Salt Warriors is more than a recounting of a chaotic period in American history.
This fast-paced account not only corrects the record of this historical episode but will also resonate in the context of today's racial and ethnic tensions along the U.S.-Mexico border.Everyone is encouraged to leave comments and/or ask Paul questions. There were a lot of questions I could have asked, but I narrowed it down to five. I hope you’ll come up with more for him!
Welcome Paul Cool.
Helen: Did you know from the start that you wanted to write about this event in history? Or did you decide as you researched?
Paul: While driving across country in 1999, I stopped in El Paso, where I picked up C.L. Sonnichsen’s 60-page book about the Salt War. I was fascinated and thought to expand upon it. I first thought I would write about the Salt War Texas Rangers, who I perceived as not the hapless bunch historians had described. The more research I did, the more I understood that previous tellings had only scratched the surface. The story was big, rich, and very complex. There were so many protagonists acting at cross purposes, and many of them, thankfully, were made for fiction. Somewhere along the way, I realized that I was lucky to have found a tale of community, corruption, and chaos that had never really been told.
Helen: How did you do your research - libraries, court records, interviews with descendants?
Paul: Most of my research was conducted in government archives and university libraries. Previous Salt War historians largely limited themselves to research in Texas and New Mexico. Because I live only an hour away from the National Archives in Washington, over the years I was able to dig up documents related to the conflict that no one had accessed. Library microfilm collections from Baltimore to Seattle yielded hundreds of contemporary news articles—at the time, this was a front-page story coast to coast. And the Internet was essential. Oral traditions of descendants cleared up some mysteries. One descendant graciously shared the only known photo of Salt War Texas Rangers.
Helen: How did you keep track of all your research? For example, did you have a physical file cabinet and filing system or a virtual one?
Paul: I rely largely on both physical and electronic filing systems. I wound up with about two shelves of tabbed binders and several plastic tubs, all filled with photocopied or downloaded documents or transcriptions. I had multiple CDs of almost everything, just in case the home PC crashed.
Helen: Smart man! My hard drive died earlier this year and again last week. Your research probably led you to many sources and places. What "turn" in your research was the most unusual or most unexpected?
Paul: Because so much of the traditional story was just plain wrong, there were many unexpected finds. A series of discoveries revealed that the local Tejanos (Texans of Hispanic origin) had a long history of military service, beginning a century before as presidio soldiers. When the presidio closed down, citizen soldiers regularly defended El Paso, usually against Apaches, but also against the Confederates who attempted to seize their property during their retreat from Glorieta Pass in 1862. Records in the State Archives revealed that the leaders of the 1877 rebellion had been Texas Rangers. This long record of self-defense helped me to realize that the uprising was not an unruly mob action but an organized insurgency by a population used to governing itself and fighting for its way of life. In some respects, they reminded me of the Sons of Liberty and Minute Men of Colonial Massachusetts in 1775.
Helen: Describe your writing process for us.
Paul: I’d like to say that I write a minimum number of words each day, but my schedule is a lot more haphazard. I write when the spirit tells me. Sometimes the well goes dry, but usually I cannot wait to get back to the PC and type. When not writing new material, I regularly re-wrote the draft manuscript.
Throughout the research stage, which lasted right up to the end, I chronologically and thematically organized the personal letters, army and government correspondence, newspaper reports, and other primary documents. From these, I transcribed hundreds of thousands of primary source words—sometimes entire documents, at other times just relevant passages—and similarly arranged these into electronic source documents. This process is inefficient, I suppose, but it helped the material really sink into my consciousness.
Early in this process, I created an outline, identifying what would go into each chapter. Over time, the number of chapters expanded and contracted several times over. Each chapter had points I wanted to make, based upon my evolving understanding of what the story was about. The organizing helped me to lay out a narrative and to identify the quotations I would use to illustrate characters, actions, and interpretations.
Generally speaking, a chronological approach worked best, but this was not always true. The first few chapters were especially difficult to arrange. I repeatedly rearranged information, trying to find the best way to introduce the reader to the various characters and themes. Chapters 8 and 9 are “context” chapters that bring in some key background information not found in the earlier chapters. From Chapter 10 on, the story is straight ahead narrative, largely propelled by the protagonists’ actions. But the hotter the events in El Paso, the more important that conversations, decisions, and even inaction outside the county became. Some national and state politicians, as well as some newspaper editors, sought to use the crisis to bring on a second war with Mexico. Decision makers in Austin, Washington, and at various military headquarters acted based on old, conflicting or otherwise unreliable reports, and so that became a part of the story parallel to the violence in El Paso. As I said, it’s a complex tale, and I incorporated various approaches to make sense of it all.
By 2005, I had created a kitchen-sink draft of maybe 225,000 words. Ultimately, I got it down to 125,000 words, plus the front and back matter. A large book for a university press, but Mary Lenn Dixon, my excellent editor at Texas A&M University Press, supported my desire to tell the whole story from deep background to “whatever happened to.” The process of getting it down to size was painful. Many extended eyewitness accounts had to be chopped. But the tightened book is a better one.
Helen: You cut a hundred thousand words! We’ll end the Q&A here before we all start crying at the idea of chopping that much from a manuscript and open this up to questions from readers. Just click “Comments” and ask away or leave a note.
You can find out more about Salt Warriors: Insurgency on the Rio Grande on the Texas A&M Press website. You can also order a copy there – never too early to think Christmas!
Also, follow Paul on his Blog Book Tour.
Thank you so much, Paul Cool, for stopping by today.
The Comments section is open!