|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
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
Nate Champion and the KC Ranch
|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 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
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
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 telegram read:
|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
|“ 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
The barn at the TA Ranch, where the
"regulators" were besieged by the
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
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. 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.
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
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,
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
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,: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
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 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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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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