Artifacts shed light on the Porvenir massacre by the Texas Rangers

The border areas of Texas and northern Mexico could be a violent place during the Mexican Revolution, which mainly took place between 1910 and 1920.

Factions led by figures such as Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata fought against the established government and then against each other. Civilians were often drawn into the chaos.

In January 1918 a massacre took place in a small village called Porvenir on the border. Texas Rangers and members of the US Army came to the village looking for outlaws who had raided a local ranch weeks earlier. After a search for stolen goods and weapons was unsuccessful, 15 men between the ages of 16 and 72 were led out of the village by the rangers and shot dead.

The massacre largely went down in history until the last decade, as scholars and relatives of those killed tried to figure out exactly what happened. And a recent archaeological discovery shows there’s more to the story than we’ve been told. David Keller, an archaeologist at the Center for Big Bend Studies at Sul Ross State University, spoke to the Texas Standard about it. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited slightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: You recently published a paper describing what you found during an archaeological survey of the Porvenir site, and the results may well change the narrative of what happened that day. What did you unearth so significant?

David Keller: Spring [there were] two things that were significant about it. One is that the artifacts we recovered strongly support the notion that this was the site of the Porvenir massacre. So she confirmed that. And secondly, we found something that surprised us. In addition to the civilian shells fired by the Texas Rangers and ranchers, we found military shell casings and military bullets. So that was the big realization, the big discovery.

Tell us more about what that means. We’re talking about what, the US Army could have been involved in this massacre?

Yes, unfortunately that is what it suggests. You know, it’s not quite the smoking gun because there are scenarios where this could have ended up there without military involvement. But really, the thing is, the dominant narrative for this story was that it was being continued by Texas Rangers and local ranchers, and that the role of the military was marginal, if any. Records indicate that the military led the Rangers to the site but allegedly withdrew themselves during the actual massacre.

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Archaeologists, from left, Amber Harrison, Sam Cason, Tim Gibbs and David Keller inspect an orb recovered from the site of the Porvenir massacre.

Tell us a little bit about these bullet casings and how you followed or followed them during your research.

Yes. So the way we did the survey was to put metal detectors in very specific lines and cross-sections. We did two of these, one at right angles to the other so there was plenty of redundant coverage. So basically every metallic object in that location pinged the metal detectors and then we would tag those artifacts and go back and recover them. The civilian cartridges and military cartridges are very different. Military cartridge cases show the manufacturer and the date stamp on the cartridge case, while civilian cartridge cases show the manufacturer and caliber. So we knew right away that a large number of these cases that we picked up were military.

How does this discovery change what is known about US military activities in the Texas border region during the Mexican Revolution?

Well, if they were involved, that calls into question the accuracy of many of their reports during the Mexican Revolution on the border, knowing that many of the standard military versions of things were not what actually happened. For me it just questions the accuracy of their reports and what they were really up to here at the border.

What happens next? I mean, you published this paper and I know it’s getting more and more attention. It could certainly very well rewrite the narrative of the Porvenir massacre, but also a rather large chapter in US history.

Yes that’s right. I mean, there is no known analogue in my opinion, if this actually happened it changes the narrative of this story dramatically, but it also gives a different twist to the entire US military in the Mexican Revolution, as protectors of the border. It’s a very disturbing fact. So I hope that over time we will find more evidence in documented form that will either confirm this or lead us to a different conclusion.

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