The Rio Grande Floods: The Beginning of the Chamizal Dispute
Many visitors to Chamizal National Memorial ask, “Where’s the river?” Indeed, the Rio Grande is not very grand as it runs through El Paso-Ciudad Juarez. It carries very little water and lies in a cemented riverbed. However, the meager Rio Grande was not always so meager. From the 1850s to the 1890s, the Rio Grande flooded almost every spring. Particularly large floods occurred in 1864 and again in 1897. This essay will discuss how these floods and the river in general initiated the Chamizal dispute and Cordova Island problems.
In 1827, Jose Ponce de Leon received a land grant from the Mexican government. His land was in El Paso del Norte, on the south side of the Rio Grande. Leon’s land became known as el Chamizal (the Chamizal tract), named after the Chamisa, or four-wing salt bush. After the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848 established the Rio Grande as the international border between Mexico and Texas, the community of El Paso Del Norte was divided. North of the Rio Grande, in the U.S., a town became known as El Paso. South of the river, a Mexican town became known as Ciudad Juarez. Problems soon arose for el Chamizal due to the Rio Grande.
El Paso-Ciudad Juarez is located where the Rio Grande changes direction from heading south to southeast. Due to this mighty turn, in the second half of the 19th century, the river constantly chewed away at its southern bank. As a result, el Chamizal “switched” sides. Year after year, the Chamizal tract became less on the Ciudad Juarez side of the river and more on the El Paso side. In 1864, a particularly large spring flood exacerbated this process.
In 1866, Pedro Ignacio Garcia, Leon’s grandson, inherited the el Chamizal. By 1895, Garcia’s property was completely on the El Paso side, the U.S. side, of the river. Garcia did not dare “to occupy my aforesaid land, fearful, as I was… that some personal injury might befall me from… a few North Americans, who supposing this land to belong to the United States of North America, pretended to come into possession of the same” [Pedro Ignacio Garcia quote in Robert M. Utley, Changing Course (Tucson, Arizona: Southwest Parks and Monuments Association, 1996), 98-99]. The U.S. believed the Chamizal tract to be U.S. property, since the Rio Grande was the international border.