the rambling boy
Uncovering the truth of the Porvenir massacre
By LONN TAYLOR
History is not static. New evidence can lead historians to new conclusions. On the Saturday before Thanksgiving I was shivering in a cold wind on the Texas side of the Rio Grande south of Lobo, watching that happen. A film crew was filming a group of archaeologists at work and interviewing historian Glenn Justice about what they were doing. I was there as the guest of former Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who was one of the organizers of the expedition. We were reinvestigating the darkest deed in the history of the Big Bend, the Porvenir Massacre, at the place where it happened, the village of Porvenir, home to about 140 people before it was abandoned on January 28, 1918 following the murder of 15 of its male residents.
The Porvenir Massacre took place at the height of the border troubles, a period of raids and retaliatory expeditions back and forth across the Texas-Mexico border that was a little-known aspect of the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920. The accepted account of the incident, published in Glenn Justice’s Revolution on the Rio Grande (El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1980), is that on the night of January 27, 1918 a group of Texas Rangers and some soldiers from Troop G, 8th U.S. Cavalry went to Porvenir on the suspicion that some of the men living there had participated in a raid on the Brite Ranch the preceding month. When they reached the village the soldiers searched the houses for loot from the Brite Ranch store but they found nothing incriminating. The rangers then asked the soldiers to withdraw a short distance away so they could question the residents in Spanish. As soon as the soldiers were out of sight, the rangers marched 15 men and boys, aged 16 to 72, to a bluff outside of town and shot them. The soldiers heard the shots and heard the rangers riding away, and when they went back they found 15 bodies at the foot of the bluff. The next morning the women of the village took the bodies across the river to Mexico and buried them in a mass grave. The survivors abandoned the village, and a few days later the soldiers returned and burned all of the houses. Although there was an investigation of the incident by the Texas Legislature and several of the rangers involved were fired, no one was ever indicted for the murders.
When Justice wrote about the massacre he relied heavily on the testimony in the 1919 legislative investigation and on a memoir written by one of the soldiers who was present, Private Robert Keil, 40 years after the event. Justice was troubled by an inconsistency in the sources. Although Keil said that the soldiers, led by Captain Henry Anderson, had accompanied the rangers to the village the night of January 27th, the official army report of the incident made no mention of the army’s presence that night and said that the bodies were discovered by a patrol the next morning. Justice also could not understand why the army had burned the village after it was abandoned.
Justice, who taught history at Midland College and at the University of Texas Permian Basin in the 1980s and 90s, found himself drawn back to the site of the executions and revisited it several times. He noticed spent cartridge shells scattered on the ground where the executions had taken place, and he realized that among the .45 shells that had been ejected from the ranger’s .45 single-action Colt revolvers were shells from the 30-06 Springfield rifles carried by the military, cartridge cases which bore the stamp of the Frankfort, Kentucky arsenal. This was ammunition that was theoretically only available to the military. The evidence that Justice found over several trips indicated that the soldiers who had accompanied the rangers to Porvenir had taken an active part in the executions, rather than withdrawing from the scene, as Kiel’s memoir had claimed. Justice then began to speculate that the official army report had been a cover-up, and that the soldiers had destroyed the village to eliminate any evidence of their participation in the shootings, and that Kiel’s memoir obscured the truth.
Jerry Patterson got involved when he read Justice’s book two years ago and was struck by the parallels between the situation on the border during the Mexican Revolution and the climate of fear about the border that is being promoted by politicians today. He called Justice, and in their discussions Justice expressed doubts about his 1980 conclusions. Together they evolved the idea of making a documentary film about the earlier border troubles, with an archaeological survey of the Porvenir site to try to uncover more evidence of what really happened there as the focus of one episode. David Keller, a senior project archaeologist at Sul Ross’s Center for Big Bend Studies, volunteered to use his own time to assemble a team of archaeologists, and Patterson recruited Houston filmmaker Ford Gunter to shoot the film.
When I visited the group they were just beginning their work. They stayed at Porvenir for 3 days, sleeping in their pickup trucks and in tents pitched in the brush. Keller reports that they not only found more military shell casings, some of them scattered in a line in front of the bluff that might indicate a firing line, but that they also recovered some jacketed .45 automatic bullets, a type used only by the army in their 1911 Model Colt automatic pistols. Keller summed up their findings to me by saying, “All I know is what I found on the ground, and what I found implicates the military.” Glenn Justice is rethinking his 1980 conclusions.
When I wrote a column about the Porvenir Massacre several years ago and suggested that the Texas Historical Commission should erect a marker at the site with the names of the murdered men on it, I received a phone call from a very old man in Uvalde who told me that he had been 6 years old at the time of the massacre and that his father was one of the murdered men. “Some of us think there should be a sign there with the names of the men who did the murders on it,” he told me. That list of names may have just gotten longer.
• • •
Lonn Taylor is a historian and writer who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Story filed under: West Texas Talk