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El Paso Salt War
The El Paso Salt War
began in the late 1860’s as a struggle between El Paso businessmen W.W. Mills,
Albert J. Fountain, and Louis Cardis in an attempt to acquire title to the salt
deposits near the base of the Guadalupe Mountains. Mexican Americans of the
valley communities, who had for years collected salt there for free, were now
faced with the threat of being charged salt collection fees.
Mills filed his own
claims to the salt beds and formed a group that became known as the Salt Ring.
Fountain, who had a falling out with Mills, later became the leader of the
opposing Anti Salt Ring. He was elected to the
Senate with the expectation of securing title to the salt deposits for the
people of the El Paso area.
The Salt Flats are a remnant of an ancient, shallow lake that
once occupied this area of the Guadalupe Mountains approximately 1.8 million
years ago. Today, they are part of the Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Photo courtesy
National Park System
Cardis and Mills soon
joined forces with Charles Howard, a Missouri lawyer. Cardis helped secure
Howard’s election to district attorney, but later became bitter enemies with him
after Howard filed on the salt lakes for himself. These actions outraged Mexican
citizens who considered the lakes public property under the terms of the Treaty
of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Cardis later joined forces with Father Antonio Borrajos,
an Italian priest who served the Mexican communities, to oppose Howard.
In September 1877, Howard started a riot
when he arrested two San Elizario residents who attempted to go for salt. An
angry mob captured and held Howard for three days at San Elizario. He finally
gained his freedom by vowing to give up claim to the salt beds and leave the
country. He retreated to Mesilla, New Mexico, but quickly returned to murder
Cardis in an El Paso store. Angry Mexicans demanded Howard’s arrest. Howard was
arraigned for Cardis’ murder and placed under bond to appear in court in
In early December, a wagon train of Mexicans
from both sides of the border left the valley, headed for the salt lakes. Howard
brought suit and left for San Elizario to press charges. In San Elizario, he and
a handful of
were besieged by an angry mob and held up for four days in the rangers’ fort. On
the fifth day Howard gave himself up. The rangers also surrendered, believing
that Howard was to be freed. On December 17th, Howard, his agent John E.
McBride, and John G. Atkinson were shot by a firing squad composed of Mexicans.
The rangers from the fort were allowed to leave after forfeiting their arms.
Within a few days,
several detachments of troops and a posse of American citizens arrived in San
Elizario, killing and wounding an untold number of people. Most of the mob had
already fled into Mexico, and no one was ever arrested or brought to trial. The
short lived war very nearly led to an armed confrontation between the U.S. and
Mexico. The unfortunate consequence of the Salt War was that Mexicans from both
sides of the border were robbed, assaulted, and murdered. An exodus of Mexican
families from the San Elizario area immediately followed the event. Eventually,
the Salt Flats were claimed and the Mexican community was forced to pay for the
salt they once collected for free.
For the Hispanic people of the El Paso Valley
region, the Salt War was a struggle against Anglo attempts to exploit natural
resources believed by the Mexican culture to be on communal land. The
transformation of the salt beds from communal to private ownership threatened
the very survival of the Mexican border population.
They had constructed the road to Salt Flat and
therefore had a vested interest in the future of the salt beds. The El Paso Salt
War was not merely a quarrel over control of the salt beds, but rather a
struggle for the economic and political future of the area.
Added July, 2007
Source: Guadalupe National Park
Guadalupe Mountains, February, 2008, Kathy
Pine Canyon Road
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