Mills, Anson (1834–1924)

By: Leon C. Metz

Type: Biography

Published: 1952

Updated: May 1, 1995

Anson Mills, surveyor, builder, army officer, engineer, American boundary commissioner, diplomat, and inventor, was born at Thorntown, Indiana, on August 31, 1834, the son of James P. and Sarah (Kenworthy) Mills. He attended school in Indiana and New York and accepted an appointment to the United States Military Academy in 1855. After flunking out at West Point in 1857, he rode the Butterfield Overland Mail stage to El Paso, where he arrived on May 8, 1858. He was appointed district surveyor and surveyed forts Quitman, Davis, Stockton, and Bliss, all in West Texas. He also built the Overland Building, for three decades the largest structure in El Paso. On February 28, 1859, Mills submitted a street map of a settlement called variously Ponce's Rancho, Franklin, and Smithsville. He called the little community El Paso, and the name stuck. The downtown is still practically as he platted it. Mills encouraged his brothers Emmett and William Wallace Mills to settle in El Paso. Anson laid out the village of Pinos Altos in New Mexico, feuded with almost everyone of importance in El Paso, and voted against secession. After failing to talk the commander at Fort Bliss out of surrendering the federal fort to Confederate forces, he accepted a Washington commission in the Union Army. His brother W. W. remained in the Southwest as a Union spy. Emmett caught the last stage out of El Paso and was killed in New Mexico when Mangas Colorado and his Apaches ambushed the coach.

After an undistinguished Civil War career, Anson Mills remained in the army during the Indian campaigns. After the Little Big Horn debacle (see CUSTER, GEORGE ARMSTRONG), he took part in the "horsemeat march" during Gen. George Crook's Big Horn and Yellowstone expedition. As the starving army began eating its own horses, Mills led a supply detachment and encountered Indians. For his role in the resulting fight at Slim Buttes, Mills always believed he deserved the Medal of Honor, though he never received it. During his military years he designed and patented the woven ammunition belt. The invention made him wealthy. On October 13, 1868, he married Hannah Casser, and they had two children. By 1894 Mills had been transferred to El Paso, retired as a brigadier general, and was sworn in as the American boundary commissioner. During the next few years he reestablished the Mexican border on the island of San Elizario and was responsible for straightening the Rio Grande by severing the Córdova banco, an improvement that relieved serious flooding at El Paso. Mills advocated a major international dam at El Paso, which eventually went to Elephant Butte in New Mexico, 120 miles north. He practically wrote the Mexican treaty, "An Equitable Distribution of the Waters of the Rio Grande," which promised Mexico an annual 60,000 acre-feet of water. He also wrote the 1905 treaty for the elimination of bancos (see BANCOS OF THE RIO GRANDE).

Mills is best remembered, however, for the boundary dispute with Mexico over the Chamizal tract (see CHAMIZAL DISPUTE) and for the Mills Building in El Paso. As the American boundary commissioner he refused to accept the 1911 arbitration agreement that gave the El Paso Chamizal to Mexico. The Mills Building began as the Grand Central Hotel, which Mills constructed in 1883. When the hotel burned, he replaced it with the Mills Building in 1911, at that time the largest concrete monolith in the world. Today it is no longer the highest building in El Paso, but it remains a major El Paso landmark. At the age of eighty-seven Mills wrote his autobiography, My Story (1918). He retired from the boundary commission in 1914 and died in Washington, D.C., on November 5, 1924. He was buried with honors in Arlington National Cemetery.

Jerome A. Greene, Slim Buttes, 1876: An Episode of the Great Sioux War (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982). Leon C. Metz, Turning Points in El Paso (El Paso: Mangan, 1985). William Wallace Mills, Forty Years at El Paso (El Paso?, 1901; 2d ed., El Paso: Hertzog, 1962). C. L. Sonnichsen, Pass of the North: Four Centuries on the Rio Grande (2 vols., El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1968, 1980).

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Leon C. Metz, “Mills, Anson,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 17, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

May 1, 1995