Some of the worst racial violence in United States history took place along the Mexico-Texas border from 1910 to 1920
The dead included women and men, the aged and the young, long-time residents and recent arrivals. They were killed by strangers, by neighbors, by vigilantes and at the hands of local law enforcement officers and the Texas Rangers. Some were summarily executed after being taken captive, or shot under the flimsy pretext of trying to escape. Some were left in the open to rot, others desecrated by being burnt, decapitated, or tortured by means such as having beer bottles rammed into their mouths. Extralegal executions became so common that a San Antonio reporter observed that “finding of dead bodies of Mexicans, suspected for various reasons of being connected with the troubles, has reached a point where it creates little or no interest. It is only when a raid is reported or an American is killed that the ire of the people is aroused.”
Terror spread far beyond the ranks of those killed. “One or more of us may have incurred the displeasure of some one, and it seems only necessary for that some one to whisper our names to an officer, to have us imprisoned and killed without an opportunity to prove in a fair trial, the falsity of the charges against us,” pleaded residents of Kingsville in a telegram to President Woodrow Wilson in 1916. “[S]ome of us who sign this petition, may be killed without even knowing the name of him who accuses. Our privileged denunciators may continue their infamous proceedings — answerable to no one.”
Far from being surreptitious, the violence was welcomed, celebrated, and even instigated at the highest levels of society and government. As thousands fled to Mexico and decapitated bodies floated down the Rio Grande, one Texas paper spoke of “a serious surplus population that needs eliminating.” Prominent politicians proposed putting all those of Mexican descent into “concentration camps” – and killing any who refused. For a decade, people would come across skeletons in the south Texas brush, marked with execution-style bullet holes in the backs of their skulls.
The true toll will never be known, though scholars from the 1930s to the present have given estimates of from several hundred to five thousand killed.
Towards the cataclysm
Changes in both state governance and the border set the stage for the cataclysmic violence. By the early twentieth century, people of Mexican descent had become a small minority in the state of Texas as a whole, perhaps no more than five percent of the state’s population. But in border enclaves they remained an overwhelming majority of the population. In these enclaves, although much of their land had fallen into the hands of Anglos, unlike in most of the rest of the state, ethnic Mexicans voted, held office, and served on juries. Some were prominent landowners and merchants. Anglo-Americans moving into the region were more likely to adapt themselves to border society by such means as learning to speak Spanish, converting to Catholicism, and marrying into Mexican families, rather than to insist on assimilation to Anglo-Texan cultural norms.
In the early twentieth century, new railroads and road connections linked these border enclaves to the rest of Texas, inciting dramatic change. Particularly in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, at the southern tip of the state, large numbers of white Americans moved to the region for the first time, so many that the population nearly doubled within just a few years. Rising land values and the consequent increased property tax bills worked together with title disputes to strip many ethnic Mexicans of their land. As a Laredo newspaper observed in 1910, “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.”
The newcomer farmers showed little respect for the enduring economic, cultural, and political power held by ethnic Mexicans in South Texas. They increasingly turned to the tactics of segregation and disfranchisement, drawing on statewide measures such as the poll tax and whites-only primary targeted at African Americans across the South.
The turbulence of the Mexican Revolution (1910-20) exacerbated an already tense situation. Over the course of the decade, nearly a tenth of the Mexican population would perish and another tenth would flee to the United States, setting into motion a pattern of migration that endures a century later. One such migrant, Antonio Rodríguez, was accused of killing an Anglo ranching woman near Rocksprings, Texas, in November 1910. A mob took him from the jail and burned him at the stake, prompting official complaints from Mexican consuls, international press coverage, protests in border towns and Mexican cities, and a meeting the next year by Texas Mexicans to protest the denial of their civil rights. Moreover, the rise and fall of various revolutionary factions in the next decade heightened political ferment within the Mexican-American community. Armies seeking the redistribution of land in Mexico both unsettled south Texas’ Anglo farmers and provided them with a rationale for suppression of remaining Mexican-American political rights.
Border turmoil became the sparks that ignited a brutal period of repression. Scattered attacks on ranches, irrigation works, and railroads by ethnic Mexicans quickly developed into a local rebellion in the Valley. They appeared to be the fulfillment of a manifesto entitled the “Plan de San Diego” drafted in South Texas in early 1915. This document called for a “liberating army of all races” composed of Mexicans, blacks, and Indians to kill all white males over age sixteen and overthrow United States rule in Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and California. The newly-freed territory would form an independent republic, perhaps to rejoin Mexico at a future date. The insurrectionists killed only a handful, but prompted indiscriminate reprisals.
The Role of the Rangers
Texas Rangers played a key role in these atrocities. On September 28, 1915, for example, after a clash with about forty raiders near Ebenoza, Hidalgo County, the victorious Rangers took about a dozen raiders prisoner and promptly hung them, leaving their bodies in the open for months. Several weeks later, on October 19, after a dramatic attack derailed a passenger train heading north from Brownsville, Rangers detained ten ethnic Mexicans nearby, quickly hanging four and shooting four others. Cameron County sheriff W.T. Vann blamed Ranger Captain Henry Ransom for the killings. Vann took two suspected men from Ransom and placed them into his custody and likely saved their lives. Both proved to be innocent of any involvement.
This was not Ransom’s first such action: a month before, on September 24, he casually shot Jesús Bazan and Antonio Longoria as they rode by the site where a raid had occurred. Ransom left the bodies exposed, shocking Rancher Sam Lane (himself a former Ranger) and young Anglo ranch hand Roland Warnock, who helped to bury Bazán and Longoria several days later. That fall, Ransom made a habit of running ethnic Mexicans out of their homes as he patrolled the countryside. At one point he casually reported to Ranger headquarters in Austin that “I drove all the Mexicans from three ranches.”
Former Rangers were also among the worst perpetrators of violence. A.Y. Baker, a Ranger involved in disputed shootings of Mexican suspects during the previous decade, had left the Ranger Force to become Hidalgo County’s sheriff by 1915. He also developed a similar reputation for casual racial violence. Many sources named him as the instigator of the September 1915 mass hanging. Decades later, a soldier deployed by the National Guard in 1915 who stayed in the Valley recalled that he witnessed Baker “killing three guys, three Mexican fellows in cold blood . . . that’s the kind of man A.Y. Baker was. He was killing Mexicans on sight.”
A large portion of the United States military was mobilized and deployed on the Texas-Mexico border because of the violence unleashed by the Plan de San Diego. Military officers became increasingly alarmed at the conduct of the Rangers and other law enforcement officers. As mass executions began, the Secretary of State telegraphed Texas governor James Ferguson to enlist his support in “quieting border conditions in the district of Brownsville” by “restraining indiscreet conduct.” This oblique reference to lynchings was soon replaced by more pointed and adamant condemnations of state officials, such as General Frederick Funston’s threat to put South Texas under martial law so as to restrain vigilantes, Rangers, and local law enforcement personnel.
After a brief resumption of a few raids in the spring of 1916, the uprising associated with the Plan de San Diego ended. But the Rangers’ involvement in subordinating ethnic Mexicans continued. In May of 1916, José Morin and Victoriano Ponce were arrested in Kingsville on suspicion of plotting a raid, and disappeared after Ranger Captain J. J. Saunders took custody of them. Thomas Hook, a local Anglo attorney, helped residents prepare a telegram to President Woodrow Wilson asking for federal intervention to safeguard their rights. Soon thereafter, Saunders pistol-whipped Hook in a courthouse hallway.
The entry of the United States into World War I brought changes to the Ranger force that heightened this kind of retaliation against the exercise of political rights by Mexican Americans.
The State expanded the Ranger force, increasing the number of Rangers from seventy-three to more than one hundred and thirty.
Moreover, legislation empowered the governor to appoint three “Loyalty Rangers” in each county in order to monitor anti-war activity. In South Texas, these loyalty Rangers participated in an unprecedented assault on Mexican-American voting rights. In the 1918 election, for example, Rangers reduced the number of votes cast in Alice, Texas from some three hundred in an earlier primary to only sixty-five in the general election. “The former large number of Mexicans who have voted in previous elections was conspicuous by their absence,” noted one observer. “They did not congregate at the polls, but up town they gathered in small groups and discussed among themselves this new thing of being watched by the Rangers.” Voting across south Texas plummeted when Rangers were deployed. Rangers also harassed, disarmed, and humiliated Mexican American office holders such as Cameron County Deputy Sheriff Pedro Lerma. Rangers entered Lerma’s home while he was absent, “frightened his wife and daughters to death.” Other Mexican Americans in similar positions were forcibly disarmed; one was hung by the neck twice.
A new, more brutal white supremacy had come to the border.
Voices of Conscience
The killings did not go uncontested. People of conscience took enormous risks to stop the violence and to expose it. Brownsville lawyer and local historian Frank Cushman Pierce became disturbed by the wanton killing of innocent people in the summer of 1915, as the wave of violence began to rise. He began keeping a list, which would come to include one hundred and two named victims by name, based almost entirely on his own investigations in southern Cameron County in 1915 and 1916. Pierce confronted one of the worse vigilantes, agricultural developer Lon Hill, and ensured that the Mexican consul had a copy of the list so that one day perhaps Hill would be charged for his crimes. (He never was; indeed, none of the perpetrators of this violence was ever brought to justice). Cameron County Deputy Sheriff W.T. Vann strenuously objected to Ranger and state authorities in 1915 and 1916. He openly broke with them in 1918, arresting three Rangers for the murder of Florencio García, an agricultural laborer whose bullet-riddled body was found several weeks after his arrest by Rangers, who claimed to have released him.
The most dramatic effort to hold authorities accountable came in early 1919, in what became known as the Canales Hearings. In early 1919, State Representative José Tomás Canales, the only Mexican-American legislator, filed a bill intended to prevent a repeat of the Ranger actions of the previous years by dramatically restructuring the force. His legislation eliminated the Loyalty Rangers, reduced the force to twenty-four men (or eighty in an emergency declared by the governor), required Rangers to have experience as law officers, to demonstrate a record of good conduct and obedience to the law in their home counties, to post large bonds, and mandated that they were subject to dismissal if country authorities filed complaints of maltreatment of prisoners.
To make the case for his bill, Canales filed nineteen charges against Rangers and their commanders. The killings were finally discussed in the public eye.
The Ranger Force’s backers mounted a ferocious counterattack, impugning Canales’ credibility and indeed his loyalty. Depicting Anglo Texans as an earnest and hardscrabble frontier people under siege by Indians and Mexicans, from the state’s beginnings, legislators defended the Ranger force as “a living monument so far as Mexican banditry is concerned.” Ranger Frank Hamer, who would gain fame in the next decade as the officer who captured the outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, stalked Canales in South Texas and in Austin during the hearings. Canales’ family feared that he would be assassinated; he walked to the hearings surrounded by friends, including Representative Sam Johnson, father of future President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Years later, Canales wrote that the investigation “nearly cost my life.”
Canales’ bill was defeated, though it did have some results. The Adjutant General of the Ranger force dismissed almost all Loyalty rangers and disbanded several companies of the regular Rangers. The transcripts of the hearings also served to document acts of violence and include them in state records. The transcripts reflected so poorly on the force that the state House of Representatives refuse to print them. Even historian Walter Prescott Webb, whose 1935 book The Texas Rangers: A Century of Frontier Defense glorified the Ranger force, allowed a note of disquiet to enter his depiction of the 1910s. Rangers committed “excesses” and “did not distinguish themselves,” he acknowledged.
This decade of violence left contradictory legacies for Mexicans and Mexican Americans. Particular families bore their own scars.
While some witnesses and survivors tried to repress memories of their suffering, others made sure that their children knew what their ancestors had endured.
Some of these descendants – such as Benita Albarado, whose father and grandmother witnessed the Porvenir massacre, and Jon Bazán, the grandson of Antonio Longoria (or great grandson of Jesús Bazán?), have tried for decades to raise awareness about the period and to encourage public conversation about the past of the murder of their kin.
The violence had wider social resonances. It was key to the imposition of a Jim Crow style of segregation on those of Mexican descent, limiting their voting and relegating most to segregated neighborhoods and schools. On the other hand, it also catalyzed a Mexican-American Civil Rights movement. The course of the uprising convinced some key Mexican Americans in South Texas that revolutionary Mexican nationalism was a dead end, and that they were much better off seeking organizing themselves as American citizens with equal access to rights and protections under the U.S. constitution. These figures, including former State Representative José T. Canales, played a key role in the 1929 formation of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) out of the merger of pre-existing local groups. In subsequent decades, LULAC would fight for equal treatment and the voting and civil rights of Latinos.
Scholars, writers and artists have grappled with these events for the last century. Américo Paredes, one of the giant figures of modern Mexican American letters, was born in Brownsville in September of 1915, at the height of the violence. A thinly-fictionalized account of the killings lies at the heart of his novel George Washington Gómez, written in the 1930s but not published until 1990. The protagonist of the story is torn between the Anglo and Mexican worlds. His father, killed by Rangers, wishes for his son to outgrow the hatred and fear that cost his life, but the humiliations of segregation makes this a difficult road to walk. Valley writer Rolando Hinojosa similarly invokes the decade’s violence in many of his novels. Filmmaker Kirby Warnock captured the memories of his grandfather, Roland Warnock, who witnessed Ranger Henry Ransom’s murder of Jesús Bazán and Antonio Longoria in 1915, in his 2004 film Border Bandits. Novelist Philipp Meyer offered a powerful account of an Anglo rancher horrified by his own family’s slaughter of their neighbors in his internationally reviewed Texas epic The Son.
And so the brutality and scale of the border violence of the 1910s continues to attract the attention of the descendants of some of its victims and of scholars and artists who find it relevant a century later, in a nation still struggling over the meaning of its southern border and the rights of its Latino population.
Scholars of Mexican American history and local residents have known of these events for decades. This violent period has been captured in novels, film, music, poetry, and popular memory. It is time for the state and the wider public to recognize their scope and long legacy.