Tucked between two mountain ranges in the middle of an unforgiving desert surrounding the Rio Grande, sits El Paso, an American city named by Spanish explorers in the 16th century. Arriving from the south, they named the area “El Paso del Norte” (the Pass of the North). Little did they know that one day the area would host two neighboring cities situated in two countries, El Paso on the north side of the river and Ciudad Juarez on the south.
Even before the Spaniards arrived, however, the area was well inhabited by various Indian nations. One of the most famous and intrepid Spanish explorers to cross this area was Fernando Vazquez de Coronado, known for his vast explorations of what is today the American southwest. He laid the foundations for what would become approximately 200 years of Spanish rule in the area.
During the next 100 or so years, various settlements of Spaniards and Indians moved settled and resettled across the area on both sides of what today would be the U.S./Mexico border. By the mid-1700’s, there were about 5,000 Spanish, Indian or mestizo (those with one parent Spanish and the other Indian) people living in the El Paso area. Agriculture and farming boomed thanks to irrigation.
In 1821, Mexico declared its independence from Spain and the area and most of modern-day American southwest became part of Mexico. As the area continued to flourish and land grants to individuals weren’t uncommon. Juan Maria Ponce De Leon turned out to be one of the area’s most successful grantees of what is the downtown El Paso business district of modern day El Paso.
Peace in the area didn’t last long, however, as hostilities broke out by 1846 between the American and Mexican neighbors. Within two years, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the war and the U.S. purchased for $15 million a large swath of area comprising what was then half of Mexico. Five settlements, all owned or controlled by white settlers, sat just north of that newly created border. After a few years of confusion and redrawn maps and boundaries, it was settled that there would be two towns: El Paso and Ciudad Juarez (former El Paso del Norte).
In 1877, a brutal and bloody local, racially-motivated civil war pitted Americans against Mexicans and neighbors against neighbors for six months before it was shut down.
The arrival of the railroads in 1881 & 1882 is considered by most historians as the defining event in the city’s history. The railroads brought civilization to what was once a frontier town and soon El Paso became the county seat with a population surpassing 10,000 in 1890. Unfortunately, the railroads also brought other aspects of the wild west not previously seen in El Paso: brothels, gambling, saloons, and crime. By 1905, the city’s government had turned things around, and its population began to explode. Those fleeing Mexico’s revolution helped further populate the city and it grew into a respectable municipality.
By the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, American corporations and manufacturers took note and began moving operations into the area. Standard Oil Company of Texas (now Chevron USA), Texaco, and the American Smelting and Refining Co. and others set up shop helping to further boost the economy. The American military has had an influence in the area for more than a century with Fort Bliss front and center.
Ciudad Juarez and El Paso have always had a special relationship as twin border towns born from the same town. El Paso has remained a mostly Hispanic, bilingual town. The growth of its population has fluctuated through the 20th century aided by both commercial and military growth. By 2000, the city’s population has surpassed half a million residents.