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Hell on Earth:

The 1893 Mexico City Earthquake


By Chris Oakley

Part 4



Summary: In the previous three chapters of this series we recalled the 1893 Mexico City earthquake and its aftermath; the United States government’s post-quake efforts to help the Mexicans rebuild their capital; the ruthless war waged by  General Patrick Shafter against the bandit gangs plaguing Mexico in the early days of the post-quake era; and the start of Guatemala’s efforts to seize control of the Mexican border province of Campeche. In this installment we’ll look at the final phase of General Shafter’s campaign to crush the bandit gangs and the transition of Sonora and Chihuahua from Mexican to U.S. jurisdiction.


General Patrick Shafter’s victory in his battle with los Perros Locos at Acapulco was his most significant military success in his 2½-year campaign to crush the bandit gangs that had been plaguing the Mexican countryside since the 1893 Mexico City quake. With the Locos effectively out of business, the biggest threat to the  stability of post-quake Mexican society had been neutralized and the remaining gangs in Mexico had been put on notice that their turn would be coming sooner or later.

It would take more than a year after los Perros Locos’s demise for Shafter’s troops to finish their campaign against the remaining bandit gangs, but a critical turning point had been reached. From that moment on, the U.S. Army would maintain the upper hand in its war with the remaining outlaw bands roaming the Mexican desert. Even in view of the fresh round of unfortunate civil unrest which struck Mexico in the early 20th century, General Shafter’s anti-bandit campaign can still be regarded as a strategic triumph; had the post-quake bandit gangs still been active after the year 1900, the United States would have faced a serious threat along its southern borders...


....borders which would stretch to include Chihuahua and Sonora after the last of the outlaw bands surrendered to Shafter in November of 1896. For while Shafter and his men were methodically eliminating the remaining bandit groups in Mexico’s hinterlands, the movement for Sonora and Chihuahua to secede from the rest of Mexico and join the United States was continuing to build momentum. Appeals by the federal government in distant Mexico City to the residents of those provinces to stay under Mexican jurisdiction were falling on increasingly deaf ears; the 1893 quake and its aftermath had frayed Sonora’s and Chihuahua’s ties with Mexico City beyond even a slight hope of repair. Indeed, one Mexican federal official making such an appeal when he visited the Sonoran state capital Hermosillo was very fortunate to get out alive. The Chihuahuan governor, who had at first been neutral on the question, abandoned this neutrality and in early December of 1896 gave a speech before the provincial legislature in which he came out foursquare in support of the movement to join the United States; three weeks later Sonora’s governor delivered a similar address before his own legislature.

The debate over Chihuahua’s and Sonora’s futures finally came to a head in February of 1897, when thousands of demonstrators in both provinces held rallies calling for referendums to be held to decide their future status. After days of urgent debate in Hermosillo and in the Chihuahuan state capital Chihuahua, it was finally decided to let the proposed referendums go forward. The results of the voting on said referendums would sharply transform politics and culture on both sides of the Rio Grande...


In the runup to the balloting for the referendums on whether Sonora and Chihuahua should join the United States, both those who favored switching to U.S. jurisdiction and those who favored staying part of Mexico lobbied heavily in support of their respective views on the matter. These efforts are well-known to historians; what is not so familiar is that right around this same time a third group was promoting its own agenda-- a quixotic but fervent fringe party that saw in the referendums the opportunity for Sonora and Chihuahua to become independent countries. It was, of course, a fantasy, but one which reflected the anxiety that some people felt about breaking away from the Mexican federal government and placing themselves under the authority of a nation with which their grandparents had been at war only half a century earlier.

This fringe group, the largest faction of which was somewhat ironically known as the Unity Party, envisioned the future Sonora and Chihuahua acting as buffer states between Mexico and the U.S. and providing a so-called ‘third way’ for those not comfortable living under either Mexican or American rule. It was an idea destined for failure right from the outset; neither Sonora nor Chihuahua was in any position to function as a sovereign country. The ‘third way’ advocates soon faded into obscurity, leaving supporters of the other two options to battle each other for the hearts, minds, and votes of Sonora’s and Chihuahua’s citizens.

On March 21st, 1897 the referendum balloting results were announced. By a five-to-one margin in Chihuahua and a nine-to-one margin in Sonora, the vote went in favor of seceding from Mexico and becoming part of the United States. One South Carolina newspaper1 could hardly help noting the irony of two states seceding to join the Union just 35 years after eleven states had seceded to get away from it. In Texas, where bilingualism had been a fact of life generations before the word was coined, merchants started positioning themselves to profit handsomely from what was expected to be an economic boom in Sonora and Chihuahua once they became part of the U.S.; both regions were particularly attractive to the movers and shakers within the oil industry, which despite being less than two decades old was already a major force in American economic life.

But before anything else could happen, Congress had to vote on whether to admit Sonora and Chihuahua into the Union and the Mexican government had to be compensated for the economic loss it would take as a consequence of the two states’ transference from Mexican to U.S. authority. In June of 1897 U.S. and Mexican diplomats assembled in San Francisco to sign an agreement under which Washington would pay Mexico City an annual indemnity to cover the tax revenues the Mexican federal government would have collected had Sonora and Chihuahua remained part of Mexico. By mid-July the last Mexican army units had evacuated from Sonora, turning over their defense and security responsibilities to US troops; in early August the last detachment of Mexican regular troops completed their withdrawal from Chihuahua.

On August 23rd, 1897 Sonora was formally admitted into the Union as the 46th state; Chihuahua became the 47th state ten days later. To preserve a sense of continuity in state government and give Sonoran and Chihuahuan state legislators adequate time to bring their election laws closer in line with those of the other 45 states in the Union, it was decided by Washington to let incumbent governors and lawmakers in both states finish out their terms of office pending completion of the transition from Mexican to U.S. authority.


When the Spanish-American War broke out in February of 1898, a good number of Sonoran and Chihuahuan adult males enlisted for service in the U.S. armed forces; most of these served in the U.S. Army, usually as scouts, translators, or intelligence personnel aiding in the interrogation of Spanish prisoners. Meanwhile, down along Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, the residents of Campeche found themselves being subjected to increasing harassment by Guatemalan raiders. Publicly the Guatemalan government denounced such raids and said it would make every effort to bring them to a stop; privately, though, more often than not it tended to look the other way-- and in some cases government officials were even helping the raiders(though said officials took great pains to conceal their involvement lest things should turn sour for them).

While at first glance these attacks seemed to be nothing more than random incursions by bandits seeking to take advantage of the misfortunes of post-quake Mexico, with hindsight we can now see that the raids were in fact part of a well-orchestrated campaign waged by expansionist factions of the Guatemalan government to further loosen Mexico City’s already tenuous hold on the province and then break it altogether. As a fresh wave of political troubles began to afflict the Mexican federal government in the interim between the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th, Campecheans would find themselves getting victimized even further by the growing predatory impulses of their southern neighbors....


To Be Continued



[1] The March 23rd, 1897 edition of the Charleston Mercury.

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