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The “Great Replacement” on the Frontier: When Anglo Immigrants Replaced Hispanics

The phrase “great replacement” has been increasingly thrown around by both conservatives and progressives in recent years. Conservatives claim the “great replacement theory” explains deliberate efforts by regime operatives to replace non-Hispanic whites with various groups of Hispanics and non-whites. Progressives, on the other hand, claim it is all a racist conspiracy theory. 

I won’t bore you with the details of the present political debate, but the idea that one demographic group can replace another—with vast political repercussions—is hardly a new idea. Indeed, the phenomenon has been observed in many times and places. Replacing one demographic group with another is often the explicit goal of settler colonization. This can be observed historically in parts of the Americas, Africa, Palestine, Russia’s “near abroad,” and in Manchuria under the Japanese—to name a few relatively recent examples. 

Migration has long been a political tool, employed by both states themselves (as with Italians in Libya) and by non-state activists such as the proto-Zionist settlers in the nineteenth century. The potentially immense effects that migration can have on geopolitics is one reason why open-border policies are not a serious option for polities with small populations. The current majority population in such places—e.g., the Baltics, Botswana, Israel—would be quickly displaced were borders opened to all takers. 

In few places in recent centuries has this phenomenon been more obvious than in the Americas. Countless pages have been written on how Europeans displaced the Indian tribes, of course, and only a stubborn few still cling to the absurd claim that the land was “empty.” Less often discussed is how, in some places, one settler population of European origin replaced another. 

Specifically, we can look to how Anglo-American migrants displaced Hispanic populations along the Gulf coast and into the far west in the nineteenth century. In Spanish West Florida, Texas, and Alta California, Anglo-American migrants overwhelmed Hispanic populations thus facilitating eventual secession, independence, and annexation by the United States. The experience of this Anglo version of a “great replacement” illustrates in an American context how migration can be used as a means of social and political revolution. The aftermath of these changes—which illustrated the deprivations suffered by the new minority under Anglo majority rule—also illustrates how new migrant populations often relegate the new minority to the status of second-class citizens via the ballot box and courts. 

The Republic of West Florida

After 1803, American and Spanish officials argued over whether West Florida (comprising parts of the modern Florida panhandle and the coastal regions of both Mississippi and Alabama) was part of the Louisiana Purchase. Naturally, the US government wanted these lands to fall under US jurisdiction. 

At the time, the region was largely populated by a population that was generally satisfied with Spanish rule. Some were British loyalists who had fled the American colonies during the war. According to Gilbert Din,

The pro-Spanish faction found enthusiastic allies among merchants, traders, river boat operators, and others who enjoyed the lax regulations and available market the Spanish territory offered. The largest group among this faction included the scores of piney woods farmers in the uplands and the Creole French, along with a smattering of Isleños who resided in the lowlands along lakes Maurepas and Pontchartrain. These people valued the absence of governmental intrusion into their lives and the tax free lifestyle offered by the Spanish.1

The Spanish-US border was generally open in practical terms, however, and was especially open to new American settlers who cared little for Spanish law. Din continues:

A serious problem for Spanish authority in the Florida Parishes during the tumultuous years after 1804 was maintaining order among a rowdy and rebellious group of newcomers. They were opportunists, outlaws, army deserters, and adventurers—almost all of them Americans from the neighboring Mississippi Territory. They crowded into the poorly protected northwestern fringe ... in growing numbers to raid, steal slaves and livestock, destroy property, and perpetrate other violent acts. Some of it was done to stimulate unrest among people who favored American intervention.2

Cody Scallions notes that after 1804 Spanish officials “contended with a growing number of rebellious Anglo Americans who favored U.S. control.”3 This was made worse by the fact that the Spanish government was increasingly preoccupied with the French Revolutionary wars in Europe and forced to neglect the the physical security of Spain’s New World colonies. 

By 1810, West Florida was facing an increasingly hostile Anglo-American population that fomented small-scale rebellions and pursued self-rule independent of Spanish law. In this period, residents loyal to Spain convened a number of political conventions to address the violence and demands of the American migrants which were described by some as a “growing population of vagrants.”4  

These migrations eventually allowed secessionist rebels to declare independence over the objections of loyalists of British, Spanish, and French extraction. This new “Republic of West Florida” faced countless problems in securing its sovereignty in practical terms, and attention soon turned to what had been for many the end game all along: annexation by the United States. In October 1810, US President James Madison proclaimed that the US should take control of West Florida, but did not order any outright military action to secure the claim. De facto annexation finally took place in 1812 in the wake of the War of 1812. By then, of course, it was not necessary for the US to take action in terms of pacifying or conquering the local population of West Florida. The new migrants in the region had already secured a foothold for Anglo-Americans, most of whom ultimately embraced US control. 

Anglo Migrants and the Texas Revolution 

The colonization of Texas by Anglo-Americans followed a pattern similar to that found in West Florida, but on a much larger scale. The Texas case is also far more well known.  After 1821, Texas had ceased to be “Spanish” and was a region of the Mexican republic. Nonetheless, as with West Florida, Texas was a region with a sparse population of non-Anglo settlers, mostly Hispanic in origin. Moreover, the Mexican regime exerted little direct control over northern regions that bordered the United States.5  

Mexico’s northern frontier had always been a problem for Mexico. Having a small non-indigenous population and an incessantly unstable political environment, Mexico found it very difficult to populate the northern provinces with their own citizens. To alleviate the problem, the Mexican government decided that it would open the areas in what is now Texas to immigration from the United States. Immigrants were required to adopt Mexican citizenship and (although rarely enforced) respect the 1824 Mexican ban on slavery. At first, American immigrants were encouraged by Mexican policy. John Suval notes that the immigrants—Stephen Austin, for example—”availed themselves of the empresario system devised by Mexican Federalists to encourage Anglo settlement as a means of stimulating trade and agriculture and defending against attacks by Comaches and Apaches.”6  

There were limits to how many new migrants were legally accepted, but Americans were not known for their respect for Mexican law. Suval further notes that ”[m]any others entered illegally, chasing windfalls in land and cotton. This influx of squatters, mainly from the US South, propelled Texas’s non-Indian population from approximately 2,500 in 1821 to more than 40,000 in 1836. By that time, Anglos and their slaves outnumbered Mexicans by roughly ten to one.”7

Illegal immigration became a significant law-and-order issue as American squatters seized lands. Historian H.W. Brands writes

[M]any of the Americans who came to Texas did so beyond the auspices of Mexican law. By handfuls at first, then by scores, then by hundreds and thousands, Americans poured into Texas illegally. They seized whatever land parcels weren’t occupied and made them their homes. Mexican officials were few in Texas, and they were distracted by the turbulence that roiled Mexican politics in the aftermath of the war against Spain. The squatters could be in place for months or years before the government took notice. By then, the squatters thought of the land as their own, and they didn’t hesitate to defend it with deadly force.

The Mexican government had attempted to stop the flood of immigrants in 1830 and set up administrative districts to impose new customs duties. The theoretical halt in immigration was largely ineffective, however, since new Texans of American extraction were already numerous enough to control many of the local institutions. These local Anglo-Texan officials did little to prevent further immigration from the United States. The end result was that Hispanic Texans were a small minority in the region by the time Texas declared its independence in 1836.

As the new Anglo majority grew, conflicts with Mexican officials multiplied, prompting Mexican centralists to demand greater control on the northern frontier. The 1830 proclamation forbidding the importation of slaves prompted many of the wealthier Anglo Texans into a state of outright rebellion. But even the lower-class immigrants supported Texas secession, fueled by ethnic nationalism, anti-Catholicism, and a desire for local self-determination. 

After the Anglo-American rebels (assisted by a minority of Hispanic Tejanos opposed to centralist Mexican rule) secured Texas independence in 1836, calls for annexation by US policymakers began to grow. Annexation did not occur until 1845, but by then, the new Anglo majority in Texas ensured that the US government would face little resistance from Mexican loyalists or ethnic Hispanics dissatisfied with minority status under the Anglos. 

Anglos Seize Alta California 

As with Texas, Alta California was sparsely populated, with the non-native population of Californios thinly spread across miles of fertile ranching and farm land. Anglo immigration increased after Mexican independence in 1821 and “[f]rom about 1825 onwards, immigrants from the United States, coming at first mainly by sea, but after 1840 in larger numbers across the prairies and the mountains, began to take a prominent part in the life of Alta California.”8  Moreover, the border remained largely unchecked and unadministered due to “the inability of the Mexican government ... to exercise any proper control over this distant province.”9  

Doyce Nunis writes that when migrants arrived by sea, local authorities met with some success in enforcing laws on migration and naturalization. However, “[f]oreign immigration overland proved a more daunting and difficult challenge to the Californios than did welcoming and absorbing those who arrived by ship.”10  

Agitation for US intervention in favor of Anglo settlers began as early as 1840. Anglo settler John Marsh, who had arrived overland, complained to US federal officials that Anglo-American migrants were at the mercy of local officials and required better “protection” from American officials. Marsh also began efforts to recruit more American immigrants to settle in California “emulating their compatriots who had recently freed Texas from Mexican rule.”11  

American migrants increased rapidly after 1845. As late as 1846, California’s non-indigenous population may still have been as low as 14,000, and “[o]f these, perhaps 2,500 were ... whites of non-Hispanic descent, and of these, probably 2,000 had immigrated from the United States since 1840.” The Mexican census takers may have missed many residents of California who were Anglo squatters. Suval estimates that by 1848, the total number of non-Native Anglo-American Californians numbered 15,000.12  As many as 3,300 Anglo migrants arrived from the overland route in 1848 alone.13   Anglos in California did not overwhelm the Hispanic population to the extent they did in Texas. Instead, the local Anglo population helped facilitate pro-US nationalist agitation in the region.  The secessionist Bear Flag Revolt in the summer of 1846 signaled to the US government that Mexico’s hold over California was tenuous, further encouraging direct US expansion into the region. The Anglo migrants were motivated in part by a desire to foster US expansionism, but also by a perceived incompatibility between Anglo and Hispanic culture:  “On the eve of the United States’s war with Mexico, the American populace was festering under Mexican rule. There was a growing discontent among the newly arrived immigrants, who perceived Mexican laws as arbitrary and repressive.”14   As the Anglo immigrant population grew, it felt increasingly emboldened and ”the immigrants from the United States, more numerous and more aggressive than any others, finally took matters into their own hands, with momentous consequences.”15  

It is unlikely Anglo Californians would have achieved independence in California on their own without direct military aid from Washington.  Yet, immigration was critical to the equation in that it consolidated Anglo rule over the natives and Hispanics. Anglo immigrants ballooned California’s population to 200,000 in 1852, ensuring there would be no ambiguity about whether or not California was Mexican.16

The Aftermath of Anglo “Replacement” 

It was not long before Hispanic residents of Texas and California felt the sting of being relegated to a minority under Anglo rule. In both regions, new Anglo policymakers had promised to respect Hispanic property and ensure an impartial legal system. This was not the reality for many Hispanics, however. Jesús F. de la Teja writes

Texans, in regarding Tejanos as “Mexicans,” that is foreigners, were in the process of dissolving that uneasy partnership that had been created during the Mexican era. Promises that the laws would be published in Spanish went unfulfilled. Manipulation of the legal system led to land loss. Association with the enemy-Mexico and Indians-licensed indiscriminate violence against them. Identification with Catholicism made them the enemies of progress and enlightened thinking. ... The history of Texan-Tejano relations in the second half of the nineteenth century is, therefore, one of increasing intolerance and segregation.17

These trends began in the days of the Texas republic and continued after annexation. Hispanics, of course, were an even smaller minority nationwide than in Texas, and Mexican-Americans enjoyed little representation at the federal level. 

Although the letter of the law did not often target Hispanics, the judiciary, dominated by Anglos, enabled manipulation of the legal system in favor of Anglos. For example, anti-Mexican sentiment among Anglo settlers impelled many to find ways to seize Mexican-American lands via squatting. With the introduction of new US courts into these territories—staffed by Anglo-American judges—lawsuits were frequently employed to confirm squatters as the “rightful” owners of the lands in question. The founder of the City of Brownsville, Texas—Charles Stillman—built his property empire largely on a morally and legally dubious strategy of buying up squatter claims on the lands that were legally owned by the Cavazos family. Stillman eventually forced Pedro Cavazos to sell the land at a small fraction of the market price by threatening Cavazos with ruinous lawsuits. Stillman never paid this much-reduced promised price, and the courts never enforced the contract.18  

Cases such as these would eventually lead to violence in some cases, perhaps most famously with the “Cortina Wars.” The deprivations of the Hispanic minority would continue into the twentieth century and included the systemic lynching of 300 or more Mexican-Americans in 1915 by local militias and the Texas Rangers.19

Some of the most notable anti-Hispanic legislation was found in California. Although the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (ending the Mexican-American war) had pledged the US to enforcing the existing property rights of Mexicans, this promise was soon forgotten. Kim Chanbonpin notes

Congress substantively breached the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo when it enacted the California Land Act of 1851. While the terms of the Treaty implied unlimited protections, the Act reduced those protections to a period of two years. The Board [of Land Commissioners] placed an almost impossible burden of proof on the Mexican claimants. Quite simply, the sponsors of the Act aimed “to force Mexicans off the land by encouraging squatters to invade them.”20

It was clear who owned these lands in most cases, but politics ensured that Congress generally sided with Anglo-Americans. Chanbonbin continues:

The Mexican landowners had legal title, originating from a sovereign, yet their lands were taken away by the Board of Land Commissioners and the federal Possessory Act. As a result, settlers received squatted land, whether it was public domain land claimed by the federal government or tracts of land owned by private individuals. ... The federal government made it easier for these squatters to make land claims by making it more difficult for Mexican landowners to register in U.S. land courts.21

This all, of course, was contrary to the promises made to the new immigrants who insisted that the rights of the new minority would be protected. The Mexican-American population soon fell out of favor with the state legislatures and local governments. Lawsuits were decided by Anglo judges, and verdicts by Anglo juries. Laws were made by Anglo legislators. The cumulative effect, Pitt concludes was that the “gringo behaved more violently, maliciously, and immorally than he thought: it was he who first guaranteed the Californians full citizenship; he who agreed to treat them as equals and not as conquered people; he who broke his word by declaring open season on the rancheros.”22

The American experience of Anglo-American immigration into western and southern frontiers helps illustrate some historical realities about migration—many of which likely remain relevant today. Immigration has significant consequences when large enough to displace or greatly diminish majorities of different linguistic, ethnic, or religious groups.  This tends to result in a decline of political and social status of the new minority, although the resulting political aftermath does not necessarily lead to bloodbaths or a wholesale loss of rights. The Hispanics of the frontier were not made stateless or driven into mass exile as refugees. That, after all, wasn’t necessary. Once they lost majority status and the protection of sympathetic state officials, the Hispanics were tolerated well enough, so long as they accepted their status as the minority subject to an often hostile new ethnic majority. 

  • 1Gilbert C. Din, “A Troubled Seven Years: Spanish Reactions to American Claims and Aggression in ‘West Florida,’ 1803-1810,” Louisiana History 59, No. 4 (Fall 2018), pp. 432
  • 2Ibid.
  • 3Cody Scallions, “The Rise and Fall of the Original Lone Star State: Infant American Imperialism Ascendant in West Florida”, The Florida Historical Quarterly 90, No. 2 (Fall 2011), p. 196.
  • 4Ibid., p. 199.
  • 5These population measurements exclude indigenous populations which, in some areas outnumbered both Anglo and Hispanic settlers. 
  • 6John Suval, Dangerous Ground: Squatters, Statesmen, and the Antebellum Rupture of American Democracy (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2022), p. 71
  • 7Ibid.
  • 8John A. Hagwood, “John C. Frémont and the Bear Flag Revolution: A Reappraisal,” Southern California Quarterly 44, No. 2 (JUNE 1962), p. 67
  • 9Ibid.
  • 10Doyce B. Nunis, Jr., “Alta California’s Trojan Horse: Foreign Immigration” California History 76, No. 2/3, (Summer - Fall, 1997), p. 311
  • 11Ibid., pp. 313-314
  • 12Suval, p. 119
  • 13Doris Marion Wright, “The Making of Cosmopolitan California: An Analysis of Immigration, 1848-1870,” California Historical Society Quarterly 19, No. 4 (Dec., 1940), p. 342.
  • 14Nunis, p. 321
  • 15Hagwood, p. 68
  • 16Suval, p. 119
  • 17Jesús F. de la Teja, “Discovering the Tejano Community in ‘Early’ Texas,” Journal of the Early Republic 18, No. 1 (Spring, 1998), p. 97
  • 18Frank H. Dugan, “The 1850 Affair of the Brownsville Separatists,” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly 61, (October 1957): 274-275
  • 19Benjamin Heber Johnson, Revolution in Texas: How a Forgotten Rebellion and Its Bloody Suppression Turned Mexicans into Americans (New Haven, Conn., Yale University Press, 2003)  pp. 119-120
  • 20Kim David Chanbonpin, “How the Border Crossed Us: Filling the Gap between Plume v. Seward and the Dispossession of Mexican Landowners in California after 1848,” Cleveland State Law Review 52, (2005): 308
  • 21Ibid., p. 309
  • 22Leonard Pitt, The Decline of the Californios: A Social History of the Spanish-Speaking Californians 1846-1890, (Berkeley, Calif., University of California Press, 1966) pp. 283-284
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