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Borderlands: Salt War of 1877 Divided Southwest Residents 18 (1999)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Salt War of 1877 Divided Southwest Residents

Article first published in Vol. 18, 1999.

By Silvia Rodriguez, Tonantzin De Aztlan and Elena Espinoza

drawing of cannonSalt. White and pure. A spice used every day. But would you kill over it? In 1877, a vicious "war" over salt took place in and around the small town of San Elizario.

Salt deposits located in the Guadalupe Mountains 110 miles east of El Paso produced salt that was almost chemically pure. The salt flats covered several hundred acres and the salt supplied all of western Texas, southern New Mexico and Mexico. Frontier settlers depended on the site to produce salt for their stock and home supply; Mexican farmers fell back on their salt business when crops were bad.

Citizens on both sides of the border had always collected the salt for free. But several events set the scene for a bloody battle that would involve political machinations, murder, racism and even the only recorded defeat of the Texas Rangers. Hunger for political power and greed among influential locals gave way to the formation of a group known as the "Salt Ring," W. W. Mills, Albert J. Fountain, Judge Gaylord Judd Clarke, A.H. French, Ben F. Williams and J. M. Luján attempted to gain possession of the unclaimed salt lakes. However, an El Paso Court rejected their claim. The members of the Salt Ring began to feud with each other, leading to the murder of Clarke by Williams in December, 1870. In turn, Fountain and Captain A.H. French of the State Police shot Williams to death.

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These deaths split the group into two parts: the Salt Ring and the Anti-Salt Ring. Fountain, Father Antonio Borrajo and Louis Cardis became the leaders of the new Salt Ring. Historian C. L. Sonnichsen says that Borrajo's parishioners feared and admired him, while Cardis was considered a friend and advisor to the Mexicans of El Paso and San Elizario. Together, these two men could control the Mexican vote.

In 1872, the Army withdrew troops from both Fort Bliss and Fort Quitman, near San Elizario, and left the El Paso area without a military presence. In this year, Charles Howard came into town. Sonnichsen says that Howard, a lawyer from Missouri, had two goals when he set foot in El Paso: to become wealthy and to make the politically Republican city a Democratic stronghold.

He made fast friends with Cardis and Borrajo, who helped him become District Attorney. The three men worked closely again to elect Cardis to the Texas Legislature in 1874, and Howard was appointed District judge.

But despite helping each other get into office, Howard and Cardis quarreled over the salt region and they became bitter enemies by 1877. Howard took claim to the salt flats in the name of his father-in-law, Major George B. Zimpleman. Soon after, Howard closed the road to the salt flat and instituted a tax on the salt gathered. Howard beat up Cardis in the streets of San Antonio and Austin. Then he arrested two Mexicans living in San Elizario who gathered salt without intending to pay for it.

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Howard was captured and imprisoned in San Elizario and released only after he agreed to confess to his "errors," renounce all claims to the salt beds, leave town and never return. Howard agreed and the "deal" was guaranteed by a $12,000 bond by his supporters. Rather than end the feud, however, this incident infuriated Howard, and he blamed Cardis.

In Pass of the North, Sonnichsen quotes Howard as saying, "I can think of nothing on Earth or Hell bad enough for him." Referring to Cardis. On October 9, 1877, Luis Cardis, sitting in a rocking chair at Solomon Schutz's store on San Francisco Street in El Paso, became the next victim in the "war." Howard entered the store, shot Cardis in the stomach and chest with a shotgun, killing him instantly. A few hours later, Howard returned to Mesilla.

Schutz sent a telegram to Colonel Hatch in Fort Bayard asking for help which the Colonel dispatched, and Howard wired the Governor of Texas warning him that there was a danger of an invasion from Mexico. This action brought Major John B. Jones of the Texas Rangers to the Lower Valley where he confronted angry men.

He quickly recruited a new detachment of Rangers and put them under the leadership of John B. Tays, a good but ordinary man, not a leader. The local recruits included outlaws and thugs. C. L. Sonnichsen says of these men. "Not a one of them would have been a Ranger under normal circumstances."

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On December 12, 1877, Howard rode into San Elizario with a group of twenty Texas Rangers to enforce his ban on salt removal without payment. A mob of hundreds of angry, armed men met them. Father Borrajo had sent instructions for the Mexican to kill the Anglos.

Sensing the danger, Howard and his companions took refuge in an adobe house. The siege lasted for the next two days until Howard surrendered to the mob. Howard and two of his companions, John Atkinson and Charlie McBride, were shot by firing squad, mutilated and thrown down a well. Tays then surrendered his troop of Rangers, the only time this has happened in the history of the lawmen.

Looting of San Elizario followed the murders. Sonnichsen says wagons were used to carry off $30,000 in merchandise and cash. Six men were indicted but never stood trial, escaping to Mexico. The only positive outcome of the Salt War was the reactivation of Fort Bliss.

The Salt War of 1877 was one of the largest uprisings of mob action and vigilantism in El Paso's history. It forced the Americans and Mexicans to evaluate the bloodshed their difference caused. With twelve people dead and 50 wounded, the mob managed to cause $50,000 worth of damage. The most lasting consequence of the Salt War was the realization of how much power the Mexicans had lost in what has been their own land to the United States. Racist attitudes and greed dominated the minds of these men of the West.

With the coming of the railroad, salt became easier to obtain, but bitterness between Mexicans and Anglos remained. C. L. Sonnichsen reflects the uselessness of this vicious chapter of local history when the says, "The Salt War, like all wars, was wasteful and unnecessary, unless to prove to a pessimist that men can die bravely in a bad cause."

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