7.1 Southwest Legal History: The Frontier Era (1820-1875)





(33 states)





New Mexico










% of U.S. population






Key events that shaped law and society:

  • California, New Mexico (which then included Arizona) and Texas were the far outposts of the Spanish empire in North America.  After Spain consolidated its control of Mexico in the early 1500s, colonial viceroys and Catholic Church leaders turned their attention northward.  Early explorers, hoping to find gold, instead found patches of fertile land in the Rio Grande Valley.  The first permanent settlement in New Mexico was made in 1598; settlement in California and Texas came later.  
  • Spain controlled the Southwest for more than 200 years, but its control was always tenuous.  Settlement was difficult:  it was hard to make a living from the land, and the region’s Indian pueblos and tribes fought against colonization:  they even succeeded in expelling the Spanish from New Mexico for a brief period (1680-1692). 
  • The Catholic Church played a large role in settlement.  The Church founded a series of missions in New Mexico and Arizona in the 1600s, and extended the mission system to Texas after 1690 and to California in the mid-1700s.  In 1820, at the end of Spanish rule, there were only about 7,000 settlers in Texas, 35,000 in New Mexico and Arizona, and 10,000 in California.
  • Mexico had no more luck than Spain in consolidating control of the Southwest after it won its independence (1821).  Americans began settling in Texas in the 1820s and soon outnumbered the native population; they established trading ties with New Mexico via the Santa Fe Trail and with California through the region’s Pacific ports.  Native Californians periodically rebelled against the Mexican government and effectively governed themselves.  As a result, Mexican control of Texas collapsed quickly when American Texans rebelled and made Texas an independent republic (1836).  Mexican rule in the Southwest collapsed completely at the beginning of the Mexican War (1846):  American troops captured New Mexico with little resistance, and American settlers joined with native Californians to form a “Bear Republic.” 
  • Both of the new republics sought to join the United States and they became states in short order.  The United States completed its acquisition of the Southwest through the Gadsden Purchase (1853), which added what is now southern Arizona.  New Mexico, which had a larger Hispanic population than California and Texas, was more restive.  New Mexicans made several abortive revolts against U.S. control after 1846, and New Mexico and Arizona (which was split off from New Mexico Territory in 1863) did not become states until the early 20th century.
  • The Southwest was a land of divided loyalties during the Civil War.  Texas, a slave state, enthusiastically supported the Confederacy.  California was admitted to the Union as a free state and the institution never took root in New Mexico.  Confederate forces briefly occupied the Santa Fe area in 1862 but were soon driven out by federal forces, and the Southwest remained firmly under Union control for the rest of the war. 
  • Unlike the rest of the Southwest, Texas experience wrenching legal and social changes during the postwar Reconstruction period as it came to grips with emancipation.  Other parts of the Southwest also wrestled with racial issues.  All parts of the region had important issues in common:  clearing up confusion in land titles granted by successive Spanish, Mexican and American authorities; determining what was the best way to allocate the region’s limited water supplies; and sorting out how much Spanish civil law would be preserved under American rule. 

New states:

  • Texas (1845)
  • California (1850)

File:Santa Barbara, California-painting of mission.gifSanta Barbara mission, California (ca. 1800) - courtesy Library of Congress and Wikimedia Commons

The Alamo, San Antonio, Texas - courtesy Wikimedia Commons

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/67/Pueblo_in_San_Juan%2C_New_Mexico_-_NARA_-_523750.jpgSan Juan pueblo, New Mexico - courtesy National Archives and Records Administration and Wikimedia Commons