For most of her life, Duranguito property owner Benancia Stephenson Ascárate was surrounded by male gold diggers—beginning with her father and at least two of her three husbands.
Benancia’s father Hugh Stephenson was one of the first Anglo newcomers in the El Paso del Norte region who expanded his business networks and properties by marrying into a wealthy Mexican family. He was a Kentucky trapper, hunter and traveling merchant who first arrived here in 1824 and four years later married Juana María Ascárate, the daughter of a Spanish-Mexican family who owned the Ascárate land grant locally, as well as ranches and mines throughout northern Mexico. Juana’s father, General Juan Baptista Ascárate (1776-1851) was born in Spain. He had obtained his land grant for military services rendered to the Spanish throne.
With the help of his new extended family networks, Hugh Stephenson, who Hispanicized his name to “Hugo Estívinson” in official Mexican documents to better integrate himself into Mexican social circles, soon became one of the largest landholders in the region.
At the suggestion of his new wife, Hugh applied for and received a 960-acre estate land grant on the eastern bank of the Rio Grande and named it Concordia, after a town in Missouri where he had spent a large part of his youth. The estate would become a small town of 400 residents, mostly inhabited by the family’s Mexican ranch workers as well as three African American slaves. For a few years after 1867 it was the site of Fort Bliss, known as Camp Concordia. It was also the location of El Paso’s first Catholic Church, San José de Concordia el Alto (which Benancia helped establish) and a cemetery. The first person to be buried at the cemetery was Benancia’s mother, Juana, who died of wounds suffered after being gored by a pet deer in 1856.
Benancia was one of seven children born to the bicultural couple whose extended family connections would help to shape the future history of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez for decades to come. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, many of those influential extended family members would live in homes built by Benancia in Duranguito, known as the First Ward at the time. When Doña Benancia built the first of three homes on Chihuahua Street in 1885, she was one of the wealthiest and most well-connected women in El Paso.
She and her family were deeply affected by major historical developments in the region, including the ongoing conflict with the Apaches and Commanches, the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, and the Civil War. Benancia, whose native language was Spanish, became a personal friend of Benito Juárez during his stay in El Paso del Norte in 1865, when it was declared the provisional capital of Mexico during the war against Maximilian and the French military occupation. She was an economically powerful woman who was extremely active and astute in her real estate dealings throughout her life, but until very recently historians have mostly forgotten about her. As far as we know, no newspaper ever quoted Benancia Stephenson Ascárate, nor did she leave behind any diaries in the eight decades that she lived in the El Paso region.
A Woman With Many Names
Doña Benancia’s name changed several times during her lifetime. Her full name appears in Mexican baptismal records as Benancia Estívinson Ascárate. In American notarial records, where a mother’s maiden name comes before a father’s last name, she was Benancia Ascárate Stephenson. After her first marriage in 1859 to Tejano confederate officer Lt. Joseph Rafael Garza she became Benancia Garza. A year after the death of her first husband, who was killed at the Battle of Mansfield (Red River Campaign) in 1864, she married a Union officer from Massachusetts, Albert H. French. She consequently became Mrs. Albert French. A year after Albert died in 1877, she took on the name of her third husband John B. Leahy. She retained the Leahy last name until her death in April 9, 1918. In her obituary, her name is misspelled as Mrs. Benancia Stevenson (sic) French Leahy. The transmutation of her name and identity did not end with her death however. The headstone over her grave at the Concordia cemetery reads: “Mother: Nancy French.”
When Benancia constructed her first home on 303 Chihuahua Street in 1885, she was married to her third husband John B. Leahy. He was an Irish-American school teacher from Ohio who became a politician and judge after moving to El Paso. (1880 U.S. federal census). Benancia married John in 1879 and he immediately became co-owner of her extensive Concordia estate landholdings, which she had either inherited and purchased from her siblings. The homes on what is today 301 , 303 and 309 Chihuahua Street were built by Benancia Leahy and her husband between 1885 and 1889. The 1888 El Paso County tax rolls showed that she and her husband owned 483 acres of land, most of it from the Concordia inheritance as well as property she later bought in Duranguito, plot 45 of the Mills Division (valued at $5,000). Her total landholdings were valued at $33,000 by the local tax rolls. That was a considerable sum at the time. It would be the equivalent of about $822,000 in today’s dollars.
Historian Nancy González writes that between 1879 and 1888, Benancia and John Leahy signed documents for land transactions more than fifty times. “For the most part,” González notes, “they sold land to Anglos and bought land from Mexicans.” After his marriage, Judge Leahy could now depend entirely on his wive’s inheritance to make a living. Most of his real estate business was conducted from the building on 300 Overland/301 Chihuahua pictured below. Most recently, the Victorian architectural-styled building housed the Flor de Luna art gallery. During the early 1900s, it served as the residence or small business of a newspaper publisher, a famous Chihuahua poet in exile and a grocery store owned by Syrian immigrants. It is one of the buildings that was damaged in September 12, 2017 by a caterpillar bulldozer in violation of a court injunction.
Benancia’s second husband, Albert French, saw an even greater increase in his personal bank roll after his marriage to Benancia. In 1860, Benancia’s father Hugh Stephenson and Simeon Hart were the two richest men in El Paso. Stephenson’s properties are valued at $40,000 and Simeon Hart’s at $350,000 in the 1860 federal census. By 1870, five years after marrying Benancia, Albert French had transformed himself into the wealthiest man in El Paso. His personal fortune was listed as $60,000 in the 1870 federal census. This was a considerable sum for a man whose occupation was described as “Police Lieutenant” in the same census record. His brother in law James Zabriskie also saw his personal fortune skyrocket to $30,000 soon after marrying Benancia’s sister, Adelaide Stephenson Ascárate. Zabriskie was an attorney, originally from California, who would co-lead a famous legal case in the 1870s which made it illegal for non-English speakers to be members of a jury. The Lyles vs State case was argued in front of the Texas Supreme Court and effectively disenfranchised a significant number of El Paso’s Spanish-speaking citizens who would otherwise eligible jurors. As historian Allison Tirres notes, it “permanently altered the balance of power between those of Mexican and [Euro]-American descent in El Paso.”
The Civil War led to the expropriation of the properties of local Confederate merchants and businessmen as a result of the Confiscation Act passed of 1862 and both French and Zabriskie were at the right place at the right time to take advantage of what turned out to be a fortunate turn of events for them. French purchased the Stephenson’s family confiscated lands and returned them to his wife’s family. He and Benancia would later purchase most of the land from her family members, which they would later sell to others.
French and Zabriskie also grew their personal wealth by forming political alliances with influential El Pasoans who assumed control of commerce, the mail service, local businesses and the military. Both former Union officers formed part of the “Customs House Ring,” led by W.W Mills, another Union officer who was the customs collector for Texas, New Mexico and Arizona immediately after the Civl War. He was accused of extending his economic and political influence through corrupt practices, namely, by showing favoritism to certain merchants doing business in Mexico at the expense of others. In the 1870s, French, Zabriskie and Mills would also form part of the El Paso “Salt Ring,” mostly Anglo influentials who privatized the Guadalupe salt mines that had been part of the communal lands for fronterizos from both sides of the Rio Grande for hundreds of years. The dispossessed fronterizo community rose up in arms and held their own against the Texas Rangers, in what became known as the Salt War of 1877.
As a member of the “El Paso Real Estate Trust and Immigration Company,” Albert French’s most profitable business venture was the real estate business. Besides the properties which he jointly owned with his wife, he also purchased the expropriated lands of former Confederates very cheaply and made a handsome profit selling them off to land speculators who were betting on the rapid arrival of the railroads to El Paso.
As if all of this weren’t enough, Benancia’s husband was also in charge of enforcing the law as a police lieutenant. He shot and killed Judge Benjamin Williams in 1869 during a gun fight between influential El Paso Anglos. In 1877 Albert French left the border to be interned at an insane asylum in Austin, Texas, where he died that same year. Perhaps the stress of it all finally caught up to him.
Retrieving Silenced Fronteriza Histories
Because first-hand accounts of Benancia’s thoughts and feelings have yet to be found, we don’t know how she reacted to the tragic end of her second husband nor any of the other significant historical developments she lived through. Historians have to comb the historical record with extreme thoroughness to gather scattered bits and pieces of information about the personal and public lives of fronteriza women during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Whenever they garner any mention at all in official histories, these fronterizas are usually relegated to the background as the supportive women behind their celebrated husbands. Benancia’s mother Juana Ascárate, for instance, is mentioned in historical accounts by Anglo authors for the great kindness and services she rendered to the prisoners of the failed Texas-Santa Fe Expedition of 1841, during their passage in captivity through Paso del Norte area—but not much else.
Until recently, these accounts had failed to mention the kind of agency and contributions to the regional economy noted by contemporary historians such as Nancy González, who writes: “Juana María [Ascárate], along with many other Mexican women across class lines, contributed to the economic growth of the region. Records indicate that women merchants registered their cattle brands with the municipal courts to protect their rights to their livestock, demonstrating that they were willing to meet the challenges of the commercial economy without being totally dependent on men for their survival. Working class men that worked on the trail as cooks, drivers, herders, muleteers, and servants were also gone for extended periods, and their wives stayed behind and watched over the family. Women worked outside the home where they were integrated into the economy as laborers, domestic servants, bakers, seamstresses, laundresses, curanderas/healers, midwives, and prostitutes.”
Contemporary historians refer to Juana Ascárate and her daughter Benancia as part of the “greeter generation,” who “facilitated the transition of men from another culture and assisted in the commercial conquest of the borderlands.” (See Deena González, Refusing the Favor).
Benancia Stephenson Ascárate was a woman who learned to negotiate from behind the gendered scenes by taking advantage of the economic power she inherited from her mother and father. In the process, she wittingly or unwittingly participated in the political and economic disenfranchisement of the fronterizo community, including the Spanish-Mexican elite that “greeted” and collaborated with the Anglo newcomers to El Paso in the nineteenth century. Her extended family on both sides of the border would play crucial roles in the history of colonization, political marginalization, dispossession and gendered, racial and class hegemonies of the frontera during this period.
Many of these individuals lived in the three buildings Benancia built in Duranguito. The transnational networks that we can trace by paying close attention to the physical landscape and material culture (including archaeological) of these Duranguito sites are both spatial and familial. They help us understand the role that extended family and neighborhood networks played in the formation of local and regional power dynamics. These landmarks and sites of memory that are under the threat of demolition today offer invaluable primary sources to the early history of our binational border communities.
We need to recover these mostly forgotten, complicated and problematic narratives not because they should necessarily be celebrated, but because they teach important lessons about who we are today and how we got here.
Like “Benancia ‘Nancy’ Stephenson Ascárate Garza French Leahy,” our fronterizo community has also gone under many names and identities throughout its history.
Her story is our story as well.
Bibliography & Archival Sources:
Nancy González, “Reinventing the Old West: Concordia Cemetery and the Power Over Space, 1800-1895” (UT El Paso, Ph.D. dissertation, 2014); Deena González, Refusing the Favor: The Spanish-Mexican Women of Santa Fe, 1820-1888 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001); United States Federal Census (1860, 1880, 1900, 1910); El Paso County Tax Rolls (1854-1894); El Paso Times (1888-1918); El Paso Herald (1881-1918); El Paso City Directory (1885-1918); Stephenson-Flor Manuscript Collection, UTEP Special Collections Department.
Nota: este artículo fue publicado primero en Paso del sur https://www.facebook.com/PasoDelSurEP/
Juárez Dialóga ha invitado a David Dorado Romo a participar con su trabajo por ser una persona comprometida con la historia y la vida cultural de la frontera entre Juárez y El Paso. David es un activista, es ensayista, historiador, traductor y músico. Escribió entre otros Ringside Seat to a Revolution; otros textos suyos se pueden encontrar, además de en Paso del sur, en el Texas observer.