Heritage, Volume 9, Number 3, Summer 1991 Page: 22
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The Church of San Elceario was built at the Presidio of the same name in the late eighteenth century.
The Taming of the Rio Grande
Four Centuries at the Pass of the North
By John Peterson
In April of 1598 Don Juan de Ofiate
sent his scouts northward from the
Conchos in search of an overland
route to the Rio Bravo del Norte, or Rio
Grande as we know it from north of the
river today. His entourage had been on the
road for over three months from the
mining town of Santa Barbara in what is
now southern Chihuahua. His scouts were
without water for four days when they
finally foundered into the Rio Grande.
As the chronicle of the expedition
recounted, "the gaunt horses approached
the rolling stream and plunged headlong
into it. Two of them drank so much that
they burst their sides and died. Two others,
blinded by their raving thirst, plunged so
far into the stream that they were caught in
its swift current and drowned."
The river was still wild from its descent
through the Paso del Norte at the point
that Ofiate's party reached it. In wet years
it spread across the broad valley and filled
22 HERITAGE * SUMMER 1991
oxbows and floodplain with a sheet of
water, replete with wildfowl and fish. That
year of 1598 the expedition paused to harvest
game and fish-the first Thanksgiving
on what was to be United States soil.
Spanish settlements clung to the river
tenuously over the next few centuries
much as earlier rancherfas of the Mansos
and Sumas and other Native Americans
had lived part-time near the river. They
farmed smallholdings of European grains
and Indian crops such as corn and beans.
The Spanish introduced grapes into the
valley for celebrant purposes and built
tomas or headgates to sluice the water from
the Rio Bravo during its tamer years. The
Pass of the North was celebrated for its fine
wines and its excellent Aguardiente which
was distilled from the wines. Travellers
who were fresh from the desert boasted of
its quality and its quantity.
The valley below the pass was known as
a verdant garden with orchards of apples
and pears and quince which flourished
along with the grape and the staple crops of
wheat and corn and beans and squash.
By the 1750s it was a bountiful refuge from
the desert, and a major stopover between
New Spain's farthest northern settlements
in Santa Fe and Nueva Vizcaya to the
The first natives, the Manso and the
Suma and the Concho, intermarried or
scattered to the hinterlands, or worse, were
rounded up and deported as slaves.
Puebloan tribes from the north were
resettled in the valley during the Pueblo
Revolts of the late seventeenth century. By
the eighteenth century the pueblos of the
Piro and the Tiwa and others, along with
the Spanish, wound along the sinuous twist
of the river from El Paso to twenty miles
downstream in San Elizario. A Spanish
presidio was established there to protect
the residents against Apache raiders who
had moved into the hinterland.
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Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, Volume 9, Number 3, Summer 1991, periodical, Summer 1991; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45423/m1/22/: accessed June 26, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas Historical Foundation.