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Was the US Army involved in the 1918 massacre near the Texas border?

In 1918, Texas Rangers and squaddies shot 15 men and boys from the town of Porvenir.  Newly released evidence suggests that the US military may have also been involved in the assassination.

In 1918, Texas Rangers and squaddies shot 15 men and boys from the town of Porvenir. Newly released evidence suggests that the US military may have also been involved in the assassination.

Texas Historical Commission.

There is nothing left of Porvenir.

The tiny frontier town began to disappear on January 28, 1918, the night 15 of its men and boys were held at gunpoint by Texas rangers and vigilant ranchersretreated a short distance and shot.

It is a conventional story, well established and thoroughly corroborated.

But evidence discovered at the Porvenir massacre site in recent years, bullets and shell casings left in the desert, raises a disturbing question: Was the US military involved in the killing?


Located near the border in Presidio County, the West Texas town of Porvenir was made up of farmers and small landowners, mostly of Mexican descent. People are trying to get by in a vast, harsh desert.

“This is one of the most remote areas and remains one of the most remote in the Big Bend, which is very remote in itself,” archaeologist David Keller told McClatchy News. “There were a lot of laws at that time. Today it is.”

Keller, an archaeologist from Big Bend Research Center at the State University of Sulla Rossa has studied the Porvenir massacre site for many years. He and his colleagues the findings were recently published in Journal of Conflict Archaeology.

As the Mexican Revolution raged in the South from 1910 to 1920, the violence often spilled over into the U.S.

But in an era when border brutality was commonplace, the Porvenir massacre stood out for its brazenness and death toll.

The criminals claimed they were seeking justice against those responsible for the Bright Ranch raid by Mexican bandits, one of many raids that swept the US Southwest during the Mexican Revolution, instilling fear in the majority white population of south Texas.

Porvenir almost certainly had nothing to do with the Bright Ranch raid, and no evidence has been found to link him to the brazen attack on Christmas Day.

However, it was an easy target, Keller said.

“The Porvenir massacre was seen as retaliation,” Keller said. “Also, it was probably an act of psychological warfare. And it’s being used to quell widespread fears, especially among the English-speaking population in rural Big Bend.”

If the rangers and squaddies couldn’t get the real criminals, Porvenir had to do it.


It was an international incident.

Under pressure from the Mexican government, US officials launched an investigation.

Even the Texas Rangers, who had operated virtually unsupervised for years, were forced to account for their actions in Porvenir. They became the focus of an investigation that led to some firings but no jail time for all involved.

While about 400 white Texans were killed during this period, according to estimates by the Texas Rangers about 5,000 people died of Mexican origin between 1914 and 1919.

“It was very common for the Texas Rangers to commit crimes like this, but this was the most egregious, and they were known — mostly infamous — for summary judgment,” Keller said.

However, the army received relatively little attention after the massacre.

“The military has never been in the spotlight. They were never investigated,” Keller said. “It’s interesting.”

Another story

Much is unknown about what happened that night.

The generally accepted story is that the Texas Rangers, accompanied by a few civilians, were escorted to Porvenir by US Army soldiers.

But it was believed that the participation of the army ended there. After escorting the rangers, the soldiers left the area and did not participate in the massacre, according to the account of a soldier who was there.

News coverage at the time also exonerated the military. The 1918 edition of the El Paso Morning Times states: “United States The army had nothing to do with this case, and there were no soldiers near this place on the night of the murder. Instead, a number of Mexicans sought and received protection from the military stationed at the Everett Ranch.”

Bullets and shell casings found at the scene of the massacre tell a different story.

Keller and his fellow researchers found that a mix of military and civilian ammunition was used. In addition, ballistics analysis shows that military cartridges were fired from military weapons.

While it’s possible that the rangers and ranchers were simply using military weapons, Keller thinks that’s unlikely.

“At that time there was a shortage of weapons because we were involved in hostilities,” he said. Since America had joined the fray in World War I months earlier, the likelihood that a few Rangers or civilians would be armed with military weapons and gain access to military munitions is slim.

However, “based on the evidence we have, we cannot definitively put these (weapons) into the hands of soldiers,” Keller said.

Porvenir was deserted after the murders. Residents fled across the border to Mexico or elsewhere in Texas.

A few days later, the soldiers returned and leveled the city, burning it to the ground.

“I don’t know why they did it. I don’t know what gave them the right to do that, but it sure looks like an act of erasure to hide and erase the fact that people even lived there,” Keller said. “To me, that makes the military suspicious.”

If the army helped execute the 15 unarmed men and boys, it would not only change the narrative of the Porvenir massacre, but also cast doubt on historical accounts of the military’s role on the border during the bloody era.

“Now, it was very rare for the military to be involved with rangers or civilians in any such effort. I would say that’s unheard of,” Keller said.

“If the military was involved … it calls into question much of the veracity of military accounts across the border throughout the Mexican Revolution … (and) the integrity of people in key leadership positions.”

Almost forgotten

Keller said all physical evidence remaining at Porvenir has been collected at this time.

The village itself is long gone. The site contains the remains of a 1960s mobile home and the foundation of an old cotton gin.

The story of the massacre, like the city itself, quickly disappeared in the following years.

“It was pretty much glossed over and whitewashed in the years after it happened, and I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s not really in the public consciousness,” Keller said.

It wasn’t until 2018, 100 years after the massacre, that the Texas Historical Commission dedicated a marker to the site.

Porvenir could have remained almost forgotten if it were not for the joint efforts of the city’s descendants and historians and archaeologists who refused to let time swallow the truth.

And Keller isn’t done with Porvenir, he said, research will continue.

“There are gaps in our understanding of what happened that night,” he said. “I want to fill in those gaps.”

Mitchell Willetts is a real-time news reporter covering the central US for McClatchy. He is a graduate of the University of Oklahoma and an outdoor enthusiast who lives in Texas.


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