La Junta de los Ríos is a term used to describe the fertile region surrounding the juncture of the Río Conchos and the Río Grande. Located at 29 degrees latitude and 104 degrees longitude, La Junta forms a roughly triangular shape extending from the rivers' juncture to approximately twenty-five miles in each direction along the banks of the two waterways. Straddling the United States-Mexico border at the cities of Presidio, Texas, and Ojinaga, Chihuahua, people have perhaps continuously cultivated La Junta de los Ríos longer than any other area of Texas. This is due to the excellent farmland created by the region's fertile soil and relatively well-watered floodplains along the banks of the river, which serve as natural irrigation. In comparison to the surrounding dry and sandy Chihuahua Desert, La Junta has proved to be an oasis to the various peoples who have called it home. Although drought and temperature extremity—it ranges well below freezing in the winter to upwards of 120 degrees in the summer in the region—are deterrents for human habitation, humidity in La Junta is very low and long summers allow for multiple harvests in one year.
Archeological evidence suggests that humans first arrived in La Junta sometime in the Paleo-Indian Period from 8,000 to 6,500 B.C. These and later hunter-gatherers used atlatls and bows and arrows to hunt javelinas, mountain lions, rattlesnakes, foxes, and various other forms of small game. Humans also feasted on prickly-pear fruit and other edible plants native to the region. At some point in the Late Archaic Period, agriculture arrived at La Junta, and by 700 A.D. many of the region's Indians had begun to adopt more sedentary lifestyles. Influenced by pre-Puebloan cultures like the Mogollons, the Indians of La Junta eventually began to use pottery, live in jacal dwellings, and form extensive trade networks.
At the turn of the sixteenth century, a group of sedentary-agriculturalists—later known to the Spanish as Patarabueyes—made their home at La Junta. These people lived in single-story, flat-roofed pit houses of adobe construction in settlements of various sizes. Some of these villages were small clusters of a few families, whereas others like Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe had over 1,000 residents and a complex political structure. Because La Junta was centrally located between the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico and the Indian tribes of the Southern Plains, the Patarabueyes profited from the trade between these two groups. The hunter-gatherer Jumano Indians facilitated this trade by traveling to places as far as the Caddo Confederacy of East Texas for goods to bring back to La Junta. There is some scholarly debate over the relationship between the Jumanos and the sedentary Indians of La Junta. Some believe that the Jumanos were ethnically related to the Patarabueyes, while others argue that the two Indian groups were simply convenient trading partners. The most recent interpretation has the Patarabueyes and the Jumanos sharing a mutual relationship wherein both groups maintained cultural distinctions but relied on one another for basic needs such as food.
In 1534 one African and three Spaniards arrived in La Junta de los Ríos. They were the first non-Indians to see the region. Led by Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, these strangers had been members of the failed Pánfilo de Narváez expedition, which had shipwrecked off the Texas coast after failing to find riches in Florida. Arriving in La Junta after an amazing six-year journey, Cabeza de Vaca found the La Juntans to have, "the best physiques of any we saw" and remarked that they lived in, "houses that really looked like houses." The people of La Junta cooked for the new arrivals, provided them with furs and other provisions for the remainder of their journey, and gave information about the Pueblo civilizations to the northwest. After a few weeks stay in La Junta, Cabeza de Vaca and his men departed, eventually finding their way to Mexico City in July 1535.
In 1581 another group of Europeans passed through La Junta. Having heard of Cabeza de Vaca's tale of large settlements of Indians to the north, Franciscan Fray Agustín Rodríguez successfully petitioned the viceroy of Mexico for permission to convert these wayward natives to Catholicism (see CATHOLIC CHURCH). Accompanied by two friars and Capt. Francisco "Chamuscado" Sánchez, the Rodríguez-Sánchez expedition entered La Junta in July 1581 and found that disease had not devastated the region's population, as it had other Indian communities. La Juntans had, however, become targets of Spanish slave-hunters, as the sedentary population of the region made much easier prey than more nomadic Indians. While in the La Junta village later to be named San Bernardino, Friar Rodríguez erected a cross and, according to legend, performed Mass for the Indians of the region. This alleged event is often considered to be the first Mass in Texas, but, if it did take place, it probably occurred in the Mexican portion of La Junta. The Rodríguez-Sánchez expedition continued to New Mexico where they would remain for a year before Chamuscado and his soldiers returned through the region with news that Puebloans had killed one of the three friars. This prompted a rescue expedition under Antonio de Espejo, which also passed through La Junta. While the Indians of the region had welcomed Rodríguez only two years before, they fled Espejo out of fear that he was a slaver. Some La Juntans even attacked the Spaniards' horses. A friar traveling with Espejo eventually coaxed some Indians out of hiding, and the Spanish then went about La Junta erecting crosses and gathering information on the Pueblos. After Espejo's departure, La Junta would no longer be a stopover for Spaniards journeying to New Mexico, as a 1598 expedition under Juan de Oñate began the practice of using El Paso for this purpose instead.
From the departure of the Espejo expedition to the end of the eighteenth century, there is sparse information on happenings at La Junta. What is known is that semi-nomadic Apaches—bolstered by the adoption of the horse—had increasingly begun to expand into territory previously controlled by Jumanos. Looking for protection from these marauders, the Jumanos began to ask the Spanish for missions in their territory. From 1670 to 1672, two Franciscans proselytized at La Junta before the Indians of the region forcibly expelled them. In 1683 Jumano chief Juan Sabeata journeyed to El Paso and requested missions. The Spanish responded by sending friars to the region in 1684 and 1687, but in both instances the Indians quickly grew tired of their message and expelled the missionaries.
On May 31, 1715, a Spanish entourage under Fray Joseph de Arraneguí arrived in La Junta, again with the intent of establishing missions. Arraneguí discovered that much had changed from Spain's previous visits to La Junta. Owing to contact with civilians in Nueva Vizcaya, the people of La Junta had acquired a number of Spanish customs. They wore European-style clothing, grew wheat, practiced a rudimentary form of Christianity, and many spoke Spanish. After making these observations, the newcomers went about constructing six missions. These missions were small, underfunded, and were periodically abandoned by their priests, but from the time of their construction until secularization the religious did have some success in bringing Catholicism to La Junta.
A Spanish missionary presence did little to deter the Apaches, however, who had begun raiding deep into Spanish territory in the early eighteenth century. In response, the Crown dispatched Brig. Gen. Pedro de Rivera y Villalón in 1724 to inspect New Spain's northern frontier. Although he did not personally visit La Junta, information learned on his tour led Rivera to conclude that La Junta would make an excellent spot for a presidio. The Spanish sent Capt. José de Berroterán in 1729 to find a suitable location for Rivera's proposed presidio, but Berroterán abandoned his search before reaching La Junta. In 1747 Spain dispatched three expeditions to reconnoiter La Junta. Although these expeditions—and another in 1749—provided valuable information about La Junta and its inhabitants, they did not lead to the construction of a presidio. Finally, in 1759 Capt. Alonso Rubín de Celís led a group of soldiers to La Junta and began building what came to be known as the Presidio de Bethlehem on the Texas side of the Río Grande. The Spanish completed construction of the presidio in the summer of 1760, only to have Indians attack the fortification on July 22, 1760. Although able to fend off this assault, the Presidio de Bethlehem failed to deter Apache raids on New Spain's interior, so the Spanish abandoned it in 1767.
A second garrison soon replaced the Presidio de Bethlehem. From 1766 to 1767, the Marqués de Rubí toured the northern frontier of New Spain, with a short stopover at La Junta. Following this tour, Rubí recommended that a line of presidios be built along the Río Grande in order to form a defensive barrier against hostile Indians. One of these presidios was to be located at La Junta. Following the Marqués's instructions, in 1773 Hugo Oconór scouted La Junta and oversaw construction of a second presidio located at the site of present-day Ojinaga. For a time, the Presidio de los Ríos del Norte y Conchos served primarily as a defensive fortification and base from which to launch offensive campaigns against nomadic Indians. Its role changed somewhat in 1779 when the Spanish chose La Junta as a site for an establecimientos de paz, a form of Indian reservation. In exchange for food and instruction in agricultural practices, some Mescalero Apaches abandoned their nomadic ways and settled in the area around the Presidio del Norte. As the Apaches had increasingly begun to lose some of their territory to the Comanches, the Mescaleros accepted this invitation and for a few years in the mid-1780s a number of Mescalero families called La Junta home. Distaste for sedentary life and disagreements with Spanish commanders in the area prompted almost all of the Apaches to leave La Junta in 1788.
Some Mescaleros remained at La Junta, however, and other semi-nomadic Indians voluntarily settled in the region in exchange for employment and homes. They joined the remaining sedentary Indians of La Junta, the soldiers stationed at the presidio, and some Spanish civilians in creating a racially eclectic but culturally Hispanic population. With the turbulence of the Mexican War of Independence from Spain, the presidio fell into disrepair and the citizens of La Junta were left to fend largely for themselves. Hostile Indians, including the Comanches in addition to Apaches, took advantage of this by drastically increasing their raids on La Junta. The Mexican government tried to halt these attacks by enticing settlers with land grants and by offering money for Indian scalps, but these measures did little and depredations against La Juntans continued for much of the 1800s.
Other developments in the nineteenth century changed life in La Junta. In 1839 and 1840, Anglo trader Henry Connelly used La Junta as a stopover on commercial expeditions to and from the United States. There were no military engagements in La Junta during the Mexican War, but Anglo victory impacted the region nonetheless. The signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo placed the border of the United States and Mexico along the Río Grande, thereby bisecting La Junta. This action, however, did not have dramatic social impact on the region, as crossing the river would not be a closely monitored activity for more than a hundred years. The war did make La Junta more accessible to Anglo traders. Ben Leaton, for example, established Fort Leaton on the United States side of the Rio Grande from which he traded with local inhabitants and Indians. Other prominent Americans found their way to La Junta after the war. Famous Texas Ranger Jack Hays wandered into La Junta after getting lost trying to find a route to El Paso, William Henry Chase Whiting visited the region while on assignment for the Army Corps of Engineers, Maj. William Emory stopped in Presidio del Norte during his survey of the border, and John Glanton killed peaceful Indians near La Junta for their scalps. By the time of the Civil War, La Junta had become a frequent stopover for persons traveling to Mexico on the Chihuahua Trail.
The latter half of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century saw La Junta's population increase in spite of cholera epidemics in the 1800s and influenza outbreaks in the early 1900s. This population increase came about as the Unites States Army began establishing forts in West Texas and driving hostile Apaches and Comanches from the region. The arrival of the Southern Pacific Railroad and the Mexican Central Railway to areas adjacent to La Junta further increased the region's population, as did the immigration of cattle ranchers from eastern Texas. Over time, ranching became an important part of the region's economy, but many La Juntans still profited from agriculture. Corn, melons, and beans continued to be cultivated for personal consumption as they had been for centuries, but many farmers began growing crops like onions and sorghum for export.
The Mexican Revolution had a significant impact on La Junta. On the Mexican side of the Río Grande, Constitutionalists and Federalists constantly vied for control of Ojinaga, with possession of the town changing hands a number of times in the early years of the revolution. The fighting culminated on January 10, 1913, when Pancho Villa led some 1,500 men to victory against Federalists barricaded in Ojinaga's downtown. In response to the violence of the revolution, the United States government placed thousands of troops along the Río Grande, many in the La Junta region. These soldiers attempted to halt the prevalent raiding from the Mexican side of La Junta, but the legalities of chasing bandits into Mexico often limited their ability to do so. By the end of the revolution, a number of civilians from Mexico, having escaped into the United States during the conflict, made the Texas side of La Junta their permanent home.
At the end of the twentieth century, the La Junta region experienced a number of dramatic changes. On the Mexican side of the border, farming continued to be an important part of the economy, but a small part of the population had also turned to drug trafficking. In the 1980s, for example, Pablo Acosta illegally exported heroin, marijuana, and cocaine to the United States from Ojinaga until Mexican forces shot and killed the kingpin in 1987. In response to drug trafficking and increased illegal immigration, the United States augmented its security forces along the border. Increased border restrictions meant less cheap labor from Mexico and therefore a decrease in agriculture requiring such labor on the United States side of La Junta. Border security also prevented easy communication between families who had lived on separate sides of the river for generations. The United States side of La Junta, however, remained for the most part ethnically and culturally Mexican at the end of the twentieth century.