San Elizario: A History

By Sam Sanchez, Sr.

    When I was asked to write something historical for the San Elizario Genealogy and Historical Society's newsletter, my first thoughts were- what would be of interest to the general membership? What facts about San Elizario are not commonly known? What are the myths surrounding the town? The name “San Elizario” came when the presidio was relocated 40 miles up river closer to El Paso del Norte from El Porvenir in the late 1780’s. The presidio was moved to this new location to serve as an Apache peace reservation. The extermination of the Apache was proving to be too costly to continue with that policy. The Reglamento of 1772, to re-align, reinvigorate, and reinforce the frontier presidios was a coordinated effort to wage war on the hostile Apaches and offer a sanctuary for the increasing number of those who now sought peace.
    Juan de Villava arrived in New Spain in 1795, with instructions from the crown to create a regular army, raise a formal Corps of Provincial Militia, and bring order and efficiency to the defenses of the area. Jose de Galvez was dispatched to the Viceroyalty in the capacity of general inspector of the entire presidio system. The Marques de Rubi, a “mariscal de campo” attached to the Villalva mission, was instructed to inspect all the presidios of the Provincias Internas, namely, the Northern Frontier. To determine the utility of each, improve their military effectiveness, and propose whatever reforms he deemed fitting and proper. One of his assistants was a military engineer, Captain Nicolas de Lafora, who kept a diary of the expedition. The inspection consistuted a grand tour consuming approximately twenty-three months, covering 2,903 leagues (over 7,500 miles), and involving twenty-three presidio companies. Nicolas de Lafora prepared a detailed map of the northern frontier region. Another assistant of Rubi was a draftman, Jose Urrutia, who was to draw precise plan and elevation views of existing presidios. Among the settlements and presidios shown on Nicolas de Lafora’s 1766 map is listed “La Hacienda de Tiburcios”. On Rubi’s recommendation and the Viceroy’s approval, four companies of Mounted Infantry (companies volante) totaling 228 men were recruited from the province in 1768. Then in 1770, a young infantry Captain was sent to assume military command of the province. This was Bernardo de Galvez, nephew of the inspector general.
    Bernardo de Galvez led a number of brilliant campaigns against the Apaches in Nueva Viscaya. He became closely associated with the personnel at the garrison of Guajoquilla, particularly the “cuerpo volante” (the flying dragoons). The garrison of Guajoquilla was later moved closer to the Rio Grande to the valley of San Elceario in keeping with the realignment of the presidios of Nueva Viscaya. Bernardo de Galvez became Governor of Louisiana and later became famous as Viceroy of New Spain. His replacement in Nueva Viscaya was Lieutenant Colonel Hugo O’Conner, an Irishman in Spain’s Royal Army, who had already accumulated several years of experience on the northern frontier. He became “inspector comandante” at Chihuahua on February 17, 1772. He stepped into a bad situation. Since the outbreak of major hostilities, over 4,000 human beings had died at the hand of the Apaches on the Northern Frontier. The soldiers at the presidio of San Elceario were transferred to the abandoned Hacienda de los Tiburcios in the late 1780’s. The move 40 miles upriver closer to El Paso del Norte, was to set up a peace reservation for the Apaches seeking a peaceful existence. Teaching the Apaches to be farmers was not an easy task. The main reason: Apaches did not like to work in the fields. The hacienda de los Tiburcios eventually became the site of the new Presidio of San Elceario. The attraction for the protection the Presidio offered, resulted in new people moving to the area. The settlement of San Elizario evolved in the long run.

Bernardo de Galvez

    Mexico achieved its independence from Spain in 1821. One of the last presidial captain during the Mexican period was Jose Ignacio Ronquillo. Apaches continued to be a big problem for the settlements in the area. El Paso del Norte, San Lorenzo, Senecu, Ysleta del Sur, Socorro and San Elizario were left to defend themselves from hostile Apaches. Don Jose Ignacio Ronquillo, organized the town men to form a capable indian fighting group to recover stolen livestock and keep the hostiles at bay. Eventually, Don Ignacio became the Jefe Politico of San Elizario, a Mexican Municipality.
    Jose Ignacio Ronquillo built a magnificent house on his hacienda east to the acequia madre. He proudly claimed that his house was suitable for a viceroys palace. The residents of San Elizario, to this day, still refer to “Casa Ronquillo” as the Viceroy’s Palace in honor of Don Jose. On December 25, 1846, Don Jose Ignacio’s indian fighters fought Doniphan’s Missouri Volunteers in the battle of Brazitos 28 miles northwest of El Paso del Norte. Don Jose Ignacio remained a respected citizen of San Elizario long after the Mexican flag was replaced by the Republic of Texas flag in 1836 and the American flag in 1848, when the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo made the community of San Elizario a town in the United States of America. Casa Ronquillo, to this day, remains enveloped in mystery. The house is the object of many legends and tales. The most persistent story is the one claiming to be the “Viceroy Palace”. People have dug the floors and made holes in the walls searching for treasure. Others, simply stay away fearing “ghosts”. Ghost stories have plagued the house for generations.
    In the 1870’s, the house became the center of social attention when Charles Ellis and his wife Teodora Alarcon lived there. Charles Ellis had been sheriff of El Paso County, and was a prominent businessman in San Elizario. Teodora’s pride and joy was her big house. She decorated it with expensive furniture, and landscaped it with fig trees and grapevines. However, her husband Charles became a victim of the Salt War of 1877. He was dragged through the streets of San Elizario, simply because he was an “Americano”, and dies as a result. In the aftermath of the salt controversy the beautiful Ellis House was vandalized and most of Doña Teodora’s expensive furniture was stolen. Charles Ellis was finally buries in the courtyard at the house. This historic house is now owned by the County of El Paso and stands as a poignant reminder of San Elizario’s colorful history. Over time, however, the house has fallen into serious decay and is now in need of serious restoration.

CASA RONQUILLO—May 25, 1936: SOUTHWEST ELEVATION (WEST FRONT & SOUTH SIDE). Marvin Eickenroht, Photographer

CASA RONQUILLO—May 25, 1936: AUDIENCE CHAMBER (NORTH ELEVATION). Marvin Eickenroht, Photographer

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