El Paso & The Region

The El Paso del Norte Valley

The history of the El Paso region begins more than two million years ago, when Lake Cabeza de Vaca covered what are now, El Paso, Ciudad Juárez, and most of the Lower Valley. This lake was the deposit for the ancestral Rio Grande until the lake drained into the Gulf of Mexico around 75,000 B.C.E. (before common era) and the river forged the Pass of the North in 50,000 B.C.E.. Humans settled in the area around 10,000 B.C.E. and congregated in areas with plentiful water and foliage, such as the Keystone Wetlands and the Hueco Tanks.

As the Spaniards sent colonizing expeditions to the Americas in the early 1500’s, many Spaniards passed through the El Paso region (including Cabeza de Vaca and Antonio de Espejo). In September 1595, Don Juan de Oñate led an expedition (at his own expense) to colonize the Pass region. This expedition went directly through the Chihuahua Desert and barely survived when they reached the Rio Grande. On April 20, 1598, the expedition celebrated Thanksgiving near, what is now, San Elizario. Between 1659 and 1668, Fray García de San Francisco established Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission of El Paso del Norte. Around this mission, the village of El Paso del Norte grew, eventually becoming the largest town in the area, now known as Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico.

In 1680, the Spaniards suffered a major blow when the Pueblo Indians, led by Popé, led a successful revolt from the Taos Pueblo to the Spanish capital of the region, Santa Fe. In the largest retreat from North American natives in history, Spanish and Indian refugees fled the region to the Pass of the North. This increased the Spanish population in the area and they divided the Native Americans refugees into camps that are now the Ysleta and Socorro Missions. Then governor Diego de Vargas charged his army into a divided Pueblo nation in 1692, and recaptured New Mexico in 1695.

By 1760, agrarian farming flourished in the El Paso valley. Apple, pear, and peach orchards were among the crops grown in the river valley, along with vineyards for the brewing of wine and brandy. By 1766, five thousand people (Spanish and Christian Indians) lived in the El Paso del Norte region. In 1772, Marqués de Rubí established a line of presidios in the northern part of New Spain in order to defend against Native American strikes and forces from other European nations on the American continent. Rubí left El Paso without a presidio, as it was capable of defending itself because it was the largest settlement north of Durango.

Outsiders were not entirely uncommon to the area as apparently a small group of Americans had come to live among the citizens, including, in 1806 the first American, one James Purcell of Illinois.

In 1807, the Spanish army took prisoners from an expedition from the United States, led by Lieutenant Zebulon Pike. He became the first US citizen to to tell of his visit to the Pass as the Spaniards took him to the regional capital, Chihuahua City. Pikes’ memoirs of the expedition provided the first look for the Americans of the Pass of the North. Other traders and trappers began to appear including one James Baird. Baird would become a Mexican citizen, trapping in Northern New Mexico from his home at Paso del Norte.

By 1815, fears of US expansion forced oaths of loyalties from the citizens of El Paso del Norte. The same population later proclaimed loyalty to the Mexican government, which obtained independence in 1821.

Through the 1830s’ and 40s’ life at the pass continued, a few more Americans arrived to join the steady pace of farming and trading with occasional outbursts of excitement from Apache raiders. Even the Texas revolution made only a small impact as the Texans were unable to occupy the lands they claimed, following the Rio Grande’s course to it’s headwaters in Colorado (or, at that time Northern New Mexico territory). The ill-fated Texas-Santa Fe expedition of 1841, which saw American prisoners brought from Santa Fe through Paso del Norte on their way to imprisonment in Chihuhua gave local citizens only a small involvement with the new Republic so far away.

One Kentuckian who made his way to the pass was Hugh Stephenson. Stephenson would acquire farmland near what is now Las Cruces, New Mexico, then after marrying into a prominent family, the Azcarates , he and his wife Juana established a large ranch east of the Ponce Ranch naming it Concordia. Stephenson and another Kentuckian, James Wiley Magoffin would play a major role in shaping the future El Paso, Texas.

American Possession

In May of 1846 the forces of Mexico and the United States came to blows over the disputed territory east of the Rio Grande. President James Polk, with an eye on the Santa Fe trade and the territory to the west coast instructed the Governor of Missouri to raise a volunteer force to operate with regular troops under command of Stephen W. Kearney. The First Regiment of Mounted Missouri Volunteers chose a Kentuckian, Alexander Doniphan as their commanding officer. Colonel Doniphan would play no little importance in Southwestern history.

James Wiley Magoffin played arguably the most important role in convincing Governor Armijo at Santa Fe to relinquish the territory without a fight. Then General Kearney turned westward, leaving Colonel Alexander to lead his group of volunteers down the Rio Grande to El Paso del Norte
and claim the lands of the east bank of the river.
Alarmed at news of the coming invasion, the citizens and government of Chihuahua prepared for defense. By December 26th, Doniphan and his force reached the encampment at Bracito, just above Paso del Norte,the local forces were joined by a detachment of some 380 regular troops. Now under command of Lt. Col. Luis Vidal, the local command launched a party of dragoons to make contact with the enemy. Doniphan and his men were not expecting action so soon.

Trumpets sounded and the attack was commenced. Approaching the Americans in their European style march, the Mexican forces were gunned down by the Missouri boys firing from everywhere…behind sand dunes, mesquite bushes, wagons, and even lying flat on the ground. Mexican troops were now forced to retreat to make a final defense at El Paso del Norte. However defense of the town was not to be. Retreating troops made their way to points south leaving the town with no protection. When Doniphan entered Paso del Norte on December 27th, only a delegation of townspeople met them. They area was now in American hands.

Official possession would take place on February 2nd of 1848 with the signing of the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.