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The city of El Paso has a rich history like other cities in Texas. From humble beginnings as a small Spanish settlement during their conquest of the New World to a bustling city literally right on the border between the United States and Mexico. El Paso has experienced much in its history. But that history hasn’t always been peaceful in the city’s existence. By examining the various conflicts that have taken place around El Paso and the role it has had in American history throughout it’s lifetime we can appreciate the history of this great city and the role it’s played in the 500 years of its existence.
In 1598, the expedition of Don Juan de O?ate was the first European expedition to enter North American soil. After leading his men through a mountain pass, he later named “El Paso del Norte”. As time passed a small settlement slowly developed as more and more Spanish settlers moved into Texas over the years and it wasn’t until the year 1680 that “El Paso” would first feel an effect of war.
The Pueblo tribe had long been chafing under the rule of the Spanish and rejected Catholicism that the priests had tried to convert them to in the various missions that had been established. Over the course of the revolt about 400 settlers had been killed as well as 21 priests. As the Pueblos continued their raids many frightened settlers fled to El Paso swelling its population by 2000 people until they could settle elsewhere.
After the revolt, the Texas region became relatively stable again and for many years the region knew peace even during the Mexican Revolution. However, the Spanish never seriously developed El Paso and instead focused on El Paseo Del Norte which we know in the modern day as Ciudad Juarez. In 1804, settlers from the United States began moving into Texas as they had crossed the new territory and began marrying into many prominent Mexican families. It is important to note that El Paso was a vital town as it was a stop on the Camino Real which lay on the Santa Fe trail and thus a trade hub for travelers. El Paso was fortunate to be spared from the fighting of the Texas revolution since it was never originally considered to be part of Texas but rather part of New Mexico. It wasn’t until 1848, after the conclusion of the Mexican-American war that El Paso was brought into Texas. As before with the Texas Revolution El Paso was again spared from seeing any conflict yet there was one battle named the Battle of El Brazito in which several hundred El Paso militiamen participated in that occurred fairly close. In October 1846, Colonel Alexander W. Doniphan of the First Regiment Mounted Missouri Volunteers was ordered by United States Army General Stephen W. Kearney to rendezvous with General John E. Wool inside Mexico at the city of Chihuahua. After two months of marching and en route to Chihuahua, Doniphan’s regiment was attacked by a Mexican army about thirty miles from El Paso del Norte, about 9 miles south of Las Cruces, New Mexico, at Brazito on the Rio Grande. Since it was Christmas, Doniphan did not expect to see any fighting and had halted his men’s march at 1 PM that day.
However, they spotted the dust cloud of a Mexican scouting party to the south and Colonel Doniphan promptly ordered his men to prepare for battle. Doniphan carried the day without loosing a single man. Unfortunately, not long after the conclusion of the Mexican War, due to the high cost of maintaining troops along the Mexican border the Army decided to relocate troops. Troops stationed at Fort Bliss moved 40 miles away from El Paso into a new fort named Ft. Fillmore which would remain garrisoned until it’s abandonment during the Civil War. Not long after the area was frequently raided by Indians with impunity as American troops were too far away to respond to calls for aid.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Texas joined the side of the Confederate States of America. Texas while not a major theater in the war, did see some fighting. In El Paso Confederate forces occupied Ft. Bliss until Union forces from the state of California invaded Texas after defeating Confederate attempts to attack the states of Arizona and New Mexico. The Union then reoccupied El Paso and Ft. Bliss until 1864.
Life for El Pasoans was not much affected by the war as it was for other citizens of Confederate states. Texas itself was affected by the Union “Anaconda Plan” which was a blockade of the southern states by the Union Navy which would slowly cut off the Confederacy from supplies from Europe. El Pasoans were sympathetic to the southern cause and one of the prominent families in town at the time took active roles in the southern cause besides hosting fundraisers and charity events for the war. James Wiley Magoffin was a businessman who took over the post of Ft. Bliss (pictured below) after federal troops withdrew in 1861. As was befitting his rank of Brigadier General he was also given the task of enlisting men in a state militia that was called into action by Lt. Col. John Baylor.
His company J.W. also supplied the Confederate army and his sons Samuel and Joseph also enlisted. Unfortunately, Samuel Magoffin would die in the bayous of Louisiana killed by a Union patrol. After the war Joseph Magoffin would continue to help El Paso grow by co-founding several businesses such as the State National Bank and served in various positions in the city government. The aftermath of the war saw El Paso’s population grow by a substantial amount.
With the arrival of the Southern Pacific, Texas and Pacific and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroads in 1881, the population boomed to 10,000 by the 1890 census, with many Anglo-Americans, recent immigrants, old Hispanic settlers, and recent arrivals from Mexico. The location of El Paso as well as the arrival of wild newcomers caused the city to become a violent and wild boomtown known as the “Six Shooter Capital” because of its lawlessness. During this period of growth, the border seemed non-existent at least in West Texas. Numerous residents of El Paso and the city of Juarez were able to cross back and forth as easily as crossing a street. One resident of El Paso Mike Romo, described the level of border security. “Coming from Juarez across the Stanton Bridge they never asked you for any identification. In fact, there was but one man
and he was half asleep. You could bring in whatever you wanted, and nobody said anything at all”.
When the Mexican Revolution kicked off in 1910, the population of El Paso was around 39,279. The town was growing as evidenced by the census done in 1890, where it was recorded that the population was a little more than 10,000. 1910, was an eventful as the Mexican Revolution was beginning to kick off. While El Paso itself was not necessarily threatened during this time many leaders on the side of the revolution used El Paso as a base of operations and a battle did take part in Juarez very close to the city. The battle was treated as a fascinating entertainment event by locals and many flocked to rooftops to see the action heedless to the danger of being struck by a piece of shrapnel or a stray bullet and the more business savvy types charged a dollar for a seat.
After a couple of days victory was claimed by the revolutionaries and life returned to normal for a little while. Ultimately, the violence of the Mexican Revolution followed with the large Mexican diaspora which had fled into El Paso. In 1915 and again in 1916 and 1917 various Mexican revolutionary societies planned, staged, and launched violent attacks against both Texans and their political Mexican opponents in El Paso. This state of affairs eventually led to the vast Plan de San Diego which resulted in the murder of 21 white citizens. The subsequent reprisals by local militia soon caused an escalation of violence, wherein it is estimated that approximately 300 Mexicans and Mexican-Americans lost their lives.
These actions affected almost every resident of the entire lower Rio Grande Valley, resulting in millions of dollars of losses. Concerning the border and its existence as a practically non-existent “barrier” change was coming. Before the onset of World War One the United States of America stationed troops across a chain of forts in various regions of Texas and Colorado. Fort Bliss served as a strategic position due to its proximity to the Mexican border. Throughout the revolution soldiers from the fort would periodically transport deserting Mexican soldiers back across the border.
American soldiers’ main objective was to prevent the flow of weapons from the United States into Mexico since the revolution garnered the support of many Hispanics in the South-Western United States. As the revolution progressed fighting would occasionally spill over into Texas which required swift action by U.S troops in order to deal with wounded Mexican troops and refugees. It was also used as a staging area for General John Pershing’s punitive expedition to hunt down Pancho Villa.
When America entered World War One, El Pasoans answered the call along with many other young men of the nation. Jos? Manuel “Manny” Escajeda (Pictured below) served in France during WWI. A 1915 graduate of El Paso High School, Escajeda attended the University of Texas at Austin and later transferred to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville in 1917. He enlisted in the French army on May 29, 1917. While working as an ambulance driver in France, Escajeda’s vehicle experienced a direct hit from a mortar shell. Despite the attack, Escajeda remained on the battlefield to help save wounded French soldiers.
On October 27, 1918 France awarded him the Croix de Guerre, France’s highest honor for bravery. He later became El Paso National Bank’s vice president for affairs related to Mexico and South America and served as president of the El Paso Officers Association. Another fine El Pasoan who served was Elliot Chess. Chess was a decorated military pilot. He left El Paso High School and joined the Royal Flying Corps in Canada; he went overseas to fight in WWI at age 18. During the Polish-Soviet War (1919 – 1921), he flew for the Polish air force as part of the Ko?ciusko squadron. For his bravery, Chess received Poland’s highest military honor, the Virtuti Militari. After the Polish-Soviet War, he worked for the El Paso Times as an ad manager and was also a miner, reporter, editor, professional wrestler, playwright, and author.
By 1920, along with the U.S. Army troops, the population exceeded 100,000 and whites were in the clear majority. Nonetheless, the city increased the segregation between Mexicans and Mexican-Americans with Americans. In reply, the Catholic Church attempted to garner the Mexican-American community’s allegiance through education and political and civic involvement organizations, including the National Catholic Welfare Fund. In 1916, the Census Bureau reported El Paso’s population as 53% Mexican and 44% white. The 1920s and early 1930s would prove to be a particularly violent period in El Paso’s history.
During World War One the city’s legal saloons were shuttered by wartime liquor policies and remained so in the months that followed the Armistice with the passage of the Dean Act, a statewide prohibition law that would remain in effect until 1935. However, given the city’s proximity to Juarez, where nightclubs, dance halls and gambling dens flourished in the 1920s and where alcohol remained legal, El Paso would become a major hub in the illicit liquor trade during both state and nationwide prohibition. Between 1920 and 1933, there were perhaps hundreds of shootouts between area lawmen and smugglers in and around El Paso resulting in the deaths of numerous local and federal officers and countless bootleggers. Simultaneously, the narcotics trade along the Rio Grande also flourished, setting the stage for the drug wars that would plague the region in the decades to come.
In the decade that followed, El Paso experienced another period of rapid growth. By 1930, the population had reached over 100,000 people. Yet while it did experience growth the border city would be hit hard by the troubles of the Great Depression. Like so many unfortunate people throughout the nation many El Pasoans would struggle to find work. However, the military demobilization, and an agricultural economic depression which hit places like El Paso first before the larger Great Depression was felt in the big cities, hit the city hard.
In turn, as in the rest of the United States, the Depression era, caused many people to relocate and El Paso’s population declined through the end of World War II with most of population losses coming from the white community. Due to this period of high unemployment the rate of crime in the city rose. Many moved away, seeking opportunity elsewhere in the West, particularly in Tucson and Phoenix, which boomed in the 1940s thanks to the defense industries established there. El Paso experienced an influx of Mexicans and Mexican Americans expelled from other parts of the country between 1931 and 1934, when some 400,000 were forcibly “repatriated.” The Civilian Conservation Corps as well as the Work Projects Administration aided many of the unemployed, who were hired to do work on public buildings and building roads and infrastructure, such as Scenic Drive. Another important project of the period was the privately funded Cristo Rey shrine and road project.
In 1939, when the Second World War broke out, Texans sacrificed whatever was necessary to support their countrymen overseas. Rationing became a way of life-stamp books for meat, sugar, coffee, shoes, rubber, auto parts, and eventually gas became a necessity. At increasingly frequent intervals communities like El Paso and other cities held scrap-iron drives; adults bought war bonds; school children had time allotted during class periods to buy, then paste, savings stamps in bond books; and many a family, as in World War I, planted “victory gardens” to conserve food for the war effort. During these years Texans thrived; the Great Depression became only a memory.
As with the last world war, many El Pasoans once again enlisted in the U.S. Army. Between 250,000 and 500,000 Hispanic Americans served in the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II, out of a total of 12,000,000, constituting 2.3% to 4.7% of the U.S. Armed Forces. Many women also rolled up their sleeves and contributed to the war effort. Hundreds of Hispanic women joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, serving as nurses and in administrative positions. Many worked in traditionally male labor jobs in the manufacturing plants that produced munitions and materiel, replacing men who were away at war.
One Texas National Guard unit would see extensive action and would participate in one of the bloodiest battles of the war. Colonel P.A. Wetherred, chief of staff of the 36th Infantry Division, and Colonel Will Jackson, commander of the 141st Infantry Regiment, announced that a new infantry company of the Texas National Guard was to be specifically formed in El Paso. The task was given to Major Hugh F. Shannon to create this company which many members of the state government believed could not be done. Shannon did indeed meet the required quota well before the deadline that had been given to him and on November 21, 1923, the Texas state and federal government formally accepted Company E as part of the 141st Infantry Regiment of the Texas National Guard’s 36th Division.
After some delays in mobilizing the unit for training the men of company E left El Paso for Camp Bowie in Central Texas. Company E was designated as a “Rifle Company” and numbered around 160 men in total. Not long after their arrival the men of Company E were given a new company commander, Captain John L. Chapin (Pictured Below). Born and raised in El Paso and fluent in Spanish Chapin, a graduate of Texas A&M underwent officer training and choose to be an infantry officer and was assigned to Company E due to his being from the hometown of the men under his command the interaction between the men would be smooth and easy.
After completing basic training, the 36th division was shipped overseas to participate in the closing stages of the North African campaign. After landing in Algeria, the Company underwent more training and conducted numerous patrols but did not see any combat in its time in North Africa. By this point in the war the Germans were falling back to the island of Sicily as well as mainland Italy in order to prepare for the eventual invasion by the Allied forces. After the short and successful invasion of Sicily it was finally time for the men of Company E prove their fighting worth. The 36th division was scheduled to land on the beaches of Salerno as part of “Operation Avalanche”.
This essentially was an invasion of Italy through the southern half starting at the tip of the “boot.” On September 9, 1943, the 36th Division began the invasion of mainland Italy and the men of E Company were some of the first to hit Italian soil. Upon landing the men were met by German artillery that was “churning the sand” as they ran for cover. Forty-five minutes later, Company E had fought and pushed their way 300 yards inland from the beach. However, despite all the intelligence gathered before the start of the invasion American troops received a deadly surprise when German tanks began firing at them on the beach.
Without the help of tanks and artillery of their own, the men of Company E had no choice but to fight off the tank attack any way they could. If the Germans reached the landing zones, it would threaten the success of the invasion and cut off any soldiers that were further inland. Several members of Company E took aggressive initiative to help repel the attack by enemy tanks. One of these men was Sergeant Enrique Ochotorena, a native of El Paso who had joined Company E before it was activated for combat duty. Although Ochotorena and his platoon were initially further behind the rest of the company, he quickly moved to engage three of the tanks, the closest being only fifty yards away.
Armed only with a submachine gun Ochotorena saw a soldier that was armed with a bazooka. Ochotorena, therefore, grabbed the bazooka and began firing on the tank. The tank backed up a few yards in reverse before becoming completely immobilized from the bazooka rounds. With nowhere to go the German tank crew jumped out and surrendered. In another section of the beach, Sgt. Jesus M. Lucio had also helped repel the German attack by using his rifle, which also served as a grenade launcher, to fire on the enemy tanks. With no concern for his own well-being, Lucio ran over open ground to gain a better position to attack the tanks. In the end, Lucio?s efforts, combined with those of the rest of the company, forced the tanks to retreat. Lucio?s Silver Star citation stated that his “great initiative and aggressiveness throughout the action contributed largely towards causing the enemy tanks to withdraw, preventing a breakthrough in the company’s position.
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