The El Paso Salt War began in the late 1860s as a struggle between Republican leaders W. W. Mills, Albert J. Fountain, and Louis Cardis to acquire title to the salt deposits at the foot of Guadalupe Peak, 100 miles east of El Paso. Fountain and Mills became leaders of the opposing factions. Fountain, leader of the Anti-Salt Ring, was elected to the Texas Senate in 1869 with the expectation of securing title to the deposits for the people of the El Paso area, but Cardis and Father Antonio Borrajo of San Elizario aroused sentiment against the scheme. Feeling between the two factions broke into open warfare with the killing of Judge Gaylord Judd Clarke on December 7, 1870, and Fountain soon moved to New Mexico.
The second stage of the trouble began in 1872, when Charles Howard, a Missouri lawyer, Democrat, and former Confederate officer, joined with Cardis to break the Republican machine. After Howard became district judge in 1874, he became an enemy of Cardis, who controlled the Mexican vote and was the real boss of the region. Their feud grew serious when Howard filed on the salt lakes in the name of his father-in-law, Maj. George B. Zimpleman. This act outraged the Mexican citizens, who considered the lakes public property under terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and who were supported in their view by Cardis and Father Borrajo.
When Howard arrested two men who had threatened to go for salt in September 1877, he started a riot. A mob held him for three days at San Elizario. He gained his freedom by promising to give up his claim to the salt and agreeing to leave the country. Four of his friends signed a $12,000 bond guaranteeing that his agreement would be carried out. Howard retreated to Mesilla, New Mexico, still threatening to even the score with Cardis, whom he regarded as the instigator of the mob. On October 10, 1877, he killed Cardis in a store in El Paso. The Mexicans at San Elizario then demanded Howard's arrest and the forfeiture of the bond. Maj. John B. Jones of the Frontier Battalion organized a detachment of rangers, put Lt. John B. Tays in command at San Elizario, and had Howard arraigned for Cardis's murder and admitted to bail.
About December 1, sixteen wagons left for the salt lakes. Howard brought suit against the trespassers and left for San Elizario to press the charges. In San Elizario he was besieged in the ranger quarters by a force led by Chico Barela. The mob killed Charles Ellis and C. E. Mortimer and for four days made determined efforts to storm the rangers' fort. A detachment of United States troops under Capt. Thomas Blair was summoned on the grounds that part of the mob was composed of aliens from Mexico, but Blair was dissuaded from entering the village. On the fifth day of the siege Howard gave himself up to save the lives of his party. In the belief that Howard was to be freed, the rangers also surrendered to the mob. On December 17 Howard, his agent John E. McBride, and John G. Atkinson, who had put up $11,000 to satisfy the forfeited bond, were shot by a firing squad composed of men from Mexico. The rangers were allowed to leave without their arms, and San Elizario was looted by the mob.
Within a few days several detachments of troops and a posse of American citizens descended on San Elizario, killing four men and wounding several others on the way. The leaders of the mob and many of their followers fled to Mexico. Indictments were made out against some of them, but no one was ever arrested or brought to trial. A congressional investigation attempted to get at the facts, but no positive action was taken except the reestablishment of Fort Bliss, which had been abandoned earlier in the year. Thenceforward no objection was made to paying for the salt.
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William Wallace Mills, Forty Years at El Paso (El Paso?, 1901; 2d ed., El Paso: Hertzog, 1962). C. L. Sonnichsen, The El Paso Salt War (El Paso: Hertzog, 1961). C. L. Sonnichsen, I'll Die Before I Run-The Story of the Great Feuds of Texas (New York: Devin-Adair, 1962). C. F. Ward, The Salt War of San Elizario (M.A. thesis, University of Texas, 1932). Walter Prescott Webb, The Texas Rangers (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1935; rpt., Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982). Owen P. White, Out of the Desert: The Historical Romance of El Paso (El Paso: McMath, 1924).
Law, Law Enforcement, and Outlaws
Rebellions, Raids, and Wars
Boundary Disputes and Ethnic Conflict
Late Nineteenth-Century Texas
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
C. L. Sonnichsen,
“Salt War of San Elizario,”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed May 20, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
Most Recent Revision Date:
June 1, 1995
This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: