April 2014 ~~~~ Editor:  Cliff Hanger ~~~~
Johnson County War from Wikipedia 

The Johnson County War, also known as the War on Powder River and the Wyoming Range War, was a range war that took place in Johnson, Natrona and Converse Counties, Wyoming in April 1892. It was fought between small settling ranchers against larger established ranchers in the Powder River Country and culminated in a lengthy shootout between local ranchers, a band of hired killers, and a sheriff's posse, eventually requiring the intervention of the United States Cavalry on the orders of President Benjamin Harrison.

The events have since become a highly mythologized and symbolic story of the Wild West, and over the years variations of the storyline have come to include some of the west's most famous historical figures and gunslingers. The storyline and its variations have served as the basis for numerous popular novels, films, and television shows.

"The Invaders" of The Johnson County Cattle War. Photo taken at Fort D.A. Russell near Cheyenne, Wyoming, May 1892


Conflict over land was a somewhat common occurrence in the development of the American West but was particularly prevalent during the late 19th century and early 20th century when large portions of the west were being settled by Americans for the first time. It is a period which historian Richard Maxwell Brown has called the "Western Civil War of Incorporation" and of which the Johnson County War was part.

In the early days in Wyoming most of the land was in the public domain, open to stock raising as open range and to homesteading. Large numbers of cattle were turned loose on the open range by large ranches.

Ranchers would hold a spring roundup where the cows and the calves belonging to each ranch were separated and the calves branded. Before the roundup, calves (especially orphan or stray calves) were sometimes surreptitiously branded. The large ranches defended against cattle rustling often by forbidding their employees from owning cattle and by lynching (or threatening to lynch) suspected rustlers. Property and use rights were usually respected among big and small ranches based on who was first to settle the land (the doctrine is known as Prior Appropriation) and the size of the herd. Nonetheless large ranching outfits would sometimes band together and use their power to monopolize large swaths of range land, preventing newcomers from settling the area.


Many of the large ranching outfits in Wyoming were organized as the Wyoming Stock Growers Association (the WSGA) and gathered socially as the Cheyenne Club in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Comprising some of the state's wealthiest and most influential residents, the organization held a great deal of political sway in the state and region. The WSGA organized the cattle industry by scheduling roundups and cattle shipments. The WSGA also employed an agency of detectives to investigate cases of cattle theft from its members' holdings.

The often uneasy relationship between larger, wealthier ranches and smaller ranch settlers became steadily worse after the poor winter of 1886-1887 when a series of blizzards and temperatures of 40-50 degrees below 0 °F (-45 °C) had followed an extremely hot and dry summer.Thousands of cattle were lost and large companies began to appropriate land and control the flow and supply of water in the area. Some of the harsher tactics included forcing settlers off their land and setting fire to settler buildings as well as trying to exclude the smaller ranchers from participation in the annual roundup. They justified these excesses on what was public land by using the catch-all allegation of rustling.

Rustling in the local area was likely increasing due to the harsh grazing conditions, and the illegal exploits of an organized group of regional rustling outfits was becoming well publicized in the late 1880s. Well armed bands of horse and cattle rustlers were said to roam across various portions of Wyoming and Montana, with Montana cattle interests declaring "War on the Rustlers" in 1889 and Wyoming interests doing so a year later. In Johnson County, with emotions running high, agents of the larger ranches killed several alleged rustlers from smaller ranches. Many were killed on dubious evidence or were simply found dead while the killers remained anonymous. Frank M. Canton, Sheriff of Johnson County in the early 1880s and better known as a detective for the WSGA, was rumored to be behind many of the deaths. The double lynching of Ella Watson and storekeeper Jim Averell took place in 1889, an event that enraged local residents. A number of additional dubious lynchings of alleged rustlers took place in 1891.

A group of smaller Johnson County ranchers led by a local settler named Nate Champion began to form the Northern Wyoming Farmers and Stock Growers' Association (NWFSGA) to compete with the WSGA. The WSGA "blacklisted" the NWFSGA and told them to stop all operations but the NWFSGA refused the WSGA's order to disband and instead made public their plans to hold their own roundup in the spring of 1892.

The war

The WSGA, led by Frank Wolcott (WSGA Member and large North Platte rancher), hired gunmen with the intention of eliminating alleged rustlers in Johnson County and breaking up the NWFSGA. Twenty-three gunmen from Paris, Texas and four cattle detectives from the WSGA were hired along with Idaho frontiersman George Dunning, who later turned against the group. Some WSGA and Wyoming dignitaries also joined the expedition, including State Senator Bob Tisdale, state water commissioner W. J. Clarke, and W. C. Irvine and Hubert Teshemacher, both instrumental in organizing Wyoming's statehood four years earlier. They were accompanied by surgeon Dr. Charles Penrose as well as Ed Towse, a reporter for the Cheyenne Sun, and a newspaper reporter for the Chicago Herald, Sam T. Clover, whose lurid first-hand accounts later appeared in eastern newspapers. A total expedition of 50 men was organized.

To lead the expedition the WSGA hired Canton, a former Johnson County Sheriff-turned-gunman and WSGA detective. Canton's gripsack was later found to contain a list of dozens of rustlers to be either shot or hanged and a contract to pay the Texans $5 a day plus a bonus of $50 for every rustler killed. The group became known as "The Invaders," or alternately, "Wolcott's Regulators".

John Clay, a prominent Wyoming businessman, was suspected of playing a major role in planning the Johnson County invasion. Clay denied this, saying that in 1891 he advised Wolcott against the scheme and was out of the country when it was undertaken. He later helped the “invaders” avoid punishment after their surrender.

The group organized in Cheyenne and proceeded by a specially hired train to Casper, Wyoming and then toward Johnson County on horseback, cutting the telegraph lines north of Douglas, Wyoming in order to prevent an alarm. While on horseback Canton and the gunmen traveled ahead while the party of WSGA officials led by Wolcott followed a safe distance behind.

Ella Watson was lynched in 1889 by
wealthy ranchers who accused her
of cattle rustling, a charge that was
later shown to be false.

Jim Averell, a Johnson County businessman,
was lynched in 1889 for cattle rustling,
although he owned no cattle

Frank M. Canton, former Sheriff of
Johnson County, was hired to
lead the band of Texas killers

Nate Champion and the KC Ranch

The first target of the WSGA was Nate Champion at the KC Ranch (of which today's town of Kaycee is a namesake), a small rancher who was active in the efforts of small ranchers to organize a competing roundup. The group traveled to the ranch late in the night of Friday April 8, 1892, quietly surrounded the buildings and waited for daybreak. Three men besides Champion were at the KC. Two men who were evidently spending the night on their way through were captured as they emerged from the cabin early that morning to collect water at the nearby Powder River, while the third, Nick Ray, was shot while standing inside the doorway of the cabin and died a few hours later. Champion was besieged inside the log cabin.

During the siege, Champion kept a poignant journal which contained a number of notes he wrote to friends while taking cover inside the cabin. "Boys, I feel pretty lonesome just now. I wish there was someone here with me so we could watch all sides at once." The last journal entry read: "Well, they have just got through shelling the house like hail. I heard them splitting wood. I guess they are going to fire the house tonight. I think I will make a break when night comes, if alive. Shooting again. It's not night yet. The house is all fired. Goodbye, boys, if I never see you again."

With the house on fire, Nate Champion signed his journal entry and put it in his pocket before running from the back door with a six shooter in one hand and a knife in the other. As he emerged he was shot by four men and the invaders later pinned a note on Champion's bullet-riddled chest that read "Cattle Thieves Beware".

Two passers-by noticed the ruckus that Saturday afternoon and local rancher Jack Flagg rode to Buffalo (the county seat of Johnson County) where the sheriff raised a posse of 200 men over the next 24 hours and the party set out for the KC on Sunday night, April 10.

Standoff at the TA Ranch

The WSGA group then headed north on Sunday toward Buffalo to continue its show of force. The posse led by the sheriff caught up with the WSGA "Invaders" by early Monday morning of the 11th and besieged them at the TA Ranch on Crazy Woman Creek. The gunmen took refuge inside a log barn on the ranch. Ten of the gunmen then tried to escape the barn behind a fusillade but the posse beat them back and killed three. One of the WSGA group escaped and was able to contact the acting Governor of Wyoming the next day. Frantic efforts to save the WSGA group ensued and two days into the siege Governor Barber was able to telegraph President Benjamin Harrison a plea for help late on the night of April 12, 1892.
A map of the TA Ranch during the
Johnson County War, depicting the positions
of the Invaders, the posse, and the 6th Cavalry
The telegram read: 
“  About sixty-one owners of live stock are reported to have made an armed expedition into Johnson County for the purpose of protecting their live stock and preventing unlawful roundups by rustlers. They are at ‘T.A.’ Ranch, thirteen miles from Fort McKinney, and are besieged by Sheriff and posse and by rustlers from that section of the country, said to be two or three hundred in number. The wagons of stockmen were captured and taken away from them and it is reported a battle took place yesterday, during which a number of men were killed. Great excitement prevails. Both parties are very determined and it is feared that if successful will show no mercy to the persons captured. The civil authorities are unable to prevent violence. The situation is serious and immediate assistance will probably prevent great loss of life.  ”
Harrison immediately ordered the U.S. Secretary of War Stephen B. Elkins to address the situation under Article IV, Section 4, Clause 2 of the U.S. Constitution, which allows for the use of U.S. forces under the President's orders for "protection from invasion and domestic violence". The Sixth Cavalry from Fort McKinney near Buffalo was ordered to proceed to the TA ranch at once and take custody of the WSGA expedition. The 6th Cavalry left Fort McKinney a few hours later at 2 am on April 13 and reached the TA ranch at 6:45 am. The expedition surrendered to the Sixth soon after and was saved just as the posse had finished building a series of breastworks to shoot gunpowder on the invader's log barn shelter so that it could be set on fire from a distance. The Sixth Cavalry took possession of Wolcott and 45 other men with 45 rifles, 41 revolvers and some 5,000 rounds of ammunition.

The text of Barber's telegram to the President was printed on the front page of The New York Times on April 14, and a first-hand account of the siege at the T.A. appeared in The Times and the Chicago Herald and other papers.

The barn at the TA Ranch, where the
"regulators" were besieged by the
sheriff's posse.

Arrest and legal action

The WSGA group was taken to Cheyenne to be held at the barracks of Fort D.A. Russell as the Laramie County jail was unable to hold that many prisoners. They received preferential treatment and were allowed to roam the base by day as long as they agreed to return to the jail to sleep at night. Johnson County officials were upset that the group was not kept locally at Ft. McKinney. The General in charge of the 6th Cavalry felt that tensions were too high for the prisoners to remain in the area. Hundreds of armed locals sympathetic to both sides of the conflict were said to have gone to Ft. McKinney over the next few days under the mistaken impression the invaders were being held there.

The Johnson County attorney began to gather evidence for the case and the details of the WSGA's plan emerged. Canton's gripsack was found to contain a list of seventy alleged rustlers who were to be shot or hanged, a list of ranch houses the invaders had burned, and a contract to pay each Texan five dollars a day plus a bonus of $50 for each person killed. The invaders' plans reportedly included eventually murdering people as far away as Casper and Douglas. The Times reported on April 23 that “the evidence is said to implicate more than twenty prominent stockmen of Cheyenne whose names have not been mentioned heretofore, also several wealthy stockmen of Omaha, as well as to compromise men high in authority in the State of Wyoming. They will all be charged with aiding and abetting the invasion, and warrants will be issued for the arrest of all of them.”

Charges against the men "high in authority" in Wyoming were never filed. Eventually the invaders were released on bail and were told to return to Wyoming for the trial. Many fled to Texas and were never seen again. In the end the WSGA group went free after the charges were dropped on the excuse that Johnson County refused to pay for the costs of prosecution. The costs of housing the men at Fort D.A. Russell were said to exceed $18,000 and the sparsely populated Johnson County was unable to pay.

Tensions in Johnson County remained high and the 6th Cavalry was said to be swaying under the local political and social pressures and were unable to keep the peace. The 9th Cavalry of "Buffalo Soldiers" was ordered to Fort McKinney to replace the 6th. In a fortnight the Buffalo Soldiers moved from Nebraska to the rail town of Suggs, Wyoming where they created "Camp Bettens" to quell pressure from the local population. One Buffalo Soldier was killed and two wounded in gun battles with locals. The 9th Cavalry remained in Wyoming until November.


Emotions ran high for many years following the 'Johnson County Cattle War' as some viewed the large and wealthy ranchers as heroes who took justice into their own hands in order to defend their rights, while others saw the WSGA as heavy-handed vigilantes running roughshod over the law of the land.

A number of tall tales were spun by both sides afterwards in an attempt to make their actions appear morally justified. Parties sympathetic to the invaders painted Nate Champion as the leader of a vast cattle rustling empire and that he was a leading member of the fabled "Red Sash Gang" of outlaws that supposedly included the likes of everyone from Jesse James to the Hole in the Wall Gang. These rumors have since been discredited. While some accounts do note that Champion wore a red sash at the time of his death, such sashes were common. While the Hole in the Wall Gang was known to hide out in Johnson County, there is no evidence that Champion had any relationship to them.[19] Parties sympathetic to the smaller ranchers spun tales that included some of the west's most notorious gunslingers under the employ of the Invaders, including such legends as Tom Horn and Big Nose George Parrot. Horn did briefly work as a detective for the WSGA in the 1890s but there is no evidence he was involved in the war.

Political effects

Although many of the leaders of the WSGA's hired force, such as W. C. Irvine, were Democrats, the ranchers who had hired the group were tied to the Republican party and their opponents were mostly Democrats. Many viewed the rescue of the WSGA group at the order of President Harrison (a Republican) and the failure of the courts to prosecute them a serious political scandal with overtones of class war. As a result of the scandal, the Democratic Party became popular in Wyoming for a time, winning the governorship in 1895 and taking control of both houses of the state legislature during the two elections after the events. Wyoming voted for the Democrat William Jennings Bryan in the 1896 U.S. Presidential Election, and Johnson County was one of the two counties in the state with the largest Bryan majorities.

Economic analysis

Historian Daniel Belgrad argues that in the 1880s centralized range management was emerging as the solution to the overgrazing that had depleted open ranges. Furthermore, cattle prices at the time were low. Larger ranchers were hurt by mavericking (taking lost, unbranded calves from other ranchers' herds), and responded by organizing cooperative roundups, blacklisting, and lobbying for stricter anti-maverick laws. These ranchers formed the WSGA and hired gunmen to hunt down rustlers, but local farmers resented the ranchers' collective political power. The farmers moved toward decentralization and the use of private winter pastures. Randy McFerrin and Douglas Wills argue that the confrontation represented opposing property rights systems. The result was the end of the open-range system and the ascendancy of large-scale stock ranching and farming. The popular image of the war, however, remains that of vigilantism by aggressive landed interests against small individual settlers defending their rights.

The Banditti of the Plains

In 1894, witness Asa Shinn Mercer published an indignant account of the war, titled The Banditti of the Plains. The book was suppressed for many years as the WSGA tracked down and destroyed all but a few of the first edition copies from the 1894 printing, and was rumored to have hijacked and destroyed the second printing as it was being shipped from a printer north of Denver, Colorado. The book was, however, reprinted several times in the 20th century.

In popular culture

The Johnson County War, with its overtones of class warfare and intervention by the President of the United States to save the lives of a gang of hired killers and set them free, is not a flattering reflection on the American myth of the west.

The Virginian, a seminal 1902 western novel by Owen Wister, solved the problem by taking the side of the wealthy ranchers, creating a myth dealing with the themes of the Johnson County war but bearing little resemblance to the events. The novel was popular and provided the pulp for six renditions on the silver screen (in 1914, 1923, 1929, 1946, 1962, and 2000).

Though not explicitly connected with Johnson County, The Ox-Bow Incident (1940) by Walter Van Tilburg Clark is a novel that dramatizes and condemns a lynching of the sort that Wister's novel appears to defend.

Jack Schaefer's popular 1949 novel Shane contained themes associated with the Johnson County War and took the side of the settlers. The novel spawned a film Shane (1953) and a 17-episode TV Series (1966).

The 1953 film The Redhead from Wyoming, starring Maureen O'Hara, dealt with very similar themes and in one scene Maureen O'Hara's character is told "It won't be long before they're calling you Cattle Kate."

In the 1968 novel True Grit by Charles Portis, the main character, Rooster Cogburn, was involved in the Johnson County War. In the early 1890s Rooster had gone north to Wyoming where he was "hired by stock owners to terrorize thieves and people called nesters and grangers ... I fear that Rooster did himself no credit in what they called the Johnson County War."

The 1980 film Heaven's Gate and a TV movie called The Johnson County War (2002) also painted the wealthy ranchers as the "bad guys." Heaven's Gate was a dramatic romance loosely based on historical events, while The Johnson County War was based on the 1957 novel Riders of Judgment by Frederick Manfred.

The story of the Johnson County War from the point of view of the small ranchers was chronicled by Kaycee resident Chris LeDoux in his song Johnson County War on the 1989 album Powder River. The song included references to the burning of the KC Ranch, the capture of the WSGA men, the intervention of the U.S. Cavalry and the release of the cattlemen and hired guns.

Mason County War from Wikipedia

The Mason County War, sometime called the Hoodoo War in reference to a masked vigilante member of a vigilance committee,[1]:89 was a period of lawlessness in 1875-1876 during a "tidal wave of rustling". The violence resulted in a climate of bitter "National prejudice" between the "Americans" and "Dutch" or "Germans"s in Mason County, Texas.


Organized bands stole livestock but the spring trail bosses were also "indifferent to whose cows they drove", picking up mavericks and even other brands, though the understanding was they were supposed to return the profits to the rightful owner.

Germans had settled in Mason and Gillespie counties, "loyal to their adopted country and government when undisturbed" but "were sorely tried by the rustlers and Indians, who committed many depredations upon their cattle." In 1860 the county's first Sheriff, Thomas Milligan was killed by Indians. In 1872, the Germans elected Sheriff John Clark and Cattle Inspector Dan Hoerster.

Clark and Hoerster organized a posse to reclaim lost cattle and soon came across a herd stolen by the Backus brothers gang and eight others, capturing five of them, who were taken back to the Mason jail. The captives included Lige Backus, Pete Backus, Charley Johnson, Abe Wiggins and Tom Turley.


A posse member, Tom Gamel, later claimed that Sheriff Clark and Dan Hoerster suggested lynching their captives. In any case, a mob of forty attempted to break into the jail on the night of 18 February 1875 with a battering ram after failing to get the keys from the jailer, Deputy John Wohrle. Both Sheriff Clark and the visiting Texas Ranger Lt. Dan W. Roberts were prevented from interfering with a warning they would be shot. Clark did gather a posse of about six citizens and, with Roberts, pursued the mob to the south edge of town where they were hanging the prisoners from a large post oak. By the time the posse reached the mob, Lige and Pete Backus, plus Abe Wiggins, were dead, but they managed to save Tom Turley while Charley Johnson had escaped.

This was the beginning activity of the vigilance committee, or Hoodoos, who used "ambushes and midnight hangings, to get rid of the thieves and outlaws who had been holding a "carnival of lawlessness in Mason County".

Reign of Terror Intensifies

Tom Gamel learned he was the target of the vigilance committee on 25 March prompting him to gather his friends and proceed into town in an effort to confront the threat, but Sheriff Clark immediately left. Gamel's group left after a couple of days, but returned after Sheriff Clark returned with sixty-two men, all Germans, and both groups agreed to peace with "no more mobs or hanging".

However, in May, Deputy Wohrle arrested the "prominent and popular American" Tim Williamson, after Dan Hoerster revoked his year old bond for stealing a yearling. Williamson worked for Charley Lehmberg in Loyal Valley, known for paying five dollars a head for unbranded cattle. Wohrle and Williamson were confronted a short distance from the ranch by a dozen men led by the German rancher Peter Bader, who shot Williamson dead. This murder increased the tension between the American and German factions enormously, especially after the Grand Jury of 12 May did nothing. Among those now involved was Scott Cooley, the orphan raised by Williamson, who vowed "he would get the men who did it".

Cooley's Actions

Cooley had been carried off by Indians after they killed his parents, but later raised by the Williamsons. Cooley served in Texas Rangers Company D under Captain Perry before taking up farming near Menardville. After Williamson's murder, Cooley came to Mason, learning as much as he could about the circumstances and the names of those involved. His first act of revenge occurred on 10 August 10, when Cooley shot Worhle in the back of the head while he helped Doc Charley Harcourt dig a well, taking Worhle's scalp as would an Indian.[

Cooley formed a gang whose members included George Gladden, John and Mose Beard and Johnny Ringo. Mose Beard and Gladden were ambushed south of Mason by sixty men led by Peter Bader, Dan Hoerster and Sheriff Clark, resulting in the death of Beard. Cooley's men, including Johnny Ringo, then killed Cheney at his home, the individual who had led Beard and Gladden into the ambush. Hoerster was killed as he rode past the Mason barber shop by Scott Cooley, Gladden and Bill Coke. Coke was captured and killed by a Mason posse the next day at John Gamel's.

Texas Rangers Arrive

Under orders from the governor, Major Jones of the Texas Rangers arrived on 28 September, with ten men from Company D (Cooley's old unit) and thirty men from Company A, his escort under Captain Ira Long. Major Jones promptly sent scouts out looking for Cooley but without result after two weeks.

The remaining justice of the Peace, Wilson Hey, issued warrants for Sheriff Clark and others, who were arrested, and although the charges did not stick, Sheriff Clark did resign his office and was never seen again.

Major Jones' scouts continued to seek Cooley and his gang to no avail which prompted Jones to confront his Rangers with the opportunity for those in sympathy with Cooley to "step out of the ranks", which fifteen did. The remaining Rangers captured Gladden and Ringo.

In November, Scott Cooley's gang killed Charley Bader at his place and  and Peter Bader soon followed the same fate.

At the end of December, 1875, Cooley and Ringo were arrested by Sheriff A. J. Strickland for threatening the life of Burnet County, Texas Deputy Sheriff John J. Strickland. They later escaped from the Lampasas County, Texas jail with the help of forty "Helping Hands".


The summer of 1876 was another period of terror and lawlessness before Cooley left Mason County for good, either by poison after dining at the Nimitz Hotel in Fredericksburg or by "brain fever".

Johnny Ringo left the state for Arizona and Gladden headed for the penitentiary for the murder of Peter Bader. On 21 January 21 1877, the Mason County Courthouse was burned to the ground and with it the official records of the Mason County War.

San Elizario Salt War from Wikipedia

The San Elizario Salt War, also known as the Salinero Revolt or the El Paso Salt War, was an extended and complex political, social and military conflict over ownership and control of immense salt lakes at the base of the Guadalupe Mountains of West Texas. What began in 1866 as a political and legal struggle among Anglo Texan politicians and capitalists gave rise to an armed struggle waged in 1877 by the ethnic Mexican inhabitants living in the communities on both sides of the Rio Grande near El Paso, Texas against a leading politician, supported by the Texas Rangers. The struggle climaxed with the siege and surrender of 20 Texas Rangers to a popular army of perhaps 500 men in the town of San Elizario, Texas. The arrival of the African-American 9th Cavalry and a sheriff's posse of New Mexico mercenaries caused hundreds of Tejanos to flee to Mexico, some in permanent exile. The right of individuals to own the salt lakes previously held as a community asset was established by force of arms.

What began as a local quarrel grew in stages to finally occupy the attention of both the Texas and federal governments. Newspaper editors throughout the nation covered the story, often in frenzied tone and with lurid detail. At the conflict's height, as many as 650 men bore arms. About 20 to 30 men were killed in the 12-year fight for salt, and perhaps double that number were wounded. The war's damage also included an estimated $31,050 in property damage. Crop losses were sustained because local farmers did not till or harvest their fields for several months, but the wheat loss was estimated at $48,000. To these immediate financial losses (worth about $1.5 million in 2007) can be added the further political and economic marginalization of the Mexican-American community of El Paso County.

Traditionally, the Mexican-American uprising has been described by historians as a bloody riot by a howling mob. The Texas Rangers who surrendered, especially their commander, have been described as unfit. More recent scholarship has placed the Salt War within the context of the long and often violent social struggle of Mexican-Americans to be treated as equal citizens and not as a subjugated people. Most recently, the "mob" has been described as an organized political-military insurgency with the goal of re-establishing local control of their fundamental political rights and economic future.


National ambiguity

The Rio Grande is a natural barrier in West Texas. Spain, and later Mexico, had settled a series of communities along the south banks of the river, which provided protection from Comanche and Apache raids from the north. Prior to major water-control projects on the Rio Grande such as Elephant Butte Dike, which was constructed in the early 20th century, the river flooded often. San Elizario was a relatively large community south of the river from its founding in 1789 until an 1831 flood changed the course of the river, leaving San Elizario on "La Isla", a new island between the new and old channels of the Rio Grande.

This position relative to the river became more important in 1836 when the newly independent Republic of Texas proclaimed the Rio Grande the southern border of the new country. The nationality of the people of San Elizario was disputed until the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the treaty that ended the Mexican-American War, which identified the "deepest channel", i.e. the southern channel, as the official international boundary. The status of San Elizario was further made official by the 1853 treaty that sold the territory of the Gadsden Purchase to the United States. At that time, San Elizario was the largest US community between San Antonio, Texas, and Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was a major stop on the Camino Real and was the county seat of the region.

Civil War and Reconstruction

The American Civil War created great changes in the political landscape of West Texas. The end of the war and Reconstruction brought many entrepreneurs to the area. The families of San Elizario had deep roots and were loath to accept the newcomers. Many Republicans settled in the small trading community of Franklin, Texas, a trading village across the Rio Grande from the Chihuahua city of El Paso del Norte (present-day Ciudad Juárez).

By the beginning of the 1870s the Democratic Party had begun to reclaim political influence in the state. The Democratic operatives, with their ties to Southern United States, were not accepted by the people of San Elizario, either, as they retained generational ties to Mexico. Alliances shifted and rivalries developed between the Hispanic, Republican, and Democratic factions residing in West Texas.

The Salt

At the base of the Guadalupe Mountains, about 100 mi (160 km) northeast of San Elizario, lie a series of dry salt lakes (located at: 31.74335°N 105.07668°W). Before the pumping of water and oil from West Texas, the area had a periodic shallow water table, and capillary action drew salt of a high purity to the surface. This salt was valuable for a wide variety of purposes, including preserving meats and replenishing what sweating took from humans and animals. It was also a commodity used for barter along El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro and was an essential element in the patio process for extracting the silver from ore in the Chihuahua mines. Historically, caravans to the salt lakes traveled either down the Rio Grande and then straight north or via what became the Butterfield Overland Mail route. In 1863, the people of San Elizario, as a community, built by subscription a road running east to the salt lakes. The residents in the Rio Grande valley at El Paso were granted community access rights to these lakes by the King of Spain. These rights had been grandfathered in by the Republic of Mexico and in accordance with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Beginning in 1866, the Texas Constitution allowed individuals to stake claims for mineral rights, thus overturning the grandfathered community rights.

Political Phase 1866-1877

Salt Ring and Anti-Salt Ring

In 1870, a group of influential leaders from Franklin, Texas, claimed the land on which the salt deposits were found. They were unsuccessful in gaining sole title to the land, and a feud over ownership and control of the land began. William Wallace Mills favored individual ownership, Louis Cardis favored the Hispanic community concept of commonwealth, and Albert Jennings Fountain favored county government ownership with community access. This led to Cardis and Fountain to join together as the "Anti-Salt ring", while Mills became the leader of the "Salt ring."

Fountain was elected to the Texas State Senate and began pushing for his plan of county government ownership with community access. San Elizario's Spanish priest, Father Antonio Borrajo, opposed the plan and gained the support of Cardis. On December 7, 1870, Judge Gaylord J. Clarke, a supporter of Mills, was killed. Fountain and Cardis sparred with every political and legal tool at their command. The Republican's loss of state government control in 1873 prompted Fountain to leave El Paso for his wife's home in New Mexico.

Charles Howard

In 1872, Charles Howard, a Virginian by birth, came to the region determined to restore the Democratic Party to power in West Texas. His natural rival was Mills, so he struck up an alliance with Cardis, who controlled the Hispanic vote in the region. Cardis had a stronger allegiance to the former citizens of Mexico than to either US political party, and was influential in swinging their votes in any direction he thought beneficial to the community or to himself. Howard was elected district judge and about the same time began feuding with Cardis over who would be the county's political "top dog".

In the summer of 1877, Howard filed a claim for the salt lakes in the name of his father-in-law, George B. Zimpelman, an Austin capitalist. Howard offered to pay any salinero who collected salt the going rate for its retrieval, but he insisted the salt was his. The Tejanos of San Elizario, encouraged by Father Borrajo (by now the former pastor), with the support of Cardis, gathered and kept salt in spite of Howard's claim. The people did not only look to outside leaders. Falling back on a long tradition of local self-government, they formed committees (juntas) in San Elizario and the largely Tejano neighboring towns of Socorro and Ysleta, Texas, to determine a community-based response to Howard's action. During the summer of 1877, they held several secretive, decisional, and organizational meetings.

Salt Uprising 1877-1878

On September 29, 1877, José Mariá Juárez and Macedonia Gandara threatened to collect a wagonload of salt. When Howard learned of their activities, he had the men arrested by Sheriff Charles Kerber and went to court in San Elizario to legally restrain them that evening, armed men arrested the compliant jurist. Others went in search of Howard, locating him at Sheriff Kerber's home in Yselta. Under the leadership of Francisco "Chico" Barela, they seized Howard and marched him back to San Elizario. For three days, he was held prisoner by several hundred men, led by Sisto Salcido, Lino Granillo, and Barela. On October 3, he was finally released upon payment of a $12,000 bond and his written relinquishment of all rights to the salt deposits. Howard left for Mesilla, New Mexico, where he briefly stayed at the house of Fountain. He soon returned to the area, and on October 10, shot and killed Cardis in an El Paso (formerly Franklin) mercantile store. Howard fled back to New Mexico.

The Tejano people of El Paso County were outraged. They effectively put a stop to all county government, replacing it with community juntas and daring the sheriff to take any action against them. In response to pleas from a frightened Anglo community (numbering fewer than 100 residents out of 5,000 in the county), Governor Richard B. Hubbard answered by sending to El Paso Major John B. Jones, commander of the Texas Rangers' Frontier Battalion. Arriving on November 5, Jones met with the junta leaders, negotiated their agreement to obey the law (or so he thought) and arranged Howard's return, arraignment, and release on bail. Jones also recruited 20 new Texas Rangers, the Detachment of Company C, under the command of Lieutenant John B. Tays, a native Canadian. Traditionally, Tays has been described as an uneducated handyman, but later research indicated he was a mining engineer, El Paso land speculator, and smuggler of Mexican cattle. His appointment to command the local Ranger detachment was approved by leading Anglos. The Ranger detachment recruited by Jones and Tays was mixed, composed of Anglos and a few Tejanos, including an old Indian fighter, several Civil War veterans, an experienced lawman, at least one outlaw, and a few community pillars. Individually, they included some capable men, but the unit lacked tradition or cohesion.

The Rangers

On December 12, 1877, Howard returned to San Elizario with a company of 20 Texas Rangers led by John B. Tays. Once again, a mob descended upon them. Howard and the Rangers took cover in the buildings, eventually taking refuge in the town's church. After a two-day siege, Tays surrendered the company of Rangers, marking the only time in history a Texas Ranger unit ever surrendered to a mob. Howard, Ranger Sergeant John McBride, and merchant and ex-police lieutenant John G. Atkinson were immediately executed and their bodies hacked and dumped into a well. The Rangers were disarmed and sent out of town. The civic leaders of San Elizario fled to Mexico, and the people of the town looted the buildings. In all, 12 people were killed and 50 wounded.


As a result of the unrest, San Elizario lost its status as county seat, which was relocated to El Paso. The 9th Cavalry of buffalo soldiers were sent to re-establish Fort Bliss to keep an eye on the border and the local Mexican population. When the railroad came to West Texas in 1883, it bypassed San Elizario. The town's population decreased, and Mexicans lost their political influence in the region.

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