In the years after the Civil War, a cultural conflict in El Paso TX over a salt deposit led to conflict and violence.
For thousands of years, the indigenous Natives of the Southwest, including the Apache, Navajo and Hopi, had been making use of the ancient salt deposits in the Guadalupe Mountains of Arizona and Texas. In the desert, salt was valued as a preservative for food and for tanning animal hides for clothing. When the Spanish arrived in 1598, they began using the salt to smelt silver. By decree, the Salt Flats fell under a Royal Grant which made them public property that could be used in common by all. In 1789, the Spanish established a fortified Church Mission, known as a “Presidio”, at San Elizario in the El Paso valley, and the salt became an important trade item, with settlers from El Paso periodically making the two-day wagon trek into the desert to gather salt, then travel south to Sonora or Chihuahua to sell it.
In 1848, however, the Guadalupe Mountains became part of the territory turned over to the United States as part of the treaty ending the Mexican-American War. Now, the entire area became “unoccupied territory” that was open to anyone who could get there and file a claim. The old Spanish land grants remained valid, however, including the decrees that made the Salt Flats public property.
After the Civil War, however, the State Constitution in Texas was amended to allow private ownership of mineral rights, even on public land. And that made the valuable Salt Flats fair game. In 1866, two local businessman in San Elizario named WW Mills and Albert J. Fountain filed a claim for mining rights at the Salt Flats, which granted them the right to collect a fee from anybody who went there to gather salt. Their organization became known as the “Salt Ring”.
It provoked a furor. The local people, most of them Native Americans and Mexicans who had stayed on in the United States, had been freely collecting salt at the Flats for generations, and now resented having outsiders come in and assert control over what had always to them been a public resource.
Local resistance formed around Louis Cardis, an Italian veteran of Garibaldi’s army who had immigrated to El Paso in 1854. He had become a respected member of the community and had influence among the Mexican-Americans in San Elizario, especially with the local Catholic priest, Father Antonio Borrajos, and Cardis quickly became a leading spokesman for those who opposed the Salt Ring and advocated for continued free public access. His movement was strengthened when Fountain had a dispute with Mills and joined with Cardis instead.
In 1877 a lawyer from Missouri named Charles H. Howard arrived in San Elizario, settling into the community and becoming a District Judge. At first, Howard was opposed to the Salt Ring, and even helped elect Cardis and Fountain to the Texas State Legislature, where they began a political effort to maintain the Salt Flats as a public resource.
But then, apparently drawn in by the prospect of easy money, in 1877 Howard, working with an Austin land speculator named George B. Zimpelman, filed his own claim for mineral rights at the Salt Flats. That provoked a flurry of legal actions and protests, which became dubbed “The El Paso Salt Wars”.
Led by Cardis, the local Mexican-American community openly defied Howard’s claim and a wagon train was sent to the Salt Flats. Howard promptly had two of the participants arrested, and that led to an angry mob surrounding him inside his house for three days. He was allowed to leave only after he publicly renounced his right to collect payment for the salt.
Howard quickly fled to New Mexico, but returned to San Elizario on October 10. There, in a local general store, he confronted Cardis and, during the argument, pulled out a gun and killed him. He was arrested and posted a bond, then, with his trial date set for March 1878, Howard fled back to New Mexico.
Meanwhile, when word reached the capitol in Austin that a State Representative had been murdered, officials dispatched a unit of Texas Rangers under Lt John B. Tays to impose order. Before they could get there, however, the Mexican-Americans sent another wagon train to the Flats to gather salt. Howard, still in New Mexico, rather unwisely decided to respond to this, and on December 12 he returned to San Elizario to file a civil lawsuit.
And now, on December 13, things came to a violent climax. Howard, fearing for his safety, was staying inside a compound being occupied by Tays and his Texas Rangers. With Howard were two of his associates, John Atkinson and John McBride. By mid-morning, though, the compound had been surrounded by several hundred armed citizens, led by a local named Francisco “Chico” Barela, who were seeking both an end to the Salt Ring and revenge for the murder of Cardis. The armed mob kept up a siege for the next four days, with constant gunfire and almost a dozen men killed on both sides. At one point a small detachment of 20 US Army troops who happened to be in the county arrived, but finding themselves massively outnumbered by the armed horde of local citizens, they beat a quick retreat.
Finally, on December 18, Tays and the Texas Rangers surrendered and were disarmed. Barela had declared that everyone would be released unharmed as long as Howard agreed to give up his claim to the Salt Flats, but after their surrender Howard, Atkinson and McBride were all put against a wall anyway and shot by the vigilantes. Their bodies were hacked to pieces with machetes and thrown down a well.
For the next several months, virtual civil war raged in the El Paso Valley. The fight was now no longer just about salt rights, but about political, racial and cultural conflicts going all the way back to the Mexican-American War. Armed insurgents, most of them Mexican-American and Native American, squared off against law enforcement posses, most of them Anglo, from El Paso and Austin. It is still not clear how many people were killed or wounded during the ambushes and gunfights. At one point, the Mexican Government was threatening to intervene with troops. It took the arrival of US soldiers from the 9th Cavalry (an African-American “Buffalo Soldiers” unit) to finally end the Salt War.