Monday, September 29, 2008

Salt Warriors

Thomas Zickefoose had a notably unusual last name and one other distinction. When he died at 93 in 1942, the last participant in the El Paso Salt War was gone.

Of course, the Salt War is almost as little-known as ex-Texas Ranger Zickefoose. The “war” played out over a 12-week period in 1877 in San Elizario, one of the small communities along the Rio Grande at El Paso del Norte, the Pass of the North, eventually incorporated into the city of El Paso.

The war was born of a dispute over a substance almost as important as water: salt. Everyone knows salt makes food taste better and can aggravate hypertension, but salt also is important in preserving meat (which was critical before refrigeration), curing hides and extracting silver from ore.

Early Anglo explorers noted the presence of an extensive salt lake beneath the Guadalupe Mountains, but people had been using that salt supply as long as anyone had lived in the El Paso valley.

Trouble quickly developed when an Austin banker and his son-in-law laid legal claim to the salt beds.

C.L. “Doc” Sonnichsen wrote a book on the Salt War in 1961. For 47 years that title stood as the definitive book on that bloody conflict. But no more. From now on, the DB will be Paul Cool’s “Salt Warriors” (Texas A&M University Press, $24.95.)

A well-respected historian, the late Dr. Sonnichsen only devoted 61 pages to the conflict. Cool, on the other hand, has given the episode near encyclopedic treatment.

While Sonnichsen proved the story could be told in fewer words, it is a complicated tale. Cool has done a great job not only of mining for new information, but putting it all into a book that’s both comprehensive and readable.

In researching the subject exhaustively, the author not only turned up new material while reversing some long-standing misperceptions, outright errors or embellishments, he came to see the Salt War as more than a feud over property rights. He casts it as an insurrection.

And though the events he describes happened more than 130 years ago, the cultural tensions that helped fuel the war remain to this day along the border.

In his final chapter, Cool tells what became of all the major players who survived the initial hostilities. That’s where he notes Zickefoose’s death. As Cool wrote, “He was probably the last ‘salt warrior’ to have traded bullets in San Elizario over what Boundary Commissioner John Russell Bartlett had called ‘nothing but the saline incrustations of a dried up lake.”

Finally, either I’m getting older or A&M Press used mighty small type to get all of the author’s information into 360 pages, but other than that, “Salt Warriors” is a Cool book – literally and figuratively.