The municipal and federal institutions on this territory can primarily be read as instruments of continual colonization on land that is the ancestral homeland and territory of the Mansos, Mescalero Apache, Sumas, Tigua, Piro, and Lipan Apache. Understanding the placement of these institutions in proximity therefore requires a tracing of the tethers between early Spanish settlement and United States colonization to the present. The Post system was one of the foremost institutions involved in colonizing this site. It can be seen as primarily a statecraft technology for imperial communication; one among other imperial technologies that close time over distance.
In 1581, the Chamuscado-Rodríguez Expedition passed through the site as the first settler expedition, encountering a marshy valley. As a lower pass in the Rocky Mountains, the territory, claimed by Juan de Oñate in 1598, occupied by New Spain and subsequently by Mexico, became a site of colonial settlement. Many of the missions of El Paso were formed by Spanish missionaries who went south after their defeat in the Pueblo Revolt in 1680. As an outpost of New Spain with the missionary system serving as the essential veins of colonization, El Paso del Norte (centered in what is now known as Mission Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe in Juárez, Mexico), was connected by Spanish royal post in 1773 to the Spanish colonial centers further south. Post Roads were first conceived as routes specifically conveying information towards a monarch or emperor, and their routes marked the designation of the extent of territorial claim. As historian Wilbert Timmons describes,
"The royal postal system of New Spain had been extended to include the northern frontier in the 1770s and eventually reached the El Paso area in 1773. Santa Fe, however, remained outside the service and continued to depend upon the annual caravan for carrying both ordinary and official mail. Spanish officials therefore soon perceived the need for linking the provincial capital of New Mexico with the postal service of the Provincias Internas. A branch post office was established at the presidio of San Elizario, and by 1805 the mail service between Santa Fe and Chihuahua was operating on a fairly regular schedule. Four times a year mail left Santa Fe with the annual caravan and a military escort. The mail pouches were transported to the campsite of Fray Cristóbal north of El Paso del Norte, where a contingent from San Elizario was waiting. The bags were then exchanged and the party from upriver returned to deliver the mail from the south. Some years later a monthly postal service was organized to carry both public and official mail from Santa Fe to El Paso. By that time the transporting of mail and merchandise had been greatly facilitated with the building of a bridge at El Paso del Norte. It was over five hundred feet long and seventeen feet wide, supported by eight caissons and a bed of crosspoles. Like so many other bridges which had been built there in the past, this one washed away in 1815, but was replaced with a new one the following year."
The development of postal transportation and communication routes under New Spain can be primarily understood as a means of conveying imperial data across distances, a technology that like many others was then subsequently expanded towards quotidian, 'citizen' uses.
This territory became part of the new state of Mexico with Mexican independence from Spain in 1821, and was incorporated into the Republic of Texas, as an independent nation, in 1836. In 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, bringing the site under jurisdiction of the United States. Immediately thereafter, an expedition set out in 1849 to find a transcontinental post route. The expedition's quartermaster, Samuel G. French, described the role of El Paso as a site whose significance was tethered to its use-value in transcontinental nation-building:
"El Paso, from its geographical position, presents itself as a resting place on one of the great overland routes between the seaports of the Atlantic on one side and those of the Pacific on the other...A littler further to the north and west are the head-waters of the Gila; and should the route from El Paso to the seaboard on the west present no more difficulties than that from the east, there can easily be established between the Atlantic states and those that have so suddenly sprung into existence in the West—and which are destined to change, perhaps, the political institutions and commercial relations of half the world—a connexion that will strengthen the bonds of union by free and constant intercourse. The government has been a pioneer in the enterprise and the little labor bestowed may not be lost to the public weal."
The San Antonio-El Paso-Santa Fe route was the first post route to win a contract with the United States Post Office in 1851 for a monthly service. El Paso’s first United States post station was established in 1852, with first United States postmaster Benjamin Franklin Coons. The name ‘Franklin’ was given to the land in what is now downtown El Paso as well as the name of the Franklin Mountains. The establishment of post routes, here and elsewhere, was also a crucial step in the tethering of English names to the land, and in the creation of maps which affirmed these tethers.
A major motivation for the 1853 signing of the Gadsden Purchase, which granted an additional 29,670 square miles of Mexican territory to the United States, was to make possible the westward continuation of the transcontinental route. The establishment of long-distance stagecoach routes with El Paso as a crucial stopping point can again be seen as part of an imperial mission. The settler justification of plunder was the tangible charting of new routes of state communication. The Giddings Line stagecoach route won a government contract in 1857 for a semi-monthly delivery of mail from San Antonio to San Diego through El Paso, which operated only until the outbreak of the Civil War. The most significant of the stagecoach routes began in 1858 with the Butterfield Overland Mail Route between Tipton, Missouri and San Francisco, passing through the property that is now the El Paso International Airport. An Historical Marker plaque stands at 1858 Cottonwood Drive, conveying the way in which the mail route itself was an exertion of information technologies of the state against Indigenous defense of land:
"The Butterfield Overland Mail was a mail and passenger stagecoach service that linked the Western and Eastern states. John Butterfield, president of the Overland Mail Company, won a federal government contact in 1857 to take and deliver mail twice weekly in both directions between St. Louis, Missouri and San Francisco, California. The service ran from September 1858 until March 1861, when events leading to the Civil War ended its operations. The route had a number of stops, including a large, well-equipped one in Franklin (present El Paso). The route through West Texas, later known as the Upper Road, followed a path from Hueco Tanks into Franklin. Route changes led to the development of the Lower Road, which cut south and followed the Rio Grande through San Elizario and Ysleta. The Lower Road provided a more reliable source of water and better protection from Native American attacks than the Upper Road. Both paths converged at the Concordia settlement, where Concordia Cemetery is now located. The Butterfield Trail continued to Franklin and followed the river north to Cottonwoods (now Anthony, TX), then veered west. The route boosted commerce in El Paso and helped increase the town’s population. It also strengthened the city’s link to the U.S. Stage service along the Butterfield Overland Mail terminated in 1861, although a Confederate mail service used the trail until 1862. The path later became the base for other routes, including roads and highways. Today, traces of the Upper Road remain visible on Fort Bliss and El Paso International Airport property. The trail’s legacy continues to live through the commerce and people which it brought to El Paso, and its bonding of the town to the rest of the United States. (2008)”
EP County Surveyors Map showing ‘Old Butterfield Trail’ route through U.S.A. federal land plots and El Paso International Airport property
In 1857, the Butterfield stagecoach station was built over half a city block at the corners of Oregon, Overland and El Paso Streets. Across the street, in the current location of the old Paso del Norte Hotel, was the Post Office together with a store and bar. Walter Ormsby's account as the first passenger on the Butterfield Overland Mail Route describes a striking ecological panorama:
"As we neared the river the delightful aroma of the fruit and herbs was most grateful... The city of Franklin (NB: Named by Benjamin Franklin Coontz when he was appointed the first postmaster in 1852...), on the American side of the river, contains a few hundred inhabitants, and is in the midst of a fine agricultural district. The onions as well as the grapes of this locality are of world-wide celebrity, and El Paso wines are universally appreciated."
As a site that now draws national and international media attention, the Butterfield route can also be seen as a juncture in the dissemination of news and of media representations of this site, such that ways to 'see' the space from a distance proliferated alongside increasingly rapid technologies of conveying media.
Citizen communication with the eastern states was cut off during the Civil War, with no mail service between 1862-66, and Apache and Comanche continued to defend territory against incursions of the through-route in the Pecos River Valley in 1867. While a San Antonio route was revived in the 1870s, the stagecoach largely gave way to railroads, which began operating in El Paso in 1881. The railroad can be seen as an infrastructure that both facilitated the arrival of Anglo settlers from the East, as well as the exploitation of Chinese and Mexican immigrant labor, both demographic changes shaping the development of the militarized U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso. The railway station in El Paso became a site of transition between segregated railcars to the east of El Paso and unsegregated railcars to the west during the Jim Crow era. The El Paso Mail route should be acknowledged as underlying this transformation. As historian Austerman describes:
"Even though [the El Paso Mail] still served the vital function of uniting El Paso and the country to the west with the settled portions of Texas, it was obvious by the fall of 1875 that there was no longer any question that the railroads would span the state; the only unanswered question was when the task would be completed...The El Paso Mail had moved far beyond the role of a simple courier to act as a colonizing force on the frontier."
To maintain this site under the dominion of the settler state, the most advanced technologies of transportation and communication have repeatedly been used. That is to say, the colonization of this site should be read as a continuous project, demanding continuously more pervasive and 'efficient' means of conveying information about and through the site towards the state. The Royce Schedule detailing regional treaties includes the repeated statement: "No treaty of purchase was ever made with this tribe. The U.S. assumed title to their country, the boundary of which is here shown." At first sight, the existence of the USPS in this site is a banal bureaucratic normality— while moving through the contemporary site, we are more taken with the articulations of power in Department of Homeland Security signs and the triple-walled barbed wire of the adjacent detention center. Indeed, this USPS location on Boeing Ave. now becomes a sorting center for mail that comes and goes from the ICE detention center as the primary and most affordable means of communication for the minimum 600 people incarcerated there daily. Family letters, court documents, requests for release pass through hands at this USPS. But the argument of this walk is the argument that the site itself is making: the history of the Post Office and the routes of movement that it opened for Anglo settlers and eradicated for Indigenous people are themselves part of the same history of land settlement, enclosure, privatization, criminalization of trespass, displacement, and deportation.
In the early decades of the 20th century, air mail became increasingly widespread; the United States Postal Service claimed that cities without airports were "jerkwater towns." El Paso aviation history was defined by the demands of both air mail and military flight, before becoming a commercial flight hub for passenger services. El Paso's first flying field was in Fort Bliss in 1919 following Pancho Villa's raid on Juárez, and Biggs Field became the base of the Border Air Patrol until 1926, when it was moved to San Antonio. Many of the triumphal, progressivist accounts of flight in El Paso begin with accounting a performative visit from Charles A. Lindbergh, first pilot of a transatlantic flight, on September 24, 1927, who was received to record-breaking crowds. The swell in public support after this visit led the El Paso Aero Club to draw up plans for a municipal airport. The airport was built for Standard Airlines (later American Airlines) and dedicated September 8, 1928, above all for the creation of a transcontinental air mail route.
The Aero Club chose 260 acres of city-owned land at the site of an old waterworks (a site which is further west and closer to the Franklin Mountains than the contemporary airport). In order to fund the construction of the airport, County Attorney D.E. Mulcahy declared the airport a public highway, justifying the tactic by saying, “This Commissioner’s Court has in the past construed the term ‘court house’ and ‘jail’ to be broad enough to include an auditorium and a theatre and the term ‘road’ to include a levee, and the term ‘horse’ to be broad enough to include mules and jacks.” This is an incidentally foreboding quote given the myriad ways in which not only auditoriums and theatres but bridges, factory buildings, the coliseum, the military base, and more have been used as sites of internment in El Paso throughout the 20th century. Mayor R.E. Thomason underlined the progressivist language with imagery of post-setting at the airport dedication: “Today, we drive another stake in the progress of El Paso. This city today becomes one of the country’s future air centers.”
The first Air Mail day was October 15, 1930, and the air mail plane departed with 17,000 letters and cards weighing 246 pounds. El Paso won a government contract from the Department of Commerce to be a stop on an Air Mail route from Atlanta and the Pacific Coast, which became a guaranteed source of funding that sustained the airport. Due to increasing traffic and proximity to the Franklin Mountains of the Standard Airlines airport, the City announced an airport trade in 1936, and finished the runways at what is now the site of the El Paso Airport in 1939. The runways were constructed of asphalt and caliche, a natural cement of calcium carbonate found in the duricrust (a hard layer near the surface) and made from limestone which bonds with materials such as gravel, sand, clay and silt.
At the onset of World War II, the El Paso airport became a fueling station, the United States Army used airport property for the construction of military barracks for housing, and the airport was used as a major Air Force training base in 1942-44. The federal government had acquired land in 1940 to expand the airport runway to 7,000 feet through the Declarations of Taking, which gave the federal government the capacity to acquire private land for public purposes. The War Department then leased the land back to the airport. An El Paso Times article from April 7, 1944 described,
“In 1944, the City signed a contract with the United States Government in which the Government got the exclusive right to control air traffic and flight operations at the Airport for the “duration of the War, plus six months.” It was under this agreement that the Airport remained until after the surrender of Japan and the cessation of hostilities.”
This local space has been host to myriad federal government contracts. It is this economic input that has had a preservationist and expansionist impact on the space, defining the Airport's continued profitability and spatial growth. It is also a site that has grappled with that which is considered surplus, refuse or waste by the federal government— water, land, people. That surplus is left to the El Paso Municipal government to 'process.' This pattern established itself in this site particularly with the transformations of World War II.
Historian Patton applies this discourse of surplus to the government acquisition of property adjacent to the airport:
“A casual glance at the Airport property on the accompanying map will disclose that the Airport contains more land than is actually used for landing and operational purposes. The obvious questions should be then, Why does the Airport have this land if it doesn’t need it? Where did the City get it?, and What does it intend to do with it? This extra land in itself has quite a story which goes as far back as 1931. But the real or the big story begins in the years 1940 and 1941 when the United States Government, in anticipation of needing more training areas for troops, acquired thousands of acres of desert lands in condemnation suits in the U.S. District Court. This land was used for Military purposes until the end of World War II in 1945, after which time the Government decided to dispose of it through the War Assets Administration as Surplus Property."
Patton proceeds to describe the federal government's consideration of the 'unused' land as 'condemned' subsequent to the war:
“In Deeds dated April 2, 1948, and January 10, 1949, the U.S. Government conveyed to the City of El Paso 1991.47 acres of this condemned land, which became a part of the Airport lands, and placed certain restrictions and limitations upon its use and disposal. The major requirements the City had to meet were clearance of runway approaches and granting free use of Airport facilities (excluding fuels, oils, etc.) to Military planes. The major reservation by the Government was a claim to all radio-active or fissionable matters which might be discovered on the lands. This was due no doubt to the extreme interest displayed by this country in such materials after the development of the Atomic Bomb.”
The El Paso International Airport is located at the southernmost point of the Fort Bliss property, which includes the White Sands Missile range, the largest military airspace training area in the continental United States, which lies adjacent to development facilities of the Atomic bomb in Alamogordo.
Patton's A History of El Paso International Airport, written in 1952, culminates in a language mimicking early settler texts: an exhortation that land which is not being 'used' must not lie 'idle.'
“The City may put the land to any suitable and proper use so long as the terms of the Deeds are abided by. The City may not, however, dispose of any or all of the land without the written approval of the CAA. Such approval was given by that Agency in the latter part of 1951 or early in 1952 and certain sections have been sold to developers for housing areas and commercial enterprises. El Paso home builders want the City to sell more of these lands for development and 76 more acres were sold on August 8, 1952 for such purposes. Whether the City will eventually sell all or a major portion of this land is not certain at this time, but it seems that it would be folly to pass up $2,000 or more per acre when the City will gain nothing by letting the land lie idle.”
These post-War restrictions on use continue to frame the development of this space. A 1969 Airport Deed Indenture describes this legacy through the language of land being 'disposed' by the United States government. As recently as June 23, 2020, the El Paso Municipal Government sought partial release from the stipulations of the agreement for the purposes of developing properties in the vicinity of the airport:
"On July 8, 1969 the City of El Paso accepted surplus property from the United States government for use at the El Paso International Airport. The land was conveyed to the City with a restriction that the property would only be used for aeronautical purposes. The Airport is at this time seeking to release this restriction so that the property may be used for non-aeronautical purposes. Any proceeds or revenue derived from this property will continue to be governed by the original Indenture, specifically that it be used to advance the core aeronautical services of the Airport."
The zoning designation of neighborhoods around the airport is 'G3—Post-War', describing "transitional neighborhoods typically developed from the 1950s through the 1980s. Streets were laid out with curvilinear patterns without alleys and shopping centers are located at major intersections behind large parking lots. This sector is generally stable but would benefit from strategic suburban retrofits to supplement the limited housing stock and add missing civic and commercial uses." In localities closest to the airport, the zoning code describes under neighborhood character and compatibility that "Residential uses are not permitted on the subject properties, due to Federal Aviation Administration regulations." Nevertheless, as we will see, a site one fence away from the airport runway imprisons a minimum of 600 people, for sometimes as long as multiple years, while being excluded from applying to the environmental conditions of a ‘residence.’
After the War, El Paso won a bid to continue as a major military re-fueling station under Airport Manager Charles B. Moore, who became known for augmenting the airport's profitability and developing flying in the 1950s as a service industry competing in comfort and courtesy. In this sense, the airport became a site associated with 'daredevil' masculinity in the rapid onset of flight technologies. It was also an environment in which high-class manners of white society were performed in an industry materially and culturally fueling the expansion of the United States Empire.
The first Customs and Immigration Offices were opened at the airport on September 5, 1942, in coincidence with the first international flight, to Mexico City. The airport was declared an International Port of Entry in 1946, changing its name to El Paso International Airport in 1950 and opening offices at the airport for the United States Department of Public Health and the United States Department of Agriculture. As commercial air travel became more commonplace, airplanes became increasingly sites of policing and surveillance. A 1961 skyjacking event at El Paso International Airport led the Senate to define ‘air piracy’ as a crime punishable by life imprisonment. After this event, “President Kennedy also moved swiftly to authorize flight crews to be armed and to have plainclothesmen ‘ride shotgun’ protecting aircraft. The men who ultimately got this job were generally Border Patrol officers like the one who had performed so well in El Paso. The FAA also started a series of programs to tighten security at airports and on planes, culminating with the X-rays, metal detectors, and other security measures which are now commonplace.” The development of the El Paso International Airport and the transformations of this site after World War II must be understood as a crucial feature in understanding the United States federal government control of land, movement, and labor contracts in El Paso. This pattern of control, as we will shortly see, has its most recent manifestation in federal immigration agencies’ private contracting of management of space and movement in this site.