• J.J. Wheeling

Civilian Ships and the Mexican American War

I’ve touched on the political and nationalism ambitions of President Polk when he took office, especially when it came to Mexico’s argument with Texas about their border. But Polk also had other things on his mind, namely, adding the lands of the modern West Coast and southwestern states in what would become the greatest land acquisition since Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase. In the earlier blog I talked about how Polk and his administration picked the fight with Mexico so if you are interested in that part, please go back and read up on it.


As it relates to my story, the Mexican War has a couple of other interesting points. First, the reinforcement of American troops and materials was a long process. Ships of soldiers sailed from the East Coast to the Caribbean coast of Mexico via New Orleans but getting men and goods to the Pacific side was a long haul. Secondly, the British posed an irritating threat to America’s efforts to secure the west coast of Mexico. Here’s what happened…

By 1847, the U.S. Navy had tried, and pretty much failed, to secure the Baja of California and the coastal states of Mexico through three blockades starting in August of 1846 with Commodore Robert Stockton’s four-week-long, failed blockade. The common problem with all three campaigns was primarily the lack of supplies for the U.S. Navy ships patrolling the coastline between Acapulco and La Paz. The second blockade was ordered by Stockton in December of 1846 but it took until February of 1847 before there were enough reinforcements to accomplish the task of putting down the Mexican resistance in Mazatlán and raising the American flag over the city. Interestingly, this occupation raised the objection of Britain. What? How did Britain think they had any kind of say in all of this? Ultimately, the U.S. Navy ran out of supplies and had to leave for Hawaii leaving Mazatlán and failing at its second attempt at a blockade.

In August of 1847, U.S. Navy Commodore Shubrick tried yet another blockage but by this time there was serious Mexican resistance in the northern Mexican states. By October, the resistance forced the U.S. Navy to threaten a bombardment of Guaymas, ultimately taking it without a shot fired. Other Mexican efforts at resistance along the Pacific Coast failed but there was fighting until March 31, 1848 even though the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildalgo had been signed on March 6th - a drawback of slow communications. Even in this final blockade, scarce supplies of food and water were always dogging the U.S. Navy to the point that, back in Boston, a call went out for private ship owners to bid on bringing supplies to the Pacific Squadron since all of their ships were tied up with the war effort.


I took my little farmer self to the National Archives in Washington to research one of these bids. I had the life experience of requesting a box of documents that no one had ever asked for before. I sat at the official research desk and combed through all kinds of old papers, finally finding a document showing the bid request and details of the agreement charging a shipowner with bringing clothing and food around Cape Horn. And it planted a seed for my story.


Back to those Brits. So, for this to make sense, I’m going to have to go back in time from where we’ve been in this blog. Again, I learned a lot in this part of my research and had one of those, “what the…” moments.


Most of us remember the name of Sir Francis Drake from 8th grade World History. A British adventurer, he claimed everything he touched for Queen Elizabeth I and did the majority of his explorations in the 1570s. At that time, things were a little tense with Spain. Religious differences, along with competition for economic and colonial world dominance, tend to make governments frosty toward each other. Drake had Queen Elizabeth I’s backing and when he found himself on the Pacific Coast of North America in 1579, his intention was to raid the Spanish villages, plunder their wealth and stake England’s claim for some part of this valuable land.


At this point, Spain had claimed everything that is present-day Mexico, the southern half of present-day California and all of the land we know as the states of Nevada, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, Colorado and Texas. Knowing this, Drake claimed the North American Pacific Coastline from roughly present-day San Francisco, northward beyond the present-day border with Canada and eastward to what can only be described as an imprecise boundary north and east of the Spanish held land. Drake named his claim “New Albion” (Albion being the old English word for the island of Great Britain) and it is known as one of the earliest English territorial claims in the New World, predating Roanoke (1584) and Jamestown (1607). This set up a British presence in this part of North America albeit a difficult one to maintain given its distance from other British claims. Somehow, I didn’t learn any of this in my 8th grade World History class.

Mexican American War Map

New Albion became Britain’s territorial argument, based on presence, to Spain that based its own claims on papal authority. The British used this territory to legitimize their role in the fur trade until they were forced to negotiate the Oregon Treaty with the Americans in 1846 and divide their territory at the 49th parallel.


When the Mexican-American War broke out in 1846, Britain watched from a distance. The fact was Mexico owed Britain money from the Mexican War for Independence from Spain, and Britain felt the need to watch over their investment, even though they didn’t want to get involved. Remember, no one knows anything about gold in California yet. By the latter part of 1847, British Naval ships were lingering off the Pacific Coast around La Paz watching the goings-on and their presence made the Americans nervous.


With their attention fractured by the hovering British ships, the American Navy had to decide what to do while still aiding the ground troops trying to overwhelm the Mexican resistance in La Paz and Mazatlán. The solution was to ask private contractor ships arriving with goods for the war effort to stay in the area and keep an eye on the British.


And there’s the little nugget that tweaked my curiosity…what would it have been like to be a civilian ship asked by the American Navy to stay around and help protect the Pacific coastline? Pretty exciting, I think.





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