El Paso is at the far western tip of Texas, where New Mexico and the Mexican state of Chihuahua meet in a harsh desert environment around the slopes of Mount Franklin on the Rio Grande, which has often been compared to the Nile. As they approached the Rio Grande from the south, Spaniards in the sixteenth century viewed two mountain ranges rising out of the desert with a deep chasm between. This site they named El Paso del Norte (the Pass of the North), the future location of two border cities—Ciudad Juárez on the south or right bank of the Rio Grande, and El Paso, Texas, on the opposite side of the river. Since the sixteenth century the pass has been a continental crossroads; a north-south route along a historic camino real prevailed during the Spanish and Mexican periods, but traffic shifted to an east-west axis in the years following 1848, when the Rio Grande became an international boundary.
The El Paso area was inhabited for centuries by various Indian groups before the Spaniards came. The first Europeans in all probability were Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and his three companions, survivors of an unsuccessful Spanish expedition to Florida, who passed through the El Paso area in 1535 or 1536, although their exact route is debated by historians. Several years later, in 1540–42, an expedition under Francisco Vázquez de Coronado explored an enormous amount of territory now known as the American Southwest. The first party of Spaniards that certainly saw the Pass of the North was the Rodríguez-Sánchez expedition of 1581; its arrival marked the beginning of 400 years of history in the El Paso area. This was followed by the Espejo-Beltrán expedition (see ESPEJO, ANTONIO DE) of 1582 and the historic colonizing expedition under Juan de Oñate, who, on April 30, 1598, in a ceremony at a site near that of present San Elizario, took formal possession of the entire territory drained by the Río del Norte (the Rio Grande). This act, called La Toma, or "the claiming," brought Spanish civilization to the Pass of the North and laid the foundations of more than two centuries of Spanish rule over a vast area.
In the late 1650s Fray García founded the mission of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe on the south bank of the Rio Grande; it still stands in downtown Ciudad Juárez. The Pueblo Indian Revolt of 1680 sent Spanish colonists and Tigua Indians of New Mexico fleeing southward to take refuge at the pass, transplanting the names of New Mexico river pueblos, including La Isleta and Socorro, to the El Paso area. On October 12, 1680, midway between the Spanish settlement of Santísimo Sacramento and the Indian settlement of San Antonio, the first Mass in Texas was celebrated at a site near that of present Ysleta, which was placed on what is now the Texas side by the shifting river in 1829; Ysleta thus has a claim to being the oldest town in Texas. By 1682 five settlements had been founded in a chain along the south bank of the Rio Grande—El Paso del Norte, San Lorenzo, Senecú, Ysleta, and Socorro.
By the middle of the eighteenth century about 5,000 people lived in the El Paso area—Spaniards, mestizos (see MESTIZO) and Indians—the largest complex of population on the Spanish northern frontier. A large dam and a series of acequias (irrigation ditches) made possible a flourishing agriculture. The large number of vineyards produced wine and brandy said to have ranked with the best in the realm. In 1789 the presidio of San Elizario was founded to help in the defense of the El Paso settlements against the Apaches.
With the establishment of Mexican independence from Spain in 1821 (see MEXICAN TEXAS), the El Paso area and what is now the American Southwest became a part of the Mexican nation. Agriculture, ranching, and commerce continued to flourish, but the Rio Grande frequently overflowed its banks, causing great damage to fields, crops, and adobe structures. In 1829 the unpredictable river flooded much of the lower Rio Grande valley and formed a new channel that ran south of the towns of Ysleta, Socorro, and San Elizario, thus placing them on an island some twenty miles in length and two to four miles in width. Of the various land grants made by the local officials in El Paso del Norte, the best known and most successful was given to Juan María Ponce De León, a Paseño aristocrat, in what is now the downtown business district of El Paso, Texas. By this time a number of Americans were engaged in the Chihuahua trade, two of whom—James W. Magoffin and Hugh Stephenson—became El Paso pioneers at a later date.
After the outbreak of hostilities between the United States and Mexico in May 1846, Col. Alexander Doniphan and a force of American volunteers defeated the Mexicans at the battle of Brazito, entered El Paso del Norte, and invaded Chihuahua in December. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (February 2, 1848), which officially ended the Mexican War, fixed the boundary between the two nations at the Rio Grande, the Gila River, and the Colorado River, thence westward to the Pacific. All territory north of that line, known as the Mexican Cession and comprising half of Mexico's national domain, became a part of the United States, which paid Mexico $15 million. Thus El Paso del Norte, the future Ciudad Juárez, became a border town.
By late 1849, aided by the gold rush to California, five settlements had been founded along the left bank of the Rio Grande. Northernmost was Frontera, established by T. Frank White; then the flour mill known as El Molino, founded by Simeon Hart; the mercantile store of Benjamin Franklin Coons, located on the ranch which he purchased from Ponce de León; Magoffinsville, built by the veteran Chihuahua trader; and the property of Hugh Stephenson, later called Concordia, an estate that had belonged to his wife's family. In addition, the three Mexican towns of Ysleta, Socorro, and San Elizario were declared to be in the United States; thus by 1850 the bicultural, bilingual foundations of the future El Paso, Texas, were clearly established.
A number of important developments during the 1850s shaped the character of the area north of the river. A settlement on Coons' Rancho called Franklin became the nucleus of El Paso, Texas. El Paso County was established in March 1850, with San Elizario as the first county seat. The United States Senate fixed a boundary between Texas and New Mexico at the thirty-second parallel, thus largely ignoring history and topography. A military post called Fort Bliss was established in 1854, and the Butterfield Overland Mail arrived in 1858. A year later pioneer Anson Mills completed his plat of the town of El Paso, a name that resulted in endless confusion until the name of the town across the river, El Paso del Norte, was changed to Ciudad Juárez in 1888.
During the Civil War most of the El Paso pioneers were overwhelmingly sympathetic to the South. Although Confederate forces occupied Fort Bliss in 1861, the tide began to turn in favor of the Union cause the following year, and in August the Stars and Stripes was raised once again over Fort Bliss. The local Southern sympathizers eventually received presidential pardons, but some, such as Simeon Hart, battled for years before they recovered their properties.
In 1877 the region had its own civil war, the Salt War of San Elizario, a bloody racial conflict that had little to do with salt, but that set Texan against Mexican, strong man against strong man, faction against faction, and the United States against Mexico. Bad blood, personality conflicts, and intense personal rivalries characterized the affair, and mob violence, rape, robbery, and murder went unpunished with the breakdown of law enforcement. At length Fort Bliss, which had been shut down, was reestablished, and six months of bloodshed was brought to a halt.
Most authorities agree that the arrival of the railroads in 1881 and 1882 was the single most significant event in El Paso history, as it transformed a sleepy, dusty little adobe village of several hundred inhabitants into a flourishing frontier community that became the county seat in 1883 and reached a population of more than 10,000 by 1890. As El Paso became a western boomtown, it also became "Six Shooter Capital" and "Sin City," where scores of saloons, dance halls, gambling establishments, and houses of prostitution lined the main streets. At first the city fathers exploited the town's evil reputation by permitting vice for a price, but in time the more farsighted began to insist that El Paso's future might be in jeopardy if vice and crime were not brought under a measure of control. In the 1890s reform-minded citizens conducted a campaign to curb El Paso's most visible forms of vice and lawlessness, and in 1905 the city finally enacted ordinances closing houses of gambling and prostitution.
After 1900 El Paso began to shed its frontier image and develop as a modern municipality and significant industrial, commercial, and transportation center. The city grew from 15,906 in 1900 to 39,279 in 1910 and 77,560 in 1925. The exodus of refugees fleeing the disruption of the Mexican Revolution contributed heavily to the city's population growth during this period. Factors making this rapid development possible included El Paso's geographic location as a gateway to Mexico; its proximity to the mining areas of Mexico, New Mexico, and Arizona; its plentiful natural resources; and an abundant supply of cheap Mexican labor. The Kansas City Smelting and Refining Company constructed a large smelter at El Paso in 1887 and merged with several smaller companies in 1899 to become the American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO), which continued to be a major local employer into the 1980s. The completion of Elephant Butte Dam in 1916 in New Mexico ensured a steady water supply for agricultural development and helped cotton to become the predominant local crop. Standard Oil Company of Texas (now Chevron USA), Texaco, and Phelps Dodge located major refineries in El Paso in 1928 and 1929. Prohibition provided a boost to the local economy by stimulating a growing tourist trade with the drinking and gambling establishments across the border in Juárez.
For more than 130 years Fort Bliss has played a significant role in local, national, and international affairs, and the relationship between the city and the post has always been close. The military establishment was responsible for much of El Paso's growth during the 1940s and 1950s, when El Paso absorbed the town of Isleta and greatly increased its municipal area. In 1986 military personnel made up one-fourth of the city's population and accounted for one out of every five dollars flowing through El Paso's economy. Textiles, tourism, the manufacture of cement and building materials, the refining of metals and petroleum, and food processing were El Paso's major industries in 1980, with wholesale and retail tradespeople accounting for 23.3 percent of the local work force, professionals 20.8 percent, and government employees 20.9 percent. Prominent local brands included Tony Lama boots and Farah slacks (see TONY LAMA COMPANY, and FARAH, INCORPORATED).
Public education in El Paso began with the establishment of an elementary school in 1884 and a high school in 1885. The State School of Mines and Metallurgy opened in 1914, held its first commencement in 1916, changed its name to Texas Western College in 1949, and became the University of Texas at El Paso in 1967. El Paso has had several junior colleges, beginning with the College of the City of El Paso, which held classes for two years starting in 1918 and was followed by El Paso Junior College from 1920 to 1927 and the current El Paso Community College, established in 1972. The El Paso Symphony Orchestra, one of the oldest in the state, traces its roots back to 1893. The El Paso Museum of Art, established in 1947 as El Paso International Museum, houses a collection of works by European Old Masters, including Botticelli, Filippo Lippi, Tintoretto, and Van Dyck. El Paso's two major newspapers, the Times and the Herald Post, date from the early 1880s, and the town has operated a public transportation system since 1882.
A major characteristic of border-town El Paso is its special relationship with Mexico in general and Ciudad Juárez in particular. In 1983 El Paso-Juárez was the largest binational urban area along the Mexican-American border. Historic developments such as the Taft-Díaz meeting of 1909; the taking of Ciudad Juárez by the revolutionary forces of Francisco I. Madero in 1911; the activities of Francisco (Pancho) Villa, particularly the raid on Columbus, New Mexico, followed by Gen. John J. Pershing's punitive expedition of 1916; the immigration of Mexican families, rich and poor, during and after the Mexican Revolution; the smuggling and bootlegging activities during the Prohibition era; the Chamizal dispute and its settlement in 1964; and the growing interdependence of the two cities— all attest to the unique relationship existing between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez.
The rapid growth that characterized El Paso during the first quarter of the twentieth century slowed somewhat during the 1930s. After reaching 102,421 in the 1930 census the population declined to 96,810 by the 1940 census. Postwar development brought the number of residents up to 130,003 in 1950. Fueled by rapid military and commercial expansion, El Paso's population more than doubled during the next ten years, reaching 276,687 in 1960. Slower but steady growth continued throughout the 1960s, with the population reaching 339,615 in 1970. Despite a period of sluggishness from 1971 to 1974, El Paso's population grew by 32 percent during the 1970s, to 425,259 in 1980. The population has always been predominantly Hispanic. In the 1870s a population of twenty-three Anglos and 150 Hispanics was reported. In 1980 the population was 62.5 percent Spanish-surnamed, and the interaction between the Spanish-Mexican North and the Anglo-American Southwest continued to be the dominant feature of El Paso's culture. As of 1980 other contributors to El Paso's rich ethnic mix included over 13,000 Blacks, 3,315 Asians, and 1,484 Indians. El Paso is a colorful city with a distinctive blend of ethnic, border-town, military, Texan, and Southwestern elements. In 1990 the population was 515,342 and in 2000 it was 563,662.