The El Paso Salt War


The Salt Flats
Upon approaching the Guadalupe Mountains from the west, visitors traveling from the El Paso area will pass through a landscape of barren beauty. The Salt Flats are a remnant of an ancient, shallow lake that once occupied this area during the Pleistocene Epoch, approximately 1.8 million years ago. Salt collected here as streams drained mineral-laden water into this basin. The basin, called a graben, formed about 26 million years ago as faulting lifted the Guadalupe Mountains and depressed the adjacent block of the Earth’s crust. At the end of the last ice age, approximately 10,000 years ago, the lake dried up as the climate became more arid. The salt deposits left behind would later become a precious resource to the people of the El Paso area.

A Precious Resource
Salt was considered sacred to Native American tribes such as the Apache and Tigua Indians, who used it in the tanning of animal hides and as a condiment and preservative.

In 1692, Diego de Vargas led an expedition in search of salt deposits in and around the
Guadalupe Mountains. An Apache prisoner led de Vargas and approximately 20 Spanish soldiers from Socorro, through the Hueco Mountains, eventually arriving at the base of the Guadalupes after a four day trek across the desert. After discovering the salt beds, de Vargas collected a sample of the salt and returned to New Spain (Mexico). This expedition helped pave the way for future Spanish expeditions to the Guadalupes.

During the Spanish (1848-1821), Mexican (1821-1848), and early American (1848-1881) periods, Hispanic populations of the El Paso Valley region depended on salt from the Salt Flats.

After the signing of the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, ending the American-Mexican War, over 75,000 Mexicans chose to remain in the United States as U.S. citizens. Approximately 5,000 Mexican Americans lived in the El Paso valley region, formerly part of Mexico, subsisting primarily through farming and livestock grazing. In order to supplement income from farming, the Valley Mexicans would endure the heat and the threat of Apache attack to collect salt. They came from as far south as Chihuahua to load their wagons with this precious resource.

Mexicans and Mexican Americans from the El Paso Valley communities would make a 70 mile, two day journey from San Elizario to the salt beds. The salt would then be transported by mule drawn wagons south to Chihuahua and Sonora, where it was an important trade item. In addition to traditional uses, in Chihuahua the salt was used in the smelting of silver.

Prior to 1848, the salt beds, under Spanish law, were common land not owned by any one individual. After 1848, under American law, these were unclaimed lands, available to anyone who filed there. The Mexicans, believing that everybody had the right to the salt, never thought to file claims to the salt beds in the name of any one individual or group.

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

Last updated: February 24, 2015

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Salt Flat, TX 79847



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