There’s nothing left of Porvenir.
The tiny border town began to vanish Jan. 28, 1918, the night 15 of its men and boys were taken at gunpoint by Texas Rangers and vigilante ranchers, marched a short distance away and shot dead.
That’s the accepted story, well established and thoroughly corroborated.
But evidence unearthed at the site of the Porvenir Massacre in recent years, bullets and shell casings left in the desert, raise a troubling question: Did the U.S. Army participate in the killing?
Situated near the border in Presidio County, the West Texas town of Porvenir was made up of farmers and small-time landowners, mostly of Mexican descent. People trying to get by in vast, rugged desert.
“This is an area that’s one of the most remote and remains one of the most remote in the Big Bend, which is itself very remote,” archaeologist David Keller told McClatchy News. “It was largely a lawless place at the time. It’s that way today.”
Keller, an archaeologist with the Center for Big Bend Studies at Sul Ross State University, has been studying the Porvenir Massacre site for years. He and his colleagues’ findings were recently published in the Journal of Conflict Archaeology.
As the Mexican Revolution raged to the south from 1910 to 1920, violence often spilled over into the U.S.
But in an era when brutality near the border was commonplace, the Porvenir Massacre stood out for its brazenness and its body count.
The perpetrators claimed to be seeking justice against those responsible for the Brite Ranch Raid by Mexican bandits — one of numerous raids that plagued the southwestern United States during Mexico’s revolution, stoking fear in much of south Texas’ white population.
Porvenir almost certainly had nothing to do with the Brite Ranch Raid and no evidence was ever found linking it to the bold Christmas Day attack.
It was, however, an easy target, Keller said.
“The Porvenir Massacre was cast as retribution,” Keller said. “Also, it was probably an act of psychological warfare. And used to quell widespread fears, especially among the Anglo population in the rural area of Big Bend.”
If the Rangers and vigilantes couldn’t get their hands on the true culprits, then Porvenir would have to do.
It was an international incident.
Under pressure from the Mexican government, U.S. officials launched an investigation.
Even the Texas Rangers — who had operated with little to no oversight for years — were forced to account for their actions at Porvenir. They became the main focus of the inquiry, which resulted in some firings but no prison time for anyone involved.
While about 400 white Texans were killed during this period, it’s estimated the Texas Rangers killed as many as 5,000 people of Mexican descent between 1914 and 1919.
“It was very common for the Texas Rangers to commit atrocities similar to this one, but this was the most egregious, and they were known — basically infamous — for issuing summary justice,” Keller said.
However, the Army received relatively little attention in the wake of the massacre.
“The military was never really in the spotlight. They were never really investigated,” Keller said. “That’s curious.”
A different story
There’s much that isn’t known about what happened that night.
The generally accepted story is that the Texas Rangers, accompanied by several civilians, were escorted to Porvenir by U.S. Army soldiers.
But the Army’s involvement was thought to have ended there. Having escorted the Rangers, the soldiers left the area and had no hand in the massacre, according to an account provided by a soldier who was there.
News coverage at the time also absolved the military from blame. A 1918 edition of the El Paso Morning Times reads: “The United States Army had nothing to do with the affair, and no soldiers were near that place the night of the killing. Instead a number of Mexicans sought and received protection from the military stationed at Everett’s ranch.”
Bullets and casings recovered at the massacre site suggest a different story.
Keller and fellow researchers found a mix of military and civilian ammo was used. Further, ballistic analysis shows that the military ammo was fired out of military-issued guns.
While it’s possible the Rangers and ranchers had simply used military weapons, Keller believes this is unlikely.
“There was a shortage of guns at that time because we were involved in a war effort,” he said. With America having joined the fray in World War I months earlier, the odds that multiple Rangers or civilians would be armed with military weaponry and have access to military ammo are slim.
Still, “based on the evidence we have, we cannot definitively place these (guns) in the hands of soldiers,” Keller said.
Porvenir emptied out after the killings. Residents fled across the border to Mexico or elsewhere in Texas.
A few days later, soldiers returned and razed the town, burning it to the ground.
“I don’t know why they did it. I don’t know what gave them the right to do it, but it sure seems like an act of erasure, to cover up and erase the fact that people had even lived there,” Keller said. “To me, it does kind of make the military look a little suspect.”
If the Army helped execute the 15 unarmed men and boys, it would not only change the narrative of the Porvenir Massacre, but call into question the historical record regarding the military’s role along the border during the bloody era.
“Now, for the military to be involved with the Rangers or the civilians in any kind of effort like this was highly uncommon. I would almost say unheard of,” Keller said.
“If the military was involved … it brings into question a lot of the veracity of military reporting all along the border throughout the Mexican revolution … (and) the honesty of people in key leadership positions.”
Keller said what physical evidence was left at Porvenir has all been collected at this point.
The village itself is long gone. The husk of a 1960s mobile home sits at the site, and the foundation for an old cotton gin.
The story of the massacre, like the town itself, quickly faded in the following years.
“It was largely swept under the rug and whitewashed in the years after it occurred, and I think that’s one of the reasons it’s not really in the popular conscience,” Keller said.
It wasn’t until 2018, 100 years after the massacre, that a marker was dedicated to the site by the Texas Historical Commission.
Porvenir may have remained nearly forgotten if not for the concerted efforts of the town’s descendants, and the historians and archaeologists who refused to let time swallow up the truth.
And Keller’s not done with Porvenir, he said, the research will continue.
“There’s gaps in our understanding of what happened that night,” he said. “I want to fill in those gaps.”
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