Thursday, September 12, 2013

Ranger Jim’s Ramblings for September

As promised last month, this post will deal with one of the most shameful incidents in the history of the Texas Rangers, The El Paso Salt War. Even boiling the Salt War down to its very basics will take more than one post, so the I will take the next few months to recite the tale, kind of like a serial in the old pulps.

The Salt War involved politics, intrigue, greed, corruption, unscrupulous businessmen, Mexican peons, a corrupt and eventually disgraced Roman Catholic priest, officials from both the United States and Mexico, local law, and the Texas Rangers. It was marked by misunderstanding, miscalculation, and mistakes all around. Even an execution was botched. It also marks the only time a company of Texas Rangers surrendered to the enemy on Texas soil.

While the actual “Salt War” took place in 1877, the history goes back as far as 1862. In 1877, El Paso, Texas was still a very isolated settlement, separated from the settled parts of the Lone Star State by miles of badlands, bad roads, and no railroad. El Paso is over six hundred miles from Austin or San Antonio, and at that time the nearest settlements of any kind were five hundred or so miles away. In between water was scarce at best, sometimes impossible to find at worst.

The city itself was “divided” into Anglo and Mexican factions. There were about twelve thousand Mexican in the area, about five thousand in Texas and seven thousand on the other side of the Rio Grande. The Anglos numbered only about eighty, and they were fragmented further into English, Germans, Jews, even a few Canadians. Clearly the Anglos were far outnumbered. It was under these circumstances that the Salt War occurred.

The Salt Lakes themselves are a good distance from El Paso, near the Guadalupe Mountains, approximately one hundred ten miles east, or ninety miles from San Elizario, Mexico. El Pasoans first took note of them about 1862. By 1863, the Mexican citizens of El Paso opened a road to the Salt Lakes. The salt was free for anyone who wanted it, was bartered in Mexico, and was an important source of cash for the border population. However, it didn’t take long for Texans from outside the area to attempt to acquire legal possession of the Salt Lakes, monopolize the salt, and collect a fee for each wagonload of salt removed. Samuel Maverick, the same rancher who gave us the term “maverick” for unbranded cattle by refusing to brand his herds, made the first attempt in 1866, but his certificate did not include all of the Lakes. The Mexicans and Texas-Mexicans were soon hauling salt again.

In 1867, another attempt was made. Two of the principals in the company were A.J. Fountain and W.W. Mills. When their certificate of location proved defective, the company broke into two factions, one headed by Fountain, the other by Mills. This split eventually fractured the Republican party in El Paso, which by then was the only strong area left for Republicans, most of the state now firmly Democratic. Into all this mix was added an Italian priest named Antonio Borajo. He intended to make a fortune for himself through the salt trade. When Fountain defied him, Borajo turned to another Italian, Don Luis Cardis. To sum up what happened next, Borajo and Cardis played the Mexicans against the Anglos and the Anglos against each other. This provided the opportunity for one Charles H. Howard, a Democrat and unscrupulous businessman, to step into the breach. He made an arrangement with Borajo and Cardis, they would deliver the Mexican vote and in turn they would become partners with him in the salt trade.  Soon there was a falling out, with most of the Mexicans supporting Cardis, who had the money-crazed Borajo with him, and the Americans and some Mexicans supporting Howard. By now, the Church had gotten wind of Borajo’s perfidy, and ordered him recalled, and reassigned into interior Mexico. However, he refused to leave, and even threatened the bishop with murder when he arrived in San Elizario.

In June, 1977, Howard surveyed his property and posted notices he owned the Salt Lakes and ordered that no salt be taken without paying his company a fee. He had two Mexicans arrested merely on the allegation they were planning on taking salt without paying. When the charges against one were dismissed, but the other was held, the first riot broke out. Judge G.N. Garcia, who had ordered the second Mexican held but refused to issue a requested warrant for Howard’s arrest, was seized by a mob. Howard and several of his cohorts were also captured. Howard was only released upon relinquishing all claims to the Salt Lakes and posting a twelve thousand dollar bond, ordering that he leave El Paso County and never return.

Of course, Howard had no intention of leaving El Paso and the potential profits from salt. By October 7th, he was back in El Paso. Murder would soon follow…

To be continued…


  1. This is new to me and I am looking forward to more on the salt war. I love Texas history, but haven't studied much about that far west.

  2. Very interesting. People and greed. If you follow the money the stories you can find. Thank you for bringing this story to light. I look forward to 'the rest of the story'. Doris

  3. Jim, as always, a very informative and interesting post. I knew nothing about this, so it's all new to me, and I'm loving learning about it. Thanks so much!

  4. I'm looking forward to future installments, Jim. What a mess it makes when people see dollars.

  5. I was hoping to get this done in two installments, but it just can't happen. It will take at least three, probably four. In the meantime, I appreciate all the positive comments.

    Jim Griffin

  6. Great post, Jim. I am looking forward to the next instalment.