Monday, February 15, 2016

Blood Over Salt in Borderlands Texas: Q & A with Paul Cool about SALT WARRIORS

I'm still turtling along in writing my book about Far West Texas, which has involved not only extensive travel in the Trans-Pecos and some podcasting but reading-- towers of books!-- and what a joy it was to encounter one so fascinating as Paul Cool's Salt Warriors: Insurgency on the Rio Grande. 

A meticulously researched and expertly told history of the El Paso Salt War of 1877, Salt Warriors is essential reading for anyone interested in US-Mexico border and Texas history, and indeed, anyone interested in US history per se.

The El Paso Salt War of 1877 was sparked by "Anglo" businessmen staking claim to the massive salt bed that lies just west of what is now the Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Local Mexican-Americans, known as Paseños, considered the salt deposits community property, in accord with Spanish Law.


While the salt may have been free to anyone who would shovel it up, that required an arduous journey across the desert with carts pulled by oxen, and under constant threat of Indian attack. For Paseño farmers who eked out a living in this drought-prone region, the salt they could harvest was vital for curing food, pelts, for livestock licks, and above all, as a cash commodity-- much of it sold to mines in Mexico, where it was used for refining silver. The Paseños were outraged when Judge Charles H. Howard, a recent arrival from Virginia, informed them that they would have to start paying his father-in-law, a German businessman based in Austin, for the salt.

[Photo I took through the windshield,
approaching Guadalupe Mountains National Park
from highway US 62, which goes through the salt lake.]

In the wake of the El Paso Salt War, several people on both sides of the conflict had been killed, some horribly (Judge Howard was murdered, and his body mutilated and thrown down a well), the town of San Elizario sacked, several reputations ruined-- some fairly and others unfairly, as Cool argues-- and a wedge of suspicion and resentment driven between communities that is still, more than a century later, not entirely healed. 

Paul Cool is a former Army Reserve officer and resident of Arizona with an avid interest in the US-Mexico borderlands. He kindly agreed to answer my questions via email. 

C.M. Mayo: When and why did you develop your avid interest in the US-Mexico border?

Paul Cool: It came late in life, but traces back to growing up in Southern California and marrying a young lady whose paternal grandparents came to El Paso during the Mexican Revolution. Unfortunately, I spent nearly two decades trying to write a book about the French Revolutionary/Napoleonic era, and only recently turned to the borderlands for material.

C.M. Mayo: What prompted your interest in the Salt War?

Paul Cool: I have always been drawn to historical eras marked by the collapse or relative absence of order, justice, and social restraint, periods when ambitious or unscrupulous individuals are more able to give free rein to their personal desires and vices at the expense of the larger community. The late Roman Republic. Revolutionary France. The frontier West.  

In 1999, I drove from Seattle to Baltimore via El Paso, where I happened to purchase Walter Prescott Webb’s history of the Texas Rangers. His book contains a chapter on the Salt War. It was obvious there was an interesting story here, but it was buried beneath the ethnic bigotry running through Webb’s take. I then read C. L. Sonnichsen’s little book on the Salt War. The writing was vivid, and his account grabbed me in a way Webb’s had not. I felt closer to what happened, but the characters were still archetypes and stereotypes.

C.M. Mayo: Outside the region this conflict is almost unknown. Why do you think this is? 

Paul Cool: Several reasons. The Spanish-speaking losers in the conflict disappeared into Mexico, and were in no position to write the history. As for the Anglos, many of the protagonists died, and they were soon replaced as by others who came to El Paso with the railroad, lacking any concern for the past. The story was buried because it was about a world that no longer existed, and no one cared about. 

Second, the story did survive as a chapter in Texas Ranger history, but since the Rangers surrendered to an enemy repeatedly characterized as a “howling mob,” Texans generally considered the Ranger performance a thing of shame and no one made any effort to expand our knowledge of the episode for that reason.

Third, from the perspective of Anglo sources, no iconic Anglo figure arose to grab our attention and turn the story into the stuff of legend north of the border. I think the 1916-1918 Arab Revolt illustrates what can happen with a hero. Think of Lawrence of Arabia’s impact on Western understanding of the Arab Revolt. Without Lawrence, no newspaper coverage by Lowell Thomas, no Seven Pillars of Wisdom, no David Lean film, no Omar Sharif as Ali or Zhivago! Lawrence's story, and all that followed, is a misreading, to be sure, but corrective history is now available. It is possible that Mexican sources will reveal the existence of a hero, possibly Barela, possibly someone who we don’t yet know, and the information needed to provide the foundation of a heroic narrative. The romantic in me hopes that further research uncovers such a figure who can raise awareness of this popular yet tragic rebellion, south of the border first, then migrating up here.

Latino historians are and have long been aware of the Salt War and its place in Mexican American history. When I asked Dr. Arnoldo De Leon, a preeminent authority on Tejano history, why Latino scholars had never tackled the subject, he explained that they are playing catch-up, that there are so many stories still in need of telling, so many that continue to wait their chance.

C.M. Mayo: Of the results of the war, you write (p. 4) "In the long term, the distrust and marginalization of Paseño citizens by Anglos was deepened." Your book does an excellent job of showing why this was but at the same time, you show that the insurgency was not "a bloody riot by a howling mob but in reality a complex political, social, and military struggle." After your book came out, did your argument meet any notable resistance?

Paul Cool: The academic community has generally applauded the appearance of Salt Warriors, although some reservations about my approach have been expressed. For example, one reviewer justly criticized the book for its reliance on north-of-the-border sources, to the exclusion of any archival material inside Mexico. I do not speak or read Spanish, and did not have the resources to hire others to dig through material that might or might not tell the story I wanted to tell. I had a choice: I could leave the story untold because I could not do a so-called “definitive” version (which is always elusive anyway), or I could tell this story to the best of my ability and hope that others would follow up to provide new perspectives. 

One other criticism I will mention is that I gave my opinion of the key participants, of their individual responsibility for the chaos and destruction that took place, and even of their moral failings. Some said that is not the historian’s job. It is best to just state the facts and let the reader decide. That may be true, but in this case, I felt that the story of the Salt War had been so repeatedly twisted over time that a clear statement of who was responsible was in order. One can never really know the hearts and minds of people who died more than a century before, but I feel confident in my opinion of who was most responsible for the tragedy.

C.M. Mayo: What lessons does the Salt War offer us today? I am thinking of some of the dynamics we see played out with other insurgencies and their repression, and the dynamics that ensure. On p. 235 you write "'Throughout history,' today's U.S. Army and Marine Corps officers learn, many defeated insurgent movements 'have degenerated into criminality.'" My understanding is that this would apply both to some of the defeated Mexican-American and allied Mexican insurgents, as well as to many ex-Confederates who were then coming into the Southwest and taking up careers as rustlers, and bank and train robbers.

Paul Cool: Any population is always going to include “hustling individualists” who are most interested in getting what they want, whether it is inordinate power or wealth at the expense of the larger population, or the satisfaction of some baser need, including taking something from someone else in a violent or disturbing manner. 

The question is, does the presence of an equally applied law and a just order prevent or at least put a damper on that? 

In the first instance, one group, whether it's Gilded Age entrepreneurs and their political allies, or their 21st century heirs on Wall Street and in government, uses “law” to corral wealth and power at the expense of the general population. 

In the second, violent criminals trade on the lack of “order” to achieve much the same ends, perhaps more bloodily, but not necessarily on a smaller scale. 

What transpired in post-Salt War El Paso, in terms of increases in criminal activity by gangs and individuals, was probably not much different in nature than what happens any place the authority structure collapses, whether in Iraq, Revolutionary France between Louis XVI and Napoleon, or the Soviet Union after Gorbachev. 

But something additional happened in El Paso, new to the American West but not uncommon in world history. There, the sheriff hired mercenaries to enforce order against perceived enemies, in this case the Mexican American population. Those mercenaries included career criminals led by John Kinney. What happened in El Paso became, for a few years, the way sheriffs did business in the American borderlands, and was repeated during the Lincoln County War (again with Kinney leading a band of criminals) and in Cochise County, Arizona during the final stage of the so-called Earp-Cowboy troubles. 

C.M. Mayo: You were a former Army Reserve officer. How did this inform and color how you saw some of the individuals in this story?

Paul Cool: The event had largely been treated as an ugly civil disturbance requiring military policing. I decided to approach it as a “war” brought on by clashing cultures, economic drivers, and untrammeled ambition. 

My own military career was slender, but my first thirty years were spent as the son of a decorated combat hero and, as a Reserve officer, in close association with officers and men who also met that definition. The military is made up of people from the general population. Soldiers, sailors, and airmen are, in that sense, much like the rest of us. But in addition to military knowledge, i.e., how to fight and win, the military honestly attempts to inculcate certain ideal qualities, including honor, integrity, reliability. People, whether the population you’re sworn to protect or your buddy in the next foxhole, suffer and die unnecessarily when these qualities are forgotten or ignored. The military I knew does try to adhere to them.  

There is, of course, so much more to the military ethos, but I mention these factors because they influenced the course of the Salt War. There were army officers, such as Lieutenant Rucker and Colonel Hatch, who attempted to use their influence and authority to prevent violence and to quickly, peacefully put a lid on it. But it just so happened that, at the critical point, the officer on the scene, Captain Thomas Blair, possessed probably less integrity than any other officer in the U.S. Army. He was a smooth charmer, and no one realized his lack of character. Had Rucker not been replaced by Blair, or had Blair possessed ordinary integrity, it seems to me likely that some of the violence might have been short-circuited. Who knows? It was only later, through Blair’s bigamy, that the value of his word was revealed to all.

The military also attempts to instill discipline, to convince young soldiers to follow the rules, something that goes against the grain for many, from teenagers to independent-minded middle-age men. Discipline enables a unit to carry out its missions and prevents the naked exercise of power in service to personal wants. The Salt War illustrates the importance of discipline and leadership. We read that the various companies of the Ninth Cavalry occupying the Mexicano towns carried out their pacifying mission without any complaints, whereas soldiers from the company of the Tenth Cavalry engaged in a variety of violent personal and property crimes. The difference was the discipline instilled by the leaders of the Ninth Cavalry, but not the Tenth, both prior to and during the military action. 

C.M. Mayo: A modern recounting of the Salt Wars usually makes Judge Charles H. Howard into a simple character, an arrogant, stubborn and greedy villain, the outsider who swiped the community's salt and then, even to the point of endangering both himself and others, insisted on pressing his client's claim. One of the things I appreciated about your book is that you explained in more depth some of Howard's probable motivations and, in particular, the mid-19th century Virginian concepts of honor to which he would have ascribed. The fact that he was bereaved after the death of his wife and deeply indebted to his father-in-law, the purported owner of the salt lakes, was another crucial factor you point out. 

It seems to me that you have made a powerful effort to objectively present the different points of view in the conflict. Was this something that came easily or did it take a while? 

Were there any individuals whose motivations were particularly obscure to you, or even now remain so?

Paul Cool: While I don’t subscribe to the “great man” theory of history, I do believe that individuals make a difference, whether it’s Jean-Paul Marat steering the French Revolution along a more violent course or young Charlotte Corday who feels bound to save France from Marat. I believe that the Salt War was filled with such characters, whose personalities and behaviors were instrumental in leading the county into a downward spiral. That was not fully evident from the published record, because Salt War history was for decades largely a matter of historians regurgitating the same tale: largely nameless, faceless, hapless Texas Rangers surrender to a Mexican mob led by the evil Chico Barela. Nothing worth investigating further. But once I dug into sources not previously used, such as the federal government’s records, or personal correspondence that popped up in newspapers or located in the governor’s records, a different story emerged. At some point, for some reason, I decided to investigate the lives of key players before and after the Salt War. And that’s where I found the keys to their actions in 1877, most notably in the cases of Blair and Kerber.

Howard is a figure out of Greek tragedy. He wore his arrogance on his sleeve, but arrogance is a trait, not a motive. What was his motive? What impelled him to send a county over a cliff? It had to be something deep and personal. Howard himself spoke and wrote of his debasement by the Paseños, of his overriding debt to his father in law, of his depression after the loss of his wife. Losing his honor, he wanted only to regain it, and it did not matter who he harmed in the process. He was raised in a society that educated him to believe that personal honor trumped all.  I don’t believe that he saw that he had any choice. He could only act as he did. 

That realization took me some time to reach, and it came by happenstance. I caught an interview with Dr. Joanne Freeman, who wrote a book on the highly ritualized duels in the early Republic. (Think Hamilton and Burr.) She stated that, as the 19th century progressed, the formalities fell away, and those who felt their honor attacked were far more likely to just start shooting and caning one another. I thought she was describing Howard feeling empowered to beat or kill Cardis on sight. That led me to some readings on ante-bellum notions of honor and shame, and to discussions with Dr. Gary L. Roberts, who has written about codes of honor in the South and West.

I am afraid that, despite the best efforts of New Mexico historian, Dr. Rick Hendricks, I never quite got a handle on Father Antonio Severo Borrajo, the man most demonized by contemporary Anglo sources. Toward the end of my work, I did add a paragraph that attempted to make sense of Father Borrajo, based on Dr. Hendrick’s guidance, but then in the final flurry of chopping and editing the manuscript, the passage got deleted from one spot and not replaced in another. I didn’t notice until the book was published. I tell myself that these things happen, but it’s a mistake I’d rather sweep under the rug. I’d love to revise Salt Warriors after Dr. Hendricks publishes his Borrajo biography. I think that would fill a large gap in the story I’ve told.

The Paseños were a tough nut to crack. They did not write the histories, their thoughts are largely absent from the written record, and the victors universally denigrated their motives and characters. I got past that in two ways. First, I decided to make the Paseño community a character.  Who were these people at the Pass of the North? Faced with a century-long relative isolation from Spanish, Mexican, and American authorities and support systems, what kind of community did they establish and build? How did it function? What did that maintenance and development of a community say about its leadership? Guesswork on my part was necessary, but traits did present themselves and a portrait I trust did emerge. 

Second, in the case of the Paseno’s leaders, I was able to draw conclusions about their leadership skills based on their military actions, which were quite elaborate. One thing that the evidence revealed is that the Paseños had a long history of self-defense, whether against Apache raiders or the demoralized Confederates who retreated from New Mexico. It was obvious that the Paseño community had a core of leaders they turned to, men who had previously considered how best to respond to threats, and had put their lives on the line to lead those efforts. I had no direct evidence enabling me to get inside the minds of Chico Barela (or “Varela”), Sisto Salcido, or other leaders, but the reports of what actions they took was very revealing. For example, the traditional Anglo account is that Barela was a man not given to keeping his word. A different reading is that he was a master of using deception to misdirect his enemy’s attentions and actions. He could spot an opponent of weak resolve and then guide his actions by telling that opponent what he wanted to hear. He played his opponents no less than Napoleon, Robert E. Lee, or Rommel. That’s something you do in war, if you can. Ultimately, Barela and his little army bit off more than they could chew, but they conducted a skillful military operation that achieved short-term results no one among the Anglos expected.

C.M. Mayo: About Father Antonio Severo Borrajo, who as you say was "most demonized by contemporary Anglo sources," would you like to share the lost paragraph?

Paul Cool: Unfortunately, whatever paragraph I had on Borrajo was in some unknown spot in some unknown draft that never got indexed. However, whatever I put in was influenced by this 2002 corrective view by Dr. Hendricks, who, since 2010, has been New Mexico's State Historian. I do think Borrajo's intolerance of the Protestants and the French-based Catholic teachings of the then current parish priest, Father Pierre Bourgade (later archbishop of Tucson), helped to keep the population stirred up, even if he was not the greedy demon falsely portrayed by his enemies. Unfortunately, Borrajo's appearances during 1877, the climax of the crisis, are few and references to him at that point are probably less reliable than usual. 

C.M. Mayo: Louis Cardis, the Italian-born businessman and stagecoach owner is a most intriguing character. Was it possible to find out more about his origins other than that he was from Piedmont and might have served as a captain in Giuseppe Garibaldi's army? 

Paul Cool: There was more about his life story and others that just had to come out to get the book down to size. Anything I found that explains his actions did stay in the book. He is another character who, where the written record is concerned, is largely seen through the eyes of others. I detect no bigotry toward his constituents, none, but he did not do all he could to protect them from the power structure that was moving to seize their grandfathered rights in the salt lakes. For example, he signed his name to the 1876 Texas Constitution that enabled private citizens to own saline deposits, but never after, as far as I can tell, spurred his constituents to take legal action to forestall Anglo ownership. 

C.M. Mayo: As you proceeded with your research, what most surprised you?

Paul Cool: This project started as a planned 2-3 chapters in another book. I was surprised by the complexity and the epic sweep of the story, and by the characters who could leap off the page in the hands of writers much better than me. (If there were a viable market, this story deserves a ten-hour TV miniseries starring Russell Crowe and Edward James Olmos, among others.) If I could have made Salt Warriors twice as long, I would have. Pity the poor reader had I owned my own publishing house. 

C.M. Mayo: You were able to talk to several of the descendants on both sides of the conflict. Were you surprised by how they saw it?

Paul Cool: The families that remain in San Elizario knew they had reason to be proud of their ancestors, but over the years, exposed only to increasingly vague oral tradition and the Anglo-centric writings of later historians, they had largely lost the details of what really happened. In some cases, I had to reject the tradition, but in other instances, I thought tradition held up and explained what the records obscured. It was the first time I had to make sense of oral tradition, to treat it as evidence that deserved to be weighed rather than ignored.

On an early visit to San Elizario, a leader of the local historical and genealogical society showed me where tradition said certain key events happened. My research often showed otherwise, and a few years later I was happy to return the favor, incorporating the written evidence. We still had doubts about this and that event and had a great time trying to make sense of the surviving evidence, including tradition.

C.M. Mayo: In reading about the organized crime in El Paso in the wake of the Salt War-- in particular of cattle rustler John Kinney and his alliance with Sheriff Kerber-- it's tempting to make modern day comparisons with modern day drug trafficking, etc. Would you? Or was it something very different?

Paul Cool: Well, it was much, much, less organized, and the crimes much more impromptu than we see with modern drug traffickers. My subsequent research has led me to believe that a better analogy would be the Bahamian pirates of the early 18th century, those who established a base of operations on Nassau temporarily free of British authority. (El Paso had a government, but totally ineffective keeping order.) There were criminal leaders (Blackbeard, for example), but individual pirates were more or less free to sign on to this piratical raid or that. They had to strictly follow orders during any voyage—at sea, everyone’s life depends on it—but otherwise were independent contractors who, between “jobs,” had no duty to follow anyone.  Likewise, men might follow Kinney or not. That they raided with Kinney today did not prevent them from riding off to commit their own crimes tomorrow, or just sit around playing cards and drinking rot-gut till they went broke.

C.M. Mayo: One of the most astonishing things to me about the entire episode is that nearing the end of the book (p.280) we learn that the government never granted Zimpleman ownership of the salt lakes! So what happened after that? Who took possession of them? Who owns them now?

Paul Cool: I too was astonished by that. I did learn that some business did extract salt into the 20th century, but more than that could not tell you. I simply had to move on.

C.M. Mayo: Anyone who drives east out of El Paso en route to Carlsbad NM passes right through the salt lakes. But to really see them, what is the best place to view them? 

Paul Cool: If one is simply traveling east or west, on the way to or from El Paso, one can get a good view at several points along Highway 62/180.  My book’s cover painting, by artist Bob Boze Bell, is based on a photograph (found inside on the page facing the Introduction) that I took from this highway. A more immersive experience can be gained at the Gypsum Salt Dunes inside Guadalupe Mountains National Park. The lakes stretch for 100 miles, so I imagine there are any number of good sites for viewing.

C.M. Mayo: One of the stops on one of the routes from the Rio Grande out to the salt lakes is Hueco Tanks, an oasis with some important rock art that is now a State Park and Historic Site. For anyone interested in the history of the Salt War, is there any place there that would be especially relevant to see?

Paul Cool: Among the signatures carved into the rocks of Hueco Tanks is that of Santiago Cooper, one of the Texas Rangers who survived the siege and battle of San Elizario. 

A walking tour of San Elizario is essential. Many of the buildings date from 1877 and before. With the benefit of the bird’s eye view painting in my book, it is possible to follow the course of the actual fighting, as well as place other events that took place in town. A walking tour guide is also available at the museum, giving historic and architectural details on surviving structures.  

In the city of El Paso, a very few buildings survive, most notably the Magoffin House. One should also visit nearby Mesilla, New Mexico, near Las Cruces, where A. J. Fountain published the newspaper that gave the fullest, if one-sided, reporting of the events inside El Paso County. The town square dates from before the salt war.

C.M. Mayo: Anything else you think I should have asked?

Paul Cool: There was one other sound criticism of my book that deserves comment. In part because I did not use Mexican sources, I did not link the Paseños to Mexican national thinking and traditions regarding liberty, property, justice, and the right to rise in defense of one’s rights. Instead, I quite clearly linked them to traditions of New England’s minute men and the adoption of the U.S. Constitution. 
I did that for two reasons. First, I know more about U.S. traditions, and can stand on more solid ground. Second, I intentionally attempted to make a point to an American audience.  The political philosophy driving the Paseños was of a universal nature but could be and was expressed at the time by them (page 141) in terms that New Englanders of 1775, Continental Congress delegates of 1789, and the Anglos who moved to El Paso could understand, had their minds been open. However much the Paseños acted within the traditions of the long Mexican quest for justice within the law, they certainly acted within the U.S. tradition.

> Visit Paul Cool's website here.

> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

UPDATES: Paul Cool passed away suddenly a few months after this interview was posted. See Mark Boardman's "The Coolest Guy in the Room, Paul Cool 1950-2016" in True West magazine, October 5, 2016.
For more about the area, see also Joe Holley's article, which mentions Paul Cool's work, "Danger Lurks in Salt Flats, As It Did A Century Ago," Houston Chronicle, August 26, 2016.

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A note about the Marfa Mondays Podcasting Project: Exploring Marfa, Texas & Environs in 24 Podcasts. Twenty podcasts have been posted, most recently, an interview with Raymond Caballero about Mexican revolutionary General Pascual Orozco and Far West Texas. The remaining four have been scheduled. Stay tuned for podcast #21, which will be about the Seminole Negro Indian Scouts; 22, about Sanderson; 23 about María de Agreda; and the final podcast, #24, back to Marfa.