Texas Heritage, Winter 1985

THE
EL PASO
SALT WAR
OF 1854
by: Alex Apostolides
Illustrations by: Elizabeth Vair

Western history buffs are, or should
be, familiar with the Salt War of 1877
in El Paso . . . what few seem to know
is that there was another small war in
this area, fought for the same purpose.
It happened 23 years before, in 1854,
and it was fought over that same most
modest and common of commodities-salt.

Villain of the piece was none other
than one of El Paso's earliest anglo pioneers,
James Magoffin.
Magoffin had been successful in the
wagon trade between Santa Fe and
Chihuahua. When Santa Anna passed
restrictive customs laws all but wiping
out the north-south trade, Magoffin
went first to Independence, Missouri,
before settling in El Paso to take advantage
of the traffic going to the California
gold fields.
And he did well. His hacienda was a
magnet for visitors passing through.
He was known far and wide as a gentleman
and gracious host. Magoffin
8

was, in every sense of the word, a pillar
of the community.
But problems were arising. El Paso,
then as now, was a point where two cultures
met and mingled. And lifeways,
values, differed and often clashed,
making a huge gulf between the old
Hispanic settlers, who'd been there for
more than 300 years, and the johnniescome-lately,
the westward-ho'ing anglos.

The Hispanic had a sense of community,
while the anglo tended to adopt an
every-man-for-himself attitude. That
this inevitably led to clashes can be
taken for granted.
In the case of salt, vast deposits of the
stuff lay to the north. They'd been used
by Hispanic settlers for a couple of centuries,
and by the Indians for long before
that. They were a natural resource
and, as such, available to everyone.
That was until the anglo came. 'Private
property' is a sacred word in the anglo

culture lexicon, and 'private property'
was defined as something you held and
exploited at the expense of everyone
else. If someone else already had it,
you used every means you could, fair
or foul, to get hold of it.
If, better yet, it was Indian ground,
why, sir, nobody owned it, and you
were well justified in taking and making
something out of it. Lord knows,
those savages had had it for years and
never did a thing with it, and it was
high time somebody with a little gitup-and-go
did.
So, there was all this free land, loaded
with salt, the salt springs in the San
Andreas mountains. And by August
1852, Magoffin had 'acquired an interest'
in the land on the east slope of the
mountains.
Whether he was a leaseholder or a
property manager is not clear. Just
who got the rights in the first place, or
how, isn't clear either, this was land
used for the common good, open to all
. . . until the anglo came.

Texas Historical Foundation. Texas Heritage, Winter 1985. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45443/. Accessed December 27, 2014.