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  • Writer's pictureRachel Feit

History Nerds Unite!

I admit it; I am a history nerd. There’s nothing that makes me happier than spending all day in an archive handling dusty, centuries-old documents…or looking at old paintings and photographs…or studying old maps....putting all the pieces together like a giant jigsaw puzzle. What I love about these things are not just the obvious stories they tell, but the details you can pick up from the margins—because it’s the people and things in the background that make history come alive for me. It’s the stories behind the stories, the context and connections that make the past so appealing.

Take this nineteenth century painting of Cuidad Juárez and El Paso by Leon Trousset. Born in France in 1838, Trousset came to America in the 1860s where he became an itinerant painter of landscapes in the American West and Mexico. After traveling through Texas and California, he settled in Juárez, married, and died there in 1917. I came across Trousset and this painting last year, when I was working on a historical landscape report for El Paso del Norte along the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro.

Spain established the Camino Real in 1598, connecting their territory from Mexico City to the pueblos near Santa Fe and opening up the vast North American interior to exploration, trade and cultural exchange. The point at which the trail crossed the Rio Grande was called El Paso del Norte because it was here that the rugged, narrow mountains surrounding the river to the north opened up and emptied it onto a broad fertile plain that was perfectly suited to agriculture. The Spanish established a mission, Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, here in 1656 and this became the seed of the settlement that would become El Paso del Norte.

Originally the name referred to the settlement on the south side of the US-Mexico border: what is now Ciudad Juárez. Settlement on the north side of the border did not occur until much later. In fact, it was not until after the Mexican American war when the US-Mexico border was set at the Rio Grande, that a few intrepid, former soldiers who had served along the borderlands decided to settle in this area. Simeon Hart was one of them. He married the daughter of a wealthy Mexican mill owner from Santa Cruz de Rosales and decided to open a mill of his own on the US side of the river, right at the falls where the Camino Real crossed it. Situated right on the Camino Real, Hart’s Mill was perfectly positioned to dominate communication and trade not just between the US and Mexico, but along all the American border settlements. The mill would supply flour to the settlement of El Paso del Norte, as well as the military posts emplaced along the US-Mexico borderlands in New Mexico and even into Arizona. For a time, Hart became one of the richest and most influential men at El Paso del Norte.

But back to the Trousset painting. It was painted in 1885, just few years after the first railroads steamed into El Paso del Norte, marking the beginning of the end for the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, and indeed, the end of the Hart family’s influence in El Paso. The painting’s vantage is from the Acequia Madre, the 17th century irrigation canal running through Ciudad Juárez, and looks toward the rapidly growing settlement of El Paso on the American side of the river. The Franklin Mountains are in the background.

Looking at this painting, I see the entire arc of El Paso area history inside its borders. At the left edge of the painting you can see where the river constricts and enters into the narrow mountain pass. That’s where the Camino Real once crossed the Rio Grande. Off in the distance, are the belching ore smelters of the American Smelting and Refining Company, which in the 1880s transformed El Paso into an industrial center of the southwest. A little closer in are some buildings that may have been Hart’s Mill or buildings from the former location of Fort Bliss, located at Hart’s Mill from 1879 to 1893. In the painting’s foreground are the adobe buildings of Ciudad Juárez. If you go there today and drift through the city’s old downtown area, you can see that many of the concrete and stucco facades are covering older adobe structures not unlike the ones in the painting.

The painting shows two travelers stopped at the footbridge over the Acequia Madre. They point north, toward the American side, where a growing industrial city of multi-story brick buildings contrasts with the quaintness of the older settlement south of the Rio Grande. In fact, travelers who came to Ciudad Juárez in the 1880s remarked at how much it was like stepping back in time to a small village in southern Spain or the Levant. They described vineyards and fruit orchards, fields of wheat waving in the breeze, walled gardens and picturesque market squares. Trousset’s painting captures some of this, with a small fruit orchard on the right side of the path leading to the river and an old adobe house with an outdoor earth oven in front of it. Notice as well, there is man chopping a branch from a tree. Worth remarking is that all of the trees look well-pruned of branches, and nineteenth photographs of this area show the same thing. Wood was scarce in this rugged, arid environment, and trees (mostly cottonwoods and willows) only grew along the banks of waterways. Larger branches and dead trees were harvested regularly for fires and building materials. Trousset’s depiction captures this perfectly.

In the painting, the path leading to the river is walled off with standing sandstone river rocks and it ends in a ferry, where a small, flat-bottomed boat carries people across the river, a reminder of how permeable the border once was. In fact, up until the Mexican Revolution, the people who lived in El Paso and Ciudad Juárez considered the settlements on either side of the border one town, known simply as El Paso del Norte.

These are the details I find so compelling. The ordinariness of daily life within the panoramic view of a place is what tells the true story- not the dates or the famous men. It’s a single woman crossing the river to Ciudad Juarez from El Paso, two travelers of different classes stopping to talk along the road about the city growing to the north, or the small earth oven where someone’s abuela cooked bread every day. I read once that all anthropologists are just failed novelists at heart and maybe that’s the case for me. For now, I am content with my blogs, and with talking off anyone’s ear who will listen to me about the people and places I learn of through my work.

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