Amateur historian continues to raise awareness of Porvenir Massacre

PRESIDIO COUNTY –– In 2019, Jerry Patterson helped create a documentary about the little-known 1918 massacre in Porvenir, Texas, in which 15 unarmed Mexican and Mexican Americans, boys and men, were shot and killed by Texas Rangers and local ranchers. Two years later, Patterson is back in West Texas to obtain the official death certificates of those who were extrajudicially executed at the hands of officers of the law, further shedding light on this dark stain in Texas history.

In the early hours of January 28, 1918, a group of Texas Rangers, U.S. Army Cavalry and local ranchers entered and searched homes in Porvenir after suspecting –– with little to no evidence –– that some of the town’s residents took part in a raid on the Brite Ranch a month before in which bandits stole thousands of dollars worth of goods and killed three people, two of whom were Mexican.

After rounding up the 15 residents, the vigilantes led those captured just outside the town where they shot and killed them all.

Soon after the massacre, all of the residents abandoned the town, leaving no one to submit a death certificate on the victims’ behalf to the county. In more usual cases, a funeral home director or a physician whose patient died in their care submits an application for a certificate of death to the county courthouse. Yet, the family members of those slain had fled and the bodies were transported over the Rio Grande where they were buried in a mass grave. “Nobody went to the courthouse in Marfa to file a death certificate,” Patterson said. “There wasn’t anybody left around to do it.”

One hundred three years later, Patterson, a former land commissioner and state senator, is finally trying to get these deaths on the record. “I want to close this,” he said. “It’s a kind of closure, a final chapter.”

When and if Patterson is able to obtain these death certificates, he plans to share them with the families of those who were murdered. “This is for those descendants who have contacted me and others to say, ‘Well can we get a death certificate?’”

Yet, filing for a death certificate in Texas more than a year after someone’s death can prove a bit tricky. According to Texas law, an affidavit from a funeral director or the last attending physician needs to be submitted alongside the application to the county’s probate court. If neither of those are possible, as is the case in the Porvenir massacre, then there needs to be two separate affidavits from someone acquainted with the facts surrounding the death at the time the death occurred and from another person who has “personal knowledge of the death facts, but who is not related to the deceased by blood or marriage,” the application form reads.

“The legislature felt it necessary to have a little bit more of a rigorous process for someone who died sometime ago. And there’s no body. There was no funeral home director and there was no attending physician,” Patterson said.

While Patterson hasn’t been able to provide affidavits from someone currently living, he does have evidence that proves these executions did in fact occur.

A year after the massacre, the Texas House and Senate conducted a joint investigation into criminal misconduct within the Texas Rangers, a portion of which looked into the events that transpired in Porvenir. While the investigation did not result in criminal charges, the transcript from the hearings did name the two boys and 13 men that were killed that morning. “I have copies of that [transcript] as evidence because a judge can’t issue death certificates without some evidence,” Patterson said.

County Attorney Rod Ponton said on Monday that he hasn’t had a chance to look over the application yet. “All I can say is that the documents will be carefully reviewed and the county will comply with the law,” he said. “By the end of the week, I’ll have reviewed them and maybe approved them or not.”

That said, one family of a victim from the massacre has already managed to obtain a death certificate, according to County Judge Cinderela Guevara, who is in charge of signing off on the certificate. The descendants of Longino Flores successfully filed for Flores’ death certificate in 2018 when the Texas Historical Commission installed a historical marker to honor the victims of the massacre.

Guevara said that at the time of the ceremony she misunderstood the law for certifying death certificates and that the county didn’t follow the state statutes to the letter. “That was a mix up so they [Flores’ descendants] were kind of fortunate to get those,” she said.

Despite this, Patterson is not discouraged, saying that an official government document from around the time of the massacre, like the transcripts from the legislature’s investigation, should satisfy the requirements set by the law.

“What piques my interest more than anything else, and I’m kind of an amateur historian, is little-known obscure history of Texas. And this is one of those things,” Patterson said, adding that if all goes well, finally, after 103 years, there will at least be a death certificate for the 15 Porvenir residents who were massacred.