Harry Warren's Porvenir Notebook

School teacher's notebook documents Porvenir Massacre

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On the morning of January 29, 1918, school master Harry Warren discovered 15 victims of an act of racially motivated violence perpetrated by a group of Anglo ranchers, lawmen, and soldiers. Warren compiled their names in his notebook, also listing the names of their widows and children. Known as the Porvenir Massacre, it remains one of the largest incidents of state-sanctioned violence in U.S. history.

The tensions that led to the Porvenir Massacre had been building in Texas for some time. When Mexico reluctantly ceded territory at the end of the U.S.-Mexican War in 1848, Mexicans living in what was now the southwestern United States became U.S. citizens. In south Texas, land-owning families of Mexican descent were suddenly faced with an influx of Anglo settlers who coveted their lands and were willing to use unscrupulous tactics to displace them. A Laredo newspaper observed, "The lands which mainly belonged to Mexicans pass to the hands of Americans … the old proprietors work as laborers on the same lands that used to belong to them."

By 1910, long-standing fears and prejudices gave rise to violence when the outbreak of revolution in Mexico fueled immigration into south Texas. As the Revolution gained traction and news of radical activity surfaced, authorities labeled any person of Mexican origin a "bandit." Texas Rangers were sent to patrol the border, but rather than enforcing the law impartially, they participated in and often instigated the killing of hundreds of ethnic Mexicans between 1914 and 1919.

One of the worst incidents of violence by the Texas Rangers against Mexican Americans occurred in Porvenir, a close-knit ranching community located 170 miles southeast of El Paso. On December 25, 1917, raiders from Mexico attacked the L.C. Brite Ranch along the border in west Texas, murdering three people in the process. Although there was no evidence linking Porvenir residents to the raid, local Anglo ranchers and the Ranger commander looked to Porvenir with suspicion. Company B of the Rangers searched the town and its men on January 26, 1918, but found nothing.

Two days later, late at night, some of Company B's Rangers, four local ranchers, and soldiers with the 8th U.S. Cavalry surrounded Porvenir, rounded up 15 unarmed men and boys, and escorted them out of town. The Rangers then shot and killed them execution style. Following the mass killing, some 140 of the residents abandoned their homes and fled in fear.

Harry Warren was a local school teacher with deep ties to both Anglo and Mexican border residents. The morning after the shootings, a Porvenir youth named Juan Bonilla Flores came to get him to look for the missing men. Together they discovered the 15 victims, one of whom was Warren's father-in-law, Tiburcio Jacques. Warren was determined to bring justice to the innocent people of Porvenir. He made detailed notes about the victims and wrote about the execution extensively. In his notebook, compiled quickly upon seeing the bodies of the victims on January 29, he listed the names of the 15 men executed as well as the wives and children they left behind.

A local grand jury failed to indict the participants in the massacre, but Company B was disbanded by Texas Governor William Hobby on June 6, 1918, and publicly reprimanded by Adjutant General James Harley in a letter printed in the Brownsville Herald. Harley's letter to J. M. Fox, the captain of Company B, stated,

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.

Representative José Tomas Canales of Brownsville, shaken by the violence in his district and convinced that the Texas Rangers were acting outside of the law, filed 19 charges of misconduct against the Rangers and requested an investigation before a joint legislative committee. From January 31 to February 13, 1919, more than 90 people testified in front of the Texas Legislature, offering detailed evidence of dozens of killings, torture, and harassment at the hands of the Texas Rangers. In the end, the joint committee ruled that the Rangers broke the law repeatedly and engaged in unwarranted violence. The investigation concluded they were "guilty of, and are responsible for, the gross violation of both civil and criminal laws of the state." The resulting legislation drastically reduced the number of Texas Rangers, but did not call for the prosecution of officers accused of perpetrating or allowing the violence.

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Harry Warren's Porvenir Notebook Artifact from Porvenir
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