In my midterm primary sources blog post, examining U.S. citizens who filed claims against Mexico for unpaid debts related to their support of Mexico’s War of Independence, I laid out grand ambitions for the technology I would use in my final paper.
Like many grand ambitions, these didn’t materialize–I wound up writing a more traditional research paper, based on a deep read of these primary sources, rather than using text mining and topic modeling technologies. This decision was partially pragmatic; turning these handwritten documents into usable data would involve a great deal of time transcribing. Furthermore, I wasn’t sure of the payoff for doing so. The documents in these cases served a wide variety of purposes: Memorials and judgments, depositions of witnesses, copies of cargo lists, receipts, customs documents, letters in pursuit of the claims, and even biographical excerpts of the parties involved. The dataset was simply too varied for distant reading, and in the end, I didn’t think doing distant reading of these sources would tell me that much–especially not for the time I’d have to spend on getting the technology right.
For purposes of my final paper, I also narrowed the claims files I considered from ten to six, filed in three batches. These cases concerned members of a merchant group known as the New Orleans Association, who supported Mexican rebels via their envoy José Manuel de Herrera in 1815-16. They sold weapons and outfitted ships with supplies to support the rebels at a time they were close to failure. Ultimately, the rebels were not successful at that time either. The merchants wound up pursuing the unpaid bills from their support before a commission that sought to resolve claims by U.S. citizens against Mexico. The claims files I used for this paper, as well as a database I’ve started, are the result of this commission’s work.
The New Orleans Association–including former New York City mayor and future Representative, Senator, and Secretary of State Edward Livingston–had previously financed filibustering expeditions to seize Texas from Spain. In this case, though, they were financing Mexican rebels–supporting Mexican independence rather than attempts at seizing Mexican territory for the United States. This raised a paradox for me, one that I sought to use the claims files to help resolve.
Previous historiography on the activities of the New Orleans Association was drawn on extensive research in Mexican and U.S. archives (particularly the classic work on filibustering, Harris Warren’s 1943 The Sword Was Their Passport), but did not use these claims files to interrogate the Associates’ motives. Frank Owsley and Gene Smith, in Filibusters and Expansionists: Jeffersonian Manifest Destiny, 1800-1821, say that the Associates’ support for both filibusters and Mexican rebels was hard to sort out for the time after 1815.
So for this paper, I use the claims files to try to sort out some of this story. While the claimants surely supported Herrera for financial reasons, I also argue in the paper that their professions of support for Mexican independence were not just window dressing, meant to please those hearing the cases. Rather, it comports with the support that U.S. citizens more broadly had for Latin American independence movements during this time. I also argue that the merchants were businessmen, and thus could simultaneously support filibustering and Mexican independence out of commercial interest, which would sometimes trump ideological interest.
These claims records add nuance to the story of U.S. activities in Mexico during the early 19th century, including filibustering–an important factor in the buildup to the hostilities in 1846 that ultimately brought the southwest borderlands into the United States. New Orleans’s role in that drama has been little-studied. These documents add some to that story–I wouldn’t argue they change the story, but they add some wrinkles. They show how the activities of private citizens were sometimes at odds with official U.S. policy, which sought neutrality. They show the close ties between New Orleans and Mexico, including the paradoxical role the Crescent City would later play in Mexican affairs: Support of the Texas Revolution while attempting to maintain trading ties with Mexican ports in 1835-36. (For more information on that, see Edward L. Miller’s New Orleans and the Texas Revolution.)
They also provided a good trial balloon for me to use a small sample of this collection that will likely be valuable to my dissertation, to really see its benefits and limitations.