Politics and Salt Did Not Mix

Travelers driving east from El Paso may find it difficult to imagine the longtime controversies that took place in the shadow of the

Guadalupe Peak

Guadalupe Peak

majestic Guadalupe Peak rising from the desert floor. The tallest mountain in Texas soars 8,751 feet above its western flank where an ancient salt flat sprawled across 2,000 acres. The salt and gypsum formed dunes that flowed from three-

Dunes in the Salt Flat

Dunes in the Salt Flat

to sixty-feet above the desert landscape. This treasure, lying about 100 miles east of present El Paso, was so important for the region’s Native Americans that for centuries they viewed it as a sacred place where they secured salt for tanning hides, for use as a condiment, and as a preservative. Things began to change when the Spanish discovered the site in 1692 and the villages, such as San Elizario that developed along the Rio Grande near present El Paso, viewed the Salt Flats as common land to be used by all the peoples of the region. The Indians, especially the Apaches, did not welcome the intruders who defied Indian attack to gather the precious resource. Even after the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended Mexican-American War and drew Mexico’s boundary with Texas at the Rio Grande, the Tejano farmers and ranchers supplemented their meager incomes by selling the salt as far away as the rich mining regions in Northern Mexico where it was used in smelting the silver.

More problems arose after the Civil War when El Paso came under the control of prominent Republicans who tried to claim the Salt Flat and charge a fee for Mexican Americans to gather the salt that had been free for many generations. Meantime, Charles H. Howard, a Democrat, arrived in El Paso in 1872 with the intention of turning the Republican stronghold into a Democratic electorate. Howard was successful for a time, got himself appointed district attorney and worked against the Republicans and the “Anti-Salt Ring.” Then, Howard changed course, filed on the salt deposits in the name of his father-in-law, which infuriated the El Paso area Hispanics who felt besieged by the Republicans and the Democrats. When Howard had the sheriff arrest local Tejano men to keep them from collecting the salt, a group of enraged local citizens held Howard prisoner until he agreed to relinquish all rights to the salt deposits.

Eventually in frustration over the attempted control of their community and their economic future, the Tejano people of San Elizario, closed all the county government and replaced it with committees (community juntas). The Anglos, who numbered less than 100 out of a population of 5,000, called on the governor who sent a detachment of Texas Rangers. When the Rangers arrived in the company of Howard, a two-day siege occurred ending with the surrender of the Texas Rangers, the first time in its history that a company of Rangers surrendered to a mob. Howard and the ranger sergeant and two others were executed. The disarmed Rangers were sent out of town, the Tejano leaders fled to Mexico, and residents looted the buildings. Twelve people were killed and fifty were wounded. No one was ever charged with a crime.

San Elizario paid a hefty price for its demands: the county seat was removed to El Paso, the 9th Cavalry of Buffalo Soldiers re-established Fort Bliss to patrol the border and watch the local Mexican population, the railroad bypassed San Elizario, the population declined, and the Mexican Americans lost their political influence in the area.

By the 1930s, floods had deposited silt across much of the flats and salt gathering came to a halt. Today the ghost town of Salt Flats, which consists of a scattering of mostly deserted buildings, edges the highway. Scattered vegetation grows where silt covered the old salt beds, but barren white stretches still offer a glimpse of the precious early-day resource.

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El Paso Mission Trail

My long-range plans call for finding a book publisher interested in my Texas history blogs. With that goal in mind, I’m expanding my Texas coverage with a series of West Texas and Panhandle stories. This blog post was to be about the founding of the oldest Spanish mission in Texas and the first thanksgiving in the United States, both of which I thought had occurred near El Paso, a city on the far western edge of Texas. Immediately, I uncovered a wide range of stories that I have decided to share.

We often think of Spanish activity in Texas getting underway when the Frenchman René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de LaSalle landed on the Texas coast in 1685. Concern that the French might have an eye on Texas prompted the government of New Spain to construct six missions in East Texas to Christianize the Indians and to serve as a buffer against encroachment from the French in neighboring Louisiana. In fact Spanish explorers started coming into Texas at present-day El Paso in the early 1580s, a century before the East Texas missions were built.

King Phillip II of Spain made Don Juan de Oñate the governor of New Mexico, before the territory

Don Juan de Onate

Don Juan de Onate

had been conquered. In search of riches, adventure, and political power Oñate personally financed an expedition, or entrada, meant to “pacify” the natives in New Mexico. He assembled 400 soldiers, 130 families and thousands of head of cattle, sheep, and other livestock. In early 1598 Oñate led his entourage on what he thought was a shortcut across the Chihuahuan Desert in Northern Mexico in search of a pass through the mountains into New Mexico. In late April, after four days of walking without food or water, the desperate travelers reached the Rio Grande where Oñate claimed all the surrounding land for King Phillip II of Spain. A few days later, they met native people who called themselves Manos, “peaceful one.” The friendly Indians led the Spanish to the place where the Rio Grande cut through the mountains forming El Paso del Rio del Norte—the pass of the north—the Spanish entryway to the West. The Mansos, who wore very little clothing, provided fresh fish for the Spanish and received clothing in return. Oñate invited the Mansos to be guests at a feast on January 26, 1598, celebrating the travelers’ amazing survival. The huge display of wild game and other food stuffs from the expeditions’ supplies created a feast of thanksgiving, which seems to be the second to be celebrated in the present United States. The first thanksgiving is claimed by St. Augustine, Florida, where on September 8, 1565, the Spanish explorer Pedro Menendez held a feast of thanksgiving with the Timucua.

The entrada moved on into New Mexico, but when scouting parties failed to find gold and silver,

Acoma Pueblo

Acoma Pueblo

Oñate’s troops began demanding payments from the Pueblo population. The Acoma pueblo refused to comply and in 1599 the Acoma Wars ended with Oñate’s orders to kill 800 people, enslave another 500, and cut off the left foot of all men older than twenty-five. Numbers of amputees vary from twenty-four to eighty. The young women were sent into slavery. Oñate continued his exploratory travels as far as present Kansas, returned to found the town of Santa Fe, and was finally called back to Mexico City in 1606 to answer for his conduct. Although he was tried and convicted of cruelty to the Spanish colonists and to the natives, he was later cleared of all charges.

His treatment of the native peoples set the pattern of Spanish cruelty that continued until the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 when the natives rebelled against their overlords. The Pueblos drove out the soldiers and the Spanish authorities, killed twenty-one Franciscan priests, and sacked mission churches. More than 400 Spanish colonists and 346 native people were killed, which sent hundreds of Indians and Spanish fleeing for their lives to the south. The Tigua (Tiwa) people were among the refugees who reached safety at the Paso del Norte. In order to serve the displaced population, Franciscan friars established the first mission and pueblo in Texas, Corpus Christi de la Isleta, in 1682 on the south bank of the Rio Grande. That same year Nuestra Señora de la

Ysleta Mission

Ysleta Mission

Concepción del Socorro was established for other native people who had fled from the Pueblo Revolt. Over the years, the Rio Grande flooded many times, changing course, and moving the communities that grew up around the missions to both sides of the river, even isolating them for a time on an island between two channels of the Rio Grande.

Socorro Mission

Socorro Mission

Despite the construction of the Spanish missions, the Indians from New Mexico brought their own way of life with them, and continued to control the political and economic activities of the new mission communities. The Franciscan friars were allowed authority only over the Indians’ spiritual life.

Into this mix of missions, native peoples, and Spanish settlers, San Elizario settlement was established, and the Presidio de San Elizario was built in 1789 to protect the area missions and the travelers on the Camino Real (Royal Highway) that ran from Mexico City through Paso del Norte to Santa Fe. While it was never a mission, the presidio boasted a chapel to serve the military personnel.

San Elizario Chapel

San Elizario Chapel

Today’s Ysleta church was completed in 1907 and the Isleta community was annexed into El Paso in 1955. The present Socorro Mission was completed in 1840, replacing the 17th-century structure destroyed by Rio Grande floods. The current church retains many of its original decorative elements, including the original beams, or vigas, which were salvaged from the old flooded church. Both missions and the San Elizario Chapel are on the El Paso Mission Trail.

El Paso Mission Trail

El Paso Mission Trail

LA SALLE LEGACY

Two years after his death in 1687, explorer, fur trader, Frenchman, and visionary René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle deserves credit for the government of New Spain’s decision to construct missions in East Texas.

The story springs from the massive colonization and exploitation of the New World by powerful European countries.  Although Norse explorers reached the Canadian mainland as early as A.D. 1000, Spain, beginning with Christopher Columbus in 1492, undertook the most aggressive campaign of colonization, spreading after 1500 from the Caribbean islands to the interior of North, Central, and South America.  Although Portugal acquired what is present Brazil, the Spanish didn’t have serious competition until the 17th century when the English, French, and the Dutch began their incursions into the New World.

The Spanish discovery of rich silver mines in Northern Mexico in the last half of the 16th century, led to settlements in the region.  When dreams of finding riches in present New Mexico and Texas did not materialize, Spanish interest lagged until England began exploring the New World.  The threat of competing empires prompted the Spanish crown to commission Juan de Oñate in 1595 to colonize present New Mexico.  When Oñate reached El Paso, he claimed for Spain all the land drained by the Rio del Norte (present Rio Grande). For almost 100 years as Franciscans established more than twenty missions in New Mexico and travelers made the journey through El Paso, the Spanish government ignored the interior of Texas.

All that changed in 1685 when Spanish officials heard that the Frenchman, René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle landed on the Texas coast.

La Salle began his adventures in 1666 at age twenty-two when, with a small allowance from his family, he sailed from his home in Rouen, France to Canada to join his brother Jean, a Sulpician priest.  La Salle worked in the lucrative fur trade, which led to his exploring the river systems connected to the Great Lakes and to his dream of establishing trading posts along the Illinois River and down the Mississippi.

Originally believing the Mississippi flowed into the Gulf of Mexico and offered a western passage to China, he canoed in 1682 to the mouth of the river, named the territory La Louisiane in honor of Louis XIV, and claimed all the lands drained by the river for France.

Upon his return to France in 1683, La Salle obtained the king’s blessing for a voyage to the mouth of the Mississippi to establish a colony, secure French Canada’s access to a warm water port for its fur trade, and challenge the Spanish Empire’s claim to all the land from the coast of Florida to Mexico.

La Salle departed France on July 24, 1684, with four ships and 300 colonists. Plagued from the beginning with misfortune–pirates captured one ship in the West Indies, and recent discoveries of early documents indicate La Salle’s “lack of geographical understanding” caused him to miss the mouth of the Mississippi and sail another 400 miles to Matagorda Bay on the mid-Texas coast.

As the expedition entered the mouth of the bay on February 20, 1685, the rough waters of Pass Caballo sank the storeship Aimable. Her crew and several disenchanted colonists returned to France on the naval vessel Joly.  Before La Salle’s colony moved off Matagorda Island, their numbers dwindled to 180.  Malnutrition, Indian attack, and overwork reduced their numbers even more after they moved inland and constructed Fort St. Louis on Garcitas Creek in present Victoria County.

The following October La Salle left Fort St. Louis to explore the region and determine his exact location.  Upon his return in March 1686 La Salle learned a winter storm wrecked La Belle, the colonists only remaining ship. Finally realizing the bay they entered lay west of the Mississippi, La Salle made two marches back toward East Texas into Hasinai, or Tejas Indian territory hoping to find the Mississippi and reach the fort he had established on the Illinois River.  On March 19, 1687, during his second march on which he took seventeen colonists with him, a dispute in a hunting camp resulted in the death of seven of his followers. Then one of La Salle’s own men asassinated La Salle.  Six of the survivors finally reached Canada and eventually returned to France to tell their story.

About twenty women, children, handicapped, and those out of favor with La Salle remained at Fort St. Louis. One of the children later recounted the story of all the adults being killed in a Karankawa attack around Christmas 1688.  Karankawa women saved the children whom the Spanish eventually rescued and sent as servants to Mexico.

When Spaniards learned of La Salle’s intrusion into Spanish Texas, they began the search–five sea voyages and six land marches–in pursuit of the French intruders.  They found the wrecked Belle and parts of Aimable on April 4, 1687, but it took another two years before Alonso De León discovered the destroyed settlement.

The French arrival in Spanish Texas, coupled with concern over French intrusion into East Texas from Louisiana, prompted Spanish officials to establish six missions in East Texas to Christianize the Indians, turn them into good Spanish citizens, and establish the region as a buffer against French Louisiana.  The first, Mission San Francisco de los Tejas opened in 1690 and lasted only three years before the padres fled.  The endeavor taught the Spanish about the land, the Indian culture, and convinced them future missions must be accompanied by presidios and civilian settlements.  The East Texas missions by 1772 moved permanently to San Antonio.

Today a statue of La Salle looks out into Matagorda Bay near the ghost town of Indianola and streets, cities, counties, hotels, causeways, and schools bear the explorer’s name from Texas to the Canadian provinces.

In 1995 the Texas Historical Commission led an archeological excavation in the muck of Matagorda Bay to raise La BelleHer artifacts, which the commission holds in trust for France, are displayed in nine Texas museums.  The wreckage of L’Aimable has not been found.