Ivy Hill Cemetery

Nicholas Trist: The Diplomat Who Shaped America’s Southwest Borders

Nicholas Trist is not a household name in American history, but his contributions as a diplomat during a crucial period in U.S. history are remarkable. Born on June 2, 1800, in Charlottesville, Virginia, Trist’s journey would eventually lead him to the center stage of one of the most significant conflicts of his time—the Mexican-American War.

Portrait of Nicholas Philip Trist, 1835, by John Neagle (1796–1865). Oil on canvas, 15″ x 13″. Collection of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Monticello.

Early Life and Education Under Thomas Jefferson

An interesting twist of fate marked Trist’s early life. Along with his brother, he became a ward of none other than Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States. They were reared at Monticello, Jefferson’s renowned home, where they received an education to set the stage for Trist’s future diplomatic career. He initially attended West Point but dropped out and studied law under Jefferson, forging a strong connection with the Founding Father. After Jefferson died, he assumed the role of executor of Thomas Jefferson’s estate, deepening his connection to the Founding Father’s legacy.

Private Secretary for Andrew Jackson

Trist’s journey included serving as the private secretary for Andrew Jackson, the seventh President of the United States. This experience provided him with valuable insights into the workings of the American government and its leaders.

Marriage and Family

On September 11, 1824, Nicholas Trist married Virginia Jefferson Randolph, the granddaughter of the third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. Their union resulted in a loving family with three children: Martha Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson, and Hore Browse Trist.

Legacy Through Marriage

Daughter Martha Jefferson Trist contributed to her family’s legacy by marrying John Wolford Burke. John Burke went on to make significant contributions to the banking industry. In 1852, he co-founded the banking house of Burke and Herbert, which remains an active and respected institution in Alexandria and Northern Virginia. The bank’s enduring presence reflects the entrepreneurial spirit and financial acumen of the Burke and Herbert families, who have owned and operated it since 1852. Today, Burke and Herbert Bank stands as Virginia’s oldest bank—continuing to serve the community and honor the legacy of the Trist family.

The Burke & Herbert Bank building in Alexandria, Virginia, circa 2019. Alexandria was once a larger, more thriving river port than the nation’s capital city, Washington, D.C. [Photograph: C. M. Highsmith, Library of Congress]

The Mexican-American War and Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo

In 1846, President James K. Polk appointed him as a special envoy to Mexico with the critical mission of negotiating a peace treaty to end the Mexican-War. The active negotiations, which lasted about a month, were delayed at every point by haggling over details and slow correspondence between the Mexican commissioners and their government, a hundred miles away, which resisted U.S. demands.

General Scott’s Entry into Mexico City
Source: Immediate image source: Link to Image
Originally published in George Wilkins Kendall & Carl Nebel: The War between the United States and Mexico Illustrated, Embracing Pictorial Drawings of all the Principal Conflicts. New York: D. Appleton; Philadelphia: George Appleton [Paris: Plon Brothers], 1851.

At first, the Mexicans, based on long-established internal borders, would recognize Texas territory only to the Nueces River. They also resisted the cession of New Mexico, and a particularly bitter argument arose over the cession of San Diego, which they denied had ever been a part of Upper California. Mexico’s bargaining position, weakened after General Winfield Scott’s capture of Mexico City, led to both territorial concessions and a lowering of the American purchase price of $15 million, half of the original Mexican offer.

The Treaty’s Impact and Controversy

Trist’s dedication and tenacity were put to the test during his negotiations in Mexico. He faced numerous challenges, including opposition from his own government. At one point, President Polk even ordered him to return to the United States. However, Trist chose to remain in Mexico, determined to continue his diplomatic efforts.

In a December 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.” Trist’s decision was a pivotal moment in the negotiations. Promptly, he sent a copy of the treaty to Washington, and President Polk, recognizing the gravity of the situation, forwarded it to the Senate for their advice and consent. The Senate, though with some reluctance, ratified the treaty on March 10, 1848, by a vote of 34 to 14. Notably, Article X, which guaranteed the protection of Mexican land grants, was removed during this process. The United States withdrew its troops from the Mexican capital following the ratification.

Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo [Exchange copy]; 2/2/1848; Perfected Treaties, 1778 – 1945; General Records of the United States Government, Record Group 11; National Archives Building, Washington, DC.

Legacy and Territorial Expansion

With the annexation of more than 525,000 square miles of land, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo extended the boundaries of the United States west to the Pacific Ocean. This agreement and the 1853 Gadsden Purchase created the southern border of the present-day United States.

Life After Diplomacy

Upon returning to the United States, Nicholas Trist’s political career came to a close, but he continued to make contributions to his community. He settled into a legal practice in Alexandria, Virginia, and in 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed him as Alexandria’s Postmaster.

A Final Resting Place in Alexandria, Virginia

Nicholas Trist passed away while serving as Alexandria’s Postmaster on February 11, 1874. He found his eternal rest in Alexandria, Virginia’s Ivy Hill Cemetery. Today, this cemetery serves as a place where visitors can pay their respects to the man whose determination and negotiation skills played a crucial role in shaping the modern borders of the southwestern United States.

Nicholas Trist may not be a household name, but his story serves as a reminder of the unsung heroes of history. His dedication to diplomacy and his role in shaping the nation’s destiny during a conflict is a testament to the power of perseverance and negotiation in the face of adversity. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo remains a defining moment in U.S. history, thanks in no small part to the tireless efforts of this remarkable diplomat.

Sources of Information

The Alexandria Association. (1956). Our Town 1749-1865 at Gadsby’s Tavern Alexandria, Virginia. The Dietz Printing Company.

The Official Site of Ivy Hill Cemetery. (n.d.). [URL]

The Official Site of The National Archives. (2022). [URL]

The Official Site of the Texas State Historical Society. (2022). [URL].

Burke and Herbert Bank. (n.d.). [URL]

Visit Alexandria Now. (n.d.). [URL]

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By David

Hello. My journey has taken me through various paths, from owning businesses to delving deep into the annals of history. For many years, I dedicated myself to researching and leading tours of Civil War Battlefields, bringing the past to life for those eager to learn.

In 2015, I assumed the role of Superintendent of the Presbyterian Cemetery and Columbarium within the Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex in Alexandria, Virginia. This cemetery holds a profoundly special place in my heart. It's owned by the Old Presbyterian Meeting House, where I was baptized and raised, and my parents are laid to rest. It's also the place where I will one day be buried. This responsibility allowed me to assist families during pivotal moments and opened a unique avenue for me. Most Saturdays, I lead tours within the complex, combining my passion for teaching history with the stories of the 35,000 souls resting there. To further share these narratives, I established this blog focusing on the lives and tales of those buried in Alexandria.

In addition to my work at the Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex, I am honored to serve as a dedicated Board member of the Alexandria Historical Society and the Lee-Fendall House Museum. I am a Northern Virginia Cemetery Consortium member dedicated to preserving endangered cemeteries throughout the region, representing the Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex.

If you're intrigued by history or curious about the stories that shaped Alexandria, I invite you to join me on my tours, read my writings, or connect with me on Facebook or Instagram.

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