Baja California Scheming

The American-Led Filibusters of 1888 and 1890

It was gold that caused the settlement of Alta California. History is repeating itself in Baja California, that New Italy, which is indeed the colophon (Kalifornia) of that great book—the world. The great Peninsula is too good a country to remain any longer a terra incognita.
B.A. Stephens
The Gold Fields of Lower California,
Los Angeles, March 8, 1889[1]

In February of 1889, the largest gold strike in Baja California's history sent thousands of prospectors from the United States to the port city of Ensenada.[2] One enterprising newspaperman, Bascom A. Stephens, an editor of the San Diego Sun, composed a 48-page guide called The Gold Fields of Lower California to assist prospectors hoping to find their fortune in Baja California. The manual provided valuable legal, geographical, and statistical information to help aspiring miners. Those that delved into the companion would have noticed one perk while reading: travelers could avoid annoying import and export taxes if they came to Ensenada as registered colonists of the International Company of Mexico (ICM).[3] In its helpful descriptions, Stephens left out one critical personal detail: he, along with fourteen other individuals, hoped to use this gold rush as a chance to filibuster (forcibly seize) Baja California from Mexico.

After the Mexican-American War, Mexico ceded vast tracts of land to the United States, including present-day California. While negotiating the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the Mexican government deemed the coastal location of the Baja Peninsula necessary for national defense and its untapped resources too valuable to cede to the American government.[4] After the Gadsden Purchase ceded Southern Arizona and New Mexico land to the US in 1854, the US government stopped actively pursuing Mexican land. Some American civilians and politicians thought differently, seeking to annex parts of Northern Mexico, including Baja California.

Cavalier Americans continued filibuster attempts between 1850 and 1890, believing parts of Mexico could still be annexed and worrying the Mexican government. In 1876, Mexico’s new President, Porfirio Díaz, tried encouraging foreign investment to modernize Mexico while also bolstering Mexico’s stability and discouraging filibusters. American investments and filibuster expeditions in northern Mexico persisted during the Díaz regime.[5] In 1888 a group of ex-Confederates, California newspapermen, and adventurers styling themselves as the "Secret Order of the Golden Field" (the Order) plotted to bring men posing as miners to annex Baja away from Mexico. When their efforts failed, they tried again in 1890. These two filibusters failed due to overconfident planners revealing their plots to the local media, who exposed their plans. Without enough desire by owner capital to collaborate in the schemes, these failures to seize Baja California effectively ended white, American-led filibusters of Mexico.[6]

The Díaz government passed the Mexican Colonization Act of 1883, drawing foreign eager American interest in Mexico.[7] In 1884, American businessmen George Sisson and Luis Hueller represented the ICM in Mexico City and received a land grant from the Mexican government that spanned most of Baja California's area. The land grant came with resource and mineral rights, but the Order had other plans, namely recruiting miners to assist with their annexation of Baja.[8]

Two factors would arrest the 1888 filibuster's development. The first came from a land speculation bust during the year as investments in the area sputtered. This bust caused the population of San Diego (the American launching point for settlers into Mexico) to fall from 35,000 to 16,000 people. The fatal blow to the 1888 filibuster came from a California newspaper. After hearing of rumors of the filibuster, a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle posed as a potential recruit to speak with Secret Order of the Golden Field organizer, Colonel J.K. Mulkey. Mulkey spelled out the Order's plans: to have (approximately 1500) laborers seize Baja California and proclaim the Republic of Northern Mexico. The report also caught a damning quote from Mulkey: "When the time comes, the Order will be so powerful…It will simply be the story of Texas over again."

With their plan exposed, some amendments came to the Order’s plans. When Mulkey realized the implications of his statements, he tried to walk back his claims saying he had lied to the Chronicle. The attention brought to Order's plan resulted in a delay to their plot until 1890.[9] The most significant change came from new foreign management in the area. In May of 1889, the English-backed Mexican Land and Colonization Company (MLCC) acquired the holdings of the flailing ICM. The owner of the MLCC, Sir Edward Jenkinson, owned a thriving coffee plantation and mining operation in Chiapas, Mexico, and sought to expand his holdings by buying up land rights in Baja California.
The Mexican government also reacted to the 1888 plot by appointing a special investigator, Manuel Sánchez Facio, to inspect the business dealings in Baja California.[10] Sánchez Facio's report alleged numerous breaches of the company charter according to Mexican colonization laws. He also found several other acts that made the company suspect. He strongly recommended that the Mexican government not deal with either company in Baja.[11]

Despite Sánchez Facio's warnings, the second plot continued to take shape in 1889. Jenkinson had appointed Londoner Buchanan Scott as manager of the company in the fall of 1888. One person described Scott's management of Baja California in 1889 as "far superior to any manager the company has ever had." Scott paid the leftover debts of the ICM and oversaw increased economic production in the mining districts. In the spring of 1890, Scott, seeking to bolster company fortunes in the region, agreed to fund the Order's second plot to filibuster Baja California away from the Mexican government.[12]

In April 1890, the reconstituted filibuster group met several times in San Diego to revive their hopes from 1888. This group believed the peninsula contained the ideal conditions for rebellion and secured a $100,000 pledge of aid from an enthusiastic Scott. The fifteen plotters devised a plan called The Grand Fandango to wrest the province from Mexico, putting themselves in the seat of power in Baja California.

The Grand Fandango called for the kidnapping of Baja California's governor with several preemptive steps to ensure their success. The plot hinged around an alcohol-fueled soiree involving the conspirators hosting the provincial governor and his coterie. Before the party, some of the plotters would smuggle and warehouse munitions-including Gatling guns and field cannons- into the town. Other members promised money for the venture to secure bribes for the army stationed in the city to stand down the night of the party. When the Mexican officials got drunk enough, the Americans would spring into action and take the governor into custody. Buchanan Scott also promised two British steamships to assist in controlling the port of Ensenada and suggested his American cohorts take control of a Mexican warship to provide naval support. By May, the group had built on the foundations of their revolutionary plot with soldier recruitment, flag design, and a list of acting members of the new government, most among the group of fifteen.[13] **

Similar to 1888, members' inability to keep secrets from newspapers compromised the chances of the 1890 plot. Captain Janes, a newer group member, spoke to a Los Angeles newspaper about the plot in April 1890.[14] Rumors fueled journalistic attention in the region, leading to the May 21, 1890, exposé in the San Diego Union entitled: "Filibusters Frustrated: Exposé of a Rattle-Brained Scheme to Capture Lower California." The paper, likely having spoken to a recruiter for the Order, spelled out the details of the Grand Fandango and concluded that the schemers named in the article "create distrust on the part of Mexico" and hindered trade relations between the US and Mexico. When media frenzy followed, the Secret Order of the Golden Field's existence faded from the record.[15]

Mexico and the US stepped up their security in response. Mexican officials prepared for other attempts on Baja California, while the US Secretary of State promised to prosecute any legitimate violations of neutrality laws. While rumors and reports of filibusters persisted after this event, no more American-led filibusters materialized after the 1890 fiasco. Attempts after the 1890 scandal most often involved disaffected Mexicans that sought to overthrow the Díaz government. These efforts would persist until the Mexican Revolution began in 1911.

In their failure, some reflections from the plotters suggest American white-nationalistic motivations for attempting such an audacious plan. Some of their brazen attitudes included arguing with a Mexican veteran and getting into an honor duel, while Bascom Stephens wrote an editorial boldly predicting that America would take Baja California sooner or later. Captain Janes, the jilted plotter whose words led to the San Diego Union’s exposé, continued to attempt filibusters in Latin America. He continued to believe that Baja California would eventually break away from Mexico.[16]

Sir Edward Jenkinson forced Buchanan Scott's resignation from the MLCC. Most sources absolve Jenkinson from wrongdoing in the scheme, rationalizing that he would not dare to jeopardize his profitable Chiapas-based holdings. Scott left Mexico and went to India to work for the British imperial administration in that country.[17]