Memory  /  Origin Story

The Racist History Behind El Paso’s XII Travelers Memorial

Protesters in El Paso have focused on toppling The Equestrian, a monument to a racist colonizer. But the story behind the monument goes deeper.

There is another connection between El Paso’s Oñate statue and some of the Confederate statues in other parts of the country: the role of the Ku Klux Klan in the creation of these monuments. In El Paso, the racist history writ large behind the XII Travelers Memorial series goes back more than a century, and involves a long line of artists, politicians, and city boosters with ties to the Ku Klux Klan.

One of them was El Paso Mayor Tom Lea, Sr., who in 1915 proposed the construction of a 30-foot-high monument made of marble or granite stone in honor of white “pioneers who made El Paso.” Lea allocated $500 from city funds—about $12,000 today—and expected to raise $4,000 more from private donations. The largest race riot in the city’s history took place during Lea’s administration. Lea was one of the city’s most prominent members of the Ku Klux Klan at a time when the klan focused its recruitment efforts on the most influential citizens of the white community. The klan conducted several cross burnings on the Franklin Mountains, in the northern section of the city, and an estimated 3,500 El Paso Anglos joined the racist vigilante group that year.

Joseph Waller, an El Pasoan who made tombstones for a living, submitted sketches for a “Pioneer Monument” that ignored the contributions of Indigenous and non-white populations who lived in the region before the white migrants. For unknown reasons, the proposed pioneer monument was never erected at City Hall. But two decades later Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of Mount Rushmore and a high-ranking member of the Ku Klux Klan, proposed an even more grandiose monument to the region’s white colonizers. Borglum, the son of a Mormon polygamist of Danish origin, was a fervent white supremacist who was deeply concerned that “mongrel hordes” would defile the “Nordic purity” of the nation through uncontrolled immigration. During the 1920s he was one of six klan leaders who formed part of the organization’s national ruling body, the Imperial Koncilium. In 1922, the famous sculptor arranged a meeting at the White House between President Warren Harding and his good friend Hiram Evans, the KKK’s Imperial Wizard. Borglum later denied being a member of the klan or of the Koncilium, but as his biographers have pointed out, his denial “was only for public consumption.”

In 1934, Borglum came to El Paso to sell his vision of a huge monument carved on a mountainside in honor of “the first white men in Texas.” His idea was a giant bas-relief at Hueco Tanks State Park where the projected figures of the Europeans would be cut from the surrounding stone. The Hueco Tanks mountains are 32 miles east of El Paso and have a long relationship with Indigenous people before and after contact with European settlers. Mansos, Sumas, Mescalero Apaches, Tiguas, Piros, Comanches, Kiowas, as well as earlier tribes have lived and visited there on and off for thousands of years. But in Borglum’s proposed monument, Native people would merely be “in the background.”