El Paso Salt War

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

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 their salt 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 soon elected to the Texas Senate with the expectation of securing title to the salt deposits for the people of the El Paso area.

Louis Cardis and W.W. Mills soon joined forces with Charles Howard, a Missouri lawyer. Cardis helped secure Howard’s election to district attorney, but, later became a bitter enemy 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.

San Elizario, TX – Los Portales. Photo by Kathy Weiser-Alexander

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, Texas. 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 Louis 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 March.

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 Texas Rangers 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.

Guadalupe Mountains, February, 2008, Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

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.

Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated March, 2015.

Source: Guadalupe National Park

Contact Information:

Guadalupe National Park
400 Pine Canyon Road
Salt Flat, Texas 79847-9400

Also See: 

Feuds & Range Wars of Texas

Frontier Feuds & Range Wars

Texas Legends

Albert Jennings Fountain – Missing in the Desert


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