Humans have populated the Big Bend for the past 10,000 years. The Spaniards arrived in 1535 when Cabeza de Vaca traveled through what is now Brewster County. By the close of the seventeenth century Mescalero-Apache, Kiowa, Comanche, and other nomadic Indians of the western plains of North America inhabited the area. Anglos arrived in the Presidio/Fort Davis area in the late 1840s.
Located in a wide valley in the foothills of the Davis Mountains, Alpine is a distinct and scenic community, established in the spring of 1882 with the arrival of the railroad. According to the New Handbook of Texas , early explorers were impressed by the deep grasses, abundant wildlife, and flowing water. As early as 1682, Juan Dominguez de Mendoza described the valley as “miles … covered with grass that looked like a field of waving grain.” When Maj. W. H. Emory entered the valley through Paisano Pass in 1852, he found it “watered by a limpid stream from crystalline rocks, clothed with luxuriant grass, sufficient to graze a million cattle.”
Initially the settlement was named Osborne for the railroad section, but the name was later changed to Murphyville for Daniel O. Murphy and his son, Thomas. The Murphys, who were Irish Catholics, officially filed for and developed the plat for the original town of Murphyville. In 1888, the village name was changed to Alpine.
Anglo settlers began arriving in the newly formed towns of Marathon, Alpine, and Marfa, mostly from East and South Texas. The surrounding populace of Hispanics also began to migrate toward these population centers. Alpine’s population grew from 400 in 1890 to 631 in 1900 to 1,770 by 1910. According to census figures, Hispanics have made up 40% of the population of Alpine since its founding. Current figures indicate that within the city limits of Alpine, Hispanics comprise 50.2% of the city’s population.
Despite the rich natural resources, life was primitive and hard. As people moved northward from Mexico, including the Ojinaga-Presidio area, they brought with them the skills and knowledge necessary for their survival. According to a paper presented at University of Texas at El Paso in 1994 by Alpine native Xeorxe Cadena Sotelo, “the proto-historic peoples of the southwest had long exploited the natural resources and the integration by the Spanish of most of these adaptive strategies was part of the acculturation process. Common desert plants like ocatillo, candalilla, sotol, bear grass, prickly pear cactus, and peyote were employed in the construction of homes and implements, processed into food and drink, and utilized for medicinal purposes or animal forage.
The landless depended on the abundance of game animals like rabbits or deer to supplement the meat portion of their diet. So much of their diet was what nature provided along with their ability to use their skills and knowledge to survive provided sustenance.” Today, deer, turkey, javelinas, or antelope can be seen in our neighborhoods, surrounding mountains, and valleys.
Homes were simple and built with materials found locally. Cadena writes of adobe bricks being made by taking clay, wetting it to the consistency of stiff mud, adding a binder, and placing the mud in a mold called an adobera until dried.
In Alpine’s early days there was no electricity, indoor plumbing, paved streets, telephones, or automobiles. Horses, wagons, carriages, and steam locomotives were the transportation of the day. People shared the water drawn from their windmill wells, vegetables from their gardens, and they feasted when they slaughtered their pigs, chickens, and the occasional beef. Because of its many windmills, Alpine was known as the “windmill city of the southwest.” With this setting one can romanticize that the barrio was a serene and peaceful place.
Natural disasters have also been part of Alpine’s history. In 1892 a destructive cloudburst nearly destroyed the town. According to the El Paso Times dated September 6, 1892, “Alpine was nearly swept away by a terrible cloud which formed over Devil Mountain, six miles south of town. The water rushed down the mountain in volumes, tearing trees up by their roots, and dashing everything in front of it to death. It ran all over the city, being from three to four feet deep. Burros, heavy timbers, cattle, and horses floating through the town, gave plain evidence of the havoc in the mountains. Mexicans fled from their homes to the low mountains near town and general panic prevailed. Considerable damage was done to the railroad tracks.” On September 3, 1986, a similar cloudburst occurred in the vicinity of Ranger Canyon Northward. The five-inch rain caused major flooding in Alpine and resulted in the deaths of two local Hispanic women.
Religious activities and mutual aid societies were integral threads in the fabric of the Hispanic community. Saint Joseph\’92s Catholic Church of Fort Davis played a major role in the early history of Mexican Americans of Alpine. Father Brocardus, a circuit priest at Fort Davis, traveled by horse and wagon to celebrate Mass and administer the sacraments to the mostly poverty-stricken Hispanics living in Alpine and the area. Dedicated in 1902, the first Catholic church in Alpine was called “Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe.” Prior to 1902, services were held in what church records refer to as “La Capilla de Alpine,” (Alpine Chapel). The chapel was located in front of the former post office and was also the home of freed slave and convert, Green Haver and his Hispanic wife, Martina García. The church today is named Our Lady of Peace and is a diversified and culturally rich parish of 425 families.
On March 1, 1908, the Hispanic elders of Alpine met at the historic school building to organize and establish the Amor Al Trabajo y Union, a mutual aid society. Charter and elected officers of the ATU were: Juan Vega, Pilar Hernández, Wenseslao Gallego, Juan Tercero, Santiago Gallego, Juan Gallego, Jesús Chávez, Roque Elizalde, and Pedro Leyva.
The Josefa Ortiz de Dominguez Sociedad Mutualista Mexicana was established in Alpine on June 10, 1910, and named for a heroine of Mexican Independence. The charter members of the Josefa Ortiz de Dominguez were: Alvina Salinas, María de Jesús Chávez, María Cobos, María López, and Juana and Josefa Cobos.
The goals of the society were to help its members in time of need due to illness, death, tragedy, or unemployment. The societies were a social tool to help members of the community facing adverse economic conditions, prejudice, segregation, and illiteracy. Part of the preamble of the society (translated by John Klingemann) reads:
In this present century of emancipation and progress, the female, that medium of humanity, has taken a very active part in reclaiming her rights. Little by little she is awakening to the end for which nature has created her, and is understanding that she must oblige herself to more noble and have higher goals that, in other times, made her a slave to man.
The woman, opening in the soul of a child the idea of liberty and fraternity, is also at home forming and educating honorable beings as well as instilling a sense of patriotism.
Artifacts from the Josefa Ortiz de Dominguez Sociedad Mutalista Mexicana were presented to Sul Ross on November 14, 2002. They are simple but they represent a history of struggle, sacrifice, caring, and a willingness on the part of the members to take care of each other. For women of their times, their hearts were set on making a difference for the betterment of mankind and for the liberation of women. Other mutual societies later evolved in Alpine and at Toronto, a railroad siding near Alpine: La Cruz Azul Mexicana, (The Mexican Blue Cross), Sociedad Liberal Porfirio Díaz, and The Club Mutualista Miguel Hidalgo.
While matters of the soul and spirit were being tended to by the church and mutual aid societies, the education of the children of the community was seen to by the establishment of public schools in 1901. According to an article in the Alpine Avalanche , public schools opened with about 80 pupils in the Anglo school and about 35 in the Hispanic. In 1907 the Alpine Common School District Number One became the Alpine Independent School District (AISD). Professor George W. Page, a graduate from Yale University, served as the first superintendent. In 1917, the name of the Hispanic school was changed by the school board to Madero Ward, in honor of Francisco I Madero, a leader of the Mexican Revolution. In 1969, the AISD integrated all the district’s schools.
The wooden school structure was small and had no indoor plumbing. The students used an outside faucet for their well water, a wood stove for heating, and separate outside privies. The Hispanic School played a vital role in the formation of the social structure for the Mexican-Americans of Alpine. Fiestas de Diez y Seis and Cinco de Mayo were celebrated at the school The following is a description taken from the Alpine Avalanche of a celebration held September 22, 1910. “Last Friday was gala day among the patriotic Mexican citizens of Alpine for it was given in honor of the100th anniversary of the independence of Mexico. The morning parade was unusually good and included floats and decorated carriages. In the afternoon there was speaking by well known local orators followed at night by a grand ball and festival.”
Since the early wagon and carriage days, our barrio history has changed. Some claim that social change began after World War II,but I believe the change began with the efforts of our ancestors. The Hispanic pioneers helped build the railroad, the schools, make the adobes, and work the ranches. Our long history has fostered hundreds of colorful individuals and distinguished families-some are well known and remembered in folklore and local history. It is a history of hard work, dedication,loyalty,sacrifice,and service. The history is colorful, joyous, sad, and a marvel of its endurance and survival. After120 years, descendants of the early settlers still live in Alpine and in the barrio.
-by B.J. Gallego (from La Vista de la Frontera Vol. 16(1):10.)