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The Mexican-American War (1846-47)

The Philadelphia Print Shop, Ltd.Historical Prints

The Mexican-American War 1846-1847

A short history and discussion of prints of the war

[ History | Mexican Lithographs | Popular Lithographs | Return to print list ]


Short History

In 1821, when Mexico achieved independence from Spain, the northern regions of Texas, New Mexico and California were sparsely populated with Native Americans and a few scattered settlements of European descendants. In 1823, Mexico, in hopes of strengthening her position in the north, let Stephen F. Austin set up a colony of Americans in Texas. Tensions between the Mexican government and the American colonists began to escalate in the 1830s, leading to an outbreak of fighting in late 1835 after Santa Anna overthrew the Mexican constitution and set up a dictatorship. A convention of Texans met at San Felipe de Austin from October to November, issuing a Declaration of Causes and forming a provisional government. Fighting between the Mexicans and Texans began in October and lasted until the spring of 1836, with the result that Texas became an independent republic.

Mexico did not accept Texan independence and was outraged at the annexation of Texas by the United States in 1844-45, which led to a break off of diplomatic relations between the two nations. President James K. Polk, who won his office by campaigning on a platform of "reannexation" of Texas, sent General Zachary Taylor to establish what he considered to be the 'proper' line for the disputed Texas-Mexico border. After a somewhat tentative attempt at negotiation, Taylor marched through the disputed territory lying between the Nueces and the Rio Grande rivers. This provoked, on April 25, 1846, an attack by the Mexicans on Taylor's army, and thus began the war. The American army and generals proved significantly superior to the Mexican forces and in less than a year and a half the American army had captured Mexico City and the Mexican Republic had to sue for an unfavorable peace.
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Mexican Lithographs

With a wealth of American-made lithographs by firms such as Nathaniel Currier, Baillie, and Kellogg, it is easy to overlook the fact that a relatively mature Mexican printmaking industry had a proud tradition predating similar businesses in the United States. Despite being on the losing side, the Mexican printmakers issued many images of the war. The prints would have been sold to wealthy Mexicans and also to the victorious American soldiers and businessmen who came to Mexico after the war. The quality of these prints varies, as did the quality produced by American printmakers, but these rare Mexican-made images are always of considerable historic interest.
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Popular Lithographs

American popular prints of the Mexican-American War are of particular interest. This war was the most extensively reported conflict up to the time and it was the first war in which the events of a far distant theater were available to the public at home within a very short time. For the first time, front line war correspondents were on the scene and the recent appearance of the telegraph and steamships meant that their reports were transmitted home almost instantly. The public was thus kept informed on a regular and timely basis in the newspapers of the time and there was a great demand for images to go along with the verbal accounts. This was during the earliest days of photography and before the appearance of illustrated newspapers like Harper's Weekly, so lithography was the only medium which could keep up with the fast breaking news from the front. Thus the only visual images widely available to the reading public as the war developed were popular prints issued by lithographic firms in New York and other east coast cities. The most famous of these printmakers was Nathaniel Currier and indeed it was his example of producing timely images of the war which set the example followed by other firms like the Kelloggs, J. Baillie and R. McGee. Currier issued 70 different prints of the war and these prints were crucial in the growth and subsequent reputation in his firm.

These popular lithographs generally were of small size, were brightly colored by hand, and were rushed into print as soon after the events depicted as was possible. The scenes were ordinarily drawn by artists based upon verbal descriptions of the events which appeared in newspapers. Thus, while they had a historic basis, they were usually quite inaccurate in detail. The prints do not teach us, therefore, anything about the war which we cannot gather from official and unofficial reports, but they do represent about the only visual record which the American public of 1846-47 had of the war. They are thus an important historical record both of the public's perception of the war and also of the early history of the American lithographic industry. With their historical interest and vivid decorative appeal, these are most desirable images of the sometimes overlooked war in American history.
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Reference: Sandweiss et al. Eyewitness to War: Prints and Daguerreotypes of the Mexican War, 1846-1848. Many of the ideas expressed above are based on this book, winner of the American Historical Print Collectors Society book award. Anyone interested in this topic would be remiss if she did not study this superb volume.


[ History | Mexican Lithographs | Popular Lithographs | Return to print list ]

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