MONMOUTH, Ill. — With Mexican trade and immigration dominating the headlines these days, it’s interesting to look back at how earlier generations viewed relations between the United States and our neighbor to the south.
Ulysses Grant, who served as a quartermaster during the Mexican War, remained in Mexico following that conflict, hiking, learning the language and falling in love with the country’s natural beauty. As commanding general of the Union Army during the final days of the Civil War, Grant developed a plan to oust Emperor Maximilian from Mexico, using combined Union and Confederate forces.
Maximilian had recently been installed as a puppet emperor by Napoleon III of France, who sought to expand his empire into the Western Hemisphere. The Lincoln administration, friendly with Mexican President Benito Juárez, was troubled by France’s presence and its interference with the Monroe Doctrine.
After Lincoln’s assassination, a volunteer army was assembled by the United States in Mexico, armed with captured Confederate weapons. Before any major conflict, however, Napoleon III began pulling out of the country and Maximilian, who was widely seen as a naïve and tragic figure, was captured and executed by Juárez’s army in 1867.
One American who sympathized with Maximilian’s fate but was also a strong supporter of the young Mexican republic was Monmouth businessman William Hanna. In September 1885, as partner in the Weir Plow Co., he took a business trip to Mexico, where a railroad washout caused him to be delayed in Querétaro, the city near which Maximilian had been shot 18 years earlier.
While sitting in the lobby of the Hotel del Furrocarriz, Hanna composed a letter to the Monmouth Evening Gazette. As a capitalist, he wrote enthusiastically about industry in the city of 38,000, while also describing the independence day celebration he had witnessed in the town of Celaya, two weeks before.
Of Querétaro, Hanna wrote: “It has many fine edifices and several public squares. Having an altitude of about 6,000 feet gives it a delightful climate; and fruits, flowers and cereals grow abundantly in the environs. The water supply comes from a neighboring mountain, by means of a stone aqueduct, some of the arches of which are 90 feet high. The cost of this structure was $124,000, the greater part of which was paid by the Marquis Del Aquila, to whom the citizens have erected a statue on one of the plazas.
“There is a cotton factory here that is said to give employment to 1,100 operatives. It was built by Señor Ruldo, and is said to have cost $4,000,000. The buildings are of stone, and the machinery is principally from England. Both steam and water power are used, and it has one of the largest overshot wheels I ever heard of, being 50 feet in diameter. The operatives are all Mexicans, with a few Europeans as foremen.”
Hanna had been an inveterate traveler since the age of 22, when he answered the call to the California gold fields in 1849, driving an ox team across the plains. He returned to Illinois with several thousand dollars and purchased a farm in Henderson County, which he ran until 1867. In that year he came to Monmouth and became a partner with William Weir in the Weir Plow Factory.
Hanna took to the road, expanding the business throughout the United States and Mexico and raising its capital stock to $1 million. At the same time, he served as president of the Monmouth National Bank, while also serving as founding president of the Monmouth Mining and Manufacturing Co. The year after his 1885 Mexico trip, he purchased Weir’s interest in the plow company and became its president.
On Sept. 16–17, 1885, the 75th anniversary of the declaration of independence by Mexican patriot Miguel Hidalgo, Hanna had spent two days in Celaya, where he was greatly impressed by the fervor of the commemoration ceremonies — so much so that his concerns that Mexico might one day fall victim to another Napoleon III were completely erased. His vivid description of the activities makes for interesting reading:
“They commenced celebrating on the 16th at a Catholic church in the outskirts of the town, where there is a monument being erected to the memory of the immortal Hidalgo, who first sounded the key note of independence of Spanish domination, on the 16th day of September, 1810. At this special spot where the monument is being erected, he rested his army under a large tree. The decorations far surpassed anything of the kind I have ever before seen on such occasions, and at 11 o’clock at night the Declaration of Independence was read, and orations delivered, in Spanish, of course, but from the “bull fight,” style of gyrations, gesticulations, and rhetorical flourishes.
“I am satisfied that they were good, and that the speakers meant all that they said, and more too. Men, women and children of all classes turned out, making an immense crowd. On the 17th at an early hour the school children with flags and banners commenced celebrating, and orating. In the afternoon they had a grand procession of large platform wagons tastefully decorated, on one of which they had a whole school of children, with books, globes, charts, telescopes, etc. On another, a whole field of corn growing, and wheat in the shock, others to represent mining and mechanical departments, which all goes to show that they mean progression. One very interesting feature was a large number of Indians dressed in red, white and green, (the Mexicans color for flags and banners) with bands around their heads made of looking glasses made in gilt frames, two by three inches square joined together. Inside of those bands, were stuck about six feather cockades or plumes, made of feathers of all the different colors, red, white and green, etc.
“They carried flags and banners representing Hidalgo, Morelos, Allende, and many of the notable patriots of the revolution. But what capped the climax, was their dancing. They were trained dancers, and kept it up for twenty-four hours without seeming to tire, all going to show that they set far more store by their freedom(?) and civil liberties, than the surface indications would seem to warrant, and a people once free whose children, even of the poorest, drink in patriotic sentiments from their mother’s breast, are taught it in their schools, combine it with their religion, and when little boys and girls six years old, will dance for two days and a night, to patriotic music, in celebration of their independence without seeming to tire, no power can enslave them.”
Hanna observed that although the majority of those celebrating were extremely poor, Mexico contained much wealth in natural resources and that the country could grow strong under the right leader. He predicted that it would ”continue to grow until it becomes a mighty tree, under whose branches a hundred million people will at no distant day find shelter and protection.”
Concluding his letter, Hanna said that Grant did right in supplying arms and ammunition to the Republican leaders fighting against European rule. “This is no foreign government,” he wrote. “It is a sister republic, bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, and we cannot afford to have a monarchial government set up on Mexican soil.”
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about Western Illinois history for more than 35 years.