Article first published in Vol. 18, 1999.
By Luisa Villegas
Known as one of the first settlers and merchants to establish his home and business in the Paso del Norte area, James Wiley Magoffin became known in Mexico as a distinguished trader. In 1848, he established Magoffinsville, an adobe hacienda used as a trading post and later the site of the first Fort Bliss. Because of his many accomplishments, his family name has become a familiar part of today's El Paso
During the early 1800s, El Paso had become a recognized trading center. Most of the cargo being traded along the Camino Real came through El Paso. Ambitious merchants engaged in mining or merchandising activities along the Camino Real through Chihuahua and found their enterprises extremely prosperous - among the merchants, James Magoffin.
Image caption: James “Don Santiago” Wiley Magoffin was an adventurous merchant whose influence determined the future of El Paso. (Photo courtesy of Magoffin Home State Historic Site)
James Magoffin came from Irish parents who emigrated to Kentucky where he was born 1799. In his early twenties, he sailed from New Orleans to Matagorda Bay on the Texas coast. Soon, he entered the Mexican trade, learned Spanish and became well known in Mexico. He served as American Consul at Saltillo for several years, leaving in 1835 to avoid involvement in the upcoming fight between Mexico and Texas.
Spending many years in the Chihuahua area, "Don Santiago," as he was known, married Maria Gertrudis Valdez de Veramendi in 1830, further strengthening his social and economic position. He entered in partnership with his brother Samuel and purchased materials from traders like Edward J. Glasgow, whose son later married Magoffin's granddaughter.
James Magoffin became a member of the ayuntamiento (municipal council) of Chihuahua and served as president of that body. Before long, he acquired Mexican citizenship. In 1844, the wealthy merchant left Chihuahua City with his wife and children and moved to Independence, Missouri, the head of the Santa Fe trail. A year later, his wife Maria died.
Before accepting a presidential invitation to visit Washington, Magoffin placed his two sons, Joseph and Samuel, in schools in Lexington, Kentucky. His daughters Josephine and Ursula went to a "visitation convent" in St. Louis, and Angela and Gertrudis remained in Independence with their aunts.
In 1846, he left for Washington to meet with President Polk, who knew him as an expert on northern Mexico with influential friends in New Mexico and Mexico. As the United States and Mexico prepared to go to war, Magoffin was ordered to accompany General Stephen Watts Kearny to Santa Fe and persuade Governor Amijo not to resist an invading U.S. Army that was on its way.
Magoffin helped convince residents that the United States meant only to take possession of New Mexico as part of the territory annexed to the United States by Texas. Magoffin was to perform the same task in Chihuahua, but he was captured in El Paso and arrested by Mexican authorities as a spy. Imprisoned at Chihuahua, he remained confined until the approach of the Doniphan expedition on March 1 and then was sent to Durango, where he remained nine months.
After the Mexican-American war, Magoffin went back to Missouri with hopes of re-establishing the Chihuahua trade. Magoffin gathered his family but found the Mexican government less than welcoming. He decided to settle in El Paso. In 1849, Magoffin pressed claims against the American Government in the amount of $37,780 for expenses sustained by his family and property during his absence; Washington paid him $30,000.
That year he built his home and business and called it Magoffinsville. This fine settlement consisted of a group of large, well-built adobe structures including stores, corrals, warehouses and living quarters, erected around an open square. Magoffinsville was built on an elevated piece of land, perfect for agriculture because it was about 1 1/2 miles from the river and provided with water by an acequia, an irrigation ditch, which ran trough the square.
The warehouses were filled with merchandise and the mansion hosted traveling Army officers and government officials. Magoffinsville became known for its hospitality, and visitors spoke of the fine house set in a spacious garden.
This trading post became important to the development of Pass of the North. Magoffin would restock mules, dry goods, food and other commodities the settlers demanded. United States Boundary-Commissioner John Barlett said it was indeed the center of the American settlements close by, which included Simeon Hart's mill, now La Hacienda restaurant, Hugh Stephenson's Concordia ranch and Benjamin Coon's mercantile store.
Historian Rex Strickland says that Magoffin carried goods from the East and Gulf Coasts as the town demanded. Magoffin even established one of the first farms in the upper valley and traded with Canutillo, a ranch located fifteen miles north. Despite the very real threat from area Apaches in the 1850s, who often raided his corrals, Magoffin continued his business.
Because of the Indian raids and lack of military support, problems with boundary lines, and a general lack of law and order, the Post Opposite El Paso, Mexico, was established at Magoffinsville. This post had originally been founded at another settlement, Ponce's Rancho, but had since been closed. In December 1853, the 8th Infantry took control of Magoffinsville.
On January 11, 1854, the fort officially became the Post Opposite El Paso, Mexico, with 215 officers and men stationed at the site. By March, the fort assumed its present name of Fort Bliss in honor of Major W. S. Bliss.
Fort Bliss became an attraction to many newcomers because it offered the community a mail and banking service, provided worthwhile employment and brought to the city its Army band that conducted weekly concerts. The productivity of valley and the strong adobe structure of Magoffinsville and Fort Bliss attracted many businessmen who were delighted by the hacienda.
Having a military post at Magoffinsville was an advantage for the town and businesses due to the fact that the pay of many soldiers was spent in pleasures such as polo, saloons and brothels, where men also gambled. Many soldiers found wives while stationed at Fort Bliss, increasing the demand for household goods and personal items. The first Fort Bliss was a turning point for El Paso, because it offered secure military protection where a new community could prosper and grow.
But Civil War would touch even the far West. Just as Texas supported the Confederacy, so did El Paso. Only two El Pasoans voted in a special election against joining the Confederacy. Union forces were ordered to surrender and Texas commissioners James Magoffin and Simeon Hart were assigned to take care of all Fort Bliss assets. The fort itself was handed over to state officials.
After Confederate General Henry H. Sibley retreated to El Paso from Glorietta, he burned Fort Bliss and left for the Texas interior. Union forces reclaimed Fort Bliss at Magoffinsville in 1865, and Magoffin decided to sell half of Magoffinsville to Captain Albert French. On May 18, 1867, a Rio Grande flood destroyed much of Magoffinsville and Fort Bliss.
After winning a presidential pardon for supporting the Confederacy, Magoffin arrived in San Antonio with his son- in-law where he died in 1868. His body rests at Bellefontaine Cemetery (pronounced "Belle Fountain") in St. Louis, Missouri, along with other members of his family.
It would be Joseph, James' son, who restored the family property after struggles with New Mexico. In 1875, Joseph built the Magoffin Home, a mansion that was occupied by members of the family for 111 years. Today the Magoffin Home is a state park and one of El Paso's most treasured historic sites. A portrait of James Magoffin and his settlement Magoffinsville is displayed in one of the main rooms in the entrance of the home. Note: The 80th Texas Legislature transferred operational control of this to the Texas Historical Commission effective January 1, 2008.
Major reconstruction of Magoffin Avenue, where the Magoffin Home sits, has recently been completed. The illuminated view of the street in the evening has attracted tourists and has established a warm feeling among some residents. Today the site of the first Fort Bliss intersects Magoffin Avenue and Willow Street in south El Paso and a commemorative plaque marks the location of the post which would become Fort Bliss.
The pioneer Magoffin name is also reflected in the Magoffin auditorium located at the University of Texas at El Paso. Magoffin Middle School located in northeast El Paso is named for this family, and a portrait of James Magoffin hangs in front of the main office.
James Magoffin - pioneer, trader, visionary - began activities over 150 years ago that would grow and help establish El Paso as an international city of trade and military might. Today, El Paso remains a gateway to trade with the southern hemisphere and is home to modern Fort Bliss, strategic air defense center of the western world. Magoffin would have been proud.