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The El Paso Salt War

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Title:
The El Paso Salt War
Series Title:
This week in history
Creator:
Castro, Richard T.
Place of Publication:
Denver, CO
Publisher:
Richard T. Castron
Publication Date:
Language:
English

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Auraria Library
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Auraria Library
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Copyright [name of copyright holder or Creator or Publisher as appropriate]. Permission granted to University of Colorado Denver to digitize and display this item for non-profit research and educational purposes. Any reuse of this item in excess of fair use or other copyright exemptions requires permission of the copyright holder.

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Full Text
-A. «r-
This Week In History
The El Paso Salt War by
Richard Castro
On October 10, 1877, Mexican-Americans seized El Paso, Texas and
killed three Anglos, and damaged thousands of dollars of property in El Paso's Salt War. The "war" was waged by Mexican-Americans in retaliation for a long series of racially discriminatory and oppressive actions perpetrated on them by El Paso's small Anglo Community, who controlled the city's businesses and politics.
The Salt War occurred after several Anglos staked out private claims on the natural salt beds near El Paso where native Mexicans had freely gathered salt for years, and began charging Mexican-Americans for their traditional right to dig salt.
One of the main instigators of the "Salt War" was Charles Howard,
X
a Missouri carpetbagger, who came to El Paso to set up a political Democratic machine with which he planned to rule the small border community.
The Mexican town of Paso del Norte (they call it Juarez today) was just across the river from El Paso. With 300 years of history behind it and a population of something like 7,000, Juarez was the Big Town of the valley.
What complicated matters most between the two communities was the difficulty of convincing the Mexicans that an International Boundry meant anything. The people on the left bank of the river were supposed to be American citizens and their cousins a hundred feet away on the other side of a sometimes non-existent stream were supposed to be Mexicans. Most


2
of them paid no attention. They and their ancestors had passed and repassed the river at their pleasure for ten generations, and the idea of a "Boundry" set up by a handful of gringos who had moved in only 25 years before, was a little comic.
Since for all practical purposes the gringo colony was living in Mexico, its members had to conform to the customs of the country or get out, and most of them conformed without visible effort. They ate chile Colorado, took siestas, married Mexican wives and learned to speak Spanish. Since they were all politicians in office, out of office, or running for office, they also paid particular attention to the Mexican voters. It was part of their routine to stand as godfathers for Mexican babies, get brothers and fathers out of trouble, make alliances with patriarchs and clan leaders, and play the game the Mexican way.
It was Charley Howard's misfortune that he never did adjust completely to this method of doing things. And there were other Mexicafi peculiararities that neither he nor his fellow Americans could accept without question - for instance the Latin attitude toward private property. In Spanish times the pueblo or community owned the land adjacent to it, and the alcalde (Mayor) portioned out to each man as many varas of ground and as much river water as he needed. This system worked well for them, but when the Americans came in and tried to apply their notions about the sacredness of private ownership, the result was a monumental confusion which still makes money for lawyers who specialize in tracing titles back to the Spanish Land Grants. It was the concept of communal land ownership that led up to the "Salt War of 1877."
Mexicans had cultivated and developed the salt deposits in the El Paso area for several hundred years. Following the Civil War, however, a group of Anglos known as the "Salt Ring" developed a scheme with the U.S.


3
government to control the salt deposits for their own profit. The scheme failed in the Texas legislature, but this did not stop other schemes from surfacing. Charles Howard led the change and when he did, he set off a small war on the U.S./Mexico border.
Two Mexican-Americans were arrested and one of them imprisoned when local authorities heard they planned to remove salt without paying. The
imprisonment triggered a mass protest by hundreds of Mexican-Americans from San Elizaro and Ysletta, who freed them and called mass meetings to protest.
The Mexican-Americans then captured Charles Howard, who had a claim on the salt beds, and held him for three days until he promised to leave the county. But Howard returned to El Paso, and, although he shot a man after returning, local authorities moved to protect him and his claim.
A group of 18 Mexican-Americans led by Chico Barela captured those guarding
i
•the salt beds and shot Howard after a local Italian priest, Father Borrajo, sent word to "shoot the gringos and I will absolve you."
The Texas Rangers were called out and there was much k'lling on toth sides. Finally, the State troopers came in to restore order in the area. The U.S. Congress empowered a four-member commission to investigate the
incident. They had considerable trouble finding out what they wanted to know. Some witnesses refused to answer; some forgot; some had moved away. On March 16, 1878, they adopted a final report and a set of
recommendations.
The main recommendation was for the U.S. government to reestablish a military post at El Paso in case another Charles Howard came to the
county in attempt to install another Salt Empire.
The report was printed, read, discussed, and forgotten, as was to be expected. A U.S. Court was convened in March and should have had a


4
number of mobsmen to prosecute, but there were no mobsmen present. No one was punished, no one was tried, no one was even arrested.
The Grand Jury of El Paso County indicted six of the leaders of the mob, and later the Governor offered rewards for Chico Barela, Sisto Salcido, Luciano Fresquez, Agaton Porras, Desiderio Apodaca and Jesus Garcia. Not a Mexican turned a finger to collect the money.
For long years there was bitterness but no more dead men in the streets. The railroad came and passed the village three miles away. The salt question troubled no more. An agent was sent by the government to hear requests from the local Mexicans to haul salt, and they did so with great politeness to do so.
The Salt Wars, like all wars, was wasteful and unnecessary, unless
to prove to a pessimist that men can die bravely in a bad cause.
* * * *
10/6/88




Full Text

PAGE 2

This Week In History The El Paso Salt War by Richard Castro On October 10, 1877, Me x i can-Americans seized El Paso, Texas and killed three Anglos, and damaged thousands of dollars of property in El Paso's Salt War. The "war" was waged by Mexican-Americans in retaliation for a long series of racially discriminatory and oppressive actions perpetrated on them by El Paso's small Anglo Community, who controlled the city's businesses and politics. The Salt War occurred after several Anglos staked out private claims on the natural salt beds near El Paso where native Mexicans had freely gathered salt for years, and began charging Mexican-Americans for their traditional right to dig salt. One of the main instigators of the "Salt War" was Charles Howard, ' a Miss o u r i carpetbagger, who came to El Paso to set up a political Democratic machine with which he planned to rule the small border community. The Mexican town of Paso del Norte (they call it Juarez today) was just ac r oss the river from El Paso. With 300 years of history behind it and a population of something like 7,000, Juarez was the Big Town of the valley. What complicated matters most between the two communities was the difficulty of convincing the Mexicans that an International Boundry meant anything. The people on the left bank of the river were supposed to be American citizens and their cousins a hundred feet awRy on the other side of a sometimes non-existent stream were supposed to be Mexicans. Most

PAGE 3

. "'. 2 of them paid no attention. They and their had passed and repassed the river at their pleasure for ten generations, and the idea of a ''Boundry11 set up by a handful of gringos who had moved in only 25 years before, was a little comic. Since for all practical purposes the gringo colony was living in Mexico, its members had to conform to the customs of the country or get out, and most of them conformed without vis i b 1 e effort. They ate chi 1 e colorado, took siestas, married Mexican wives and learned to speak Spanish. Since they were all politicians in office, out of office, or running for office, they also paid particular attention to the Mexican voters. It was part of their routine to stand as godfathers for Mexican babies, get brothers and fathers out of trouble, make alliances with patriarchs and clan leaders, and play the game the Mexican way. It was Charley Howard's misfortune that he never did adjust completely to this method of doing things. And there were other peculiararities that neither he nor his fellow Americans could accept without question -for instance the t_atin attitude tnward property. In Spanish times the pueblo or community owned the land adjacent to it, and the alcalde (Mayor) portioned out to each man as many varas of ground and as much river water as he needed. This system worked well for them, but when the Americans came in and tried to apply their notions about the sacredness of private ownership, the result was a monumenta 1 confusion which still makes money for lawyers who specialize in tracing titles back to the Spanish Land Grants. It was the concept of communa 1 1 and ownership that led up to the 11Salt War of 1877.11 Mexicans had cultivated and developed the salt deposits in the El Paso a rea for severa 1 hundred years. FollovJing the Civil War, however, a group of Anglos known as the 11Salt Ring11 developed a scheme with the U.S.

PAGE 4

... . . . 3 government to contra 1 the sa 1t deposits for their own profit. The scheme failed in the Texas legislature, but this did not stop other schemes from surfacing. Charles Howard led the change and when he did, he set off a small war on the U.S./Mexico border. Two Mexican-Americans were arrested and one of them imprisoned when local authorities heard they planned to remove salt without paying. The imprisonment triggered a mass prates t by hundreds of Mexican-Americans from San Elizaro and Ysletta, who freed them and called mass meetings to protest. The Mexican-Americans then captured Charles Howard, who had a claim on the salt beds, and held him for three days until he promised to leave the county. But Howard returned to El Paso, and, although he shot a man after returning, local authorities moved to protect him and his claim . . A group of 18 Mexican-Americans led by Chico Barela captured those guarding the salt beds and shot Howard after a local Italian priest, Father sent word to 11Shoot the gringos and I will absolve you.11 The Texas Rangers were called out and wu.s much k: ll i ng on t oth sides. Finally, the State troopers came in to restore order in the area. The U.S. Congress empowered a four-member commission to investigate the incident. They had considerable trouble finding out what they wanted to know. Some witnesses refused to answer; some forgot; some had moved away. On March 16, 1878, they adopted a fi na 1 report and a set of recommendations. The main recommendation was for the U.S. government to reestab.lish a mi 1 itary post at El Paso in case another Charles Howard came to the county in attempt to install another Salt Empire. The report was printed, read, discussed, and forgotten, as was to be expected. A U.S. Court was convened in March and should have had a

PAGE 5

.. ' . " ' . 4 number of mobsmen to prosecute, but there were no mobsmen present. No one was punished, no one was tried, no one was even arrested. The Grand Jury of El Paso County indicted six of the leaders of the mob, and later the Governor offered rewards for Chico Barela, Sisto Salcido, Luciano Fresquez, Agaton Porras, Desiderio Apodaca and Jesus Garcia. Not a Mexican turned a finger to collect the money. For 1 ong years there was bitterness but no more dead men in the streets. The rail road came and passed the vi 11 age three mi 1 es away. The salt question troubled no more. An agent was sent by the government to hear requests from the local Mexicans to haul salt, and they did so with great politeness to do so. The Salt Wars, like all wars, was wasteful and unnecessary, unless to prove to a pessimist that men can die bravely in a bad cause. * * * * 10/6/88