The First Civil War, 1830-1842

Rancheros and Pilots

Real War 
   Grounded Networks 
      The Plains   
      Custom, & the Ports    
      Nat Turner, & Others   
      The Islands   
      The Southern Slopes   
      The Mission Coasts  
  Control Networks 
      Mills & Planters  
      Silver & opium  
      Alamán & Calhoun  
      Rancheros & Pilots  
      The War of the South  
      Siege & Contagion 
A Note on Then and Now 
What They Called "Civil War"  
   Liberal Projects 
   Conservative Demagogues 
   Fight Scenes  
  Grounded Reaction 
Outcomes, and Vision 
In the mountains north and east of Mexico City, hacendados held some blocks of land.  Some other lands there were open to new claimants. Among the people who moved in were some whole Indians communities, and some non-Indian families who established ranches to grow sugar or coffee.  These rancheros were not large-scale operators.  In time, they would have their own quarrels with the hacendados.  Neither were they poor and miserable. 

This seizing of opportunity, this filling-in of settlement patterns, appeared in many parts of Mexico, the United States, and Canada, during the first part of the 19th century. 

Everywhere that there were great landholders and merchants, there were likely to be small operators too, and also some poor people who had little or no land, no capital -- but who did not belong to any non-criollo community.  These levels of society were not rigid estates or castes, even if great wealth had ways to preserve itself, and great poverty had little chance to gain anything.  Almost everywhere, the power of planters and hacendados was modulated by movement from below, or from outside.. 

There were various ways that lesser men could build up their positions. 

  • One way was for the farmer to look around, pick up bits and pieces of neighboring land that became available, maybe even move off to a next valley where people were selling off.
  • Another was to offer a service to neighbors: transportation.  Mule-trains or river-boats could turn the isolated farmer into a trader with the outside world. The active mule-driver or pilot could build up a local service network, at the same time acquiring his own herds and vessels. 
The outcome could work either way, when it came to social conflict.  The uneducated mule-driver could be written off as a clod of the people, no matter how high he rose, and could keep some loyalty to the communities from whose ground he came.  Witness Vicente Guerrero 

Or the ill-educated ferry-captain could sail all the way up to the ranks of the power-brokers, demonstrating the most that "mobility" could accomplish.  Witness Cornelius Vanderbilt

At the time when Guerrero was expanding from mule-driver to insurgent military leader, Vanderbilt (not yet 20) was operating his first ferry service between Staten Island and New York.  At the time  that Guerrero made his alliance with Iturbide, in the Plan de Iguala, Vanderbilt was building up a new and expanded ferry business.  When Guerrero became President of Mexico, Vanderbilt was expanding into a steamship line on the Hudson River.  But Vanderbilt never met a firing squad.  He went on, in later years, to operate shipping to California by way of  Central America, then railroads between New York and Chicago. 
These were spectacular examples.  They showed how "social mobility" picked up people at a point of transition between grounded networks and control networks. 

Some people picked up land enough, or business enough, that they could accept the control networks as something that worked to their own benefit.  In Mexico, some were individual Indians who cut loose from obligations to traditional communities.  Many were mestizos who moved into some area where they found available land, and could set up as small rancheros.  In the United States, most were just farmers, and most of these owning no slaves, in whatever section. 

In any part of the continent, the process of drawing people off, from community into control, was one way that the control networks remained flexible and vigorous. 

In any array of middling landholders, a few could emerge as men of some social power.  These middling leaders were in a position to mediate between planters and farmers, rationalizing the authority of the one and representing the interests of the other.  Of course, middling leaders disagreed among each other about how to work this strategy of mediation.

Landholders varied in how close they were to the centers of social power.  This was paralleled by a variation in how much any leader identified with his national army, on the one hand, or with local militias on the other.  Military "honor" and ambition being what they are, officers could easily quarrel, and sometimes mobilize rival forces against each other.  In the day-to-day working of political conflict, there was rarely any clear line to be drawn between conflict over levels of military authority and conflict between levels of social mediation.  But, if there had been no competition for social and economic power, and no role to be played by the social mediators, no quarrel among officers could have moved much beyond a barracks revolt -- not even in Mexico.

Without the gradation and mediation, it would have been plausible to argue that there was little to choose between Mexico and the U.S. South.  One had white planters resisting the community needs of black slaves.  The other had white hacendados resisting the community needs of pobres indios.  It was common for U.S. soldiers, entering Mexico with the invasion of 1847, to say that "your peons" are just like "our slaves."

The difference operated, rather, in what happened at the lower end of the scale.

In the United States, mediation stopped abruptly at the level of poor, nonslaveholding whites.  When Native American groups built communities in which their own leaders became property-holders who could claim a mediating role, these communities were simply removed from the scene, in order to make room for white settlers who had their own leaders.  The Indian Removal Law of 1830 was only one act in this process.  And there was no group within the political classes whose position made it natural for them to represent the interests of African Americans.  The fate of John Brown, in the 1850s, underlined that point.

In Mexico, on the other hand, active leaders varied all the way from Lucas Alamán, at the most conservative, to Vicente Guerrero at the apparently most popular.  Though Guerrero was removed from the Presidency in 1830, and later executed, he had after all occupied the office of President.

Guerrero left behind him a range of regional leaders who mediated, either

Individuals shifted back and forth between levels -- some in obvious consternation and embarrassment (Álvarez), some with Machiavellian effectiveness (Cortázar). It was not just that a Santa Anna mediated among all these leaders in a spectacularly crass way.  It was that the whole mediation process had the leaders arrayed on a scale ahead of time, ready for him to manipulate.

The comparable leaders in the United States, though they formed a similar scale from populist to conservative, were restricted much more to a standard white population. There was hardly anyone like Álvarez, and nobody like Guerrero.

This enormous difference aside, the political classes in all countries were marked by an elaborate scale downward from the greatest property-owners through the most modest rancheros and farmers.  Mobility and in-fighting, within this scale, was one of the ways by which societies kept from developing into rigid systems of explosive pressure.  But that in-fighting was limited in its social reach, and ultimately ineffective in letting off all steam.  Catastrophe was being prepared.


Site Map | About

Copyright 1999 The Intermountain History Group, All rights reserved.