Soldier, railroad president, diplomat. Gadsden was born in Charleston on May 15, 1788, the son of Philip Gadsden and Catherine Edwards. He was also the grandson of Revolutionary War patriot Christopher Gadsden. Gadsden graduated from Yale College in 1806, returned briefly to Charleston, and then decided to join the United States Army. He served as lieutenant of engineers during the War of 1812, and worked throughout the decade on defenses in the Southwest and the Gulf Coast. By 1820 he had risen to the rank of colonel.
Gadsden left the military in 1822, but remained in the service of the government. The following year, he was appointed commissioner in charge of removing the Seminoles from Florida; in this capacity he oversaw the Treaty of Camp Moultrie. The next year he became a member of Florida’s territorial Legislative Council, and set up a plantation in Florida. Gadsden County, in northwest Florida, was named for him in 1823. He returned to Charleston in order to marry Susan Gibbes Hort of Charleston on November 6, 1827. The couple had no children. Shortly after his wedding, Gadsden went back to Florida, where he remained interested in politics for more than a decade. Gadsden hoped to represent Florida in Congress, but was defeated in five separate elections. He returned to Charleston permanently in 1839.
On his return, Gadsden immediately became immersed in the push for internal improvements and expanded southern trade. He became the president of the Louisville, Cincinnati and Charleston Railroad in 1840, an ambitious project to draw the trade of the Midwest to Charleston. This hope was never realized, and Gadsden’s presidency oversaw the reincorporation of the Louisville, Cincinnati and Charleston as the South Carolina Rail Road Company (SCRR) in 1843. He remained president of the SCRR until 1850. Gadsden’s plans for trade routes to the Midwest and Pacific also found expression with his participation in southern commercial conventions. He was active in commercial conventions in Augusta, Georgia, and Charleston from 1837 to 1839, and served as the chairman of the committee on railroads at the Memphis convention of 1845. Here, he renewed his hope for a rail connection to the Pacific.
Ousted by SCRR shareholders in 1850, Gadsden continued to pursue the transcontinental railroad project, planning a route along the Gila River and determining that the purchase of Mexican territory would expedite matters. It is as the author of the “Gadsden Purchase” that Gadsden secured his place in history. Appointed minister to Mexico by President Franklin Pierce in 1853, Gadsden soon saw an opportunity to acquire land from Santa Anna’s Mexico. The result was the purchase, that year, of a strip of land comprising the southern portions of what later became the states of Arizona and New Mexico. With this purchase, Gadsden facilitated the construction of a western railroad, but it would not happen in his lifetime; the Southern Pacific finally connected Los Angeles and New Orleans via Gadsden Purchase land in 1883.
Gadsden’s fortunes declined after he bought the land for the United States. Although he remained in Mexico for three years, he accomplished little else of note. His attempts to exert influence in Mexican politics by encouraging democratic revolutionaries prompted the United States government to recall him in 1856. He returned to Charleston and died there on December 26, 1858.
Derrick, Samuel M. Centennial History of South Carolina Railroad. 1930. Reprint, Spartanburg, S.C.: Reprint Company, 1975.