Millions in Mexican Silver Crossed Texas to the Port at Indianola

Hundreds of freight wagons, each drawn by six to eight mules, and brightly colored Mexican carretas, each pulled by four to six oxen, formed dusty weaving trains on the Chihuahua Road from the silver mines of northern Mexico to the port town of Indianola on the central Texas coast. The trail across Texas opened in 1848 at the end of the Mexican-American War when the U.S. laid claim to Texas and the entire southwest all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The following year, the California Gold Rush set the get-rich-quickers into a frenzy looking for a shorter route across the country than the old Santa Fe Trail that ran from Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The Chihuahua Trail, The Big Bend: A History of the Last Texas Frontier, Ronnie C. Tyler

The Chihuahua Trail, The Big Bend: A History of the Last Texas Frontier, Ronnie C. Tyler

Indianola by Helmuth Holtz, Sept. 1860 Library of Congress Wikipedia

Indianola by Helmuth Holtz, Sept. 1860
Library of Congress
Wikipedia

The port at Indianola on Matagorda Bay offered dockage for U.S. military personnel and equipment bound for the western settlements of Texas as far as El Paso (future Fort Bliss), and it provided the perfect jumping-off place for settlers and gold-hungry Americans heading west. The ships, anchored at piers stretching out into the shallow bay, took on the Mexican silver and transported it to the mint in New Orleans. The vessels returned with trade goods destined for the interior of Texas and the towns developing in the west and the villages of Mexico.

The Chihuahuan Road headed northwest from Indianola, made quick stops in San Antonio and Del Rio, twisted north along the Devils River, forded the steep ledges along the Pecos River, and then plunged southwest through the

Mexican Carreta at Fort Leaton State Historic Site south of Presidio

Mexican Carreta at Fort Leaton State Historic Site south of Presidio

Chihuahuan Desert to cross the Rio Grande at Presidio, entering the mineral-rich state of Chihuahua, Mexico.

The Spanish, as early as 1567, had discovered northern Mexico’s mineral wealth—gold, copper, zinc, and lead—but silver proved the richest lode. By the time Mexico opened its commerce with the U.S. after the Mexican-American War, there were six mines in the area near Ciudad Chihuahua, the capital of the Mexican state of Chihuahua.

General Lew Wallace (author of Ben-Hur) wrote The Silver Mines of Santa Eulalia, Chihuahua, Mexico, in which he claims that the raw outcroppings of Santa Eulalia, the richest of the mines, had been discovered in 1652, but persistent Indian troubles chased away the Spanish explorer who had found the site. Fifty years later, Wallace says that three men who were fugitives from the law, hide in a deep ravine tucked into Santa Eulalia’s steep hills. They stacked some boulders to create a fireplace, and as the flames grew hotter, the boulders began leaking a shiny white metal, which they recognized as silver. Knowing their fortune awaited, they sent word via a friendly Indian to the padre in the nearby mission community of Chihuahua, offering to pay for the grandest cathedral in New Spain if the padre would absolve their sins and pardon their crimes. It worked. The fugitives received absolution and pardon; they became fabulously wealthy; and the Church of the Holy Cross, Our Lady of Regla, became the finest example of colonial architecture in northern Mexico. Miners flocked to the Santa Eulalia and Ciudad Chihuahua grew into a large and wealthy city.

Millions of dollars in silver and trade goods were hauled over the road between Chihuahua and Indianola, except for the years of the Civil War. The road served as the corridor for western settlement until 1883 when the Texas and Pacific Railroad from the east met the Southern Pacific from California. The new southern transcontinental railroad opened a direct route between New Orleans and California. The final blow to the Chihuahua Road arrived with the devastating hurricane of 1886 that turned the thriving seaport of Indianola into a ghost town.

Tales of Fort Leaton

The Chihuahuan Desert hugging the Rio Grande in far West Texas was a killing field for Spanish explorers, Apaches, Comanches, white scalp hunters, and freighters daring to travel between San Antonio and

Fort Leaton

Fort Leaton

Fort Leaton

Fort Leaton

Ciudad Chihuahua. Apache and Comanche raids into Mexico—killing hundreds, stealing thousands of livestock, and capturing women and children—resulted by 1835 in the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora offering bounties for each scalp of $100 for braves; $50 for squaws; and $25 for children under fourteen. Once the scalp dried out, it was difficult to tell whether it had belonged to an Indian, a Mexican, or a white person, which encouraged wholesale slaughter of all stripes of travelers who dared enter the region. The financial panic of 1837 left miners in Northern Mexico and pioneers moving west in need of money. Scalp hunting brought in more than most men could make in a year.

The Indian raids decreased during the Mexican-American War (1846-48) as U.S. soldiers chased Indians when they weren’t busy fighting the Mexicans. However, after the war, the Indian attacks increased and the price per scalp inflated to $200—a quicker profit than heading to the California gold fields.

Fort Leaton

Fort Leaton

In 1848, after the Rio Grande was settled as the international boundary between Texas and Mexico, Ben Leaton, a freighter who had been augmenting his income by working as a scalp hunter, realized that a trading post on the Rio Grande would be a prime location on the Chihuahua Trail. Jefferson Morgenthaler, author of The River Has Never Divided Us, writes that Ben Leaton selected a site for a trading post three miles downriver from Presidio del Norte (present Presidio).  By bribing the alcalde (mayor) and former alcalde of Presidio, he produced forged deeds to the land where Mexican peasants had farmed for generations.

Leaton, at the point of a gun, ran the Mexican farmers off of a tract of farmland that was five miles long and over a mile wide. Their protests to Mexican authorities went unheeded because the land was no longer part of Mexico. Then, he set about building a fortification that would serve as his home, trading post, and corral. Leaton built his L-shaped, forty-room fortress with eighteen-inch thick adobe walls that paralleled the river for 200 feet, forming a stockade at the base of the L. Walls and parapets enclosed the structure. Giant wooden doors, topped by a small cannon, opened to admit teams and wagons to the fortress that became known as Fort Leaton, the only fortification between Eagle Pass and El Paso. While Fort Davis was being built eighty miles to the north, the U.S. Army used Fort Leaton as its headquarters and continued to use the site as an outpost for its military patrols.

Interior, Fort Leaton

Interior, Fort Leaton

Morgenthaler writes that the first group of Texans to reach the new trading post was a 70-man expedition in October 1848, under the leadership of the famed Texas Ranger Jack Hays who was charged with opening a trading route between San Antonio and Chihuahua. Using an inaccurate map and an incompetent guide, the entourage had gotten lost and reached Fort Leaton half-starved. Leaton welcomed them while they rested and regained their strength. Although they returned to San Antonio without completing the expedition, the Chihuahua Trail soon opened to a steady stream of freighters.

No record survives of any Indian attacks on Fort Leaton, which may be explained by accusations that Ben Leaton traded rifles, bullets, swords, tobacco, and whiskey to the Apaches and Comanches in exchange for livestock, church ornaments, housewares, and captives from Mexico. Leaton also served as a welcoming host, for a hefty price, to traders heading to Mexico and forty-niners on their way to the gold fields of California.

Leaton died in 1851 before charges could be brought by the Inspector of the Military Colonies of Chihuahua of “a thousand abuses, and of so hurtful a nature, that he keeps an open treaty with the Apache Indians . . . .” His widow married Edward Hall who continued operating the trading post. Hall borrowed money in 1864 from Leaton’s scalp hunting partner John Burgess. When Hall defaulted on the debt, he was murdered, and Burgess’ family moved into the fort. Then, Leaton’s son murdered Burgess in 1875. The Burgess’ family remained at Fort Leaton until 1926.

A private citizen bought the fort and donated it to Presidio County; however, inadequate funding kept the old structure from being properly maintained. Finally another private citizen bought the structure, donated it to the state and it was restored and designated in 1968 as Fort Leaton State Historic Site.

Candelilla

Candelilla See attached blog above by aneyefortexas

Sitting among the lechuguilla, ocotillo, creosote bush and candelilla of the Chihuahuan Desert, it welcomes visitors seven days a week, except Christmas.

Ocotillo

Ocotillo, See the attached blog above by aneyefortexas