Native American Water Use Chronology
El Paso del Norte
Water Use Chronology
Four Centuries – 1553-1986
with Critical Notes
August 23, 2001; Revised July 2, 2006
By Nicholas P. Houser, MA, MPH
Irrigation, Water Rights, Pond keepers, Water Alcaldes/Commissioners, Water Rights, Water Management, Irrigation Petitions & Conflicts, Droughts & Floods, Bridges & Roads, Mills, and Town (Grant) Incorporations
Introductory Note: The focus of this chronology is Ysleta del Sur Pueblo and the Lower Valley. The water rights history of the El Paso area is little known or understood. The Native Americans of the region have ancient water rights that were recognized by the Spanish and Mexican Governments. The United States and Texas attempted to subvert those ancient rights. The Lower Valley Water District (Ysleta) attempted to prevent access to this researcher to records which the public has the right of legal access.
Related bibliographies and reports compiled by this researcher include water and irrigation are (1) Ysleta Irrigation and Water Use Bibliography; (2) El Paso del Norte (Ford of the River of the North); (3) Mills of the Pass of the North, (4) Public Domain Policy Conflicts within the Ysleta Grant, The Transactions of Buchanan, Blanchard and Owens, and (4) The Ysleta Grant Map Inventory. Additional sources are (1) Dent, P.M. 1913, Community Ditches in the El Paso Valley and Their Relation to the Franklin Canal of the Rio Grand Project, New Mexico-Texas; RG 115, BOR, Records of the Bureau of Reclamation, Office of the Chief Engineer, Denver, General Correspondence Files: Rio Grande 1902-1994, Box 1134, NARA, Denver, Colorado; (2) Perkins, W.A., 1931, US Government Reclamation Service, Rio Grande Projects – New Mexico, Texas Community Ditches in the Rio Grande Valley, U.S. Reclamation Services, by W.A. Perkins, Asst. Eng., from: The National Archives, Record Group 115, includes 40 pages with maps (Las Cruces and El Paso areas); and (3) Ackerly, Neal W., 1994, Historic and Modern Irrigation Systems, from: El Valle Bajo: The Culture History of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, Vol. I: 118-148, Las Cruces.
1553 Cédula of April 20, 1533, later codified in the Recopilación of the Indies, the woods, pastures, and forests of the Indies were declared to be common to Spaniards and Indians (Recopilación de los Indies, Bk. 4, Title 17, Law 7). "Thus, Indians had, in theory, the same access to the waters of the public domain as had the Spanish cattleman and Spanish ranchers" (pp.75-76, Baade, Hans W., "The Historical Background of Texas Water Law - A Tribute to Jack Pope", St. Mary's Law Journal, 1986, Vol. 18, No. 1; photocopy in file). (See: Meyer 1984:109-111).
By the Spanish Law of the Recopilación de las Leyes de las Indias, Indian lands and water rights were protected and could not be sold or alienated (see: Indian Water Rights, Houser 1994:II: Chapter 12).
1563 Royal Cédula order local officials to appoint water judges (often called comisionados, alcaldes de agua, jueces de agua or mandadores) whenever necessary:
“Indian towns were supposed to have water judges, too, called either topiles or alguaciles, but in practice only the large Indian communities appointed special officials to take charge of water distribution. In small Indian towns the Indian governors exercised the functions of the water judge" (Meyer 1984:64-66). (Meyer 1984:64:fnt #71: Diego de Encinas, Cedulario Indiano, 4 vols. - Madrid: Ediciones Cultural Hispánica, 1945-1946, I, 69. the cédula is entitled "Que manda del Presidente y Oydores nombren juez que reparta las aguas, cada vez que fuere necesario").
1573 King Philip II issued ordinances on founding of new towns and distribution of cropland and water resources. "Subsequent legislation amplified the 1573 ordinances and specified that prior to individual water allocation the town itself should secure its needs" (Meyer: 29, fnt. #16).
King Felipe II issued the Ordenanzas which were to protect Indian personal rights, as well as their land and water. This decree made Indians, who took oath of fealty (and the Pueblo Indians did), royal wards of the Crown (Jenkins 1989:4).
Royal Cédula of Dec. 1, 1573, issued only five months after the Ordenanzas concerned the reduction of wandering Indians and recognized their right to water and land:
"The sites on which pueblos and reducciones are to be formed shall have advantages of water, land and wood, entrance and exit, and lands for cultivation, and an exido of a league in length, where the Indians can have their stock without mixing with those of the Spaniards" (Jenkins 1989:9).
The Pueblo Indians were a settled and sedentary people and thus were not subject to being reduced and having sites selected for them. (Note: however, the Tiguas were resettled and Ysleta del Sur was not a pre-existing site, but in a sense a transfer from Isleta of the North to a new location in the El Paso district. The Tigua of Ysleta del Sur took an oath of vassalage to Governor de Vargas during the 1692 boundary conflict between Socorro del Sur and Ysleta del Sur. That conflict was resolved by the governor who referenced the dimensions of the former Socorro Grant in New Mexico in rendering his decision.
1598 Don Juan de Ońate's contract for colonization of New Mexico included compliance with the royal order issued at Bosque de Segovia (July 13, 1573) which guaranteed Indian land and water rights (Westphall 1983:110). La Toma issued which proclaims New Mexico Province under the sovereignty of the Spanish Crown – it also recognizes Indian land and water rights.
On April 20, 1598, Onate's expedition arrives at the banks of the Rio Grande near present-day San Elizario (Mexican side of the river or right bank). The fast-running river is swollen from the upstream snow melt (New Mexico and Colorado). On May 4, the party cross the river at the Pass of the North, and Onate's bestows the place name - El Rio del Paso del Norte - the future name of El Paso del Norte (now Cd. Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico and El Paso, Texas).