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The Operator And The Emperors
An exile from his own land, ex-Senator William Gwin dreamed of lostmines in Sonora, an Eldorado for unreconstructed Confederates, and a title in Maximilian’s Mexico
April 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 3
A ll this was of great interest to the Doctor. As a senator, Gwin had studied the history and topography of Mexico, and one evening at the home of a fellow expatriate he spoke at length of the supposedly vast and hardly touched mineral riches of the state of Sonora. In that mountainous, sparsely populated, and almost unexplored region lying to the south of the Arizona Territory, Gwin said, fabulous wealth could be found in a maze of forgotten or abandoned mines. A fascinated listener was the Marquis de Montholon, former French consul in New York and Napoleon’s newly appointed minister to Mexico. Montholon was a member of the inner circle at the Tuileries, and like most educated Frenchmen spoke English fluently, that language being the current idiom of sport, dandyism, and high fashion. Gwin, relieved of the necessity of relying upon the scanty provincial French he had acquired in Xcw Orleans, talked freely and eloquently.
In the eighteenth century, he told the Marquis, Sonora had been reconquered from the Spaniards by roving bands of warlike Indians—Yaquis, Apaches, and other tribes—who since that time had defied both Spanish and Mexican authority. In the colonial period the mines of Sonora, especially those yielding gold and silver, had ranked among the richest known: but when the Indians took over the country, the mines had been abandoned, the very location of some being lost to record. The almost incalculable wealth of the Sierra Madre might be estimated from colonial account books. For instance, there was the legendary Iayopa (“the mine with the iron door”), lost somewhere in the Sonora wastelands: it was believed to be the richest single deposit of precious metals in the world. In the same region lay the Minas Prietas, and their location was ascertainable: in the eighteenth century, Spanish priests had worked these veins to enormous profit, but they had been abandoned for years. Still another legendary example was the lost Naranjal mine, which was so prodigally rich its owner paved the path from his hacienda to the nearby church with bricks of pure silver. Gwin’s stories went on and on, and Montholon’s eyes glistened as the Doctor assured him that these sources of wealth could be tapped again. The Marquis left murmuring that exalted personages might be interested in so dazzling a prospect.
A few days later Doctor Gwin received a caller in the person of Count Mercier, who until recently had been Napoleon’s minister to the United States and was now attached to the Foreign Office. Mercier was a staunch supporter of the Confederate cause, and he and Gwin were able to converse frankly; they had been friends in Washington. At Mercier’s suggestion, Gwin outlined a plan tor colonizing and opening up Sonora, one calculated to enrich both the French and Mexican governments and to prove highly profitable as well to the entrepreneurs in charge. The plan seemed to hold stupendous possibilities, and the Count left in a state of excitement. Shortly thereafter a gorgeously liveried lackey delivered at Number 55 Boulevard Malesherbes a gilt-edged card which invited Doctor Gwin to confer with the president of the Corps Législatif, the Due de Morny.
Morny was not only Napoleon’s illegitimate halfbrother but the Emperor’s most influential adviser, and was largely responsible for France’s intervention in Mexico; it was a speculation from which he expected to reap millions. The boldest and least scrupulous speculator in Europe, Morny was credited with being the brains of Louis Napoleon’s Second Empire.
Gwin and Morny met in the Duke’s library and took to each other at once. The interview was private and confidential, which suited them both. They shared a number of traits: both thought on a grand scale, and both were prepared to risk much when the odds seemed in their favor. They were men who united bold imagination with cold calculation—a rare and usually winning combination—and who temperamentally preferred to do business by backstairs jockeying.
Gwin told Morny that the prestige of his reputation in California alone would attract thousands of miners to Sonora—the kind of rough, hardy men who would stop at nothing to get gold. After them would come farmers, merchants, artisans, educators—many of them, presumably, with Confederate leanings—anil, as in California, cities, towns, and a framework of government would be created. Naturally those who got in on the ground floor would benefit most; but Gwin need hardly have pointed this out to so shrewd an operator as the Duc de Morny.
There was, however, one prerequisite which France alone coidd provide, and luckily she could provide it easily: military protection for the first emigrants against the bitterly hostile Indians. As soon as colonists arrived in sufficient numbers, they could defend themselves and the Indian problem would cease. Thus, if the French army in Mexico would provide the necessary initial assistance, Gwin was prepared to promote a large-scale coloni/ation effort.
Shortly after his interview with Morny, Doctor Gwin was summoned to an audience with the Emperor himself. He found Napoleon III poring over geological maps of Mexico. The Emperor’s English was probably better than his French (brought up in Germany and Switzerland, he spoke both tongues with a thick German accent), and he responded eagerly to Gwin’s proposals. Maximilian had to be consulted, of course, and he happened to be in Paris. A meeting was arranged, at which the Archduke listened to the American’s proposals graciously and gave hearty encouragement.