Research Packet and Narrative by: Alonso Carrasco, Jamie Carter, Dr. George D. Torok
Honors Project - Summer 2004 - National Endowment for the Humanities Historical Markers Project
In January 1827, Juan Maria Ponce de Leon, a wealthy and influential citizen of El Paso del Norte, (present-day Ciudad Juarez, Mexico), petitioned the city’s ayuntamiento for a land grant on the north bank of the Rio Grande, about one mile from the plaza. He had apparently already been farming the land for some time and now wished to legally own it. The petition was approved by the ayuntamiento, validated by the government of Chihuahua, and transferred to Ponce de Leon. On September 25, 1827, the land grant was formally surveyed and placed in the possession of Ponce de Leon by the Alcade of Paso del Norte. This land formed the base for the Ponce de Leon Hacienda, the first settlement in what would later become American El Paso. [i]
The Ponce de Leon hacienda was located near the site of today's Mills Building on San Jacinto Plaza in
downtown El Paso, Texas. Image provided by George Torok.
The northern tract contained two caballerias, an old Spanish measurement of about 106 acres, and was valued at eighty pesos. After taking formal possession, Ponce de Leon completed an acequia, or irrigation ditch, with its mouth located just above a dam located south of the river ford known as el paso. At the time, the Rio Grande ran near the path of Paisano Drive. The acequia ran from the river to the ranch on a path close to that of today’s San Francisco Street and Texas Avenue. [ii] It watered the fields and vineyards that were located south of Texas near today’s United States Courthouse. [iii] Cottonwood trees were planted along the acequia. Corn and wheat were planted in the southeastern part of the grant and an orchard was begun in the western part.
A one-story adobe home was soon built near the river, near the present-day intersection of El Paso Street and Paisano Drive, but was destroyed in the spring floods of 1830. Following the floods, on May 4, 1830, Ponce de Leon received another caballeria, began construction of a second, larger home, and developed a thriving farming and ranching business. The second home was fortified and had a watchtower to help guard against Apache attacks. The second house became the center of a small settlement known as Ponce’s Rancho.[iv]
Ponce de Leon continued to maintain a residence in El Paso del Norte and apparently divided his time between the two homes. There is some debate over the exact location of Ponce de Leon’s second house which became known as the Ponce de Leon Hacienda. Most evidence points to it being located on the present-day site of the Mills Building, opposite the westside of San Jacinto Plaza.house. [v] Some have speculated that it was located further west, in the present-day Civic Center Complex. At least one contemporary account indicates that it was near today’s Chihuahua Street, where it once intersected San Francisco Avenue. [vi] (A 1998 archaeological report recommended an historical marker be placed near the Mills Building site). [vii] Ponce de Leon also built a tannery and flour mill west of the hacienda, near today’s West Paisano Drive, where an earthen dam was located. [viii]
After the end of the Mexican War and the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, lands north of the Rio Grande became part of the United States. American merchant Benjamin Franklin Coons bought the Ponce de Leon grant and leased part it to the U.S. Army’s Third Infantry in 1849. The settlement became known as Coon’s Ranch, and later as Franklin.
Although Coons defaulted on his payments, and the land was briefly returned to Ponce de Leon, it was sold by his family to other Americans after his death in 1852. By the late 1850s it was owned by the El Paso Company and was surveyed by Anson Mills who developed Franklin into a townsite.[ix]
The land grant continued to generate controversy long after Ponce de Leon was gone. In the late 19th century there were numerous efforts to determine the original boundaries of the grant and settle disputes over boundaries. The raging waters of the Rio Grande carved new channels and the general position of the river continued to move south toward Mexico after extensive floods in 1860, 1864, 1868, and 1873.The dispute over these lands, and the actual boundaries of the Ponce de Leon Land Grant were not finally resolved until the Chamizal Treaty of 1964 which was formally implemented in 1967. [x]
[ii] A. Peterson and Mark D. Willis, The Union Plaza Downtown El Paso Development Archaeological Project: Overview, Inventory and Recommendations (El Paso, TX, 1998), 40.
[iii] Sonnichsen, Pass of the North, 107; Peterson and Willis, Union Plaza Archaeological Project, 45, fig. 2:2.
[v] Bowden, Ponce de Leon Land Grant, 44n; Peterson and Willis, Union Plaza Archaeological Project, 40.
Bowden, J.J. The Ponce de Leon Land Grant. El Paso, Texas: Texas Western Press, 1969.
Metz, Leon. El Paso: Guided through Time. El Paso, Texas: Mangan Books, 1999.
Peterson, John A. and Mark D. Willis. The Union Plaza Downtown El Paso Development Archaeological Project: Overview, Inventory, and Recommendations. El Paso, Texas: City of El Paso, 1998.
Sonnichsen, C. L. Pass of the North: Four Centuries on the Rio Grande. El Paso, Texas: Texas Western Press, 1968.
Staski, Edward. Beneath the Border City: Urban Archaeology in Downtown El Paso. Las Cruces, New Mexico: New Mexico State University, 1984.
Timmons, W. H. El Paso: A Borderlands History. El Paso, TX: Texas Western Press, 1990.