What the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo Actually Says

US and Mexico before the cessions

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo transferred the northern half of Mexico to US control.* It is a central document in US history, as well as in Mexican history. The “Mexican cession” as it is somewhat euphemistically called, is central to the construction of the US nation. Forgetting the cession is central to the White supremacist project of defining the US as an Anglo-White nation, while remembering the cession is central to a Mexican American identity that says the Mexican people are indigenous to this country and have a claim on an American identity that is grounded in deeper right than that of the White majority who descend from European immigrants. Interpreting the meaning of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the Mexican cession are on the table in today’s debates about Mexican immigration and also about the Spanish language. In the Anglo-White narrative, the Mexican-American war (which historians agree was intentionally instigated by the US so it could take territory) has somehow managed to be turned into a story about Mexican aggression (“Remember the Alamo”) and is seen as an inevitable part of Manifest Destiny and the God-sanctioned White control of North America.

In a standard Mexican-American history, the Treaty is cited not only as transferring territorial control (“we did not cross the border, the border crossed us”) but as guaranteeing the full rights of citizenship for Mexicans in the Untied States, including the right to speak Spanish.

The Treaty, with its guarantees of citizenship and property rights, is also tied to the longstanding practice of defining at least some Mexican Americans as White and to the “other White” political strategy that dominated Mexican American politics until the 1960s, as well as to the ongoing questions about racial classifications of Mexicans.

When I read something that said the Treaty did NOT guarantee the right to speak Spanish, I dug around to find the treaty itself. It turns out, the Treaty does NOT mention Spanish at all one way or the other, although at the time the right of citizenship was interpreted as implying the right to conduct public business in a language you understand. The language debates came later; more about that below.

I also discovered that the Treaty tells us other things about the history of the United States, especially about American Indians and the multi-lateral nature of history in what is now the South Western US. You can read the text of the treaty on a government documents site here  and it is also copied in a somewhat more readable form on a blog site here, along with another map.

Here is my short summary of what the treaty says**:

  • Mexicans in the territory previously belonging to Mexico can stay where they are or they can move to Mexico but still retain their property.
  • Those who remain can be Mexican citizens or US citizens but have to choose within a year; the default is US citizenship.
  • Property rights dating from before the treaty are “inviolably respected.” [In case you don’t know, enforcement of this provision varied by region, and many Mexicans lost their land and/or were driven out of the territory by violent White mobs in some areas, while Mexicans remained landholding elites in others.]
  • Those who do not choose Mexican citizenship will have the full rights of US citizenship including “free enjoyment of their liberty and property, and secured in the free exercise of their religion without restriction.”
  • The US agrees to prevent incursions into Mexico of “savage tribes” in US territory with the same diligence as the US is protected.  [NOTE: I found this allusion to the ongoing Indian wars to be a reminder of the multi-lateral character of history.]
  • It is illegal to purchase “any Mexican, or any foreigner residing in Mexico, who may have been captured by Indians” or any property stolen by Indians. The US promises to try to rescue any people or property captured by Indians. [Again, multi-lateral history.]
  • Lots of sections on the rules of warfare if war breaks out.
  • Lots of sections on ending the war, removing troops, defining boundaries, guaranteeing free transport through waterways and border areas.

Well, what about the Spanish language? The Treaty does not mention language at all. In practice, everyone interpreted the treaty as implying that public business would be conducted in Spanish as needed. Official documents in the ceded territory were printed in both Spanish and English for the first 10-30 years after annexation. The 1849 Constitution of California stated that all bills would be printed in both Spanish and English.

English dominance happens later. The short version is that the Anglo immigrants poured in and took over and as part of their dominance, re-defined the original inhabitants as foreigners. Language policy advocate James Crawford provides an instructive copy of the debates at the 1878 convention to revise the California constitution. This convention had no Spanish-speaking delegate and was dominated by a nativist Workingman’s party that was hostile to Chinese, among others. It not only eliminated the 1849 guarantee of bilingual documents, but required that official proceedings in California be printed ONLY in English, the first “English only” rule in the US that lasted until 1966. This is a state that had almost no English-speakers until the 1848 Gold Rush. Spanish-speakers had been dominant, and many people spoke indigenous American languages. (Neither the Spanish-speakers nor the English-speakers discussed Indigenous languages and Indigenous citizenship rights in this convention.) Opponents of the English-only provision in the 1878 debate argued that the Treaty’s guarantee of citizenship required being able to read the laws and participate in judicial proceedings in a language one could understand. English-only advocates called Spanish-speakers “foreigners.” Opponents of English-only  said:  “Do you call the native population of this state foreigners?” They called attention to Michigan, where laws were printed in English and German and to Wisconsin, where laws were printed in English, Germany and Norwegian. They lost.

* The transfer of land occurred in several phases. First, slave-owning Anglo-American immigrants to Texas in alliance with elite Tejanos seceded from Mexico in 1836 because Mexico was trying to enforce its anti-slavery laws and sought to prohibit immigration of more Anglo-Americans into the area. The US  annexed Texas in 1845 with the approval of Anglo-Texans largely to block the expansion of Texas as a separate power to the West. The US instigated border dispute over the land west of Texas claimed by both Mexico and the US/Texas as a pretext for a war with Mexico in 1848. Although Mexico was completely defeated militarily and US marines occupied Mexico City, the US (in a controversial move) declined to take over all of Mexico, and settled for the northern half, basically because they thought trying to govern a densely-populated Spanish-speaking area would be difficult. The Gadsen purchase was made in 1853 to obtain terrain that would be more favorable for the trans-continental railroad. It is interesting in itself to see the different versions of maps that are drawn to sketch this history.

**  Figuring out exactly what the treaty says is complicated by the fact that Congress deleted parts of the treaty before approval and there was a follow-up Protocol of Querétaro that clarified the consequences of these excisions. A site that contains both the full text of the treaty and the portions deleted is here. You can read the text of the treaty on a government documents site here  and it is also copied in a somewhat more readable form on a blog site here, along with another map. If you want to see a digital facsimile there is one here although watch out, the big “download” button is an ad, not the treaty. There is also a nice map plus a link to a mildly funny clip about the Gadsen purchase and other treaties here.



  1. The lack of comments here illustrates the ignorance and apathy of Americans in knowing their own history as it pertains to the present situation in the USA — a thing which King Idiot-in-Chief Trump and his mindless followers exploit to a most atrocious degree in their odious quest to portray the Anglo-Europeans as the defining racial group in America.

    1. I didn’t approve this comment and am now editing it because it is using hostile rhetoric against other people coupled with wildly incorrect facts. Sorry, but I’m not willing to allow this kind of rhetoric on this blog.

    2. Mojave Brennan, well said. The Majority of Americans is exactly what you said. They need to go back to history classes in my opinion, but then again they as always right so I guess that will not happen.

  2. Dude, give us some time. This article was posted less than a year ago and is on a topic most people don’t think about that much. But it’s a good contribution to the immigration debate and should stimulate more thoughts.

    And BTW, I voted for Trump and I am not anti-immigrant and am not in favor of building a wall between the US and Mexico.

  3. Hi, I always thought this treaty allowed free access for Mexicans into the US. Is that a part that was deleted or did I mis-remember that? History was never my strongest subject. Thx

    1. The treaty says nothing about free access. However, in practice, the border was not patrolled and no documents were required to cross the border in either direction until the 1930s.

    2. No, it made those on the Norte Side of the Treaty American Citizens with the right to retain their lands. They became American. It did not have a inter border policy in the Treaty. That is a misnomer used as a gateway to the open border agenda as is the espoused theft of land, that was in fact remained in the hands of the propety owners, per the treay

  4. I find this blog analysis of the treaty well done. To me I feel that key to the treaty was choice to return to Mexico or remain and become a US citizen. Nowhere does it infer that the countries were conjoined. I had a college professor that was adamant that the Treaty established bilingual languages and prohibited forcing Mexicans from speaking our language. It appears that was untrue, just a wishful interpretation.

    In regard to immigration, I love the Mexican people but strongly believe we need a secure border. Legal immigration is good for our country. Illegal immigrantion, regardless from where, is bad.

    1. Thanks for your comment, approved because it is sincere. The treaty implied bilingual protections at least for the people who were already Spanish speakers in 1848, which would imply supporting Spanish at least through 1920. You should research the history immigration laws, as that would help you realize that “illegal” immigration is entirely a product of changing immigration laws and laws were passed that explicitly illegalized what had been legal and regular flows of workers back and forth across the US/Mexico border. Also you may wish to research language supports as non-English speaking European immigrants were accommodated in the US through the early 1900s with, for example, German newspapers, schools, churches. Symbolically, there are many people who don’t think the European settlers had any more right to what is now the US than the indigenous people of the Americas, which most Mexicans and Central Americans are. These interpretations of the meanings of history are not readily resolved just by reading the treaty, but knowing what the treaty actually says is still important.

      1. As far as I know, all German, Hungarian, Frisian, whatever …language publication and activities were private. If you can show me ballots or other government publications written in a non-English, non-Spanish European language before 1970, I’ll take that back. Even today the only European language I ever see produced by a government, other than Spanish, is Russian, and that’s pretty rare.

        1. Bilingual schools were common in the 19th Century, even as there was an English-only movement opposing them, and there were US-born children being reared speaking German in rural areas of the US in the late 1800s. Official documents were published in English and Spanish in the Southwest after the Treaty; the original California state constitution required that all official documents be published in both languages. I have been trying to check the ballot question.

  5. I just found this because of a lively Facebook discussion about immigration and Christianity’s obligations to welcome alien residents. I agree with the commenter who said please try to get this great research and maps ‘out there’, as part of the conversation. Thank you Pamela Oliver! ~ Stacy

  6. Thank you for sharing this information. I found it very helpful. Particularly because I study the Xicanx movement, an evolution from the Chicano movement of the 1960’s which recognizes their indigenous roots and aims to get in touch with mother earth. It is important for Xicanxs however, to be aware of how some of us oppressed indigenous peoples in the southwest by accepting proximity to whiteness at their expense.

    1. Yes, there are some good books about this complex history of the Southwest US. But I’m afraid I need to dig around to find the references and can’t just cite them here.

  7. Very good, but I feel in a effort to push “that” agenda you have definitely failed to square the picture. First off the elite texans as you say, were mexican and the mexican government, at that said time, although liberated from Spain, was still Through Santa Ana as well as rich Spanish oligarchs. Also a total failure to mention why those Anglo types were there. They were invited there on behest of The Mexican Government, in hope to bring economic prosperity as well as in an effort to fight the commanche and indians of the pueblo. Initially it had squat to do with the United States. As Jackson wanted nothing to do with it despite that he was an evil expansionist and all.
    I like that you also made mention that the squabble had to do with anti slavery, when in fact it was about limiting expansion and Santa Ana and the oligarchs set up armed outposts and made declaration to stop Anglo immigration into the area, because the hope was more mexican people’s would go into the area, but anglos that were invited to come now out numbered the Mexican 1.5/2 to 1. It was these groupings of whites and Mexicans that were fighting against the government for 20 years and requesting help from tge US, not just Anglo invaders…….wow
    After Polk became President he sent soldiers to inspect the disputed border areas, and they were attacked. That is when the war began, which many Americans at the time opposed. Those are the truths you failed to mention and that, that land was Mexicos through Spanish Occupation, also an encroachment on Native American Tribal Land and Territory.
    Also the points you make concerning language are really a mute point to what the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo did. Which was land grants and citizenship to The Mexican land owners on the norte side of the Treaty, who retained their agricultural lands and became American Citizens. Aztland is a myth, those that were on this side of the Norte kept their lands, America removed itself from Mexico City, after 9 months, after The Treaty was signed…..was it expansionism through war. Yes, was the land The Mexican were on Expansion through Spanish conquest, Yes.

    Is there heated debate about who started it, and was there debate among the minds at the time about weather it was handled right, sure. Its just like now, but all that land was conquered as is all land. To say one people’s are imperialists, when in fact their gain was through the same imperialism is in fact revisionism and to tell one part and leaving many other mitigations and factual stones, unturned is the essence of rhetoric through half truths.

    Lets us not forget the revichism used in Germany after the Treaty of Versailles. Let us not forget, the lack of rights to the average citizens under Santa Ana, and the rich poor divide. One sided history is easy to hold on to, but I implore others to check it out, read the totality of circumstances not just an agenda based blog. You know maybe its my 3/4 Anglo, or my 1/4 native American, that takes offense. Maybe its that ideological political science is a cancer and everyone wants something they think they were deprived of, when they were also deprivers, or perhaps its just division that rules the day and we all have to bleed because we cannot love.

    1. Approving because the comment is sincere and not spam or racist, although I disagree with parts. The main thing to say is that the interpretations of history are always contested and people interpret the meaning of past events in light of their current interests. I don’t think there is much dispute among historians that the US wanted to gain control of the land west of Texas nor that the US essentially provoked a war with Mexico to get the land. That the war was controversial in its own time for a variety of reasons everybody who knows any history agrees. As my blog post indicates, there was dispute even at the time of the treaty about exactly what it did and did not mean, partly because the US Congress did not ratify all of it and partly just because people read into it what they wanted to see. Whether you think conquest gives you rights usually depends on whether you are on the winning or losing side of the war. But if you are going to justify current borders based on who won a war regardless of the morality of that war, then you can hardly complain if other people decide to violate those borders and see if they can move things around tho their own benefit.

  8. Thanks for a good article Pam. I am curious about how the land held by Mexicans who became American citizens was lost. If they had control of their land, how did they lose it?

    Second question, why should America not defend its claim? The land was disputed instead of solidly decided. Would you back down from a challenge on this blog? (I don’t want to start an argument, but just want to make the point that we stand for what we think is right.)

    Thanks for the article and replies.

    1. Thanks for the comment. (1) Lost land. Short answer is violent White people. Some White settlers squatted on Mexican land and wouldn’t leave, it took years of court cases to defend the claims if they could but often lacked documents from the days of Spanish/Mexican rule. And lots of White violent mobs literally forced Mexicans out of their homes and drove them South across the border. Also in California, the White men who showed up in the gold rush mostly soon realized they were not going to get gold and within a few years turned to violently removing both Spanish/Mexican and American Indian people from the Northern California area, so they could have land to farm. Southern California was a desert and stayed majority Mexican until after 1900. US history is very violent.

      (2) I’m not sure how to respond to your second point. If I decide I want your wallet, then your wallet is disputed. Why shouldn’t I try to get what I want? Obviously in this history, the different sides had different ideas about what the rules or laws were about who should control the land. I think all reputable historians agree that the dominant US ideology saw a “manifest destiny” that the White settler nation was destined by God to take the whole continent, basically because they were either morally or racially or biologically superior. This justified the genocide of American Indians, as well as the conquest of Nortern Mexico. As my original post mentioned, thinking of it in US vs Mexico terms leaves out the indigenous Americans who had the prior claim over both of the colonial governments. When we teach, we try to help students understand what the different points of view were. From the Mexican point of view, the land belonged to them, and the US claim was illegitimate. I’m not an expert in this history (which is why I had to look up the treaty!) but here are some Internet links to sources giving Mexican points of view. http://www.pbs.org/kera/usmexicanwar/prelude/md_a_mexican_viewpoint.html and a comparison of US and Mexican textbook summaries http://pinzler.com/ushistory/viewmexwarsupp.html and this source (set up for teaching) https://college.cengage.com/history/world/bulliet/earth_peoples/2e/students/primary/mexicanwar.htm .

  9. American treaties are paper thin. Ask the native Americans. My family settled western Arizona. I recently found my great grandfather’s tombstone. They were originally from Spain. Like the Anglos, they killed Indians and stole their land. History is nothing but a recording of bad escrow closings. All of this is justified by calling their victims savages. If not for slavery and genocide, would America be America?

    1. Not everything in history is bad, but it is true that Spaniards were also colonists and that slavery and genocide were key elements of US history that shaped it as a majority-European nation.

  10. In 1838-9 President Andrew Jackson forcibly removed well over 50,000 indigenous peoples off their customary lands in and around Tennessee– including African slaves who were already forcible removed from their ancestral lands– into an area that is now Oklahoma. What is not not widely considered in this genocidal history is that they were actually moved to Mexico–out of the US, and not as history claims, into “reservations.” The Treaty of Guadalupe that ended the Mexican-American war was signed in 1848, which is when that territory was ceded to the U.S.

  11. 1) There are still plenty of Mexican heritage land holdings in California. White folks acquired land legally from many Mexicans (a lot of whom didn’t consider themselves Mexican, btw — but Spanish or Californio). In my county there are both families, with land, who descend from Spanish/Mexican grantees and families who descend from people who bought land from Mexicans.
    2) The vast majority of ‘Mexican-Americans’ are descended from people who crossed the border long after the Yankees took over and made the Southwest prosperous. There were, for example, only 3000 Spanish speakers in California before 1850, and mass immigration from Mexico really didn’t start until the 1900s, with the start of political turmoil in that country.

    1. I don’t know what county you are in, but the historical record of violent removal of Mexicans (and indigenous Americans) from their land by Anglo Whites in many areas of the annexed territory is well established. Standard Chicano histories talk about the maintenance of land in the hands of Spanish/Mexicans in Southern California, parts of Texas, New Mexico. That does not erase the violent removals that also happened elsewhere. It is true that most of the “Mexican American” people today are descended from people who migrated after 1900. That does not erase the claims that are made about indigenous ancestry and ancestral homelands.

      1. What claim does someone have to California because they are descended from indigenous people that lived hundreds of miles away in central or sothern Mexico? The indigenous people of California have their own history, languages and cultures. Do indigenous people from Alaska have a right to live in Mexico since they are indigenous to North America?

        1. What possible claim do White people have on California? Should we let any White person from any where in Europe come to California just because some Anglo Americans massacred people? If your ancestors were still in Europe in 1848, as most White people’s ancestor were, why should they be allowed into California? They didn’t commit the massacres, so why should they benefit from it more than the people whose ancestors were in the Americans before 1848? The only way White Anglo Americans can try to claim the moral high ground is either to erase history entirely and pretend it never happened or to claim that violence deserves to be rewarded, that might makes right. “It was my ancestors, not me” does not cut it, because you are still trying to stake a claim in the present based on what happened in the past. Does this mean that anytime you are not getting what you want, you should just start killing people? If this claim did not benefit you, would you ever make the claim? I don’t mean this personally, I mean it to call attention that there are competing moral claims. Any claim about the sanctity of US boundaries is morally suspect. A claim about realpolitik and nation states in the modern world can be advanced, but not a moral claim. In my opinion. In any event, I see no more weight to European American claims to have a right to keep other people out than to Mexican and Central American claims to be able to migrate away from violence or toward economic opportunity.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.