Saturday, February 29, 2020

The San Elizario Salt War 1877

Most folks know the Rio Grande is a natural barrier dividing the United States from Mexico. In 1789, when Spain still had Mexico, Spaniards established a fort and called it "Presidio de San Elizario."

A town grew up around the fort, and it soon took the name San Elizario. San Elizario is said to be a corruption of "San Elceario," which is Spanish for Saint Elzear. Saint Elzear of Sabran is the Roman Catholic Patron Saint of Soldiers. After San Elizario was occupied by the U.S. troops during the Mexican-American War, volunteers from California were stationed at the Presidio to prevent the re-occupation.

Before major water-control projects on the Rio Grande, such as Elephant Butte Dike, were constructed in 1911, the river was known to flood regularly. The river stayed the same until an 1831 flood changed the river's course. That 1831 flood left San Elizario on a new island between the new and old channels of the Rio Grande.

After the Civil War, there were several changes created in the political landscape of West Texas. The end of the war and Reconstruction brought many "entrepreneurs" to the area. Some were northern carpetbaggers.

It is said that three groups made up the Republicans in the South after the Civil War, and Southerners referred to two with derogatory terms. "Scalawags" were Southerners who supported the Republican Party, "carpetbaggers" were opportunists who were recent arrivals in the region from the North, and Freedmen who were freed-slaves.

Most Republicans coming there settled in Franklin, Texas, a trading village across the Rio Grande from the Chihuahua city of El Paso del Norte, which is present-day Ciudad Juárez. Many San Elizario families had deep roots and didn't readily accept newcomers.

At the same time, in the early 1870s, the Democrat Party had begun to reclaim political influence in Texas. But frankly, Democrat operatives with ties to the Confederacy were not accepted by the people of San Elizario either. And though that was the case, soon alliances shifted and rivalries developed between the Hispanic community, the Anglos there, the Republicans, and the Democrats residing in West Texas.

The San Elizario Salt War is also known as the Salinero Revolt or the El Paso Salt War. So what was the San Elizario Salt War about? Well, salt.

At the base of the Guadalupe Mountains, about 100 miles northeast of San Elizario, lies several dry salt lakes. Before pumping water and oil from West Texas, the area had a periodic shallow water table, and capillary action drew salt of high purity to the surface.

This salt was valuable for a wide variety of purposes. Salt is 39 percent sodium, a chemical element necessary for our survival. Sodium controls a number of our bodily functions. Our need for salt is absolute, and we are forced to seek our health.

But besides salt for our physiological needs, we used salt to cure and preserve meat long before the advent of refrigeration. And yes, salt was necessary for treating leather and stabilizing dyes. It was also used for bartering. And of course, salt was an essential element in the "patio process" for silver mining to extract the silver from ore.

Salt is so essential to humans and animals that we subconsciously know when salt is needed. An example of this is that animals are attracted to salt licks and salt springs. And yes, it is said that Native American Indians often lay in ambush at such places or created artificial salt licks to lure the animals.

Historically, caravans to the salt lakes traveled either down the Rio Grande and then straight north or via what later became known as the Butterfield Overland Mail route. Salt deposits located in the Guadalupe Mountains are 110 miles east of El Paso. They produced salt that was almost chemically pure. It was a two to three-day journey to retrieve salt and return home.

In 1863, the people of San Elizario, as a community, built by subscription a road running east to the salt lakes. The residents in the Rio Grande Valley at El Paso were granted community access rights to the lakes by the King of Spain. Those rights had been grandfathered in by the Republic of Mexico and then again with the Treaty Guadalupe Hidalgo.

So when, beginning in 1866, Texas started allowing individuals to stake claims for mineral rights, the grandfathered community rights were overturned. This did not make for happy locals who had been getting salt from that salt lake for almost a hundred years. To make matters worse, in 1870 there was a group from Franklin, Texas, who tried to claim the salt lakes deposits. This sparked a fight over ownership. And yes, a battle over control of the land began.

Albert Jennings Fountain and his "Salt Ring" favored county government ownership with community access. Then when Fountain was elected to the Texas State Senate, he began pushing his plan. But, when the Republicans lost control of the Texas state government in 1873, Fountain left El Paso for his wife's home in New Mexico.

In 1872, the Army withdrew troops from Fort Bliss and Fort Quitman near San Elizario and left the El Paso area without a military presence. This year, Charles Howard came into town. Howard was said to be Virginian by birth but from Missouri. He went to the region determined to restore the Democratic Party to power in West Texas.

In the summer of 1877, Howard filed a claim as the owner of the salt lakes in the name of his father-in-law, George B. Zimpelman, who was an Austin capitalist. Howard offered to pay any "salinero" laborers who collected salt the going rate for its retrieval, but he insisted the salt was his.

The Tejanos of San Elizario formed committees known as "juntas" in San Elizario and the largely Tejano neighboring towns of Socorro and Ysleta, Texas, to determine a community-based response to Howard's action. During the summer of 1877, they held several secret meetings.

Then in 1877, anger gave way to an armed conflict that was waged by the Mexican inhabitants living on both sides of the Rio Grande near El Paso, Texas. Their target on the American side of the river was a leading Texas politician supported by the Texas Rangers.

The right of individuals to own the salt lakes previously held as a community asset was established by force of arms.

On September 29, 1877, Jose Maria Juarez and Macedonia Gandara threatened to collect a wagon load of salt. When Howard learned of their activities, he had the men arrested by Sheriff Charles Kerber and went to court in San Elizario to legally restrain them that evening. Armed men arrested the compliant jurist. Others searched for Howard, locating him at Sheriff Kerber's home in Yselta.

Under the leadership of Francisco "Chico" Barela, they seized Howard and marched him back to San Elizario. And for three days, Howard was held as a prisoner. He was guarded by several hundred men led by Sisto Salcido, Lino Granillo, and Barela.

On October 3, he was finally released upon payment of a $12,000 bond and his written relinquishment of all rights to the salt deposits. Howard left for Mesilla, New Mexico, where he briefly stayed at the house of Fountain. He soon returned to the area and met up with Louis Cardis in an El Paso mercantile store in October.

Louis Cardis moved to El Paso, Texas, in 1864. He quickly learned the Spanish language and established a political power base with the Mexican American citizens of the area. Cardis favored the Hispanic community concept of the commonwealth.

He became involved in a dispute involving salt deposits and shifting influence and political power from the Hispanic population to the Anglo. He was elected to the Texas House of Representatives with the help of Charles H. Howard. Cardis and Howard with political allies.

Problems escalated, and soon Cardis had a falling out with Howard. That was because Howard staked an exclusive claim to the salt deposits. Cardis had his allies actually arrest Howard and imprison him. Howard retaliated after he was let out by shooting Cardis to death with a shotgun on October 9, 1877. Howard then fled back to New Mexico.

"On… October 10… Cardis entered the store of E. Schutz and Brother and asked one of the clerks to write a letter for him. He was sitting in a rocker with his back to the door when… Howard enter[ed] the front door with a double-barreled shotgun…. Cardis immediately rose, passed behind the clerk, and took a position back of the desk which concealed the upper part of his body. Howard emptied one barrel into the lower part of [Cardis'] body and legs and as the torso sank into view, the second charge of buckshot penetrated his heart." according to The Texas Rangers by Walter Prescott Webb.

The Tejano people of El Paso County were outraged. They effectively stopped all county governments, replacing them with community juntas and daring the sheriff to take action against them.

In response to pleas for help from frightened Anglo residents, Governor Richard B. Hubbard answered by sending to El Paso Major John B. Jones, commander of the Texas Rangers' Frontier Battalion.

Arriving on November 5, Texas Ranger J.B. Jones met with the junta leaders, negotiated their agreement to obey the law, at least he thought so, and arranged for Howard's return, arraignment, and release on bail. Jones also recruited 20 new Texas Rangers, the Detachment of Company C, under the command of Lieutenant John B. Tays.

Tays was born on September 6, 1842. He was one of seven children of John and Mary Ellis Tays. Tays was a native Canadian. He was a mining engineer, El Paso land speculator, and some say didn't live up to the Ranger ethos of honor and bravery. In fact, some say he was a known rustler of Mexican cattle.

On December 12, 1877, Howard returned to San Elizario with a Company of 20 Texas Rangers led by John B. Tays. As soon as they arrived, a large group of armed citizens, some say as many as 500, engaged Howard and the Rangers. The mob was enraged and demanded Howard be surrendered.

The San Elizario Mission

Of course, Howard and the Rangers immediately took cover in the buildings and soon took refuge in the town's mission, where they tried to claim sanctuary. After a two-day siege, Texas Ranger John B. Tays surrendered the company of Rangers. It is believed that event was the only time in the Texas Rangers history that a Ranger unit ever surrendered to anyone.

So yes, on December 17, he gave himself up to the mob, which quickly organized a firing squad. And one source states that after they fired, The bodies of Howard and two of his agents, Ranger Sergeant John McBride and former lawman John G. Atkinson, who was also shot by the firing squad, were hacked to pieces and then dumped down an old well about a half-mile away.

As for the rest of the Texas Rangers there that day, it's said they were humiliated by being disarmed and then run out of town. And though the Texas Rangers surrendered, no one should say they weren't any good. Fact is, they faced overwhelming odds.

After that, Mexicans rioted and looted the town, sacking the buildings, and lawlessness reigned until Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th Cavalry and a sheriff's posse from New Mexico arrived on the scene. Once they arrived, hundreds fled to Mexico, some permanently. Among them were the civic leaders of San Elizario.

The conflict is said to have climaxed with the siege and surrender of 20 Texas Rangers to a mob of perhaps 500 Mexicans in San Elizario, Texas. All in all, 12 people were killed and 50 wounded during that fight alone.

So yes, for over twelve years following the Civil War, political and legal struggles took place among Texas politicians and capitalists over salt. It began as a local fight and grew into an armed conflict over time. 

As for the public, newspaper editors throughout the nation covered the story and made it more significant than it was. They included lurid detail that some say is questionable. In reality, it was pure sensationalism at its best. And remember, this went on for 12 years. In fact, over those years, it's believed that as many as 650 residents bore arms against the local authorities. Also, in those 12 years, it is thought that about 20 to 30 men were killed. Of course, it is reasonable to say that double that number were wounded over the years. Yes, all over salt.

After the dust settled, damage to the property was estimated at $31,050. Crop losses were sustained because local farmers did not till or harvest their fields for several months. The wheat loss alone was estimated at $48,000. To these immediate financial losses was the loss of further political and economic power of the Mexican-American community of El Paso County.

As a result of the loss of political and economic power, San Elizario lost its status as a county seat. Mainly since the town's population decreased. The county seat was relocated to Franklin, which became El Paso. And though Fort Bliss was first established in El Paso in March of 1854, it was actually relocated in the late 1860s. But because of the salt war, the 9th Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers were sent there to maintain order, and they had to reestablish Fort Bliss. They reopened the fort to keep an eye on the border and the local Mexican population there.

It's true, on New Year's Day in 1878, Fort Bliss was established as a permanent post just to keep an eye on things down there. Company L Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th Cavalry and Company C of the 15th Infantry were sent to Fort Bliss to prevent further trouble over the salt flats and help enforce regulations regarding the usage of Rio Grande water for irrigation purposes. It is interesting to note that the U.S. government had a policy of simply leasing property for its military installations before this date. It should be noted that the U.S. Army reestablished Fort Bliss to provide protection to the Southern Pacific Railroad when it came to West Texas in 1883. The Southern Pacific Railroad lines bypassed San Elizario altogether as a matter of retribution. It's said that Southern Pacific Railroad did so as a punishment since towns with railroad lines prospered and those without struggled during that period.

As for John B. Tays? He left the Rangers and married Mrs. Amelia St. Vrain in early 1878. He became El Paso's postmaster between February and August 1879. He also became El Paso's first city marshal, though a short-lived position, from July to October 1880. He's actually listed as an engineer in the El Paso 1880 Federal Census. But frankly, his engineering skills cost him his job as marshal.

That came about after Tays attempted to fill a very large pothole on the main street with garbage. Obviously, that didn't work, and the city council fired him. He did better in the private sector in ranching, railroad construction, and real estate speculation in the El Paso area. Many say he was one of the city's largest landowners. In fact, his holding may have included El Paso's Central Hotel and a large number of tenements. 

In 1883, John B. Tays moved to the Ontario-Upland area of Southern California. There, he became one of the area's top agriculturalists and engineers. In fact, in Ontario, California, Tays became famous for designing a streetcar platform to carry mules downhill after they had labored to pull the cars uphill. On May 6, 1900, he was part of an expedition hunting gold in South America when he and 150 others were killed in a boating accident at the Tumatumari Falls on the Rio Patera. The man with the dubious honor of being the only Texas Ranger commander to surrender his Ranger unit died at 57.

As for the San Elizario Salt War, how you see what transpired might depend on how you view our government. For example, it is said that the Mexican-American uprising down there was a bloody riot by a "howling mob." Of course, the "mob" there that day has also been described as "an organized political-military insurgency to reestablish local control of their fundamental political rights and economic future." But really, who knows which camp is closer to the truth.

Some say it is an example of Mexican-Americans not being treated as equal citizens instead of being treated as subjugated people. Others see the San Elizario Salt War of 1877 as an example of Americans simply being pushed too far and subsequently taking up arms to fight an oppressive local government that was out of control.

I believe the people there felt that they had to take up arms as a last resort to obtain a solution to a dire situation created by politicians. That might not make it right, but I believe that that's how it was because salt was so essential to life at the time.

Tom Correa


  1. Very nice article. One correction: San Elizario is not a mission. It is a Presidio Chapel. The three missions are Ysleta, Socorro and Senecu. Thank you.

  2. I was wondering what the three missions were. I knew for a fact that it wasn't San Elizario. It's been a long time since I've been to Texas so I wouldn't know everything about it. But what I don't know I'll learn in time I promise.


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