New archaeology could change story behind borderland massacre by Texas Rangers

Findings at the Porvenir site in West Texas call into question the U.S. Army’s involvement in the Mexican Revolution.

Archeologist Sam Cason conducting a metal detecting survey at the Porvenir Massacre site. (Jessica Lutz)

By Michael Marks, The Texas Standard

The borderlands of Texas and northern Mexico could be a violent place during the Mexican Revolution, which was fought primarily between 1910 and 1920.

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

In January of 1918, there was a massacre at a small village along the border called PorvenirTexas Rangers and members of the U.S. Army descended on the village looking for outlaws who’d raided a local ranch weeks earlier. After a search for stolen goods and weapons yielded nothing, 15 men between the ages of 16 and 72 were led away from the village by the Rangers, and shot dead.

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

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Now, you recently published a paper describing what you found during an archeological survey of the Porvenir site, and the findings could well change the narrative of what happened that day. What did you dig up that was so significant?

David Keller: Well [there were] two things that were significant about it. One is that the artifacts that we recovered strongly conform to the idea that this was the site of the Porvenir massacre. So, first of all, it confirmed that. And secondly, we found something that surprised us. In addition to the civilian rounds, which were shot by the Texas Rangers and the ranchers, we found military cartridge casings and military bullets. So that was the big finding, the big discovery.

Tell us more about what the significance of that is. We’re talking about, what, the U.S. Army may have been involved in this massacre?

Yes, sadly enough, that’s what it suggests. You know, it’s not entirely the smoking gun, because there are scenarios whereby this could have ended up there without military involvement. But really, the thing is, the prevailing narrative for this story was that it was perpetuated by Texas Rangers and local ranchers and that the military’s role, if any, was in a minor supported capacity. It is in the record that the military-led the Rangers to the site, but supposedly retreated during the actual massacre itself.

Archeologists (from left) Amber Harrison, Sam Cason, Tim Gibbs, and David Keller inspecting a bullet recovered from the Porvenir Massacre site. (Jessica Lutz)

Tell us a little bit about these shell casings and how you went about tracking them or tracing them as you did your research.

Yeah. So the way we did the survey was we basically use metal detectors in very specific lines and transects. We did two of them, one at right angles to the other, so that there was a lot of redundant coverage. So basically any metallic object in that site pinged the metal detectors, and then we would flag those artifacts and go back and recover them. The civilian cartridges and military cartridges are very different. Military cartridge casings show the manufacturer and the date stamp on the cartridge casing, whereas civilian cartridge casings show the manufacturer and the caliber. So we knew immediately that a large number of these casings that we were picking up were military.

How does this discovery change what’s known about the U.S. military’s activities in the Texas border region during the Mexican Revolution?

Well, if they were involved in this, then it calls into question the veracity of a lot of their reporting during the Mexican Revolution on the border, because they know that a lot of the standard military versions of things were not what actually happened. To me, it just calls into question the veracity of their reports and what they were really up to here on the border.

What happens next? I mean, you’ve published this paper and I know it’s getting an increasing amount of attention. It could very well rewrite the narrative of the Porvenir Massacre, certainly, but also of a fairly large chapter in U.S. history.

Yeah, that’s right. I mean, there’s no known analog to my mind, if this is indeed what happened, so it dramatically changes the narrative of this story, but it also, you know, puts a different spin on the whole U.S. military in the Mexican Revolution, as protectors of the border. It’s a very disturbing fact. So I hope that, as time goes on, we will find more evidence in documented form that either corroborates this or leads us to a different conclusion.

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