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The El Paso region has had human settlement for thousands of years, as evidenced by Folsom points from hunter-gatherers found at Hueco Tanks. The earliest known cultures in the region were maize farmers. At the time of the arrival of the Spanish, the Manso, Suma, and Jumano tribes populated the area and were subsequently incorporated into the Mestizo culture, along with immigrants from central Mexico and captives from Comanchería. The Mescalero Apache were also present.
Spanish explorer Don Juan de Oñate was born in 1550 in Zacatecas, Zacatecas, Mexico and was the first New Spain (Mexico) explorer known to have observed the Rio Grande near El Paso, in 1598, celebrating Thanksgiving Mass there on April 30, 1598 (several decades before the Pilgrims' Thanksgiving). However, the four survivors of the Narváez expedition, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, and his enslaved Moor Estevanico, are thought to have passed through the area in the mid-1530s. El Paso del Norte (the present day Juárez), was founded on the south bank of the Río Bravo del Norte (Rio Grande), in 1659 by Spanish conquistadors. In 1680, the small village of El Paso became the temporary base for Spanish governance of the territory of New Mexico as a result of the Pueblo Revolt, until 1692 when Santa Fe was reconquered and once again became the capital. El Paso remained the largest settlement in New Mexico until its cession to the US in 1848, when Texas took possession of it with the Compromise of 1850.
After the Civil War's conclusion, the town's population began to grow as Texans continued to move into the villages and soon became the majority. El Paso itself, incorporated in 1873, encompassed the small area communities that had developed along the river. In the 1870s, a population of 23 Non-Hispanic whites and 150 Hispanics was reported. With the arrival of the Southern Pacific, Texas and Pacific and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroads in 1881, the population boomed to 10,000 by the 1890 census, the large majority of which were Americans, principally of Texan descent as well as other Americans and a few recent Mexican newcomers ranging from businessmen and priests, to gunfighters and prostitutes. The location of El Paso as well as the arrival of these more wild newcomers caused the city to become a violent and wild boomtown known as the "Six Shooter Capital" because of its lawlessness. Indeed, prostitution and gambling flourished until World War I, when the Department of the Army pressured El Paso authorities to crack down on vice (thus benefitting vice in neighboring Ciudad Juárez). With the suppression of the vice trade and in consideration of the city's geographic position, the city continued into developing as a premier manufacturing, transportation, and retail center of the US Southwest.
By 1910, the overwhelming number of people in the city were Americans creating a settled environment. However, this period was short lived as the Mexican Revolution greatly impacted the city, bringing an influx of refugees – and capital – to the bustling boom town. Spanish-language newspapers, theaters, movie houses, and schools were established, many supported by a thriving Mexican refugee middle class. Large numbers of clerics, intellectuals, and businessmen took refuge in the city, particularly between 1913 and 1915.
Ultimately, the violence of the Mexican Revolution followed with the large Mexican population which had fled into El Paso. In 1915 and again in 1916 and 1917 various Mexican revolutionary societies planned, staged, and launched violent attacks against both Texans and their political Mexican opponents in El Paso. This state of affairs eventually led to the vast Plan de San Diego and a large scale Mexican uprising against Americans which resulted in the murder of 500 white men, women, and children in forty eight hours in the city in March 1916. The subsequent reprisals by local militia soon caused an escalation of violence, raids, counter-raids, and large scale invasions by Mexican irregulars throughout El Paso city proper, the county and the Rio Grande Valley area.
Eventually, a special force of Texas Rangers ruthlessly suppressed the insurgency killing over 5,000 Mexicans by 1917. The small scale civil war had long-term impact on politics in the city as the traditional white El Paso community began excluding the Mexican population, most of whom were recent immigrants and refugees from civic life for the several decades. In turn, due to increased calls for reinforcements to secure the border the US Army took a large presence in the city expanding Fort Bliss and fortifying the border.