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Canutillo Developed from Land Grant
By Alma Sandoval
In the northwest outskirts of El Paso County, a small independent community exists on the Texas-New Mexico border. Its name is Canutillo, a word defined variously as “a bend in the river,” or “little cane” or a derivation of “canatilla,” a plant abundant in the area. Its diverse population numbered 5,186 in mid 2007, but that could change soon with the creation of new enterprises such as the recently opened outlet mall at Transmountain and I-10. Opposed to being annexed into the El Paso city limits, Canutillo is definitely a Texas town with a rich history; its land has served many purposes over the centuries.
Image caption: The new outlet mall represents Canutillo’s growth and development in the last two years. The Outlet Shoppes at El Paso opened their doors in October 2007. Photo by Adrianna Alatorre.
In 1680, what is now Canutillo became a camp for refugees of the Pueblo Indian Revolt escaping from New Mexico to El Paso Del Norte (today’s Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico), according to Leon Metz in his book El Paso Chronicles. La Salineta (little salt lake), as the camp was called, became the home for about a month for 1,946 people including soldiers, women, children, servants and escaping Christian Indians. Here New Mexico Governor and leader of the refugees, Antonio de Otermín, decided to proceed to El Paso del Norte to ensure the safety of the camp’s inhabitants, subsequently delaying the attempt to reconquer New Mexico.
In 1823, Juan María Ponce de León and 29 other citizens of El Paso del Norte petitioned the Ayuntamiento (municipal government) of El Paso del Norte for permission to settle one and a half leagues (6,642.6 acres) at the place known as El Canutillo, 16 miles northwest of El Paso del Norte on the east bank of the Rio Grande. The petition was approved in June 1823 and the land granted to the petitioners upon the condition that they settle and cultivate the tract quickly or give up all rights to the grant. J. J. Bowden, author of Spanish and Mexican Land Grants in the Chihuahua Acquisitions, stated that these citizens were inspired by “the extensive interest created by the prospect of the development of the Mesilla Valley.”
The Ayuntamiento appointed a committee to survey the grant and deliver the land to the applicants. According to Bowden, the nucleus of the survey was a cottonwood tree located on the south side of the lake. The surveyors used a cordel, or thin rope, 50 varas in length to measure 3,750 varas (a vara was about 33 inches) in every direction except to the west because the Rio Grande was flooded at the time. A league was about 5,000 varas. The committee agreed that the west boundary line would run all the way to the bank of the river.
Bowden wrote that the grantees were satisfied with the survey, “but in view of the fact that their irrigation water would have to be taken out of the river some distance north of the grant and transported to their farms through an acequia [irrigation ditch], it would be imperative for them to also possess the land up to the mouth of their acequia.” They wanted to be certain their rights would be protected regardless of whoever moved into the neighboring lands.
The families established a farming community in 1824. C. L. Sonnichsen, author of Pass of the North, said that decades of peace between the Apaches and northern Mexico caused the Mexicans to believe that new settlements would be safe. Sonnichsen stated that the Mexican government had appeased the Indians with rations and gifts for close to 40 years, but newly elected officials withdrew such generosity, and the Apaches “went back to raiding as fast as they could.” The families abandoned the settlement of Canutillo in 1832.
The land lay undeveloped until 1850 when James Wiley Magoffin built a ranch in Canutillo, thinking the land had no owner. Magoffin, born in Kentucky, developed a lucrative trading business in Mexico, becoming a major trader on the Santa Fe Trail. The Magoffins moved to Independence, Missouri, where his wife died in 1845. During the war with Mexico, Magoffin helped Gen. Stephen Kearny peacefully take New Mexico and was on his way to Chihuahua when he and four others were arrested as spies by the Mexicans. After nine months in a Mexican prison in El Paso Del Norte, Magoffin was set free and decided to live across the river from Paso Del Norte, now part of the United States as a result of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. His settlement became known as “Magoffinsville,” one of the early settlements which would become present-day El Paso.
Image caption: Lupita’s Tamales and Jerry’s Barber Shop, located off Doniphan and Talbot Road, are mainstays in Canutillo Photo by Adrianna Alatorre.
After the establishment of his Canutillo ranch in 1850, Magoffin improved the land, increasing its value, not realizing the property was part of a land grant. He also suffered at the hands of the Apaches. W. H. Timmons, author of James Wiley Magoffin: Don Santiago – El Paso Pioneer, wrote that Magoffin complained that he had lost 60 mules from Magoffinsville to the Apaches in 1852 as well as all his cattle at Canutillo, where the raiders had murdered one man and kidnapped a 16-year-old ranch hand. These losses experienced by Magoffin as well as by other residents along the border helped reestablish a military post in the area in 1854, this time named Fort Bliss and located at Magoffinsville.
In 1852, fearing they would lose their claim to the Canutillo Grant, the original owners of the grant chose attorneys José Sánchez, Rómulo Barelo and Guadalupe Miranda to administer it. Magoffin enlisted the help of El Paso County District Attorney Josiah F. Crosby. Sánchez, Barelo and Miranda hired Anson Mills to survey the land, a job completed in 1860. Ownership of the grant would remain unresolved for another 25 years, however.
The Civil War interrupted further work on the grant. In 1865, W. W. Mills and John S. Watts bought over half of the grant from its original owners. In 1868, the year of his death, James Magoffin turned over his interests in the Canutillo Grant to his son Joseph. In 1873, a commission divided the land and in 1874 hired Joseph Wilkin Tays to re-survey the land. His work resulted in a much smaller total of only 5,285 acres. After the railroads arrived in the area, the claimants attempted to finalize the grant, and yet another surveyor, John P. Randolph, was hired. His work basically agreed with Anson Mills’ survey results of 6,642.6 acres, and a patent was granted in September 1886.
After three surveys, a civil war and years of indecisiveness, the land was divided as such: Anson Mills received a promised 100 acres for his survey; Magoffin and Crosby, a third of the rest of the grant; Watts and Mills, nine-tenths of the remainder; and one-tenth of the remainder went to attorney José Sánchez, who had acquired interests in the grant from his clients.
El Canutillo was not only controversial for its disputed ownership but also for hiding rustlers and stolen livestock in a bosque, a “tangled thicket” of brush, according to Sonnichsen. The Manning brothers, owners of several entertainment emporiums in El Paso, also had a small ranch in Canutillo, run by Johnnie Hale. He was known to associate with rustlers who stole cattle from both sides of the Rio Grande and corralled them in a stretch of bosque described by Sonnichsen as “conveniently located for smuggling and rustling cattle,” at the end of Smuggler’s Pass, present-day Transmountain Road.
One incident having its roots in Canutillo has been described by several El Paso historians. Sonnichsen wrote that Hale and Frank Stephenson killed two young Mexican cowboys in the Canutillo Bosque who were looking for cattle stolen from their ranch. W. W. Mills wrote in his book Forty Years at El Paso 1858-1898 that the responsible parties were Stephenson and Len Peveler. When Mexicans came to claim the bodies, they were accompanied to Canutillo by Gus Krempkau, constable and former Texas Ranger, who testified that the young vaqueros had been murdered while making breakfast at their camp.
After the inquest in El Paso, former marshal George Campbell, friendly to the rustlers at Canutillo, began an argument with the constable. Hale shot Krempkau, who shot Campbell before dying. Then Marshal Dallas Stoudenmire shot and killed Campbell and Hale, as well as a bystander in the line of fire. These three and Krempkau made up the list of the dead. This bloody gunfight would come to be known as “Four Dead in Five Seconds.”
At the turn of the century, in 1909, the Canutillo Townsite Company was chartered, according to Kim Guzman, writing in the Feb. 9, 2006, edition of The Monitor [Fort Bliss, TX]. According to La Asequia, the annual yearbook of the Lone Star School published by the local El Paso School District, the first business to open in Canutillo was the Mercantile Co. In 1911, Canutillo experienced a rapid growth in population and business as a result of the arrival of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. In that same year the first barbershop and a second grocery store were opened, and a blacksmith shop was established. In 1911 also came the establishment of the first school, a one-room, one-teacher operation, educating children between grades one through eight. Jenna Welch, mother of First Lady Laura Bush, attended the Lone Star School up through the eighth grade.
A rural post office was established in 1914; by 1925, the population of the town was 300 citizens. In the following years, Canutillo would increase its population and commerce. By the 1950s, the population had more than quadrupled to 1,326 people. In the following two decades, both El Paso and the town of Anthony would try to annex Canutillo. On June 25, 1999, 500 people rallied in the Canutillo High school gymnasium to protest another petition by El Paso to annex the town of Canutillo, determined to remain independent.
Image caption: Canutillo High School. Photo by Adrianna Alatorre.
Canutillo is still rebuilding certain neighborhoods hit hard by the 2006 floods. Meanwhile, a building boom promises a stronger economy for the town. The development of a new outlet mall has brought much needed jobs to the area and is enticing shoppers from New Mexico, El Paso and Juárez. The $23 million Canutillo High School adjacent to the Northwest Campus of El Paso Community College opened in 2006 and is a showplace for modern education. Canutillo Heights, a manufactured home community, offers upscale homes with views of the Franklin Mountains.
Recently Canutillo’s Gallegos Park received a $250,000 makeover with a renovated pavilion and restrooms, upgraded picnic tables and shelters, lighted basketball courts and a new skateboard park. Gallegos Park is adjacent to the completed Northwest portion of the Rio Grande Riverpark Trail System which will eventually cover 32 miles through El Paso County, providing cycling and walking paths, rest areas and historical markers.
The library at the Northwest Campus of El Paso Community College is named for Jenna Welch and Laura Bush and serves the Canutillo community. In 2008, the Northwest Early College High School will open, a joint venture between El Paso Community College and the Canutillo Independent School District. Over the centuries, Canutillo has sheltered refugees, settlers and outlaws. Today it is a growing, family-oriented community which is still proud of its small town independence while being part of a large urban center.