By Andrew Stuart
Beneath the soaring western escarpment of the Guadalupe Mountains, geologic and chemical forces combine to create a resource humans have sought since civilization began: salt.
Indigenous peoples made salt expeditions here for millennia. Spanish invaders sent wagon trains to gather salt for mines in Chihuahua. But in the late 19th century, the Guadalupe Mountains Salt Lakes became a flashpoint in a violent conflict. Echoes of the San Elizario Salt War continue to sound today, and its traces are etched in the West Texas landscape.
Today, San Elizario is a small, if growing, community on the Rio Grande, downstream of El Paso. But in the mid-19th century, it exceeded El Paso as a center of power and commerce. Westering emigrants and gold-seekers outfitted here, for the harsh desert passage ahead.
Salt was an essential supply. It was a preservative for beef and pork. But it was more than preservation, or taste. Salt regulates organ function and fluid balance. Desert travel without salt can be deadly.
Salt was historically a scarce resource. Natural sources were treasured. The glistening-white lake beds west of the Guadalupes were one such source.
Steve Carpenter is an archeologist who’s studied the historic salt road.
“The thing that fascinated people was that they could scrape the veneer of salt off, and then in a very short period of time, the veneer would almost magically reappear,” Carpenter said. “In some sense, it’s counterintuitive. People describe it as an ancient lake bed, and you would think that if you scrape it off, it would be a non-renewable resource. But it seems to be a perpetual source, that just comes right back.”
In the Ice Age, mineral-laden streams created salt deposits here. Salt could be removed. Then, salty water percolated to the surface, and evaporated – leaving new deposits.
For Rio Grande communities, this resource was a public, or communal, one. And in 1863, public funds were used to construct a “salt road” from San Elizario to the lake beds.
Then, in the 1870s, things changed.
Under Spanish and Mexican law, mineral rights were government and public property. That principal obtained in Texas until after the Civil War, when the English common-law concept of private mineral ownership was imposed.
In 1877, Charles Howard, a former judge, staked claim to the salt lakes, and, “shutting his eyes to the consequences,” as one historian said, closed the Salt Road.
Violent conflict ensued. Howard shot and killed a leader for popular-rights to the salt, Louis Cardis. San Elizario residents then executed Howard by firing squad. Texas Rangers, and then federal troops, were deployed. Ultimately, Anglo private-property concepts were imposed. San Elizario’s political and economic influence was crushed.
In 2001, Carpenter was an archeologist with the Texas General Land Office. Surveying a GLO tract near the Hueco Mountains, at the Hudspeth-El Paso county line, he discovered a “linear feature” in the desert ground. At first, its identity was mysterious.
“Then I began looking into some of those old maps and things,” Carpenter said. “I started to develop a larger context, and came up with a clear identification of what it was, and it really seemed to correlate with maps and survey records that showed the Salt Road going through there.”
An artifact helped make the identification. Carpenter found a “solder-top” tin can. This 19th-century technology was displaced in the 20th.
“For archeologists, tin cans are among the most important artifacts,” Carpenter said. “It was very distinctive of a time period, and it indicated that there was some antiquity to that road.”
Subsequent aerial views showed other segments of the road.
Apache resistance in West Texas continued into the 1870s, and salt-seekers likely altered their routes depending on danger levels. But Carpenter’s feature appears to be the main Salt Road, built with public funds.
Carpenter’s identification of the Salt Road struck a chord, and Latino political activists have contacted him in the years since he announced it.
Because the Salt War’s causes, and its implications, are profound – and deeply political. Here, Anglo traditions were resisted by communities rooted in Mexican and Spanish law, and ways resonant with ancient indigenous traditions.
“It’s a border, by all standards,” Carpenter said. “I think the Salt Road and the Salt War precipitated and defined the fundamental differences and the deep-seated views between different heritages.”
On the Salt Road, the geology and the recent history of West Texas meet.
Nature Notes is supported by the Shield-Ayres Foundation. This episode was written by Andrew Stuart.