Charles H. Howard, judge and both instigator and victim of the Salt War of San Elizario, was born on Februrary 3, 1842, in Virginia, the son of William Henry and Sarah Catherine (DuVal) Howard. By 1860 the family had moved to Gonzales County; Charles's sister Susan married William Lewis Davidson there in 1870. Charles served as a private in the Eighth Texas Cavalry, better known as Terry's Texas Rangers, during the Civil War. He settled in Austin, Texas, in 1870 or 1871, then moved to El Paso in 1872.
At that time El Paso was a stronghold of Radical Republicanism, but Howard saw an opportunity to establish the Democratic party there, singlehandedly if need be. At least initially, his efforts met with considerable success. He was appointed district attorney in 1873 and allied himself with Louis Cardis and Father Antonio Borrajo, the parish priest of San Elizario, against the Radical Republicans and the "Anti-Salt Ring" led by Albert Jennings Fountain. In February 1873 the three drew up a petition to the state legislature asking for the removal of the El Paso district judge, a political ally of Fountain, and calling Fountain himself, who was then serving in the legislature, "a disgrace to our county and a blemish upon Your Honorable Body." The petition bore more than 350 signatures, and although many were written in the same hand, the legislature decided to take action. The judge was removed in April 1874, and Howard was appointed to replace him.
Unfortunately, the alliance between Howard and Cardis was about to rupture. Howard resigned as district judge in 1875 and married Mary Louisa Zimpleman in Austin on December 31 of that year. She died on June 25, 1877. Shortly before her death, her father, George Barnhard Zimpleman, an Austin banker, had moved to El Paso, apparently enlisted in a lucrative scheme by Howard. Howard filed on the salt deposits at the western foot of the Guadalupe Mountains in the name of his father-in-law, thus outraging the salineros, or salt dealers, of the El Paso area, who had regarded the salt deposits as a public commodity.
One scholar implies that Howard reneged on a secret deal with Cardis and Borrajo by which the three would split the fees to be charged for collecting salt. Regardless of what actually happened, Howard and Cardis became bitter enemies. Howard assaulted Cardis in Austin and in San Antonio, but Cardis refused to take action. In June 1877, while Howard was en route to survey the salt deposits, he encountered Cardis at Fort Quitman and attacked him again. Meanwhile, he had two salineros arrested for taking salt without paying the required fee. On his way back to El Paso, Howard stopped at Ysleta to talk with the sheriff. An armed group of Mexicans and Mexican Americans seized him there and took him to San Elizario; they might have killed him then and there but for the intercession of Cardis, who wanted to avoid a major conflagration. They made Howard promise to renounce his ownership of the salt deposits and leave El Paso County immediately.
The outraged judge went to Mesilla, New Mexico, where he took refuge at the home of his old opponent, Fountain, and wired the governor of Texas that an invasion from Mexico was imminent. Howard blamed Cardis for his humiliation in San Elizario; he returned to El Paso on October 7, 1877, and three days later shot Cardis to death. He was arraigned for the murder on November 17 but was freed on $4,000 bail.
On December 12 Howard bravely or foolishly went to San Elizario, intending to make good on his threats to prosecute those who refused to pay the fee for collecting salt. He and his escort of Texas Rangers were surrounded and besieged by an angry mob for several days before Howard gave himself up. On December 17 he was taken out and shot by a firing squad of five men, all from the Mexican side of the river. After they fired, Jesús Telles ran up and attempted to slash Howard's face with a machete. He swung his weapon, but Howard twisted away, and Telles cut off two of his own toes instead. The bodies of Howard and two of his agents, also shot by the firing squad, were mutilated and dumped down an old well about a half mile away. Howard was later buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Austin.