When Mexicans Forced the Texas Rangers to Surrender

Many Americans remember the Alamo as the beginning of the Anglo take-over of land occupied by Mexicans. There is ongoing debate about what caused Texas to proclaim independence from México. Among the fiercely debated issue is the part that slavery played in the quest for independence. What is not debatable is that the Alamo led to the defeat of Mexicans forces and the loss of almost half of México. As history is written by the victor, the general narrative is that Mexicans rarely challenge their Anglo overlords.

Lost in history is the Salinero Revolt. It is also known as the El Paso Salt War. It started as a disagreement about who owned natural resources. Basically, it was about who owned the salt. Mexicans generally believed the Spanish idea that minerals on the ground were public property. Under the Spanish system, whoever gathered the minerals were the owners and they could sell it as they wished.

The debate about earth resources continues today, especially among Latinos, on the question about who owns the water in the ground.

Prior to the arrival of the Anglos in the 1800’s, Texas natives considered mines to be communal properties. The arriving Anglos arrived with fences, or rather the idea that an individual could claim a piece of land, fence it in, and charge whatever they wanted for whatever was on “their” property.

This opposing view on property ownership led to friction among the natives, mostly Mexicans and Native Americans and the incoming Anglos establishing themselves in Texas. Eventually, their differences exploded into war in 1866. A war that lasted about 12 years.

On one end of the battle lines were Anglo politicians supported by the Texas Rangers. On the other side were Mexicans. Not much, if anything, is taught about the Salt War because rather than Mexicans being routed, it was the Texas Rangers who surrendered to the Mexicans.

The Texas Rangers were tasked with protecting the land claimed by Louis Cardis, Albert Fountain and W.W. Mills. Cardis, Fountain and Mills were Republicans. The land was the salt mines at the base of the Guadalupe Mountains. The Mexicans and Mexican-Americans living in the area were used to gathering whatever salt they wanted from the land to sell it.

Fountain eventually had a falling out with Mills and joined the rebellion.

The first shots were fired on September 1877 when Charles Howard, a former Confederate officer who had joined Mills earlier in claiming authority over the salt mines, arrested two Mexicans in San Elizario. The Mexicans tried were gathering salt. As a result of the arrest, angry Mexicans captured Howard and held him for three days until he vowed to give up his claim on the salt mines.

After a short exile in New Mexico, Howard returned to the salt mines and again claimed it as his own. In December, Mexicans from both sides of the border gathered at the salt beds to mine the salt. Howard gathered 20 Texas Rangers and attempted to arrest the Mexicans.

The Mexicans overwhelmed the Texas Rangers and captured them along with Howard. John Atkinson and John McBride were killed by the Mexicans during the confrontation. Howard was killed by firing squad after he surrendered to the Mexicans. Howard was under bond for killing Cardis in El Paso. The Texas Rangers were allowed to leave after they surrendered their weapons.

The United States sent the 9th Cavalry to reestablish control over the territory. The Mexicans retreated to México.

As a result of San Elizario’s inability to control the situation over twelve years of unrest, the county seat was moved to El Paso. Ft. Bliss was also reestablished to help keep control. El Paso and Ft. Bliss owe their current status to the Salt War.

The issue of who has the rights to what is in the land was generally settled by the Salt Wars, however the friction of the people’s rights to things like water remains debated.

When Americans read the history of the Salt Wars they are generally presented with the narrative of “vigilantes”, “days of riots and looting” and even “kill all Americans”. The El Paso Herald’s headline was “Salt War At San Elizario Was A Five-Day Rule By Mob” setting the future narrative for the event. It is presented as a battle between Anglos and “lawless” Mexicans, instead of what it was, a complex 12-year struggle to delineate who made money off minerals traditionally open to anyone who would mind them.

The Salt War was an ethnic struggle between the minority Anglo versus the majority Mexicans trying to keep their way of life intact.

The arrival of the 9th Cavalry was the clear message to the growing Hispanics in the region that the Anglo population was protected by the power of the United States of America.

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