Newly-published archaeological findings complicate narrative of Porvenir massacre

PRESIDIO COUNTY — In September, an archaeological paper was published that could challenge the prevailing narrative of the Porvenir Massacre, the extrajudicial killing of 15 men and boys of Mexican descent in Presidio County in 1918. The findings outlined the exact site of the massacre and doubled the number of artifacts that remain from the tragic night, suggesting the United States military was more involved than previously thought. 

Senior project archaeologist David Keller of the Center for Big Bend Studies authored the paper, with help in the field from a small team of Big Bend locals. The project was privately funded and kicked off in 2015. “​​This project represents the first and only archaeological investigation of this important site and challenges the long-standing historical record in presenting material evidence that suggests military involvement,” Keller wrote in his abstract. 

Porvenir was a small community near the Rio Grande north of Candelaria and southwest of Valentine. In the early 20th century, its hundred-odd residents were primarily landowners and their families, who raised crops and cattle of their own as well as serving as hired hands on Presidio County’s larger ranches. The town’s demographics were almost entirely Mexican — the only white man in Porvenir was the school teacher. 

Those demographics made Porvenir an easy target during the waning days of the Mexican Revolution, when numerous cross-border raids earned the region a reputation as “the Bloody Bend.” Many of the larger, more prosperous settlements — like Candelaria and Marfa — were dominated by white land and business owners, who set the tone for local politics and racial mores. 

On Christmas Day, 1917, Mexican bandits attacked the Brite Ranch outside of Marfa. The Brite Ranch was home to a general store that served the more remote reaches of Presidio County. The raiders made off with as many stolen goods as they could, and the U.S. Cavalry pursued them all the way into Pilares, Chihuahua, where 18 of the raiders were killed

The Brite Ranch raid was widely used to defend the tragic events in Porvenir just a few weeks later. On January 28, 1918 — as the story goes — each household in Porvenir was woken up by a posse of Texas Rangers and local ranchers, who rounded up the men and teenage boys and shot them at close range. “The entire bluff was stained with blood and human tissue,” wrote historian Monica Muñoz Martinez in her book The Injustice Never Leaves You. 

Martinez’s research involved tracking down relatives and descendants of the victims of the massacre. The descendants ultimately applied for a historical marker through the Texas Historical Commission’s Undertold Markers program, which aims to fill “historical gaps” and highlight the history of the state’s minority communities. 

Securing a highway marker for Porvenir was a battle on its own. Several local ranching families and the Presidio County Historical Commission opposed the text of the marker and stalled its installation, concerned that the marker was a form of weaponized identity politics by “militant Hispanics.” Four years later, the marker was officially unveiled along highway 90 between Marfa and Valentine in November of 2018. 

The controversy over the marker highlighted stark contrasts in how the event is remembered — or more frequently, forgotten — by different factions in Presidio County. Keller expressed the same concerns at the outset of the project. “The project was initially approached with the assumption that the site’s integrity had been seriously compromised and that most of the massacre artefacts had already been collected,” he wrote. 

Both the descendants of local ranching families and the descendants of the men killed at Porvenir agree that Company B of the Texas Rangers was heavily involved — Governor Hobby disbanded the company, and the massacre was a part of a larger investigation into Ranger misconduct that ultimately bore no consequences for anyone involved. 

The prevailing narrative is that the Rangers and the ranchers were escorted to the scene by a group of 12 soldiers from Group G of the 8th Cavalry, but that the cavalrymen didn’t commit the actual murders. The soldiers returned a few days later and torched the abandoned settlement — the widows and children left behind went into hiding across the river, where they buried their family members and neighbors in a mass grave. 

The findings of Keller’s team turned that narrative on its head. The catalog of artifacts from the investigation revealed that around 20% of the bullets and casings found at the scene came from civilian firearms, and 61% came from military-issued firearms. An additional handful of artifacts require further study, but the researchers believe that these may also have come from military-grade weapons. 

In an interview with the Texas Standard, Keller cautioned against using his findings as “a smoking gun” — more research is needed before the narrative can officially be rewritten. The dig site, a “100 year old cold crime scene,” still contains many mysteries that may never be solved. “Many, if not most of the bullets remained in the victims,” he wrote. 

To know for sure, the team would have to locate — and exhume — the mass grave across the river, which comes with its own complications. Beyond the question of getting the necessary permits from the Mexican government, Keller expressed moral opposition to that project — he didn’t see the point when the manner of death was well-established and hesitated to inflict additional suffering onto the descendents of the massacre. 

Even with these larger questions looming in the background, the team felt that healing progress had been made. “The archaeological findings confirmed a story that many descendants had been quietly holding for the past century and acknowledged the terrible loss of human life and the intergenerational trauma that it spawned,” Keller wrote. “In this way, the project contributed to a larger reckoning with structural violence towards people of Mexican descent that has been endemic to the borderlands for generations.”