On a fateful day in September 1915, a group of Texas Rangers spotted two riders in the South Texas brush along a road near Edinburg. Without warning, Ranger Captain Henry Ransom shot two Mexican Americans in the back, Jesus Bazan and Antonio Longoria, Bazan’s son-in-law, as they rode not far from their ranch.
The men were not wanted criminals and had not been accused of any crimes. Still, the Rangers suspected they sympathized with Mexican bandits. It was during a time when bandits from south of the river had been raiding local ranches. The bodies were left where they fell. The Rangers did not bother to find out who they were or to tell relatives.
The story might have been forgotten there had it not been for Roland Warnock, a young ranch hand at the time who witnessed the killing and helped bury the bodies of his neighbors. He later recorded an oral history of the event. Kirby Warnock, Roland’s grandson, eventually used that first-witness story as part of his 2004 documentary, “Border Bandits.” The film tells the story that has been largely left out of Texas history books about a violent – often only whispered about – time in South Texas when scores of innocent Mexicans and Mexican-Americans died in what has been called The Matanza (Massacre) of 1915.
“There were so many innocent people killed in that mess that it just made you sick to your heart to see it happening,” Roland Warnock said in a recording his grandson made in 1974 for Baylor University’s oral history project. “If those ranchers caught a Mexican with a bunch of cattle, they didn’t ask him where he got them, they killed him. A man’s life just wasn’t worth much at all.”
There were many other incidents. According to the Refusing To Forget Project, on September 28, 1915, Rangers captured about 12 raiders and promptly hung them rather than take them to jail. The Rangers left the bodies hanging out 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.”
In his 2003 book, “Revolution in Texas: How a Forgotten Rebellion and Its Bloody Suppression Turned Mexicans into Americans,” Dr. Benjamin Johnson, assistant professor of environmental history at Loyola University, tells one story about a Mexican teenager killed only moments after arriving by train at Mercedes. A group of Rangers were on the lookout for a suspected bandit shot in the hand in a recent raid. The teenager wore an arm sling because of a hand tumor. The Rangers arrested the teenager on sight, only to be shot dead several minutes later.
That dark period was finally acknowledged with the unveiling of a state historical marker this past Saturday, October 14. The marker is at the I-2 Southbound Exit 16, Parking/Rest Area between the San Benito and Los Fresnos exits.
“I reminded the good people of Texas that almost 100 years ago, citizens of the Lone Star State in the Valley faced discrimination so extreme that it cost hundreds of people their lives, and Rep. José Tomás Canales (1877–1976), my grand uncle, with the support of the Texas Legislature, took action to put a stop to such atrocities in the name of the law,” Rep. Terry Canales recalled. Canales represents Texas House District 40 in central Hidalgo County. Canales was the only Mexican American in the Texas Legislature in 1919.
According to the Texas Historical State Association, José Tomás Canales “stood out as the only prominent local Democrat to call for an end to Texas Ranger and vigilante oppression of the Hispanic population of the lower Rio Grande Valley. His most dramatic maneuver came on January 31, 1918, when he filed nineteen charges against the Texas Rangers and demanded a legislative investigation and the reorganization of the force.”
Later that year Ranger Frank Hamer threatened the legislator because of his criticism of the force. Canales would often have to travel to the hearings surrounded by friends and supporters because they feared for this life.
“Rep. José Tomás Canales faced numerous threats of violence and greatly endangered himself and his family to speak out against these tragedies,” said Curtis Smith, Canales’ Chief-of-Staff, who has been working with Rep. Canales and a group of historians for about four years seeking an official State of Texas acknowledgement of The Matanza (Massacre) of 1915. “Because these Texas legislative hearings (in 1919) reflected so poorly on the state, copies of the hearing transcript were not made accessible to the public until the 1970s,” Smith noted.
From 1915 to 1919, scholars say, the Rangers and vigilantes killed hundreds, possibly thousands, of Mexicans and Tejanos in South Texas. Some victims were bandits or Mexican revolutionaries trying to stir up trouble. But many were like Bazan and Longoria — people caught in the crossfire.
A group of scholars, including four from Texas, have built a website, RefusingtoForget.com, to document this period of history and make it accessible to the public. The scholars’ efforts are paying off. Thanks to their lobbying and help from Rep. Canales, the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum opened an exhibit in January about the era, including the killings.
“We cover all of the stories of Texas, and this is one of them,” said Margaret Koch, the museum’s director of exhibits. “It’s important to tell this story.”
The exhibit at the Bob Bullock State History Museum in Austin called “Life and Death on the Border, 1912 to 1920,” received great critical acclaim and drew record numbers of visitors to the Museum. The exhibit also documents other tragedies, such as the Porvenir Massacare in Presidio County, Texas in the Big Bend area. In that case, 15 Mexicans working at a ranch were killed by Texas Rangers and local ranchers days after a raid by Mexican bandits. U. S. Army soldiers accompanied the Rangers; however, it is unclear whether the soldiers participated in the killing. Later investigations, including Canales’ hearings, determined that the Rangers covered up the mass killing.
The highly successful Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum exhibit was a test run for an exhibit the historians hope to bring throughout the border areas. They are actively fundraising to bring the exhibit to the Rio Grande Valley.
David Diaz contributed to this article.