Article first published in Vol. 23 (2004-2005)
By Lorraine Kress with additional research by Brenda Palma
Land ownership has long been the focus of much strife and debate. Great empires have spread over several continents. Conquerors decimated native peoples and claimed their lands. They, in turn, were conquered by invaders from other lands. So, who owns the land? And for how long?
The spectacular rock formation known as Hueco Tanks, 30 miles from El Paso, has caused this question to be asked in recent history. Hueco Tanks is named for the unique hollows huecos, or "tanks," in the rocks which collect and store rainwater, creating an oasis in the Southwestern desert. Ancient native cultures gave way to the influence of white men who began to claim the land as theirs.
Image caption: Silverio Escontrias raised cattle on a ranch which became Hueco Tanks State Park . Photo courtesy of the Escontrias Elementary School, Socorro, Texas.
Based on Folsom projectile points which have been found there, evidence shows that bison hunters inhabited Hueco Tanks about 10,000 years ago With the extinction of the bison came people of the Desert Archaic Culture, who lived in pit houses partially underground, some 3,000 to 6,000 years ago.
Later, the Jornada Mogollon Culture left distinct marking on the rocks dating to 1000 C. E. Hueco Tanks employee Wanda Olszewski said in an interview with this writer that most of the paintings and carvings on the rock surfaces at Hueco Tanks are from this ancient culture. More modern inhabitants of the tanks have included the Mescalero and Lipan Apaches and perhaps the Jumano Indians. The Kiowas and Comanches knew the area, and El Paso's Tigua Indians still claim the area as sacred ground.
The Mescalero Apaches used the tanks frequently in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was an ideal refuge from their enemies, Spaniards, Mexicans and Americans. Historian C.L. Sonnichsen wrote about a Spanish campaign against the Mescaleros in 1775 in which they were defeated. Another campaign was launched the following year that drove most Apaches even further west, while one band stayed behind in the tanks.
With the California Gold Rush, travelers through Hueco Tanks were more and more often non-native adventurers and settlers heading west. The tanks became a rest and water stop for both humans and animals. In 1858, the Butterfeld Overland Mail even established a stagecoach stop there, but it moved the following year to a more protected location. Some of the history of Hueco Tanks was lost at that time when waiting stagecoach passengers marked over the pictographs created by earlier cultures and left their names and dates as well as drawings.
In 1898, Silverio Escontrias purchased Hueco Tanks and the family operated their cattle business from an adobe ranch. This signified the first documented purchase of the property. However, in an unpublished paper, historic preservation consultant Terri Myers stated that in 1885, Juan Armendariz, possibly a godfather to Escontrias, first acquired the land through the establishment of the Corporation of Socorro by the Pueblo de Socorro Grant. That same grant also awarded some of the land to the Texas and Pacific Railway Company, from which Escontrias made his purchase.
Escontrias was a Texas Ranger, well versed in the establishment of law and order. Jim Escontrias, Jr., said in a 1984 interview with El Paso Herald-Post columnist Virginia Turner that Silverio Escontrias "always got along well with the Indians. They'd trade horses." Ranching in such an isolated area gave raiding Indians an easy target, so Escontrias relied on his powers of communication to secure peace. The accessibility of water greatly outweighed the risk of raids. In the same interview, the younger Escontrias remembered the family and cattle getting all of their water from Hueco Tanks. The Escontrias family owned and operated the cattle ranch until 1956.
Terri Myers' research also revealed plans that date back to 1885 for Hueco Tanks to be turned into a resort, but when Armendariz acquired the land, the plans were put on the back burner. Escontrias eventually began to charge curious visitors a small admission fee. Visitors freely roamed the area until careless hunters endangered the cattle, resulting in the cessation of public access. Instead, special passes were issued to parties to help monitor people on the land.
Image caption: The Escontrias ranch house now serves as the interpretive center at Hueco Tanks State Park. Photo by Stella Perry
Local newspaper articles report that on July 22, 1935, the Escontrias family offered to sell a portion of the land to the county for $42,000 to develop a park, but the purchase depended on a tax levy. Another article a few days later said that "protests against purchase of Hueco Tanks by the county, particularly at the price set by the Escontrias family, are piling into the office of Judge Joseph McGill." The purchase did not take place, and new plans for development surfaced. The plans included housing developments, lakes, a frontier town movie set, golf courses, resort and restaurants. The plans were never put into effect.
It is unclear who owned the land following the Escontrias family, but El Paso County acquired it in the mid-1960s. On June 12, 1969, the county then gave Hueco Tanks, by an exclusive deed, to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. In May 1970, Hueco Tanks Historical Park was officially opened to the public.
Over the years, before and even after Hueco Tanks became a park, visitors defaced rocks with graffiti and vandalized priceless pictographs. Graffiti removal is a slow, laborious and expensive task, with one such removal costing $10,000. Care must be taken to preserve the integrity of the rock and the painting or carving. Today, access to Hueco Tanks is severely restricted. One of the park's major concerns is to educate the public to respect the land in order to preserve the historical paintings and carvings.
But the story doesn't end there. Hueco Tanks evidently has been a sacred site for centuries for various tribes, including the Tiguas of Ysleta. In his book Historic El Paso, Ken Flynn wrote that "excavations of pithouses identified as belonging to the Mogollon, from whom the Pueblo Indians are descended, indicate the use of a 'kiva' or 'tula,' a special ceremonial room used for prayer and sacrifice to the gods." What others call rock art, the Tiguas call spiritual and historical symbols. The Tiguas see Hueco Tanks as their ancestral home and consider sacred many specific sites.
In 2000, a consulting firm for the Tiguas prepared a management plan for Hueco Tanks, addressing many topics such as limited public access, desecration of sacred shrines as cultural resources, imposed religious infringements on culturally affiliated peoples and others. These are issues between the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Tiguas, and they remain unresolved. The document, prepared by Cultural Consultants,is available at the downtown El Paso Public Library
The Escontrias Ranch represented a unique bridge between Indian cultures and state ownership. This family lived off the land and moved on, as other cultures have done for thousands of years. Today, the Escontrias ranch house still stands and is used as an interpretive center for visitors to Hueco Tanks.