To talk about the history of El Paso is to talk about the history of America itself. When most people think of our country’s beginnings, they imagine the pilgrims landing on the shores of Massachusetts in 1620. But time travels much farther back than that in the Southwest. The Spanish arrived here sometime in the 1580s and the settlement that would become El Paso was founded in 1598 by the Spanish explorer, Don Juan de Oñate. The “first Thanksgiving” was celebrated here, on the banks of the Rio Grande, some 23 years before the pilgrims feasted at Plymouth Rock. Millennia before that, native tribes already occupied the region around what is now El Paso. In essence, the story of El Paso is the story of America’s beginnings. It is one of intrigue, of fortune seeking, of growth, and of depression, and sometimes it is a story of lawlessness.
To many, El Paso is the picture of the Wild West, and indeed, it once was (and in certain ways, still is) the quintessential Wild West town, where outlaws and lawmen had shootouts and drank whiskey in saloons with swinging doors, and where cowboys and vaqueros fought cattle wars, smuggling herds back and forth across the border. Some hold the belief that El Paso has already seen its glory days in those lawless moments. Others hold that the city has yet to see its best years as it expands into a modern metropolis.
As you explore the Sun City for yourself, one thing you may notice is that many of the attractions, the best restaurants, the important places, and the interesting tidbits here are tied together by a historical connection. History is deeply part of El Paso’s culture and it is a city connected to its surrounding areas in ways that transcend the timelines and borderlines of political geography. Some, in fact many, of the areas that are now part of the United States once thrived under the umbrella of Mexico, and vice versa. Indeed, El Paso and its Mexican sister city, Ciudad Juárez, were at one time hardly distinguishable from one another, carrying the same name: El Paso del Norte. So, lines here, both cultural and geopolitical, are fuzzy.
In the following pages, you will find only the highlights of El Paso’s history, for it is a story so lengthy that historian W. H. Timmons needed 366 pages to tell it from start to finish in his fantastic work, El Paso: A Borderlands History. Instead, I have attempted to capture what I think are the most important dates in El Paso’s history, the ones that have defined it as a city and shaped it into the place it is today. You will also discover biographies of some of El Paso’s most intriguing and famous characters, like Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa and notorious gunslinger John Wesley Hardin. And as you explore El Paso on your own, you will notice that much of the history you read in these pages still exists in the form of place names of old buildings, restaurants, and roads.