The Frontera Settlement
Frontera Road and Doniphan Drive
Frontera was the first settlement in American El Paso. It was located at the site of a popular river ford along the Chihuahua Trail used by Missouri and Santa Fe traders conducting business with Chihuahua City, Chihuahua. The trial was part of El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, which continued through the interior to Mexico City and had been in use for more than 250 years. Frontera was located approximately eight miles north of the Ciudad Juarez’s Guadalupe Mission, along present-day Frontera Road, near Doniphan Drive on the westside of El Paso, Texas near the New Mexico border.[i]
In August 1848, T. Frank White built a trading post on the east bank of the Rio Grande. Although the end of the Mexican War and the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo established the river as an international boundary, White expected trade and travel to resume along the Chihuahua Trail. The post was located at a popular river crossing used when flooding and swift currents made it difficult to ford the Rio Grande closer to town.[ii] Here the river was wide and shallow allowing for a much easier crossing of horses, mules, and wagons. When waters were high, canoes were used to float cargo and wagons across.[iii] White called the site Frontera, which means border or frontier in Spanish, because it was located near the new borders of Texas, Chihuahua, and New Mexico. Because mule trains often passed by the west side of today’s Mount Cristo Rey and crossed at Frontera, it became commonly known as Mule’s Ford.[iv]
White soon found his river crossing was located along another important route: the road west to the California goldfields. The El Paso area was one of the few oasis located along the trail after hundreds of miles of dry, hot West Texas desert. By mid-1849 more than four thousand emigrants were camped along the river. White’s Frontera soon became the main trading center and river ford in the area. It thrived as White sold supplies, pack animals, and arranged river crossings. Frontera also drew the attention of Lieutenant William H.C. Whiting who recommended it as the location for a military post on the Rio Grande.[v]
Not only did White become the first successful merchant in American El Paso but he was soon the first magistrate and the first collector of customs. Typical of the confusion over boundaries, White was appointed Prefect by the Military Governor of New Mexico, Colonel John M. Washington, even though Frontera was located in Texas. During 1849 he removed several area residents from their positions and extended his jurisdiction over the lower valley settlements of Ysleta, Socorro, and San Elizario.[vi]
But White’s Frontera was soon competing with four other settlements in American El Paso and fell on hard times. The military post was established further down the river and by late 1850 many travelers bypassed the upper crossing. In November 1850 White tried to sell his land to U.S. Boundary Commissioner John R. Bartlett. Instead, Bartlett briefly leased some of the land for use as an observatory. Activity at the trading post declined and White no longer had the political influence he once did. Shortly after making arrangements for the observatory White left El Paso. His brother, Charles W. White, apparently managed the property until the mid-1850s. A few years later, the ranch and trading post were abandoned and in ruins.[vii]
Today, the site of White’s Frontera Settlement is located in a quiet residential area of west El Paso. The river, tamed, channeled, and narrowed in the early 20th century, lies almost one mile west of the course it took in the 1840s.[viii] Although a significant amount of construction and landscaping have changed the area, it still has a rural, agricultural atmosphere. Acequias water lawns, gardens, and fields and Doniphan Drive continues north into farming regions of the upper valley. A marker, placed by the Boundary Commission on White’s property, lies buried along Frontera Road near the railroad tracks.
[i] W.H. Timmons, El Paso: A Borderlands History (El Paso, TX 1990), 104; Tim B. Graves, Stephen F. Schlett, John A. Peterson, The Canutillo-El Paso Upper Valley Water Transmission Facilities Project: Survey Results and Recommendations (El Paso, TX 1997), 15.
[ii] Rex W. Strickland, Six Who Came to El Paso (El Paso, TX 1963), 11-12.
[iii] Adolph Wislizenus, Memoir of a Tour to Northern Mexico connected with Col. Doniphan’s Expedition in 1846 and 1847 (Washington, D.C. 1848), 25-26.
[iv] Nancy Hamilton, “The Frontera Settlement,” Password 30 (Summer 1985), 57.
[v] Strickland, Six Who Came, 11.
[vi] Strickland, Six Who Came, 12.
[vii] Hamilton, “ Frontera Settlement,” 60.
[viii] Graves, Schlett, and Peterson, Canutillo-El Paso Upper Valley, 17.
For more on El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro please see:
Graves, Tim B., Stephen F. Schlett, and John A. Peterson. The Canutillo-El Paso Upper Valley Water Transmission Facilities Project: Survey Results and Recommendations. El Paso, TX: Archaeological Research Inc., 1997.
Hamilton, Nancy. “The Frontera Settlement.” Password 30 (Summer 1985): pp. 55-61.
Hamilton, Nancy. “Frontera, Texas.” Handbook of Texas Online
Metz, Leon. El Paso: Guided through Time. El Paso, Texas: Mangan Books, 1999.
Sonnichsen, C. L. Pass of the North: Four Centuries on the Rio Grande. El Paso, Texas: Texas Western Press, 1968.
Strickland, Rex W. Six Who Came to El Paso. El Paso, TX: Texas Western College Press, 1963.
Timmons, W. H. El Paso: A Borderlands History. El Paso, TX: Texas Western Press, 1990.
Wislizenus, Adolph. Memoir of a Tour to Northern Mexico, connected with Col. Doniphan’s Expedition in 1846 and 1847. Washington, D.C.: Tippin & Streeper, Printers, 1848.