David Patrick McKenzie

Digital Public Historian

AmWest Primary Sources: U.S. Aid to Mexican Rebels

For this blog post and for my paper assignment in the American West class, I’m using selections of claims by U.S. citizens against Mexico. These selections document involvement by U.S. citizens in Mexico’s War of Independence, specifically merchants who sold arms, munitions, supplies, and even ships to Mexican insurgents in the mid-1810s. Because the insurgents made these purchases on credit, then faced defeats, the merchants never received payment, and eventually filed claims against the Mexican government.

For this post, I’m using a series of memorials–written testimony–from the claimants. Before delving into the substance of the memorials themselves, though, a bit of background on the claims themselves and how I got to these records.

Background: U.S. Claims Against Mexico

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which brought the U.S.-Mexican War to an end in 1848, is rightly most known for a vast transfer of territory: The northern half of Mexico became the southwestern United States. Besides withdrawing its army from Mexico’s capital city and other portions of remaining Mexican territory, the United States paid $15 million and additionally absorbed $3.2 million in claims that its citizens had filed against the southern neighbor.

Like Brian DeLay, I stumbled into a research topic from the treaty’s provisions. DeLay’s curiosity about Article 11, as he details, led to his award-winning book War of a Thousand Deserts. Where mine might lead I do not know, but it may very well be a significant portion of my dissertation.

Specifically, that $3.2 million in claims piqued my interest. In my dissertation I broadly plan to look at the experiences on the ground of U.S. nationals in Mexico (outside places like Texas), and Mexican nationals in the United States, between roughly 1810 and 1846, when the two countries went to war.

I was looking for a way to get at the experiences of merchants when that $3.2 million in claims caught my eye. I wondered how the two countries came to that number and, even more importantly for my purposes, how U.S. citizens went about claiming their share of that money. Surely they would have needed to submit documentation to receive that money, right? And perhaps that documentation is stored somewhere?

A rabbit hole one night led me to find Record Group 76 at the National Archives. There were not just one but two commissions set up to hear the claims. The records of both commissions–a joint commission set up by an 1839 treaty and a U.S. commission set up in 1849 to dole out the money from the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo–are contained there. In the last couple of years I’ve made trips to the National Archives in College Park–one of the benefits of living in the Washington area–and have photographed around 5,000 pages of these files.

Previous Work on the Claims Files

Dr. Peter M. Jonas, who is a professor of doctoral leadership at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, analyzed the claims–particularly the process of resolving them–in his dissertation at the University of Wisconsin. Jonas also published an article on William Parrott, one of the more prominent claimants. Sadly, or perhaps happily for me as a dissertator, these claims have been little-used besides by Jonas; even Jonas’s article on Parrott yields only two citations on Google Scholar.

As I delved into these claim files, I found them to be incredibly rich. So I realized that there is more that can be done. Jonas has been incredibly supportive of my work to use these files to answer more questions about the activities of U.S. citizens in Mexico during this volatile time.

For my Clio 3 class with Fred Gibbs in fall 2012, I began a custom MySQL database to keep track of the cases and yield some data. The website where I house that database contains skeletal information, including the beginnings of a list with basic data about the claims heard by the 1839 commission and some visualizations of the data in aggregate.

Additionally, in a blog post for my New Media minor field readings, I did some more visualizations of other aggregated data (via Jonas’s dissertation) to find patterns in the claims.

Claims for Aid to Mexican Insurgents

But now, for this assignment, I’d like to delve into the substance of certain claims. Most of the claims relate, as shown in the above-linked blog post, to confiscation of ships and merchandise and other incidents that took place in Mexico in the 1820s-30s. Those claims are relevant to the history of the U.S. West because they are part of the sequence of events–one of the reasons given for war in 1846, in fact–that led to the U.S. acquisition of what today is the Southwest.

For this class, though, the most relevant claims are those relating to the involvement of U.S. nationals in the fight for Mexican independence. They document early contact between U.S. and what would become Mexican nationals, and U.S. activity as the western movement of its citizens reached the lands under Spanish rule.

Specifically, I chose to look at claims 8, 9, and 10 (filed together); 13 and 14 (filed together), 24, 47, and 48 and 49 (filed together). These, interestingly, were all related: They all had to do with aid provided by merchants, mostly from New Orleans (some from Baltimore), in 1816 at the solicitation of José Manuel de Herrera, an agent for insurgent leaders Guadalupe Victoria (later Mexico’s first president) and Francisco Xavier Mina.

First I’ll provide some basic impressions gleaned from reading and transcribing the memorials (PDF here), and then delve into what basic text mining–through word clouds in Voyant–can and cannot yield.

General Impressions

In general, the memorials show that Herrera worked with several merchants to outfit ships and procure weapons and supplies for Victoria and Mina. Herrera made his purchases on credit; because of a reversal of fortune, Victoria was unable to pay the merchants. Eventually, according to the memorials, in 1824 the independent Mexican government assumed responsibility for repayment, but the country’s continuing financial crisis prevented payment. Finally the merchants, and/or their heirs, filed claims before the 1839 claims commission.

Reading the memorials (which are among the many papers filed as part of any claim) in the process of transcribing them for text mining (discussed below) revealed some similarities. The merchants were consistent in their stories that they did what they did for the motive of helping Mexican “patriots,” as they called the insurgents. The use of the term “patriots” particularly stood out to me, showing at least an implicit comparison with the United States’s origins. This jives with the bigger picture of strength of support for Latin American independence movements at that moment in time, which Caitlin Fitz analyzes in her forthcoming book.

The claimants also were remarkably consistent in saying that Herrera promised them payment–altruism was not the only motivation for the merchants (and indeed, one can doubt they would have carried out essentially private foreign aid)–but that first the insurgents and then Mexico could not repay.

They were also consistent in pointing to Edward Livingston, by that time a former mayor of New York and member of Congress who had moved to Louisiana in 1804, as one of the organizers of schemes to aid Mexican insurgents. Livingston later served as a U.S. Senator from Louisiana and, from 1831 to 1833, U.S. Secretary of State for President Andrew Jackson. Livingston’s involvement in Mexican independence is not mentioned in his short official biography from the U.S. State Department; for the final paper, I’ll have to look into other, longer biographies to see if that involvement is mentioned. This raises the question of how Livingston’s involvement at this time influenced his later work as Secretary of State; specifically, how did he behave toward Mexico? Did his attitudes change, as did the attitudes of many other U.S.-Americans between the 1810s and 1830s?

Basic Text Mining: Voyant

But I’d like to go a little bit further, and see if running Voyant word clouds on the memorials can either raise new questions or bring about new answers that a read didn’t. Because of time, I didn’t transcribe all of the memorials in these claims, but rather:

  • Claim 8/9/10: Memorials 1 and 2 (tough to read, so many blank spaces).
  • Claim 13.
  • Claim 47: Memorial 1.
  • Claim 48/49: Memorial 1.

What are the most common words used in these claims?

First, here’s the word cloud before removing stop words:


Obviously, not so helpful because of the presence of words like “the,” etc. So with the default stop words removed, here’s what we get:


This is a little more telling. We see the name Herrera quite prominent here, so if I hadn’t already read the documents for the purposes of transcription, I’d know that Herrera played a prominent role, and would know to look for more about him. We see some financial terms here, such as “exchange” and “advances”–indicating that the merchants at least are portraying these transactions not as aid. We see that ships were involved, and also see that arms were one of the major goods. Also we see names like Duncan, Wollstonecraft, and Livingston.

This cloud still has some issues, though. The names of the claimants themselves come through quite a bit. So let’s remove some more words:

  • Names that happen frequently but aren’t claimants: herrera, manuel
  • Titles: don, mr, general
  • Where the goods are going: mexican, mexico
  • Who they are: memorialist, wheeler
  • Where they are: orleans, states, united, new
  • To whom they are addressing the memorial, and words associated with the legalese of the claims: government, board, respectfully, submit, claim

With those words gone, let’s see what we get:

Seeing this word cloud, I would have removed other words, but let’s stick with it for now.

Looking at these charts, one word I’m surprised not to see more is “patriot.” When reading this small sample of texts, that term really stuck out at me. Here, it’s not even visible. This is perhaps because of the structure of the documents: They go briefly into the original circumstances of the claim, then also document the steps that the claimant took to get it resolved, showing that he or she is not simply coming at the last minute to get money.

Indeed, this shows a flaw of using a simple technological tool like a word cloud in Voyant for research like this. It could yield some interesting things, especially if you haven’t already read one of the documents before. But it still doesn’t answer questions: It just shows ways to look further. One still must read the documents, especially in a small sample set like this.

Next Steps: Further Use of Voyant and Topic Modeling

As seen above, Voyant can only do so much. But this has shown me some next steps that I’ll plan on taking for my final paper for this class.

First of all, I’ll need to transcribe more of the memorials. I simply ran out of time to transcribe more. I’ll probably stick with running text mining tools on the memorials themselves, though. While the memorials are only some of the documents contained in this valuable set, they are the most consistent. They represent testimony from the claimants themselves, as they wanted to present their claims before the board of commissioners. They follow a consistent format, and thus make a consistent data set, which is important for text mining.

Then, I’d like to use Voyant more fully. It offers more tools than word clouds, and allows for comparisons of documents. Instead of using the tools, especially word clouds, for these memorials as a whole, I’d like to experiment a bit more. How do word frequencies vary across the memorials? What are the differences among the different claims, and even among memorials for the same claim?

Further, what about using other tools, like topic modeling (explained here nicely by Megan R. Brett, a fellow GMU Ph.D. student)? Would running these texts through one of the topic modeling tools yield some insights that a regular human read might miss?

Finally, though, I will also plan on using other documents besides the memorials. The memorials are the nicest summations of each case from the perspective of the claimant. But the claimants produced them at particular places in time, as summations that often accompanied other evidence, such as letters, ledgers, and many financial documents. How do letters from the time involved, in particular, compare with the testimony offered in memorials? Can we see change over time in this individuals perceptions of Mexico, Mexicans, and his or her role in Mexican independence? Do we see evidence of later involvement in, for example, schemes in Texas?

It seems like I have some work cut out for me here.

1 Comment

  1. It certainly seems like you’ve got your work cut out for you! I really like how you’re pulling together things from numerous classes, though. I always like when something I do in one class helps out in another one. Great work, and can’t wait to see where it takes you!

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