Texas Salt Wars
We found this very interesting piece of salt history at Beyond the Shaker. There was a major salt war in West Texas in 1877.
In 1877 in San Elizario, Texas, a conflict that was years in the making arose between Mexican and Anglo- and African-Americans, all of whom had differing opinions on the ownership and control of a nearby salt mine.
With the wounds of the Civil War still healing, the post-war Reconstruction brought entrepreneurs and power-hungry politicians to West Texas—much to the chagrin of the longstanding, Hispanic inhabitants. San Elizario was one of the largest U.S. communities in the area and held the county seat for the region, makin
g it an attractive locale for Democrat and Republican politicians alike fighting for political clout in the state. And it was salt that served as the fodder for their stump speeches.
At the base of the nearby Guadalupe Mountains lay a treasure trove of dry lakes that produced nearly-immaculate salt.
For generations, the people of San Elizario traversed to the foot of the mountains to gather the salt which they used to preserve meats. No one owned or operated the salt deposits—they were treated as a commonwealth among the people.
This commonwealth functioned peaceably until a group of Republican leaders—including William Mills, Albert Fountain, Ben Williams, and Judge Gaylord Clarke—from neighboring areas in Texas claimed the land under the state and federal laws that allowed individuals in the new U.S. territories to claim mineral rights—that is, the right to remove underground minerals or oil from an area to sell for profit and also be able to control the surface from where the minerals are being removed.
Each of the claims was rejected by an El Paso court, and the men of the so-called Salt Ring were unable to gain sole title over the land. And since each had differing opinions on how to handle the land, feuding and fighting inevitably and unsurprisingly broke out.
This feuding cleaved the Salt Ring leaders, and the Anti-Salt Ring formed. Some, like Mills, wanted individual ownership. Others, like Fountain, wanted state ownership with community access. And yet others, such as Louis Cardis, thought the inhabitants had it right and wanted to keep the current commonwealth. Cardis and Fountain banded together to become the Anti-Salt Ring, which in turn made Mills the leader of the Salt RingFountain was elected to the State senate, rendering him perfectly poised to assert his plan. But Father Antonio Borrajo, the priest of San Elizario, opposed Fountain’s idea and joined forces with Cardis. Together, Borrajo and Cardis could influence the Mexicans against the Salt Ring. When Judge Gaylord Clarke—a supporter of Mills—was murdered, though, Fountain high-tailed it to New Mexico, giving Borrajo and Cardis a prime opportunity to push their plan.
In 1872, a man named Charles Howard from Missouri came to town with the intention of restoring Democratic power in Texas. After appraising the salt situation in the area, Howard approached and formed an alliance with Borrajo and Cardis. The men worked together to get Cardis in the state legislature and elect Howard as district judge. It didn’t take long, though, for more in-fighting to occur and further cleave the Anti-Salt Ring. Howard took claim to the salt region, closed the roads to the region, and instituted a tax on all salt gathered from there—Howard’s intentions when coming to San Elizario were not just to restore Democratic influence, but also to increase his personal wealth. Shocking. Needless to say, Cardis and Borrajo broke all ties with Howard and encourage the people of San Elizario to procure salt from the area in despite Howard’s claim over the land.
Howard became a downright bully, imprisoning citizens for procuring salt “unlawfully” and also beating up former friend Cardis. But those being bullied would not stand for it, and in 1877, a mob of people seized Howard and hauled him off to the county jail. After a three-day jaunt behind bars, he paid $12,000 and relinquished all rights to the salt flats to be released.
Following in Fountain’s footsteps, the incensed Howard fled to New Mexico (and actually stayed with Fountain), but returned less than two months later to have his revenge on Cardis, whom he blamed for being jailed and usurped. He found Cardis rocking peacefully in a rocking chair outside of store, and shot and killed him.
Howard wasn’t done, though. In December of 1877, he rode back to town with a hodge-podge group of Texas Rangers in an attempt to reinforce his power over the salt. History proved to repeat itself, though, and an angry, armed mob descended upon Howard and the Rangers, all of whom had no other choice but to take refuge in nearby buildings and churches. After two days, the siege ended with Howard surrendering to the mob. He was shot by a firing squad and thrown down a well. The Rangers, too, surrendered to the mob—marking the only instance of surrender in the history of the Texas Rangers.
It seemed no one won the war: it was utterly senseless, costly, and resulted in San Elizario losing its county seat. The building of the railroad through West Texas just a few years later—which, rather ironically, made salt a commodity easy to come by—bypassed San Elizario, resulting in a decreased population of the town.