Centuries before the first Spanish Explorers ventured into the El Paso region, the “High Plains” and deserts of the Rio Grande valley were the home of the Mansos, Tiguas, Piro as well as other Native American Tribes. The wide open deserts and mountains ranges stretching out from Northern Utah to Nevada, New Mexico, Eastern California, and west Texas were a vast territory the Spanish referred to as “La Sierra Nevada” or Snowed Country.
Spanish explorer Don Juan de Oñate is credited for naming the Rio Grande Valley region as the “El Paso del Rio del Norte,” or (the pass of the river of the North.) His expedition of 1598 brought civilization and more than two centuries of Spanish rule to the El Paso valley.
El Pasoans will claim that the first Thanksgiving Day in the United States did not occur in Plymouth Rock., Mass., as is commonly believed. According to documented Spanish historical records, the first Thanksgiving day is supposed to have occurred in El Paso del Norte, right by the river banks in 1598, roughly fifty years before the first Anglo Saxon Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth Rock. For the past six years on the last Saturday and Sunday in April, the annual re-enactment of Don Juan de Oñate’s “First Thanksgiving” held at El Paso’s Chamizal National Park.
In 1659, Franciscan Missionaries established the Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe mission. This mission is located in present day downtown Juarez, Mexico and it is still in use today. After this, various other successful missions were founded in the El Paso Valley area. These include the Ysleta, established in October 11, 1682; Socorro, founded October 13, 1682; and San Elizario Chapel built in 1877.
El Paso was and remains one of the main stops in the old Spanish Trail, “Camino Real de Tierra Adentro,” (the Royal Road) which stretched North from Mexico City, to Chihuahua, El Paso, Alburquerque, and ended in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the oldest Capital City in the United States. El Camino Real is considered one of the oldest historical roads in the Western Hemisphere.
In 1821, after two decades of political struggles, Mexico heroically won its independence from Spain. At the time, the state of Texas as well as the whole Southwestern United States became part of the Mexican empire.
During this period, Mexico encouraged commerce and welcomed immigrants from the United States. Hence, a large influx of American traders, businessmen, farmers, and families who came from as far as away as New York and New England ventured West to El Paso and South Central New Mexico. While some settled down in the region, others continued on to Nevada and California.
As a result of the war between the United States and Mexico in 1848, and the Gadsden Purchase of 1854, Mexico lost half its territory which included the current states of New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Utah, California and even parts of Kansas.
There is even today great controversy and debate as to the questionable, and perhaps unethical political means, the United States used to acquire this vast territory from Mexico. This issue was best addressed by Ulysses S. Grant when he said,
“I do not think there was ever a more wicked war than that waged by the U.S. on Mexico.”
A few Spanish land grants still survive today , and Hispanic land grant heirs still argue the United States should be forced to honor land rights they were promised in the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican War.
In 1850, after much debate, a petition was signed by Spain, New Mexico, Texas, Mexico, and the United States, officially declaring El Paso a part of Texas.
From 1776, to the early 1880s, the population in the El Paso region doubled in size from 5000 to over 10,000 residents. This dramatic growth was due in large part to the introduction of four railroads in the El Paso valley in 1881.
Today, El Paso, with over 650,000 residents, is the fourth largest city in Texas, and the 19th largest in the Nation. Combined with Juarez, however, the Metropolitan area’s population exceeds 2 million, making it the largest international border community in the world.
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