Mexican-American War memorabilia may end up in private hands

PIERCE, Neb. – The lap desk and quill belonging to Nicholas Philip Trist, used to write and sign the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on Feb. 2, 1848 – a historic event that ended the Mexican-American War and resulted in Mexico ceding 55 percent of its prewar territory – will be sold at auction Friday, Sept. 7, 2012 by Aumann Auctions Inc., in Pierce, Neb., in conjunction with MCHJ Auctioneers of Nebraska.

Second in size and importance only to the Louisiana Purchase, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo led to the purchase by the United States, at a cost of $15 million, of 525,000 square miles, including all or part of 10 states: Texas, Arizona, California, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, Oklahoma, Kansas and Wyoming.

Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo

The lap desk and quill used by Nicholas Philip Trist at the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo will be sold by Aumann Auctions Inc., on Friday, Sept. 7, in Pierce, Neb. The brass nameplate on the lap desk reads “N. P. Trist.” The lap desk and quill will be sold as a single lot.

“Already we have been contacted by several museums from around the country, expressing strong interest,” said Kelly Aumann of Aumann Auctions Inc. “It’s great that they’re interested, but we want everyone, including collectors and investors, to be able to bid. An opportunity like this is simply unheard of and a find like this is truly once in a lifetime. These items are of such monumental historical significance it’s impossible to predict what they might bring at auction.”

The lap desk was made sometime between 1831 and 1837. The label on the desk reads “N. Starkey, Manufacturer of Portable Desks, Dressing Cases, Medicine Chests and Ladies Work Boxes, No. 52 Walnut St., Opposite the Exchange, Philadelphia.” The brass nameplate on the desk reads “N. P. Trist.”

The quill has been filled with some sort of plaster and inscribed with what looks to be “Treaty of Peace, Feb. 2, 1848 (Triplicate) NTP’s (Signature).” (Words are in quotes pending further inspection.)

The lap desk and quill surfaced sometime between 1978 and 1982 on a small farm in Nebraska, as some of Trist’s descendants ended up living in Omaha. The items were purchased from an elderly man by a local antiques dealer in the late 1970s, who in turn sold them to the parents of the consignor in the mid-1980s. Since then, they have been kept wrapped in a quilt in a closet.

Nicholas Philip Trist (1800-1874) was commissioned in 1847 by President James K. Polk to serve as executive agent (with General Winfield Scott, and when the time was right) to negotiate an end to the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). During the 16 months of the war, the Mexican presidency would change hands nine times between six different men.

The brass nameplate from Nicholas Philip Trist’s lap desk.

With the Mexican government in chaos, two attempts at a peace agreement failed, so Trist and Gen. Scott determined that the only way to deal with Mexico was as a conquered enemy.

In September 1847, Scott surrounded and took the capital, Mexico City, forcing Santa Anna to call for an armistice. By October, Polk became frustrated with the wait and recalled Trist, but news of his recall didn’t reach him until Nov. 16, 1847 – after the Mexican special peace commission had been appointed.

Trist felt the only opportunity for peace was at hand so he defied President Polk and continued working toward a peace treaty. In a Dec. 4, 1847, letter to his wife, Trist wrote, “Knowing it to be the very last chance and impressed with the dreadful consequences to our country which cannot fail to attend the loss of that chance, I decided today at noon to attempt to make a treaty; the decision is altogether my own.”

A label from Nicholas Philip Trist’s lap desk.

The historic Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed at the main altar of the old Basilica of Guadalupe at Villa Hidalgo, in the northern part of Mexico City, on Feb. 2, 1848. It was not known at the time, but the signing was nine days after gold was discovered in California.

Trist sent the signed treaty to Washington by the fastest means possible, but no one could foresee how the Polk administration would receive an agreement negotiated by a now-unofficial agent. The treaty did meet the minimum demands as set forth in the instructions from Polk, so he had no choice but to forward the treaty to the Senate, where it was ratified on March 10, 1848 (by a vote of 34-14). However, Trist was immediately fired from public service and his expenses during his time in Texas were not paid until 1871, leaving Trist in financial ruin.

To learn more about the Sept. 7 sale of the Nicholas Trist lap desk and quill, visit Aumann Auctions.

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