Porvenir Massacre by the Texas Rangers (1918)

The Porvenir Massacre was one of a series of clashes between Mexican-descent men and the Texas Rangers set off by the Mexican Revolution and accompanying events. In January 1918 the residents of Porvenir were landowners and farmers, who raised livestock, grew produce, and raised their families in an arid desert climate. They were making a life in arguably the most challenging environment in Texas. In the mid-1910s Manuel Moralez, for example, owned farmland and raised cotton, and successfully irrigated his crops by diverting water from the Rio Grande. Moralez’s irrigation system helped him expand his venture. Residents also cared about education. Harry Warren maintained a public school where local families sent their children. He had approximately twenty students, boys and girls. Students came from the Bonilla, Flores, Gonzalez, Jáquez, Lares, Moralez, and Nieves families.

On January 24, 1918, a group of Texas Rangers from Company B and local civilians visited the residents of Porvenir while they slept. The posse ordered the residents out of their beds and searched the homes and residents at gunpoint. The posse ordered the families to return home, but took Román Nieves, Nutemio González, and Manuel Fierro as prisoners. On January 26, after two days of captivity, the Rangers released the residents, only to visit them again days later.

In the early morning of January 28, 1918, Texas Rangers of Company B and four local ranchmen—Buck Pool, John Pool, Tom Snyder, and Raymond Fitzgerald—surrounded the residents of Porvenir. With the help of soldiers from the Eighth U.S. Cavalry Regiment, the Rangers and cattlemen woke up the residents and separated fifteen men and boys from their families and neighbors. The unarmed group was taken into custody, denied due process, and executed en masse. The victims included Antonio Castañeda, Longino Flores, Pedro Herrera, Vivian Herrera, Severiano Herrera, Manuel Moralez, Eutimio Gonzalez, Ambrosio Hernandez, Alberto Garcia, Tiburcio Jáques, Roman Nieves, Serapio Jimenez, Pedro Jimenez, Juan Jimenez, and Macedonio Huertas.

In the hours, days, and weeks following the massacre, the surviving families had to decide where to seek safety and where to live. The families abandoned their homes. They crossed into Mexico and received refuge and aid from Mexican troops stationed near the border. The families received permission to retrieve the bodies of their loved ones and bury them in Mexico. The massacre triggered an investigation by the Mexican government. The survivors provided sworn statements, including Juan Méndez, who wrote an official testimony of the massacre for Gen. J. C. Murguía in Ojinaga. He wrote, “as testimony of the men assassinated at Porvenir, Texas and to represent them as a suffering people seeking refuge on the soil of our Mexican home land. . . . General: all the suffering women and families who have become orphans ask aid of you and our Government.” By February 15 the Mexican embassy led a formal protest with Secretary of State Robert Lansing and asked that the State Department charge assailants with responsibility and “to apply to them a well-earned punishment.”

Following the massacre, the Texas Rangers and the ranchmen submitted reports and statements attempting to justify the massacre. They described the residents of Porvenir as “thieves, informers, spies, and murderers.” They accused the victims of being suspects in a raid on the Brite Ranch a month earlier. They provided an account that suggested they came under fire from a group of unknown men hiding in the brush and that they returned gunfire in the dark.

Investigations by Mexican consuls, U. S. soldiers, and the United States State Department found that the victims of Porvenir did not die in a shootout, but were killed while they were unarmed and in Texas Ranger custody. With growing federal and diplomatic pressure, the Texas governor responded to the mounting evidence. On June 4, 1918, Governor William Pettus Hobby disbanded Company B of the Texas Rangers, firing Andrew Charles Baker, Max Herman, Bud Weaver, Allen Cole, and Boone Oliphant, and transferring J. R. Bates, O. C. Dowe, S. H. Neill, A. H. Woelber, A. G. Beard, N. N. Fuller, and Frank Patterson to Company D. He also pressured the captain of Company B, James Monroe Fox, to resign.

On June 11 Captain Fox wrote a heated letter. In the letter he protested his officers being punished because they “unfortunately had to kill any number of Mexican bandits.” Fox accused the governor of giving in to pressure from the Mexican government and accused Hobby of playing politics to secure the Mexican vote in future elections.

The international implications during World War I, then raging, were not lost on Adj. Gen. James A. Harley. He decided to publicly condemn the massacre. On June 12 Harley wrote a scorching letter to Fox. The letter concluded that “15 Mexicans were killed when they were under the custody of your men and after they had been arrested and unarmed. This was proven by all kinds of evidence, even by the confession of those who took part and by reports collected by this office and by Agents of the Government of the United States.” Harley continued that if peace officers denied any person, “whether he be white or black, yellow or brown,” the constitutional right to a trial by jury, then they were illegally constituting themselves as both the judge and executioner. With “all kinds of evidence” the adjutant general condemned the massacre. Harley described Fox’s behavior as entirely unacceptable: “the calamitous rangers and violator of law must not be on the frontier where there may arise political complications which can occasion serious damages to our country and prevent the development of the war in Europe.” Harley charged the men for shooting the victims “without provocation” while they were “defenseless and unarmed.” He continued, while the United States fought in World War I “to overthrow ruthless autocracy,” the state of Texas would not “propose to tolerate it here at home.”

Fox’s forced resignation, firing five Texas Rangers, and disbanding Company B offered a rare occasion when state police faced reprimand and dismissal for extralegal violence. Despite the damning evidence, however, no participants in the massacre were prosecuted for their involvement. On July 19 Mexican ambassador Ignacio Bonillas wrote to Secretary of State Robert Lansing regarding Harley’s letter. He pressed his hopes that “in the judicial investigation there may result not only the resignation of the Captain of the rangers, J. M. Fox, but the punishment which he and the others who are found guilty merit, because this is demanded by justice and the good name of the Federal authorities and of the State of Texas.”

By 1918 protests against state sanctioned anti-Mexican violence had gained momentum in Texas. State representative José Tomas Canales called on the Texas legislature to investigate Texas Rangers accused of murder, denying residents due process, and abusing residents’ civil rights. In January 1919, when a committee of Texas congressmen convened to investigate the state police, Representative Canales introduced the Porvenir massacre as an example of abuse and condemned the act as “cold-blooded murder.” He submitted depositions, testimonies of the survivors, reports, newspaper clippings, and other documents related to the massacre.

In the years that followed the Porvenir massacre, historians like Walter Prescott Webb justified extralegal violence by profiling Mexicans of this era as bandits and a threat to local Anglo ranchers. He also characterized Texas Ranger abuse as the work of rogue untrained agents.

Despite these efforts to justify the violence, the survivors of the Porvenir massacre continued to seek redress years after the initial tragedy. They turned to diplomatic procedures and filed claims through the U.S.–Mexico General Claims Commission of September 8, 1923. The Mexican and U.S. governments bilaterally created the commission to settle the majority of claims of both Mexican and U.S. nationals arising between July 4, 1868, and the start of the commission.

In June 1926, eight years after the event, Mexican attorneys filed twelve separate claims against the United States regarding the Porvenir massacre. After collecting more than 100 pieces of evidence on behalf of the survivors, on February 15, 1935, Mexican attorney Oscar Rebasa filed Concepción Carrasco de González, et al. (United Mexican States) v. the United States of America, on behalf of Concepción Carrasco de González, Jesus García, Victoria Jiménez de García, Librada M. Jáquez, Eulalia González, Juana Bonilla Flores, Rita Jáquez, Severiano Moralez, Alejandra Nieves, Francisca Moralez, Pablo Jiménez, and Luis Jiménez. The Mexican attorneys made three charges: Texas authorities did not give due protection to the men arrested by the Texas Rangers; the local authorities were the material authors and accomplices of the crimes committed at Porvenir; and the state authorities denied justice by failing to apprehend, prosecute, and punish the persons responsible for the murders.

Witnesses and survivors of the massacre, along with their descendants, kept the memories of the tragedy and preserved them a century later. In 2002 the Center for the Big Bend Studies posthumously published a memoir by Robert Keil, a U.S. soldier present on the night of the massacre, Bosque Bonito: Violent Times along the Borderlands during the Mexican Revolution. That same year Juan Flores, just a boy the night of the massacre, sat for an interview for the documentary American Lynching: Strange and Bitter Fruit. On January 28, 2018, the centennial anniversary of the massacre, approximately 400 people gathered at the Texas State Capital in Austin, Texas, to remember those that died. Descendant Arlinda Valencia organized and was the master of ceremonies for the memorial. In 2018 the Texas Historical Commission unveiled a Texas Historical Marker acknowledging the Porvenir massacre as a Texas tragedy.

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