald Gracie, whose captain and eighty-five adventurers had planned originally to join William Walker, then in Nicaragua. The captain and the men were intrigued with the idea of blockading Mexican ports and eventually getting important roles in the new government in Baja California. Matheson's only problem had been finding someone to lead the expedition. Zerman solved that problem by volunteering to work with Matheson and his partners. Zerman also claimed to have access to more men in San Francisco and said he could provide another brig carrying an arms cache of six canon, eighty carbines, and forty pistols. On October 11, 1855, after striking a deal with Matheson, Zerman boarded the Archbibald Gracie with his wife and two children, personal possessions and official entourage; they left San Francisco heading south. He carried several official-looking documents from Matheson and a letter from Alvarez saying additional financial help was needed. The documents showed that Matheson and his partners had authorized the venture and that Zerman would be Matheson's agent in Mexico. Zerman was to sail to La Paz, capital of Baja California, and establish a provisional government in preparation for blockading the west coast of the Mexican mainland. He would be an admiral in the Mexican navy, receiving 600 pesos monthly salary and an additional 400 monthly for expenses. After sailing eight days, the party arrived at Cabo San Lucas, where Zerman sighted the brig Rebecca Adams under command of Captain Thomas Andrews.5 Zerman promised Andrews 500 pesos monthly plus pay for his crew for ninety days if Andrews would help. Afterward Mexico would pay Andrews and his crew. Andrews did not know what to think of Zerman, but after noting the Mexican flag Zerman's boat was flying and the Mexican-style naval uniforms, he decided that Zerman was indeed whom he claimed to be. Zerman even showed him a letter that he said was from Juan Alvarez; the document convinced the skeptical captain that he was dealing with a legitimate Mexican agent and agreed to assist in whatever way possible.
The two ships gathered what supplies they could find and sailed for La Paz. Near Cabo San Lucas the party encountered the Mexican brig Cavitera. Zerman told her captain that he was commandeering the ship and crew to join the expedition. The Mexican captain thought he had no choice but to abide by the orders of the so-called admiral. By this time Zerman learned of the fall of Santa Anna and with his tiny armada headed directly to La Paz.
Meanwhile, General don José María Blancarte, comandante principal and jefe político of Baja California, learned of Zerman's approach. He quickly broadcast that American filibusteros were en route and he needed all troops and volunteers to come to La Paz at once. National militia and vecinos arrived to fortify the city. They mounted cannons aimed at the entrance to the port and prepared for a fight. On November 13, 1855, Zerman's "fleet" appeared off the port entrance. Zerman sailed up a short canal, pausing to send word that he had arrived to take over. He sent a note to Blancarte explaining that he was an agent of General Juan Alvarez and was authorized to blockade the port. Included in the message were copies of Zerman's documents replete with the signatures of his newly appointed government officials. He advised Blancarte that he, Zerman, held the rank of admiral of the Mexican Navy, and that once in control he guaranteed to all citizens their rights. He would establish a free trade zone in the city. He told Blancarte he wanted to talk for thirty minutes directly with him.
Blancarte was not amused, frightened, or impressed with the display of papers and the grandiose language. He advised Zerman to stay on board his ship and not to disembark, telling him that he considered the party an illegal filibuster and that Mexican law called for all filibusteros to be shot. He intended to carry out the law if Zerman did not leave at once.6 Zerman foolishly ignored Blancarte's warning. With a small party, including his young son and so-called government officials, he boarded a skiff and headed for shore. The only Mexican with the Zerman party, Fernando (or Francisco) Palacios, Zerman's secretary, went along as translator. Zerman was attired in a uniform of his own design. The strange and gaudy looking piece was a combination of the Mexican and English naval officer's formal dress. The oddest part was a sombrero from which two chicken feathers protruded.
On reaching shore Zerman and his party were taken prisoner by Manuel Márquez, captain of the local guardia nacional, and escorted to see Blancarte. The Mexican general was not impressed with the uniform or with Zerman and dryly informed him that he was under arrest and would be tried as a filibuster. Zerman protested vigorously, but the objections fell on deaf ears; Blancarte was well aware of the continuing efforts of Americans to interfere with local Mexican matters. Shortly afterward Blancarte ordered the men on the boats to surrender. They refused at first, but the vessels had sailed into a narrow canal and had no room to run or manuever. All Blancarte had to do was station his cannon in strategic locations and fire a salvo to convince the filibusters to surrender. One man was killed and two wounded in the salvo. Zerman's men quickly hoisted a white flag and obediently disembarked. The comic-opera of Zerman parading ashore in a silly uniform ended his threat as a filibuster. It did not, however, end the affair for Zerman or for the United States government. Blancarte sent Zerman and his party to the mainland and ultimately to Mexico City. All the while Zerman demanded his rights. He wanted to see Alvarez. Blancarte had confiscated his ships and supplies and Zerman wanted Alvarez to set things straight and return his possessions. Alvarez, however, kept his distance. He was aware that any involvement with an American filibuster would spell political suicide for him or any other Mexican who had dealings with the intruders. There followed a long series of events in which Zerman unsuccessfully tried to see Alvarez. Zerman was eventually released, but he continued to try to recover his property and to exonerate himself of all charges.
The United States government was more concerned about the fate of Thomas Andrews than that of Zerman. Authorities said Zerman had been dishonest with Andrews. They also told the Mexicans that Blancarte had not been honest in describing the sequence of events at La Paz; they claimed, in fact, that Blancarte had invited Zerman to have dinner with him, then arrested him. Moreover, Blancarte had fired upon the Zerman party before offering an explanation of opposition to the party and had treated his prisoners as criminals. He even confiscated the men's personal possessions. The prisoners ultimately had been marched to Mexico City and later claimed that the Mexican soldiers abused them.7
Zerman insisted that he was not a filibuster and in his mind he may not have been, but most Mexicans considered him as such and that point was significant to United States-Mexican relations. Again, it appeared to Mexicans that the United States did not care whether armed parties entered Mexico from north of the border and, in fact, probably supported the efforts. Ultimately, Zerman made his way back to California. He did not receive compensation from the Mexican government for his losses, though the Mexicans did later return some possessions. On November 25, 1857, the Mexican supreme court decided that Zerman may not have been a filibuster; after deliberation the court ordered reimbursement for the confiscation of the Rebecca Adams and damages for its crew. Zerman received no damages, nor did the Mexican government pay for the confiscated Archibald Gracie. The stage was set for a violent confrontation should someone else attempt to enter Mexico with hostile intentions.8
In the late summer of 1856, John Forsyth became the new United States minister to Mexico. Filibustering in the form of the Napoleón Zerman and Henry A. Crabb expeditions had either just entered Mexico or were planning to do so. Forsyth believed that "this unhappy country is again on the verge of political revolution."9 In fact, he believed that Mexicans desired United States intervention. He expressed that attitude when he advised William Marcy that "I am every day made sensible of a prevalent and growing sentiment among intelligent Mexicans, that without the intervention, and, or guarantees of the United States, in some form or other, a stable government can never be secured to this people." He advised that Americans should seek control of church power in Mexico, integrate themselves into the Mexican Army, and take action to protect Americans and their property in Mexico. How such acts could be accomplished and why the Catholic Church was part of the statement is unclear. Americans, according to Forsyth, should also neogotiate a liberal trade treaty and eventually create an American protectorate.10 The minister claimed that the Zerman expedition was indeed working with Juan Alvarez's revolutionaries and that Zerman had arrived in Mexico "to find the friends whom they had come to succor, in power and their services not needed." When Zerman arrived off the coast of Mexico, the general in charge of the region began a "cruel and barbarous sequel of acts which must forever disgrace that person as a Christian man, a gentleman and a magistrate. Zerman and a number of officers were enticed on shore by a treacherous invitation to dine with 'His Excellency General Blancarte.' Instead of hospitality, the guests met with bayonets and chains." The ships were then "plundered" and one American was killed.11 The Mexican government responded to Forsyth's comments, saying that this was an internal affair and the United States had no part in its solution. Forsyth angrily reponded that he found the Mexican government's note "objectionable," and that General Blancarte's treatment of Zerman was "barbarous and grossly violated the usages of civilized nations." Forsyth then sent a nineteen-page letter to Antonio de la Fuente detailing the Zerman expedition and stating that Zerman had been enticed to enter Mexico by the Alvarez faction.12 Miguel Lerdo de Tejada, secretary of development, responded a month later, telling Forsyth that Zerman's expedition "exhibits the characteristics of a 'marauding and filibuster' got up against the peace, the dignity and the territory of the Mexican Republic, violating the neutrality laws of the United States and unlawfully changing its flag on the high seas."13
In 1857 the Mexican frontier remained exposed to attacks by hostile Indians and an endless number of filibusters who dreamed of making easy fortunes. One such adventurer who saw opportunity in northwestern Mexico was Henry Alexander Crabb, a former state senator in California. Bearded and dark-eyed, Crabb was born in Tennessee where he learned the fundamentals necessary to become a lawyer. With news of the gold discoveries in California, Crabb was eager to make his fortune in the far West. Early in 1849 he traveled to California, where he soon became involved in politics.14
Shortly after arriving in California, Crabb met and married the daughter of the prominent California-Sonora Ainsa family. His marriage into so prestigious a family provided him political connections in Sonora. Crabb as keenly interested in Mexico and he knew that the liberal and conservative forces in Sonora were struggling for control of the state. Don Ignacio Pesqueira and don Manuel María Gandara were the leaders of the two factions and both wanted to be governor.15 In June 1855, Crabb said that he and his brother-in-law Augustín Ainsa traveled to Sonora by ship and talked with influential businessmen. Crabb claimed that the same men who supported Pesqueira suggested to him that he might aid their cause and help control Indians by bringing a group of Americans to the state to colonize the frontier. The visit set off a considerable amount of speculation about the involvement of local Mexicans in the "colonization" effort that Crabb was planning.16
During the summer of 1856, while Crabb was back in California attempting to establish his venture, full scale fighting broke out between the two Sonoran factions. Supporters of Manuel María Gandara accused Pesqueira of encouraging Crabb to bring Americans to the state. The Gandara partisans hoped that this would cast Pesqueira in a bad light and cause him to lose the support of local citizens who hated any gringo intrusion or anyone who cooperated with the Americans. Although the Gandarist faction made its charges against Pesqueira widely known, Pesqueira managed to get control of the state before Crabb and his party got underway.17 Crabb was aware of the changes in political fortunes in Sonora, but he continued to organize the Arizona Colonization Company. Many members of the company of about 1000 were wealthy and influential Californians. In January 1857, Crabb and some of his recruits sailed to Los Angeles, where they assembled supplies and added more excited members. They marched to present-day Yuma, Arizona, and after a short stay moved south into Sonora.18
Crabb's party traveled slowly because of the extreme desert conditions. Crabb kept the press of California informed of his progress and the papers carried reports on the expedition. John Forsyth, U.S. minister to Mexico, advised the U.S. government that Mexico City newspapers had been carrying rumors of Crabb's expedition for weeks. Forsyth was fearful that the Mexicans would not be easy on another filibustering expedition. As early as February 20, 1857, in fact, the Mexican government was already well informed of Crabb's plans.19
Crabb's party, about ninety men, headed southeast along the Gila River. They crossed the border near Sonoita where Crabb wrote a message on March 26, 1857, to José María Redondo, prefect of Altar, telling him that the Crabb venture was a legal colonizing effort and that they were en route to the interior of Mexico.20 Redondo did not respond, but Pesqueira did, advising Crabb through a proclamation to the people of Sonora that he would not tolerate filibusteros. In the same notice, Pesqueira called on all Sonorans to let their "conciliation become sincere in order to fight this horde of pirates, without country, religion, or honor." Crabb clearly was not welcome in Mexico.21 The gringo ignored all warnings and led his party toward the Mexican village of Caborca. He took sixty-nine men some ninety miles south, leaving twenty others to follow later. The Mexicans were not idle in their preparations. In Guaymas, General Luis Noriega, commandante of the local garrison, called on his men to march toward Crabb's party, urging them to show no mercy for the "rascals."22
Mexicans in Caborca learned of Crabb's band before it arrived on April 1, 1857. As Crabb's men walked in disorderly fashion through a wheat Weld toward the village, the Mexicans opened fire with rifles and pistols. Crabb's group was taken by surprise, but they acquitted themselves well, killing several defenders. Fighting ceased for a short while and then the Americans fought their way across the clearing to the village. The defenders withdrew to the church in the town plaza, where they hoped to fend off the Americans.23 Five Americans had been killed and fifteen wounded in the house-to-house fighting. Mexicans suffered even higher casualties but they refused to surrender. Crabb then attempted to get into the church where the Mexicans had taken a defensive position, sending fifteen men with a keg of dynamite to try to blow down the heavy wooden door of the building. The Mexicans mounted a fierce barrage of rifle fire that took the lives of five more of Crabb's command. Although the dynamite exploded, it was not close enough to the door to do major damage.24 For six days the two groups held their positions. Unfortunately for Crabb more Mexican troops and armed volunteers arrived to surround the buildings where the Americans had established their stronghold. By April 6 more than 1500 defenders with a large number of Papago Indian allies had the Crabb party under siege. On that day one of the Indians fired a flaming arrow into the thatched roof of the filibuster's stronghold and the conflagration threatened the entire party. To remove the burning roof, Crabb ordered all the men to one end of the building and he placed a keg of dynamite at the other. He then proceeded to attempt to blow off the roof of the building. He was partially successful, but several of his men were wounded in the explosion.
Realizing that he was badly outnumbered, Crabb asked Hilario Gabilondo, the Mexican military commander, for terms of surrender. Gabilondo told him he and his men would be treated as prisoners of war and given medical attention and food. Although some of his men wanted to fight, Crabb decided to surrender. The filibusters soon learned that they had made a grave, fatal mistake. Gabilondo had no intention of following any rules of war. The men were not given medical attention nor food and water; instead they were herded into a corral at the edge of town where they were held for the night. The next morning they were marched to the outskirts of the village and shot down in groups of five. Mexicans were heard to boast, according to the only survivor--a sixteen-year-old American boy--that their hogs were feeding on the bodies of "Los Yankees." Crabb suffered a solitary death in the town plaza. He was given his last rites and placed before a firing squad. Afterward, a soldier severed Crabb's head with his sabre and placed it in a jar of mescal for preservation.25
Gabilondo's men searched the surrounding country to make sure they had gotten all filibusters. At Dunbar's store just across the border in the United States they found four men who had been too ill to go with Crabb. The Mexicans captured and executed them. Finally, the Mexicans encountered another party of Crabb's filibusters who had organized into the Tucson Valley Company. Under the command of Major R. N. Wood and Captain Granville H. Oury, they were about fifteen miles north of Caborca when the Mexicans intercepted them. Captain José Moreno of Altar told the gringos that if they surrendered they would be treated as prisoners. Although they knew nothing of Crabb's fate, they decided on battle. After attacking vigorously, they used the confusion to flee toward the United States. Sixteen more members of the Crabb party were not so fortunate. Confronted by the same group of Mexican soldiers who had been at Dunbar's store, the Americans surrendered and were shot.26
On May 30, 1857, John Forsyth advised don Juan Antonio de la Fuente, secretary of foreign relations, that the execution of Crabb and his party was "unmitigated murder." Crabb and his men, Forsyth claimed, were innocent immigrants with family ties in Mexico.27 The Mexican government responded that Crabb's party had entered Mexico as an armed group without permission and that it was a filibustering expedition. In accordance with Mexican law concerning such intrusion, the invaders had been executed. Mexico offered no apologies. When authorities in California advised the government that they believed Crabb had broken Mexican law, the United States dropped the matter.28 In dealing violently with the members of the Crabb expedition, the Mexicans attempted to convince Americans that such activity was not only inadvisable, but also could be fatal. The threat must have been effective temporarily--no other American filibusteros attempted to enter Mexico during the remainder of the 1850s.
In the 1850s filibustering caused considerable difficulties between Mexico and the United States. Diplomatic correspondence between the United States ministers in Mexico and the United States secretary of state indicates that the Americans did not understand the Mexican position, and, in fact, did not deal honestly and fairly with Mexico. Consequently Mexico received mixed signals from the United States in respect to filibustering and American willingness to try to stop it. On the one hand, the United States had cooperated in completing the survey of the international boundary in 1853 and 1854 after the Gadsden Purchase Agreement. On the other hand there were many individuals both in and out of government in the United States who still wished to annex either Sonora or Baja California or both, and in the opinion of Mexicans the United States made no real effort to stop the raids of filibusters, Indians, or bandits who resided permanently north of the border. Mexican Secretary of Foreign Relations Lucas Alamán, for example, advised United States Minister to Mexico Alfred Conkling on May 17, 1853, that Raousset Boulbon had organized and led an armed party from the United States to invade Mexico "with the knowledge and permission of the authorities without any attempt on the part of the latter to prevent it as they might easily have done."29 The next day, Conkling told Alamán that originally Raousset took a small party to Mexico "for a lawful and even praiseworthy purpose." That he "was very far from being convinced that the criminal acts he has indicated have, in this instance, been committed or if they have, that they are yet susceptible of proof."30 One day later Conkling advised Secretary of State William L. Marcy that in the instance of Raousset the problem occurred as a consequence of Mexican behavior. Raousset, Conkling thought, had been duped.31 Demonstrating a diplomacy of convenience rather than consistency, earlier in the month Conkling had told Marcy that José María Carvajal was a "notorious robber." He also told Alamán that the United States was sensitive to the problem, but that the laws of the country did not allow action unless proof was available; in addition witnesses must testify to the commission of a crime.32
In October 1856 the United States had sent John Forsyth to Mexico as its representative to inform the Mexican government that the United States had no sinister intentions. Forsyth communicated his message, but he also advised his government that Mexico would never achieve stability without direct United States intervention. When Forsyth complained about Mexican treatment of Juan N. Zerman and his men, Mexico responded that just because Zerman claimed to be helping one Mexican faction against another did not justify his meddling in its internal affairs and that the United States should have recognized that he was, in fact, trying to overthrow the legal government of Mexico. Mexico felt the same way about the Crabb expedition and believed that the United States had not sincerely tried to stop the activities.
Mexican officials also knew that public sentiment in the United States existed to intervene in Mexico. They knew, for example, that Senator Judah P. Benjamin of Louisiana had advocated that the U.S. acquire more Mexican territory, including Baja California. They suspected that in January 1858 United States President James Buchanan sanctioned filibustering when he publicly praised William Walker for his successful filibuster into Nicaragua. Finally, always on the alert to Texan opinion and actions, the Mexicans were aware that Senator Sam Houston had said during the late 1850s that the United States should establish a protectorate over Mexico and Central America. Thus, when Mexicans calculated the number of illegal expeditions launched amid such public approval and fanfare in the United States, they determined that the United States had not acted in good faith to stop filibustering, but, in fact, had an agenda detrimental to Mexican interests. One Mexico City newspaper editorialized that "we have seen the cunning and the means employed by the United States for the purpose of sowing among us the germ of discords, and by the side of this sinister conduct, would be beheld the simple credulity of a people which has called its enemy its brother, by going to the extreme of acknowledging as benefits the very injuries occasioned by its perfidy."33 James Gadsden was still in Mexico negotiating the treaty to purchase more Mexican lands from Santa Anna's government, and Gadsden remained sensitive to difficulties between the governments. When Mexican officials complained about Raousset and Walker, Gadsden promised that the United States would act to stop such activities.34 Yet Gadsden later told Marcy that newspapers in Mexico still charged that the United States "secretly instigated" many of the expeditions. Mexican writers described the United States actions as "barbaric and Gothic aggressions" that usually characterized the country's foreign policy toward Mexico.35
Whatever Gadsden might have said to the Mexicans, he was consistently critical of their government and leadership. On one occasion after he had negotiated the purchase treaty bearing his name, he advised Marcy that "the history of even the dark ages when government was identified with rude absolutism and cruel tyranny cannot point to a Dictatorship more deluded or more arbitrary and violent in its rules of sway."36 Less than two years later, after Santa Anna's government had fallen and Juan Alvarez had provisionally occupied the presidency, Gadsden remarked that "the over awing or upsetting Alvarez's Government in the centre, will inevitably lead to the dismemberment of some six or seven northern states into a new federation seeking possibly ... annexation with the United States."37
Forsyth was becoming weary from all the negotiations caused by filibusters. He had no sooner put the Zerman problem aside when he heard of the arrival of the Henry Crabb expedition into Sonora. In April 1857, he told Lewis Cass, now secretary of state in the administration of James Buchanan, that "the Expeditionists have certainly chosen an unfortunate time for this movement as regards the interests of the United States in its relations with Mexico." He said he had tried to "eradicate from the Mexican mind, the deeply seated distrust of Americans, and to establish instead, a confidence in the friendly and honorable sentiments of our govt. and people towards them." He advised that Mexicans were still sensitive to what happened in Texas and California and feared loss of additional territory.38 By June, Forsyth had heard that Crabb and his party had been captured and executed. He reported to Cass that in his opinion "there is little reason to doubt that Mr. Crabb was invited to Sonora and that he was the victim of deception, treachery, and surprise." In fact, he charged, Crabb was killed "to cover up the complicity and treason of some of the Mexican public men of Sonora. This is only surmise on my part, colored however by some dark hints that have come to me to that effect."39
Correspondence between Forsyth and the Mexican government continued. As the filibuster flurry began to settle down temporarily, Cass suggested to Forsyth that he approach the Mexicans about purchasing part of the northern frontier. This, of course, demonstrated how obtuse United States officials were in respect to alienation of any more Mexican territory. Forsyth had begun to understand Mexican attitudes toward such a proposal, and he told Cass that in his best judgment it was "impracticable and impossible" to gain more Mexican territory. He did approach the Mexican government, as Cass ordered him to, and then reported that
the present government of Mexico was pledged to the nation, in the strongest terms, not to alienate one foot of national territory. This proposition, so distasteful to this government, so wounding to its deep-seated pride, is backed by the offer of an equivalent in money, falling immensely below the exaggerated estimate which the government and the nation place upon the value of their National Domain accompanying the proposal for a new boundary. . . .40
In essence Forsyth understood the Mexican position, but, from time to time, believed that financial pressure on the various governments could lead to the purchase of more Mexican territory.41 Forsyth also communicated this attitude to Mexican diplomats. The Mexican government responded angrily to Forsyth's hints of inherent problems in Mexico. The secretary of foreign relations advised him that all Mexico wanted was "nothing more for the maintenance of good relations with the U.S. than the observance of the principles of good neighborhood and impartial justice."42 Thus, it was clear by the late 1850s that Mexico had become very defensive about its national sovereignty and that the United States refused to accept the position, believing instead that corrupt Mexican politicians could be persuaded by sufficient dollars.
The eve of the American Civil War brought one final filibustering scheme by U.S. opportunists. The organization of this effort grew out of a movement called the Knights of the Golden Circle, a pro-southern group that had as one of its far-reaching goals that of taking over Mexico and creating from it either a slave empire or an addition to the slave-holding South, thereby giving slave states the majority in the Union. In 1854 at Lexington, Kentucky, five men with grandiose ideas of pursuing such goals met and created the KGC. The primary organizer was George W. Bickley, originally of Indiana, who, with the help of a few like-minded men, determined to perpetuate slavery forever. The KGC thereafter grew slowly until the late 1850s, as the men organized clubs in southern states. They also established clubs in California and, perhaps, in Mexico.43 The name of the organization originated with the plan to use Havana, Cuba, as the center of a great slave empire. Around Havana the men would draw a circle that included Maryland on the north, South America on the south, and extended to the West Indies. Within this great circle they would seek to control all the cotton, tobacco, rice, sugar, and coffee grown and sent to the U.S. The exports would be the financial basis of their empire.
The organizers of the KGC insisted publicly that their organization was not a filibustering effort. Whether its aims were clear or not, its structure was carefully laid out. Each person joining the group had to pay an initiation fee and swear allegiance to the organization. There were several divisions and one could be a member of a division based upon financial contribution and commitment. The Knights of the Iron Hand was the army of the organization; the financial arm was called the Knights of the True Faith; political control rested with the Governmental or Political Degree. Few persons could hold the last rank, and Bickley had a say in who joined the ruling clique. The organization was highly ritualistic and its goals changed during its existence. At one point the group claimed to support the liberal faction in Mexico against the conservative Miramón faction.
By 1860 many KGC clubs existed in Texas, with San Antonio having a large membership. At one time it was believed that Texas governor Sam Houston was a member, for he was known to have been in favor of the U.S. establishing a protectorate over Mexico. Houston, however, disavowed the organization when it became a secessionist association as the Civil War approached. He ordered the group disbanded in 1860. By March of 1860 rumors were rife in Texas that an invasion of Mexico was imminent. As many as 400 Knights were poised on the border near Brownsville prepared to cross the Río Bravo, but the invasion failed when many of the Knights left the staging area and returned to their homes. The plan collapsed because of the impending U.S. Civil War and internal conflicts in the KGC. The group evidently did not have the money to buy sufficient arms and ammunition to supply its erstwhile soldiers, and some members accused Bickley of absconding with the treasury. Whatever the truth, Bickley traveled to New Orleans and held a meeting of the faithful, but he was unsuccessful in uniting the organization. On May 7, 1860, the KGC met in Raleigh, North Carolina, where Bickley was temporarily forced to resign. He soon won back his position after exonerating himself of stealing funds.
Despite the protests of its members, the KGC also was clearly a racist organization. On September 12, 1859, Bickley said that the purpose of the group was "the invasion of a nation by a new and vigorous race-the overthrow of old social systems, and the establishment of new ones--the disarming of hostile factions and the erection of peace establishments--the overthrow of prejudice, and the endoctrination [sic] of the people with new ideas of progress and prosperity."44 As if this statement were not enough to establish the racist character of the organization, racism became even clearer when the editor of the Dallas Herald incited the Knights by writing, "Let these Texans range on the Mexican Frontier and infuse some of the Anglo Saxon ideas of progressiveness into the stupid leaden souls of that people."45
By the end of 1860 the KGC had evidently given up on the idea of its great circle of slavery and diverted its energies to the impending Civil War. Early in 1861 journalists learned more of the activities of the group. Some writers offered that the KGC had signed a colonization contract with Governor Manuel Doblado of Guanajuato, Mexico, in which the KGC would receive large land grants for supporting the governor. No evidence of this agreement is available. What did surface was that each member had to sign a pledge that he would support establishing a slave state in Mexico. Apparently no KGC members actually crossed the international border. Southern newspaper editors opined that Bickley only wanted to secure southern rights by perpetrating an American protectorate over Mexico. With Abraham Lincoln's election to the presidency, the KGC gave up its plans for Mexico and formed the core of Confederate troop organization in several seceding states.
Mexican authorities noted this filibustering plan, and, as usual, believed that the U.S. would take no action to stop it. Furthermore, Mexico continued to have problems with internal stability, French intervention, and filibustering while the Civil War raged north of the border.
Excerpt from Schemers and Dreamers: Filibustering in Mexico, 1848-1921 Copyright © 2002 by Joseph A. Stout, Jr.. No portion of this excerpt may be used or reproduced in any form without written permission from the publisher, Texas Christian University Press.