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Arts & Culture

What’s in a name? An homage to the original Newspaper Tree

by Mark Cioc-Ortega // July 4, 2013 // Arts & Culture

  • Npt photo 1 trees along the acequia looking south on el paso street

    Early residents posted notices on many of the trees that lined the bridge over the El Paso acequia. In this view, the photographer was standing in present-day Pioneer Plaza looking south on El Paso Street. The tree on the far left probably became the "official" newspaper tree, as its shape closely matches subsequent photos of the tree. Some later historians thought the newspaper tree was a cottonwood, but pioneers always called it an ash. Courtesy of the El Paso Historical Society.

  • Npt photo 2 plat of el paso by anson mills in 1859

    Anson Mills included the trees along the El Paso acequia when he drew the 1859 Plat that laid out the streets of El Paso.

  • Npt photo 3 francis parker photo of el paso street circa 1882

    The El Paso Pioneer’s Association used this Francis Parker snapshot of El Paso Street in the 1880s into the iconic photo of early El Paso. The newspaper tree is in the foreground on the left. Courtesy of the El Paso Historical Society.

  • Npt photo 4 el paso street in mid-1880s

    As the city expanded in the 1880s, most of the trees on El Paso Street were felled. The newspaper tree, which can be seen in the left-center foreground jutting into the street, was spared. Courtesy of the El Paso Historical Society.

  • Npt photo 5 el paso street in 1897 showing tree stump

    The newspaper tree was finally cut down in the 1890s. In this 1897 photo of El Paso Street, the stump is barely visible at the base of the telephone pole in the middle of the photo. It was removed in 1905 and given to the Pioneer’s Association. Courtesy of the El Paso Historical Society.

  • Npt photo 6 replica of the original news tree at pioneer plaza

    Chris Fox placed this replica of the newspaper tree in Pioneer Plaza, a short distance northeast of where the actual tree once stood, circa 1940. It was a dead cottonwood that he had taken from Washington Park. It was removed in 1966. Courtesy of UTEP Special Collections, El Paso Times Subject File MS 265.

  • Npt photo 7 the newspaper tree as depicted in the 1949 movie el paso

    In the 1949 movie “El Paso” (directed by Lewis R. Foster and starring John Payne), the newspaper tree formed the backdrop to a murder trial. The director took liberties with history: in the movie, the tree is located down the street from the plaza and it sprawls like a cottonwood. Courtesy of UTEP Special Collections, El Paso Times Subject File MS 265.

  • Npt photo 8 celebration of newspaper tree and el paso movie

    The world premiere “El Paso” was held at the Plaza Theater. As part of the festivities, the actors gathered with El Paso Sheriff Allen George Falby to post a “notice” on the replica newspaper tree. Courtesy of UTEP Special Collections, El Paso Times Subject File MS 265.

Newspaper Tree is named in honor of El Paso’s first news source: a large ash tree that once stood on the southeast corner of Pioneer Plaza. Nobody knows when the tree took root, but it matured on the banks of the El Paso acequia during the 1840s, when the Southwest still belonged to Mexico and the future downtown was known as Ponce’s Ranch. The tree served as the main bulletin board for El Paso residents during the 1850s and 1860s, after the U.S.-Mexican War (1846-1848) put Ponce’s Ranch on the American side of the border. It was called “the newspaper tree,” “the news tree,” the “notice tree,” or simply “the tree.”

El Paso, better known as Franklin in the 1850s, was a sleepy American trading post on the north side of the Rio Grande, across from the thriving town of El Paso del Norte (modern-day Ciudad Juárez). It had no newspaper or telegraph, so the locals used the ash tree to discuss local affairs and to air their grievances. “No citizen of Franklin ever passed the tree without stopping to take a look,” Owen White, El Paso’s first historian, fondly recalled: “Some would look and pass casually and calmly on their way; others would look and hasten home to buckle on an extra six-shooter or two.”

None of the newspaper tree’s bulletins have survived ravages of time, but Anson Mills left a record of one fiery exchange in his autobiography My Story. “I have just been informed that J. S. Gillett, W. J. Morton and J. R. Sipes stated last night to R. Doane and F. Remy that I was an abolitionist, for the purpose of injuring my character,” Mills posted on 6 August 1860: “I denounce these three above-named persons as wilful [sic] and malicious lying scoundrels.” Gillett, Morton, and Sipes posted their response on the following day: “we have only to say that he [Mills] is so notoriously known throughout the entire county as a damned black Republican scoundrel, we deem him unworthy of further notice.” No doubt most bulletins were more mundane, but it is well known that Elizabeth Gillock, the proprietor of the Gillock House (where the Mills Building now stands) posted the names of travelers who were behind in their rent as a way of publicly shaming them.

The tree fell into disuse with the advent of print newspapers in the 1870s and 1880s, but it was kept alive for sentimental reasons even as it began to interfere with foot and wagon traffic on the busy plaza. It was finally felled in the 1890s, leaving only a stump as a reminder to its former glory. In 1905, the stump was removed and given to the Pioneer Association of El Paso County as a historic “relic.” The stump was supposed to find a permanent home in a planned Pioneer Association Museum, but the museum was never built and the stump went missing (along with many other pioneer-era artifacts) in the 1940s.

In the absence of other social media, the newspaper tree served as the political, social, and moral voice of early El Paso. The newly re-launched Newspaper Tree promises to play the same role in our cyber-world of instant communication!

Mark Cioc-Ortega is a Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the author of many books and articles on modern European and American history.

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