Thursday, January 9, 2014

Ranger Jim’s Ramblings for January

This month, we conclude our postings about the El Paso Salt War.

Having allowed himself and his men to be surrounded, Lieutenant Tays did what no Ranger had ever done previously on Texas soil, and has never done since. He surrendered to the enemy. He, his men, and the men they were protecting were disarmed and taken prisoner. John Atkinson, John McBride, and Charles Howard, who had precipitated the entire fiasco by laying claim to the salt lakes and refusing to allow the Mexicans to continue harvesting salt, as they had done for years, were selected to be executed. As was just about everything in the El Paso Salt War, even the executions were botched.

Charles Howard was put to death first, despite his claims of innocence. In his arrogance, it never occurred to him he was the cause of all the trouble he had started. When he was shot, he didn’t die instantly, but fell to the ground, kicking and squirming. A Mexican named Jesus Telles ran up to the dying man and struck at him with a machete, but instead missed the squirming Howard and cut off two of his  own toes. Then Howard was hacked and mutilated.

John McBride was executed without making any statement.

John Atkinson, when brought to face the firing squad, reminded the Mexicans in excellent Spanish that they had promised to let all go free, if Howard’s bond had been paid, which it had. He then asked them if they intended to violate their pledge, which of course they already had with the executions of Howard and McBride. When the Mexicans insisted they were going to execute him also, then Atkinson replied. “Then let me die with honor. I will give the word.” He removed his coat, opened his shirt to bare his breast, and said, “When I give the word, fire at my heart - FIRE!”

Five bullets hit Atkinson in the belly. He staggered, but didn’t fall. “Mas arriba, cabrones!” (Higher up, you ______!) he shouted. Two more shots were fired. Atkinson fell, still not dead. He pointed to his head, and a Mexican named Desidero Apodaca shot him in the head and finally finished him off.

In the meantime, mobs were looting and plundering most of the homes and businesses. Most of them also wanted the rest of the Anglos killed. It was only the intervention of Chico Barela which stopped the mob from killing more men. The Rangers were kept under guard until morning, their fate uncertain.  Several of the Mexican leaders wanted the Rangers put to death, but Chico Barela convinced the mob otherwise. The Rangers were given their horses but not their weapons, and permitted to leave for Franklin.

Of course, the deaths of Anglos at the hands of Mexicans and Mexican Texans would not go unavenged. Within a few days, the Rangers and a posse led by Sheriff Kerber were on their way back. There first stop was at Ysleta, where they took two prisoner, a Mexican and an Indian. The next day, both prisoners were killed, allegedly when trying to escape. An innocent man in Socorro was killed by several Rangers. Jesus Telles, the man who had hacked off his own toes, was also killed there. The Rangers intended to go further, but US Army General Edward Hatch arrived and reported the road to San Elizario was lined with men waiting in ambush. Tays took Hatch’s advice and returned to Yselta with his men.

On December 28th, the entire sorry affair reached its conclusion. Tays and his Rangers recovered the bodies of Howard, Atkinson, and McBride from where they had been tossed into an old well. Atkinson and McBride were buried in San Elizario, Howard in Franklin.

A commission of inquiry was later held, but none of its recommendations were ever carried out. For some reason, Tays was not removed of his command, but remained in charge of the Rangers in El Paso for some time.

The El Paso Salt War was an ignominious affair which brought shame on just about everyone involved in it, Mexican and Anglo alike. Even to this day, over one hundred and fifty years later, people in Texas tend to avoid any discussion of it. The El Paso Salt War was one of the most disgraceful episodes in the history of Texas, and in particular the Texas Rangers.

Next month, back to horses. With luck the weather will have improved around here so I can hit the trails again.


  1. What a fantastic piece of history--I never knew any of this, and have sure been educated with these posts of yours! Wonderful stuff.

  2. Jim,

    Want you to know I'm reading your blogs.

    This is a pretty bloody and messy story, James. What I read about the Texas Rangers and their war on Comanche’s is even worse. Is this correct?

    Look forward to your next posting.



  3. Charlie,

    Just like with the Salt War, there were atrocities on both side between the Rangers and Comanches. The Indian troubles in Texas go way back to Governor Mira (heck, his name just escaped me, but he succeeded Houston. He hated all Indians, and despite treaties wanted them all, even the one, like the Tonkawas who were allies of the early Rangers, driven out of Texas.

  4. Oh my, history seems to have more than its share of stories like this. Fortunately or unfortunately depending on who you speak with, people like you research and bring them to light and life. Thank you. Doris