John Russell Bartlett, Boundary Commissioner

Now available as a free e-book, Volume 1 of this historic document
Personal Narrative of Explorations and Incidents in Texas, New Mexico, California, Sonora and Chihuahua, 1850-1853, by John Russell Bartlett.
Illustrated version, 2.1 MB
Text only version, 378 KB

John Russell Bartlett kept a voluminous journal while serving as commissioner of the United States-Mexican Boundary Survey Commission following the Mexican War. In 1854 he published the 2-volume Personal Narrative of Explorations and Incidents in Texas, New Mexico, California, Sonora and Chihuahua, 1850-1853. This book, complete with maps and drawings, was published at his own expense, and remains a valuable source for students of early exploration of the southwest. Many early emigrants to Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona used it as a guidebook on their trek west.John Russell Bartlett

Unfortunately, since Bartlett was a political appointee who received the job as a reward for services to his party, he was totally inexperienced in planning and organizing a large expedition, and he seems to have spent most of his time worrying about getting the supplies that he deemed essential--including coffee for breakfast every morning! Traveling in his own coach, which made into a bed at night-time, he was in a sense the first RVer through the territory, and he loved nothing better than setting off on a jaunt to explore some interesting area. Further, unlike many Americans at the time, he seems to have had considerable fondness for Mexicans and respect for their culture and civilization, which are evidenced by his many excursions "south of the border."

A great deal of ink has been spilt over the idea that Bartlett "gave away" a lot of land to Mexico by agreeing to a compromise over a critical point of the boundary line. This problem arose from the fact that the signers of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo had agreed to use a map "constructed according to the best authorities" and published by J. Disturnell of New York in 1847. This map put El Paso, one of the key points of the boundary, some 42 miles north of its actual location. The Mexican ambassador, General Pedro Garcia Conde, was adamant in refusing to budge from this position, which was, of course, greatly to his advantage. Bartlett claimed that he made the best possible deal he could and left it at that. In fact, it was the signers of the original treaty who had given it away the territory when they chose to use the wrong map -- and the Mexicans, who were much more familiar with the area -- probably knew it all along!

Since Bartlett was a Whig from New England and many vocal politicians at this time were Southerners -- Jefferson Davis was currently Secretary of War in the administration of President Franklin Pierce -- there was a great deal of sectional heat behind the contention that Bartlett had "given away" land that could be used to build a southern transcontinental railroad. Lieutenant William H. Emory who had explored the region in 1848 was assigned to Bartlett's Commission after it became evident that the commissioner was using the assignment as a pleasure trip and not getting the job done. Emory found Bartlett's conduct as commissioner very frustrating, since he was never able to catch him and force a face-to-face confrontation. Bartlett was here, there, and everywhere, mostly sightseeing in Mexico. (A detailed examination of the conflict -- from Emory's point of view -- is given in the biography of Emory cited below.* )

In a way Bartlett was simply a pawn in the titanic struggle between Emory and General Stephen Kearney on one hand and Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton and his son-in-law John Charles Fremont on the other. Benton favored a location of the railroad along the 39th or 40th parallel and opposed both the Survey and, later, the Gadsden Treaty, charging that the area being purchased was "so utterly desolate, deserted, and God-forsaken that Kit Carson says a wolf could not make his living on it." He accused Emory and the Topographical Engineers of angling for personal gain and putting "national roads outside of a country and [leaving] the interior without one."* (p. 154) In the end the transcontinental railroad ran much farther north from Iowa to California through Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah and Nevada and was not completed until 1869.

Indisputably Bartlett wasted a lot of taxpayer money on his travels hither and yon around the southwest, but today his Personal Narrative is a priceless historical document and the transcontinental railroad has gone the way of the dinosaurs.

We will be posting excerpts from Bartlett's Personal Narrative on this web site and ultimately making the entire 2-volume work available in e-book format. The first excerpt will be a little expedition he made to the Waco Mountain, near El Paso. In it he describes and provides drawings of numerous Indian rock drawings or petroglyphs he found there.

New! Bartlett's description of the Fiesta of San Francisco on October 1-4, 1851, presents a first-hand account of the exciting and inspiring festival of the saint which brought more than 10,000 people to the little town of Magdalena in Sonora.

Recommended reading:

Ambrose, Stephen E. Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.

Bufkin, Don and Henry P. Walker. Historical Atlas of Arizona. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979.

Editors of Time-Life Books. The Old West: The Trailblazers. Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life Books, 1973.

Emory, W. H. Notes of a military reconnaissance, from Fort Leavenworth, in Missouri, to San Diego, in California, including of Part the Arkansas, del Norte and Gila Rivers. Download the free Notes of a military reconnaissance e-book now. If you do not have the Microsoft e-book reader, you may download it free on the Microsoft website.

Emory, W. H. et al. Report of the United States and Mexico Boundary Survey, Three volumes. (1856, 1859) This is a rare and collectible book. Some reprints have been made. If you are lucky enough to live near a really good university or research library, you may be able to find a copy there.

Harris, Benjamin Butler, The Gila Trail: The Texas Argonauts and the California Gold Rush. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1960.

*Norris, L. David, James C. Milligan and Odie B. Faulk. William H. Emory: Soldier-Scientist. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1998. Describes in detail Emory's efforts to deal with Bartlett, the Commission and the U.S. Congress in Washington.

Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ended the Mexican War

Now available as a free e-book, Volume 1 of this historic document
Personal Narrative of Explorations and Incidents in Texas, New Mexico, California, Sonora and Chihuahua, 1850-1853, by John Russell Bartlett.
Illustrated version, 2.1 MB
Text only version, 378 KB

If you do not have the Microsoft e-book reader, you may download it free on the Microsoft website.