Feudin’ and Fightin’ Friday: El Paso Salt War

salt flats-280San Elizario in El Paso County, Texas was the location of this conflict over mineral rights.  San Elizario was founded in 1789 south of the Rio Grande River.  In 1831 a flood changed the course of the river and San Elizario became an “island” between the two channels of the river.  In 1836 the Republic of Texas set its southern boundary at the Rio Grande, so for a time the nationality of San Elizario residents was in question.  With the Treaty of Hidalgo, the border was officially set at the southern channel, so San Elizario, already a thriving town (the largest between San Antonio and Santa Fe) was now officially Texan.

Reconstruction brought changes to that part of Texas with Republicans settling in the area after the Civil War.  But, as we saw in last weeks article Democrats soon began to assert their political muscle to regain power.  The Southern Democrats did not mix well with the Hispanics and their culture so rivalries arose.

For years the residents of San Elizario had collected salt from the Guadalupe Mountains.  The salt, of course, served many purposes – preserving meat, seasoning and an essential component for the extraction of silver from area mines.  In 1863, the town had built a road out to the salt flats, and other residents of the Rio Grande Valley had been granted access as well.  However, in 1866 the state of Texas was ready to allow individuals outside the area to stake claims.  Now the access rights that had been part of the Treaty of Hidalgo were overturned.

In 1870 businessmen from nearby Franklin began to seek title to the land where the salt flats were located.  If these businessmen were successful, then the area residents would no longer have free access to the salt.  The three businessmen, William Wallace Mills, Louis Cardis and Albert Jennings Fountain, all had their own ideas about how the operation should be run.  Mills favored individual ownership and formed a group known as the Salt Ring.  Cardis and Fountain favored community or county government ownership and formed their own group called the Anti-Salt Ring.

In the meantime, Fountain was elected to the Texas Senate and began pushing his plan of county government ownership with access to be granted to the community.  When the Democrats took over the Texas legislature, Fountain returned to New Mexico.  Meanwhile, Mills and Cardis came together, along with an attorney from Missouri, Charles Howard.  With some political wheeling and dealing, Cardis helped Howard win the District Attorney seat.  Cardis later turned against the District Attorney when Howard decided to file a claim in his father-in-law’s name (George B. Zimpelman, an Austin businessman) for the salt deposits.  Howard was even willing to pay any salinero the customary wage for salt extraction.

All of the political posturing did not sit will with the Hispanics because they felt that all along they had rights to the salt deposits as provided for in the Treaty of Hidalgo.  Cardis, who had previously leaned more toward the Hispanic point of view, joined forces with the local priest, Father Antonio Borrajos.  Secret meetings were held and plans were formulated.  On September 29, 1877, two local residents, José Mariá Juárez and Macedonia Gandara, decided to go get a wagon load of salt.  Upon hearing of their intentions, Howard had the men arrested and a restraining order was issued.

This caused a riot and an angry mob caught up with Howard, seized and held him for three days in San Elizario.  On October 3, Howard agreed to give up his claim to the salt deposits and leave the area.  Howard retreated to Mesilla, New Mexico and stayed for a brief time in Albert Fountain’s home.  However, on October 10, Charles Howard returned and killed Louis Cardis in Franklin and fled back to New Mexico.

Cardis had been an ally of the Hispanics and they were outraged at his murder.  They wanted Howard returned to Texas to be tried.   Texas Governor Richard B. Hubbard sent a contingent of Texas Rangers to first meet with the townspeople who had renounced county government in exchange for their own local “juntas”.  After meeting with the officials of the town, the Texas Rangers agreed to retrieve Howard and bring him back to San Elizaro.

On December 12, 1877, the Texas Rangers returned to San Elizario with Howard, who was arraigned, and under bail was guarded at some houses being used as Ranger headquarters.  A mob descended upon the headquarters and soon thereafter U.S. troops and a sheriff’s posse arrived (but told their services weren’t needed).  El Paso County Sheriff Charles Ellis was roped by the mob and dragged through the streets, then knifed to death.   One Ranger was also killed by a sniper’s bullet while walking between the headquarters buildings.

On December 17, Lieutenant John Tays, commander of the Ranger troops, met with the mob leaders.  The ring leaders advised Tays to surrender Howard or they would blow up Ranger headquarters.  Howard agreed to surrender and meanwhile a local businessmen, John Atkinson (an ex-police lieutenant in El Paso), had negotiated with the mob by offering them $11,000 to spare Howard and John McBride (a Ranger who had previously worked with Howard as an agent prior to joining the Rangers).  When the mob leader agreed to abide by the agreement, Howard and the Rangers surrendered — the one and only time the Rangers ever surrendered to a mob.   These negotiations had gone on without  Lt. Tays’ knowledge or approval and he was furious to learn that his troops had surrendered.

However, the mob had no intentions of abiding by the agreement made with Atkinson.  Howard, Atkinson and McBride were executed by firing squad and those responsible fled to Mexico.  A few days later U.S. troops returned and several people were wounded or killed before order was restored.

It’s always hard to piece together events of history because everyone has their own viewpoint about what happened.  Here is a somewhat different story about the order of events — in the end it’s still basically the same story, however.

Afterwards the residents of the area no longer had access to free salt, a natural resource the community felt they had a right to since they had used it for years and invested in it by building an access road.  It was a deadly and politically costly war – because of the violence San Elizario eventually declined, replaced by El Paso as the county seat.  The salt flats are said to be now part of the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, although I wasn’t able to pinpoint exactly where they are located (according to this web site they were located some 90 miles northeast of San Elizario so that would put them in the vicinity of what is now Guadalupe Mountains National Park).

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2013.


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