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Borderlands: James and Joseph Magoffin: El Paso Pioneers (with 2017 update)

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

James and Joseph Magoffin: El Paso Pioneers (with 2017 update)

By Brenda Marusich (Article first published in Vol. 11, 1993)

Update 2017

The State National Bank, Fort Bliss, a transporting business, streetcars, a trading post, El Paso Water Utilities and two baseball teams. Although this mélange may seem unrelated, a closer look will reveal otherwise.

In the late 1800s when El Paso was being established,two men of wealth, influence, responsibility and integrity helped settle this area . James Wiley Magoffin and his son Joseph. It was their role in El Paso that brought forth these institutions and businesses.

""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 Wiley Magoffin was born in 1799 in Harrodsburg, Kentucky. As a little boy, he would pretend that he owned his own businesses, traveled extensively and helped settle uninhabited territories.

He and his friends spent hours creating and taking part in hair-raising adventures pretending to explore wild lands. Along their imaginary journeys, the boys would triumph over Indian attacks, snow, scorching heat, thirst and near starvation.

These children’s games gave Magoffin dreams to fulfill later in his life. He wanted to experience the adventures he had only imagined. 

During his adolescence, those dreams burned brighter and brighter within him.James Magoffin discussed his goals with his father, a wealthy merchant who knew that business was also in his son’s blood. Although the exact details are sketchy, more than likely the elder Magoffin financed his son’s first business ventures.
In his early twenties, James Magoffin left home to start his frontier journey and to establish a transporting and trading business. He began selling books, clothes, medications, printing presses, lumber and wagons along the Santa Fe-Chihuahua Trail. The route ran from Independence, Missouri, to Santa Fe, down to El Paso and into Chihuahua, west to Saltillo and ended in Matamoros.

During this time, James was a friend of the Secretary of State, Henry Clay. In 1824, Clay appointed Magoffin the consul to Saltillo. He served as consul to Chihuahua and Saltillo from 1825 until 1832. This appointment proved to be crucial for the course of his life.

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The people of Mexico loved “Don Santiago,” as James was called. He took the time to learn their language and customs and was well-known for his quick wit and great sense of humor.

While on one of his trips he met and in the 1830s married Maria Gertrudis Valdez de Veramendi, a daughter of a wealthy Coahuila family. This union of love also strengthened his social and financial standing in Mexico.

By 1844, James and Maria sensed that war was inevitable because of the strained relations between Texas and Mexico. They and their five children moved to Independence, Missouri, to be safe from tension. It was also a good business move because James would be at the head of the Santa Trail. Shortly after arriving in Missouri, Maria died in January 1845.

"" Image caption: Joseph Magoffin was a four-time mayor of El Paso and organized many of El Paso’s services. (Photo courtesy of Magoffin Home State Historic Site)

In 1849, the Magoffins moved to El Paso, the midpoint of his business route. James purchased 100,000 acres of land and called the territory Magoffinsville. It encompassed all of present-day downtown El Paso and more. Magoffinsville was a small town complete with a general store, livery stable and a spacious  residence for his family, which in 1850 included Maria’s sister Dolores, whom he married. Further away, a half mile from the Rio Grande, he built a plaza with adobe buildings surrounding it.

A few years later, the local military post, which had been established earlier to protect and defend residents against attacks by Apaches, Mescaleros, and Comanches, relocated to Magoffinsville. The name of the military post had also been changed . to Fort Bliss. James Magoffin was given the military contract to feed and supply the troops.

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Even though this area was his home, James continued to travel from Missouri to Chihuahua to take care of his businesses. When the San Antonio-El Paso road opened up, he frequently visited his daughter in San Antonio, where he died in 1868.Joseph Magoffin, his firstborn son, inherited his father’s adventurous spirit. Born on Jan. 7,1837, in Chihuahua, he received his formal education in Lexington, Ky. He moved back to the Southwest in 1856 and contributed significantly to the settlement of El Paso. Some of those contributions still affect us today.

He served four terms as mayor, starting in 1881.During his 1882 administration, mule-drawn trolleys became a form of transportation in El Paso. A pair of mules traveled the two routes. One route went down San Antonio Street and returned on present-day Magoffin Avenue. The other route ran from El Paso Street to Seventh Street, to Stanton Street and crossed an international bridge into Juárez. The trolleys later evolved into streetcars.

Joseph Magoffin also organized the El Paso Water Company, drastically changing life for the citizens of El Paso. No longer did people have to carry water from the Rio Grande, wait for the mud to settle, then drink it. El Paso’s volunteer fire department also took shape during his administration.

Mayor Magoffin, who liked sports, responded to a public demand and started two baseball teams. They played against each other every Sunday afternoon, thus providing entertainment for the people in El Paso.

Besides serving as a mayor, Joseph Magoffin helped organize the State National Bank, holding the position of vice-president for many years. In addition, Magoffin served as Justice of the Peace, Collector of Customs and District Judge in his lifetime.

El Paso still benefits from the Magoffin father-and-son team of visionaries who worked to develop barren land into an international city. The challenges came from a dream of that little boy in Kentucky who pursued his aspirations as a grown man and passed them to his children. The contributions of James and Joseph Magoffin to this city live on in street names, a UTEP auditorium and numerous other El Paso traditions.

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In 1846, President Polk asked James Magoffin’s help in negotiating the Texas/Mexico border after the U.S. annexed Texas. War broke out between the two countries after negotiations failed, and James was imprisoned in Mexico, suffering financial losses that were only partially recouped. He resettled in El Paso and built Magoffinsville, the hacienda and trading center we describe in this  article and in more detail in a later Borderlands article (

During the American Civil War, he joined Texas in taking the Confederate side, only to discover later that Union troops had confiscated his property and would release it only with a presidential pardon. The following year his property flooded and destroyed the homestead.He died shortly thereafter.

With his death, his son Joseph inherited the land, restored his father’s property and raised a family. He and his wife Octavia were prominent in civic life. He built a home in 1875 that housed generations of his family for over a century and was in decline before local efforts to save it resulted in its current status as the Magoffin Home State Historic Site, complete with a new visitor’s center across the street at 1117 Magoffin Ave.

The adobe home is an excellent example of Territorial architecture, seen mainly in New Mexico, and has rooms authentically decorated in the late 1800s and the 1930s styles. The home is open Tuesday through Sunday with guided and self-guided tours and hosts community events and even camps for children. See the home’s website for detailed biographical information on the Magoffins.

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Magoffin Sources

Magoffin Home State Historic Site ( EPCC Along the Rio Grande project #60)
Perspectives 182: Professor Blevins visits with L. Bergloff at the Magoffin Home Historic site.
EPCC Web site || EPCC Libraries Web Site || EPCC Library Catalog
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