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This Week in Texas History: Salt worth dying for in El Paso

By Bartee Haile

Fearing for their lives after the murder of the Mexican political boss, the Anglo residents of El Paso sent for the commander of the Texas Rangers Frontier Battalion on Oct. 24, 1877.

At first glance the killing of Luis Cardis looked like nothing more than the violent climax of a particularly nasty personal feud.  But in reality the trouble in El Paso was all about salt.

Massive formations of the natural resource were located near Guadalupe Peak 100 miles east of Texas’ westernmost town.  Under Spanish rule private ownership was forbidden making the highly coveted commodity free for the taking.

Generations of poor Mexicans eked out a modest living hauling salt to El Paso and into the interior of Mexico.  Following Texas independence and annexation by the United States, the practice persisted in open defiance of a new law which declared that the salt was no longer public property.

Anglo arrivals did not learn of the existence of the salt until 1862, but the Civil War made private exploitation impossible.  On the heels of the Confederate collapse, Radical Republicans took over in El Paso and elsewhere throughout Reconstruction Texas.  They formed the secret Salt Ring in 1868 for the purpose of reaping enormous profits, but dissension in their ranks and fear of the Mexican reaction postponed seizure of the Guadalupe deposits.

By 1872 the Republican machine was in shambles, wrecked by internal strife and the anti-Reconstruction backlash sweeping the state.  Lawyer Charles Howard showed up that year in El Paso and in a matter of months became district attorney thanks to election rigging by Luis Cardis, an Italian whose dictatorial power was based on absolute control of the Mexican vote.

In the beginning, their alliance functioned smoothly and Cardis rewarded his obedient servant with an important judgeship.  But the relationship soon soured, and Howard was badly beaten two years later in a bid for reelection when the Mexican bloc vote went to his challenger.

Infuriated by the betrayal, Howard swore to take his former benefactor’s life.  But the refined attorney found he did not have the stomach for cold-blooded murder and twice let Cardis live after beating him to a bloody pulp.  He worked up the nerve in June 1877 to pull a pistol on his mortal enemy at the Fort Quitman stage station but could not bring himself to squeeze the trigger.

Meanwhile, Howard did what no one else had ever dared by acquiring legal title to the unclaimed salt.  He was quickly confronted by enraged Mexicans, who forced him to sign a document relinquishing his right to their livelihood and promising his departure within 24 hours.

Howard, however, had other plans.  Instead of heeding the threats and leaving town, he tracked down Cardis in one of his favorite haunts, the local dry goods store.  Whether the political chief was actually armed caused countless arguments for more than a century, but what happened next is no mystery.  Howard killed Cardis with twin blasts from a double-barreled shotgun.

In the aftermath of the sensational slaying, the panic-stricken Anglo minority summoned Texas Ranger Capt. John B. Jones.  The famed commander of the Frontier Battalion reached the volatile powder keg on Nov. 7 after spending three bone-jarring weeks on a stagecoach that went by way of Topeka, Kansas.

Ten days later, a sympathetic justice of the peace released Howard on bail.  The sight of the Anglo assassin on the streets of El Paso incensed Mexicans on both sides of the border.

Capt. Jones, whose services were always in demand, hurriedly organized a local Ranger company under the command of John B. Tays and handed him a second lieutenant’s commission.  Jones then returned to Austin leaving the raw recruit with a vague order to keep the peace.

Lt. Tays, his untrained men and Charles Howard were surrounded in December by a bloodthirsty mob.  After a siege of several days, Tays gave up and his entire company was taken captive, the only group of Texas Rangers ever to surrender.

A hastily assembled firing squad shot helpless Howard and mutilated his body with machetes.  Two other Anglos suffered the same grisly fate before the rabble’s appetite for vengeance was satisfied.

Six suspected members of the mob were eventually indicted for the three killings.  In spite of hefty rewards for their apprehension, none were ever arrested or brought to trial.

In an ironic postscript to the El Paso Salt War, the cause of the ruckus ended up in private hands.  The haulers were soon out of business, and salt had to be bought over the counter like everything else.

“Murder Most Texan” is a must read for fans of true crime and Texas history. Order your copy for $24.00 by mailing a check to Bartee Haile, P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77393.

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