When I think of a classic Midwestern state, Iowa is always the first thing that pops into my mind. The Hawkeye State is well known for its endless stretches of flat farmland and its place within the breadbasket of America. In a state like this, you would expect many of the county names to be fairly plain, matching their surroundings. Some of them certainly are – Iowa has its fair share of counties named after presidents or generals, with a smattering of Native American names mixed in. However, three exotic names stick out on the county map like a sore thumb – Palo Alto, Buena Vista, and Cerro Gordo. After all, Iowa is entrenched in one of the least diverse areas of the USA, where Hispanics make up only 5% of the total population. What was the story behind this heartland state’s Spanish heritage?
The answer, as it turned out, was all about timing. In the late 1830s, legislation was approved to create the Territory of Iowa. Almost immediately, the territory’s citizens began to push for statehood. By 1846, President James K Polk obliged their repeated requests. However, 1846 also saw the beginning of the Mexican-American War. Several Iowans played an important part in the war, such as Captain Edward Guthrie and Major Frederick Mills. Iowa also formed the historical Mormon Battalion to fight in the war, which to this day remains the only religious military unit in US history.
The war ended in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Only 2 years later, drastic population influxes prompted the formation of dozens of new counties in the northern and western parts of Iowa. Iowans approached the task of naming these counties with the recent war fresh in their minds. Counties were named for Captain Guthrie and Major Mills, as well as several other prominent war heroes. Of course, the war also served as the inspiration for each of Iowa’s Spanish county names – Palo Alto, Buena Vista, and Cerro Gordo.
Each of these three counties were named for a key battle in the war. Let’s take a quick look at each one.
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Palo Alto County was named after the inaugural battle of the Mexican-American War. The whole mess started over a boundary dispute at the Rio Grande. Mexico refused to acknowledge the river as an international boundary, especially since the nation was still bitter over its embarrassing defeat in the Texan war of independence 10 years earlier. Fearing invasion, President Polk ordered General Zachary Taylor to station 200 men near the mouth of the river for defense. Mexico’s general, Mariano Avista, took this as an act of war, crossed the river with his troops, and attacked Taylor’s vastly outnumbered force on April 25.
General Zachary Taylor
Taylor’s troops waited as long as possible for the US to issue an official declaration of war. By May 8, however, they could wait no longer and engaged the enemy. Despite being at a numbers disadvantage, Taylor’s army outmatched and outgunned their Mexican foes. Witnesses of the battle reported that Mexican gunpowder was such terrible quality that their cannonballs would “bounce lazily across the battlefield…American soldiers merely had to step out of the way to avoid them.” After a series of victories on the 8th and 9th, Taylor’s men pushed the Mexican force back across the river, where most of the remainder of the war would be fought. The US officially declared war on Mexico 4 days later, on the 13th.
The victory catapulted Zachary Taylor to national popularity, a wave he would ride all the way to the presidency in 1848. The battlefield is now preserved by the National Park Service. Palo Alto County currently has a population of a little under 10,000, and hardly anything related to the county mentions the battle in any more than a tangential manner.
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Palo Alto may have been the first battle of the war, but it paled in comparison to the clash of armies at Buena Vista in February of 1847. Taylor’s 5,000 troops were intercepted here by a massive Mexican force of 20,000, led by General Santa Anna, as they tried to march towards the coastal city of Vera Cruz. Santa Anna was so confident of victory that he demanded Taylor’s surrender before any shots were fired. Taylor refused, and his men dug into the hills overlooking the battlefield.
The battle began in earnest on February 23. The Mexican army wore the Americans down throughout the night, and began the morning with an all-out assault. This attack nearly overwhelmed American defenders , but reinforcements arrived in the nick of time. These reinforcements stopped a potentially disastrous cavalry assault through US lines and forced Santa Anna to regroup. Still, the situation looked hopeless for Taylor and his troops, and the Mexican Army prepared for a final, backbreaking strike. However, before they could launch their assault Taylor ordered a daring, no-holds-barred frontal attack with his own men. This skirmish resulted in brutal losses for both sides, and ruined Santa Anna’s plan for a conclusive strike. The Mexican army made the paradoxical move of declaring victory while retreating to lick their wounds. This allowed Taylor’s men to move on to Vera Cruz, where they would rendezvous with a much larger force.
Depiction of the Battle of Buena Vista. Provided by Kentucky National Guard (cc)
Today, Buena Vista County takes an optimistic view of the battle. The county states the origin of its name as “the final victory field of General Zachary Taylor.” Never mind the fact that the war raged on for another year. I suppose the victor gets to write the history.
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Any uncertainties about the winning abilities of the US were dashed at Cerro Gordo (translation: fat hill) in April 1847. The stage for battle was set when the US army of 10,000, led by General Winfield Scott, began to march inland from the Gulf of Mexico to avoid the springtime epidemic of yellow fever along the coast. Santa Anna’s army of 12,000 attempted to head the Americans off at the mountain pass of Cerro Gordo. This would keep the Americans exposed to disease and help the demoralized Mexican units to regroup.
The prospects were looking grim for Scott’s troops. However, a beacon of hope came in the form of a young, relatively unknown officer named Robert E. Lee. Lee had discovered a lightly defended flank of the Mexican army that could be exploited using a small mountain path; Santa Anna’s men would be caught by surprise, as they thought the terrain along that flank to be impassable. Winfield Scott ordered a multi-faceted attack upon hearing this news, and the battle commenced on April 17. Despite difficult conditions, the Americans successfully outmaneuvered the Mexican Army, capturing nearly 3,000 prisoners in a hard-fought victory. US forces also captured Santa Anna’s artificial leg after he was forced to flee; the leg remains on display in Illinois. Certainly, a victory worthy of a county name!
Santa Anna’s Leg on Display. Via the Chicago Tribune
A young soldier wrote one of the most accurate accounts of the battle as he fought alongside Robert E. Lee and Winfield Scott. That soldier? Ulysses S. Grant, who would continue to fight alongside his future Confederate foe until the conclusion of the war.
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