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Borderlands: San Elizario Presidio Protected Settlers 17 (1998)

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

San Elizario Presidio Protected Settlers

Article first published in Vol. 17, 1998.

By Hector Santiago and Blanca Reyes

In 1285, and aristocrat named Elzear of Sabran was born in Provence, France. He married at the behest of Charles II of Naples, but his bride wished to live in perpetual virginity. After their marriage, the couple vied with each other in the "practice of prayer, mortification and charity towards the unfortunate," writes Gregory Carr, Catholic historian.

Elzear joined the Third Order of St. Francis and was known for his fairness and justice. In 1369, his nephew, Pope Urban V, the former William of Grimoard, signed the decree of canonization of his godfather Elzear.

""Image caption: Artist's concept of a typical Spanish fort or presidio. Drawing by Tony Barron.

One of the oldest communities in the El Paso area is named for Saint Elzear. The San Elizario Presidio was dedicated on September 27, the same day St. Elzear's day is celebrated in Spain. Although the presidio moved several times, it was the basis for the town we know as San Elizario.

As the Spanish explorers began to colonize the Southwest, they realized they needed to protect their new settlements. To guard their newly acquired empire, Spain utilized a system of defense units known as presidios. These garrisoned fortifications served to defend the population of New Spain or to secure a position on the new frontier.

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Such forts go back to ancient times and resemble miniature castles, with four high walls and lookout towers. When an area was under attack, settlers would run for safety inside the walls of the presidio.

The first Spanish presidios were established in the 1570s in New Spain and guarded the main routes of transportation between the newly opened silver mines from the many hostile Indian groups, but these forts failed.

The Royal Regulations of 1772 reorganized the colonial presidio system. A presidio at Guajuquilla, near Parral in Chihuahua, was moved in 1773 to the valley of San Elizario, which was at El Porvenir or present day Fort Hancock. Several years later, this San Elizario presidio was moved thirty miles upstream to the Hacienda de Los Tiburcios, current location of San Elizario. The move was necessary to provide protection for the river settlements of San Lorenzo, Senecú, Ysleta and Socorro from the Apache Indians.

El Paso author Leon Metz says Apache and Kiowa warriors frequently raided the small farms and ranches of the El Paso del Norte Valley. According to San Elizario historian Sam Sanchez, the residents of San Elizario and other river settlements were more afraid of the Indians than anything else. The Mescalero Apaches attacked settlements along a 1,500 miles arc stretching from Altar, Sonora, on the Gulf of California all the way to the Texas-Louisiana Border.

Historian Eugene Porter says that during the late 1700s, Apaches killed 1,963 people, depopulated 116 ranches, and stole over 77,000 head of cattle from the towns of Nueva Vizcaya alone. A major factor in the Royal Regulations of 1772 provided for supplying rations to the raiding parties of Apaches to keep them from attacking the northern settlements. But in 1831, after Mexico gained independence from Spain, Mexico ceased this policy of conciliation, and the Apaches resumed their raids.

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The San Elizario Presidio defended the area as best it could, but the 100 soldiers garrisoned there were being overwhelmed by Apache attacks. To assist the presidio in their defense, Governor General Calvo organized a militia of 700 men to be transferred to San Elizario. In the 1840s, a band of Apaches raided a settlement in El Paso and retreated to the Hueco mountains. General Calvo's militia, along with the men from the presidio, pinned the Apaches and showed no mercy. The Hueco Tanks Massacre, as it is known, killed over 100 Apaches.

The Apache threat diminished but did not stop. Sanchez says that instead of forming large raiding parities, the Apaches worked in groups of three to four people stealing property from the presidio and surrounding communities. The presidio became more responsible for the recovery of stolen property, especially livestock, than for waging war on the Indians.

El Paso Historian W. H. Timmons says that the Presidio of San Elizario provided the "nucleus of civilian town," causing a rise in the population of the settlement and providing a market for the goods produced by townspeople and neighboring farms and ranches. In his book titled "The Presidio," Max Moorhead says that is the late 1700s, 95 percent of all presidial solders in New Spain were married.

In addition to the soldiers' families, settlers were attracted to the presidio by a sense of security. Timmons says the population of San Elizario increased from 432 in 1833 to 1,018 in 1841.

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Maintenance costs of the presidios were immense, and they relied on civilian products to remain operational. In addition, presidial soldiers received regular salaries, so ranchers, farmers, vendors, artisans and laborers found ready markets, so ranchers, farmers, vendors, artisans and laborers found ready markets for their products and services. The town of San Elizario prospered from the military presence and became the county seat in 1850, with a total population of about 1,200 residents.

The beginning of the Mexican American War marked the end of the Presidio of San Elizario as a military stronghold. The soldiers stationed at the presidio along with 1,200 other Mexican soldiers met a humiliating defeat at the hands of Colonel Alexander Doniphan and his Missouri volunteers at the Battle of Brazitos on Christmas day 1846. When Doniphan's forces reached the Presidio on December 30, 1846, they found it deserted and in ruins. The presidio would never see the presence of Mexican soldiers again.

The remains of the presidio stood in recognizable form until 1851. The same people who once ran to the presidio's adobe walls for protection now dismantled them to make their homes. Remnants of a wall remained well into the 20th century, but nothing of it remains today. On the site now stands the Chapel of San Elizario, built in 1877. Unlike many early settlements which disappeared within a few years, San Elizario survived, due largely to the existence of the original Spanish presidio.

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Mission Valley Sources

Borderland Treasures: Exploring the Socorro Mission

San Elizario (EPCC Along the Rio Grande project #48)
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