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Historically Speaking

Alexander William Doniphan And Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo at 200

July 7 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of the prominent Hispanic-American soldier and statesman Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo. July 9 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of the prominent Anglo-American soldier and statesman Alexander William Doniphan. It seems fitting that we commemorate the lives of these two great men at points so proximate in time. They represent two very different, yet complementary, threads in the history of the United States of America as a transcontinental nation.

Alexander William Doniphan is probably more familiar to ARMY readers. He was born near Maysville, Ky., in 1808, graduated from Augusta College in 1826, moved to Missouri in 1830 and achieved prominence in both law and politics. Political success parlayed into positions of increasing responsibility in the state militia, and he advanced to the rank of brigadier general. In 1838, he participated in the brief military campaign against Mormons settled in Missouri. Having captured a number of Mormon leaders, he refused orders to execute them and protected them from execution by others as well. The Mormons departed Missouri on a westward trek that eventually ended in Utah.

When the Mexican War broke out in 1846, volunteers flocked to the colors in support of America’s Manifest Destiny to span the continent from sea to sea. Doniphan organized the 1st Regiment of Missouri Mounted Volunteers and was elected colonel of them. He joined the Army of the West, commanded by Brig. Gen. Stephen W. Kearny, at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. With Kearny he marched to secure Santa Fe, N.M., a mission accomplished on August 18. Kearny continued on to California in September, leaving Doniphan in command of the newly designated New Mexico Territory. Doniphan negotiated a treaty with the Navaho Indians and settled affairs in New Mexico, then left it under the supervision of Col. Sterling Price as he mounted an expedition of his own into northern Mexico.

On December 25, Doniphan won a lopsided victory against a larger force at El Brazito, then took possession of El Paso two days later. Pausing briefly, he set off to seize Chihuahua in February 1847. En route, he again encountered and overcame a numerically superior enemy force. Maj. Gen. Zachary Taylor, the American commander in northern Mexico, ordered Doniphan to Saltillo, which he reached as hostilities in the north were winding down. Doniphan eventually continued on to the mouth of the Rio Grande River and debarked for New Orleans, where he mustered out his men. The entire expedition from Fort Leavenworth to the Gulf of Mexico was a remarkable march of 3,600 miles, punctuated by challenging battles and heavy fighting. Doniphan himself epitomized the restless—albeit ethnocentric—idealism and daring adventurism that animated the United States and its volunteer soldiers in their approach to this war.

Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo was born into a prominent Californio family in Monterey. The Californios, of whom there were about 7,000 in 1840, were descendants of Spanish and Mexican pioneers who moved north beginning in the 18th century. Vallejo enrolled as a cadet in the Presidio of Monterey in 1824 and led a successful expedition against the Miwok Indians in 1829. Thousands of Indians in various tribes lived throughout California, and a Russian settlement at Fort Ross (south of Mendocino) suggested another potential security concern. In 1835, Vallejo was appointed comandante of the Fourth Military District and Director of Colonization of the Northern Frontier. This position put both the Russians and most of California’s Indians within his purview.

Vallejo established a military base at Sonoma to contain the Russians and negotiated an alliance with Chief Sem-Yeto of the Suisunes Indians. This native alliance expanded Vallejo’s own forces by a thousand men and enabled him to successfully secure the California frontier. An artful mix of force and diplomacy rendered Vallejo the preeminent military figure among the Californios.

As a young man, Vallejo read broadly and was impressed by Enlightenment ideals and the American experiment with constitutional democracy. In the aftermath of independence from Spain in 1821, the Mexican Constitution of 1824 created a representative federal republic with three branches of government not unlike that of the United States. Unfortunately, liberals advocating states’ rights, religious toleration and the expansion of voting rights were outmaneuvered and bullied by conservatives advocating strong central government, Roman Catholic orthodoxy and tightly restricted voting rights. The most notorious of these conservatives was Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna, who advanced his standing through a few armed engagements and styled himself the “Napoleon of the West.” Vallejo, philosophically inclined towards the liberals, was dismayed by the autocratic turn taken by the central government. When ordered to kill or deport Anglo-American settlers, he instead provided them aid and assistance. Outlying states such as California, Texas, Chihuahua and Yucatan struggled to regain their autonomy from Mexico City, at times through armed revolt.

In 1842, the central government dispatched Brig. Gen. Manuel Micheltorena, with an army consisting largely of pardoned criminals, to reassert its authority in California. Soon enough, Micheltorena’s army began perpetrating outrages on the population—Hispanic and Anglo alike—sufficient to inspire a spirit of revolt. In 1846, California fell to—or was liberated by—tiny contingents led by Kearny, Capt. John C. Frèmont, Commodore John D. Sloat and Commodore Robert F. Stockton. Vallejo was unfortunately incarcerated by “Bear Flag Revolt” insurgents, but when released took up the American cause, persuading other Californios that U.S. citizenship was the best of the feasible options. He played a prominent role in the California Constitutional Convention and was elected to the state senate in 1850.

The breathtaking transcontinental expeditions of such daring leaders as Doniphan or Kearny would not have been possible without the support—or at least the noninterference—of populations en route. Leaders like Vallejo of the Californios and Juan Nepomuceno Seguín of the Tejanos in Texas proved instrumental in securing the support of their countrymen at delicate times. Then-Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott’s difficulties in central Mexico underscore the hazards of operating without popular support in a hostile land. Ties of kinship on the frontier were complex and often inclusive. Indeed, some of Vallejo’s daughters married Anglo-Americans, as was the case with many Californios and Tejanos. America was a melting pot well before the metaphor became popular, and the American people bring together numerous threads into a common whole.

In the short run, Californios, Tejanos and other Hispanic-Americans were shabbily treated by an overwhelming tide of Anglo-American settlement. In the long run, they indelibly marked and enriched the nation of which they became part. Doniphan and Vallejo remain revered in multicultural America. One can find a Doniphan County in Kansas and a city and highway named after him in Missouri. Vallejo, twice the capital of California, is a vibrant waterfront community where the glorious Napa Valley meets the sea.

Recommended Reading:

Bauer, K. Jack, The Mexican War, 1846–1848 (New York: Macmillan, 1974)

Carney, Stephen A., The Occupation of Mexico, May 1846–July 1848 (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, 2005)

Rosenus, Alan, General Vallejo and the Advent of the Americans (Berkeley, California: Heyday Books, 1999)

BRIG. GEN. JOHN S. BROWN, USA Ret., was chief of military history at the U.S. Army Center of Military History from December 1998 to October 2005. He commanded the 2nd Battalion, 66th Armor, in Iraq and Kuwait during the Gulf War and returned to Kuwait as commander of the 2nd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, in 1995. He has a doctorate in history from Indiana University.