The Brite Ranch Raid

CowboyLucas Brite was born in Caldwell County, Texas in 1860. His father passed away when Luke was only 3-years old.  Life was hard in Texas under normal circumstances, harder still when the mainstay of the family died.  As a lad, Luke developed the skills needed to ride the Texas range.  By his 25thyear, he had begun trailing his own stock along with those of his friends.  The cow men led their stock from Caldwell County to a wintering camp on the North Fork of the Concho.  The following spring, they continued on to Presidio County.  As the land around Marfa was already taken, Luke herded his cattle southwest finally settling in the Capote Mountain area of Presidio County in October 1885.

The Capote Mountain area was harsh and unrelenting. It would test the mettle of even the toughest of men.  Owing to drought, Luke ended up losing a quarter of his herd in the first year.  It was a hard year, but there’s not that can be done about it —it was called ranching in Texas.  Luke recounted, “Before me was a new and untried county —an experiment.  I wondered what the future held in store for me, but I fully realized that whether successful or not that I would have to endure my hardships.”

Brite registered his cattle brand in 1904: Cross-Bar. In that year his purebred Hereford operation began when he purchased 300 registered heifers from the Wyoming Hereford Ranch in Cheyenne.  He bought an additional 135 head from William Powell at Channing, Texas.  Sires of outstanding breeds were purchased from the Gudgell Ranch in Kansas and he selected quality bulls from other sources.  To guard against the possibility of in-breeding, he never bought bulls from the same ranch two years in a row.  Cross-Bar cattle were in high demand because of their quality, adaptability, and natural ability to rustle for themselves.  In 1910, Brite began an annual sale of 1,000 bulls —which he maintained for 14 years.

Luke purchased his last bulls from W. H. Curtis in Kentucky and Gudgell & Simpson in Kansas.  He closed his herd in 1914, choosing from that point on to raise his own sires and avoid the pitfalls of inbreeding by carefully selecting bulls and heifers for line-breeding.  He recalled, “As I remember, it was in 1915 that foot and mouth disease broke out in Missouri and Kansas and I was afraid to go there for bulls, as had been my custom. The disease spread so rapidly that I considered it unsafe to ship bulls from any source.  I saved bull calves of my breeding that I kept in a pasture separated from my other cattle.  The result was so gratifying that I continue using bulls from my own herd.”

Brite was a typically tough Texan.  Typical of the West Texas ranches, —Brite’s Ranch was as much a small town as a cattle operation.  It was located in the Big Bend region, between Marfa and the Rio Grande, some fifteen miles east of the river.

Mexican BanditsIt was Christmas morning, 1917.  Except for the ranch foreman, Mr. T. T. Van Neill and his family, and one or two Tejano families, and two or three ranch hands, most of the local people were away. The raid from Mexico began just after dawn.  Foreman Van Neill’s father, Sam, was the only one awake.  He sat at the kitchen table drinking his morning coffee when 45 armed Mexicans galloped into the ranch complex.  Sam immediately realized what was happening.  He ran to awaken his son and quickly equipped himself with a rifle. He took aim at the Mexican he though was in charge and fired.  The man was killed, and the others began returning fire.  By this time, Van was dressed and joined in the fight.  Mrs. Van Neill attempted to alert local authorities, but the raiders had cut the telephone lines.

The skirmish lasted for quite some time before the bandits realized that there was little chance of them getting into the Neill home without significant losses to themselves.  During the fire fight, the raiders captured a pair of ranch hands, one of whom, Jose Sanchez, was sent to the house with a message: if the Van Neill’s continued to resist, everyone at the ranch would die.  Van was initially enraged, promising to fight to the death before surrendering.  Sam shared his son’s view, but Van’s wife convinced her husband that it would be better to give the Mexicans the keys to Luke Brite’s general store to avoid further confrontation [1].  Van finally agreed.

Thus, instead of trying to storm the house, the Mexicans spent their time robbing the general store of clothes, food and money.  While this was going on, others of their number began to gather up all the best horses at the ranch.  Suddenly, an unsuspecting postman by the name of Mickey Welch arrived by wagon at the general store.  He had two Tejano passengers.  The Mexicans shot the two passengers [2] and lynched Welch inside the store.

The stand-off continued.  When Rev. H. M. Bandy and his family arrived at the ranch for Christmas dinner, the bandits still occupied the ranch headquarters building.  They permitted the Bandy’s to reach the Neill home; after a brief prayer, Rev. Bandy took up a rifle to help defend the family home.

Brite Ranch neighbor James L. Cobb heard the shooting and went to investigate.  Realizing the ranch was under attack, he drove 12 miles to telephone Luke Brite in Marfa.  Brite contacted the County Sheriff, who in turn asked for the assistance of Colonel George Langhorne, Commanding the 8th Cavalry.

Candelaria RimMeanwhile, after gathering up reinforcements from among neighboring spreads, Cobb returned to the Brite Ranch.  By the time the posse arrived in automobiles, however, the bandits had fled west through the rough Rimrock country with their stolen horses and newly acquired goods, disappearing over the Candelaria Rim.

Back in Marfa, Colonel Langhorne borrowed horses from nearby ranches and joined the gathering at Brite Ranch.  There were no horses left at the Brite Ranch and no trails were suitable for automobiles.  Initially, the pursuers left the Brite Ranch on foot, hoping to get close enough to the Mexicans to make use of their high-powered rifles but there was no sign of the bandits.

Colonel Langhorne initiated a punitive expedition into Mexico the next day; he intended to capture or kill the raiders and return stolen property to their rightful owners.  Langhorne’s force consisted of two troops of the 8th Cavalry (approximately 200 soldiers) and several men from the Cobb posse.  They crossed the Rio Grande into Chihuahua near the Los Fresno creek.  Colonel Langhorne caught up with 29 raiders in San Bernardino Canyon near Pilares. During the running battle that followed, troopers killed ten Mexicans and recovered some of the stolen property, including a number of horses.  One trooper was wounded.  Some of the recaptured horses had to be put down on account that they had been ridden so hard they were going to die anyway.

Meanwhile, Texans in the Big Bend region were enraged about the raid and the murders of Mickey Welch and his two passengers on Christmas Day.  A vigilante committee was formed to disarm and keep watch on local Tejanos, but Texas Rangers went even further.

At around midnight on 27 January 1918, Captain J. Monroe Fox led his Company B and a troop from the 8thCavalry to Porvenir, Texas.  They silently surrounded the village, which was located on the Rio Grande just across the border, adjacent to a small Mexican village on the other side.  Captain Fox may have suspected that Porvenir and the small Mexican village served as a portal for banditry in this region of the West Texas landscape.

Fox ordered a search of the town for evidence of connections to Mexican bandits.  This is where the account becomes murky.  Supposedly, while soldiers made a house to house search, Texas Rangers commenced rounding up “suspected bandits.”  The rangers led these men to a nearby hill and promptly executed them [3].

Between 1910-1919, life along the US-Mexican border was chaotic and dangerous.  The Mexican Revolution was raging, large numbers of Mexicans were flooding into Texas to escape the carnage there, Texas ranches were frequently targets of bandit raids from Mexico, and Tejanos mounted campaigns of sedition and treason throughout South Texas.  Wanton murder and other depredations were carried out by Anglos, Mexicans, and Tejanos in equal measure.

With the United States Army fully engaged in Europe during World War I, people living along the border were left unprotected —except for local lawmen, Texas Rangers, and limited border-area Army units. After the Zimmerman Telegram in 1917, President Wilson realized that his southern border could be in great jeopardy. He therefore ordered 200,000 national guardsmen into South Texas.  By the time of the Brite Ranch raid, tensions were already high, and Texas tempers were short.

One-hundred years later, we still do not know what happened at Porvenir, but historians and archeologists are trying to put the pieces together.  The region today is as rugged and mountainous as it ever was, especially on the Mexican side; it is the location of many arroyos and stifling dry heat.  In 1919, our understanding was that the Army had withdrawn from Porvenir when they heard gunshots from the village.  When the soldiers heard the Texas Rangers leaving the village, they returned to Porvenir, finding 15 bodies slumped on the side of an arroyo.  This has remained the official story—but is it true?

The survivors of Porvenir abandoned the village, most fleeing in to Mexico.  Since the 1980s, Glenn Justice has been trying to assemble the facts of the incident. Historian Lonn Taylor said, “As time went along, it was clear that the massacre had certainly taken place.  What was not clear was who had precisely done the killing.  He [Justice] was drawn back to the site of executions over and over again; something didn’t quite jibe.”

Justice interviewed a survivor in 2001.  Juan Floreswas a boy when his father was killed there.  Justice has collected 47 artifacts of the massacre, mostly bullets and shell casings.  “And the curious part of it is that they’re all US Army.”

Former Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson has been to Porvenir, as well.  He’s making a documentary about the incident.  What interests him isn’t only the history of Porvenir, but the political present as well.  “… the parallels are phenomenal between then and now.  We talk about having a national security issue now, the fear that terrorists may come across the border.  Well, we had a national security issue 100 years ago.  Back then we had gun smuggling into Mexico, today we have gun smuggling into Mexico.”

Glenn Justice reminds us that there were a lot of dirty hands back then and suggests that there are some today who don’t want the Porvenir story told.

Perhaps.

The facts are that South and West Texas was once in the center of New Spain.  The people who settled Tejaswere Mexicans; a stroke of the pen in 1848 proclaimed them Americans —but most of these people have never come to grips with the fact that they are no longer Mexicans.  They took sides during the Mexican Revolution and helped bring the conflict into the United States.  Tejanos supported Mexicans rather than siding with Texans during the so-called Bandit Wars.  When the United States entered into World War I, there was a mass southern migration into Mexico to avoid American military service.  Today, Tejanos continue to fly the flag of Mexico outside of their businesses and homes.  Many would argue that this is not how patriotic Americans behave.  Some might observe that with few exception, today’s Tejano is as distant from his Texan neighbor as he has ever been.

Fort at Brite RanchThe story of the Brite Ranch raid wasn’t concocted.  In 1918, Luke Brite constructed a small fort at his ranch, equipping it with a telegraph key, searchlight, machine guns, and long-range rifles.  A Texas Ranger was permanently stationed at the ranch.  His duty was to man an observation post overlooking the old Knight Trail.  Luke Brite was not a paranoid man.  He had worked hard over many years to build up his ranch; the fear he had for the safety of his family and property was real.  The problem in border area Texas with the so-called good neighbor policy, or so it would seem, is that there has been a paucity of good neighbors —true even today.

Sources:

  1. Texas State Historical Association, The Handbook of Texas
  2. Keith, N. L.The Brite’s of Capote.  Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1950
  3. Madison, V.The Big Bend Country of Texas.  Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1955
  4. Investigation of Mexican Affairs: Hearing before a subcommittee of the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, 66thCongress of the United States, first session pursuant to SR 106, United States Government Printing Office,1920

Endnotes:

[1] The Mexican Revolution was a time of scant means of honest livelihood in the rough mountainous country south of the border.  Hard times made thieving, raiding, banditry, and murder an attractive pathway to easy money.  Although Francisco “Pancho” Villa was not among these bandits, they were believed to either be part of Villa’s band or among his supporters.  It was a time when Villa was in dire need of funds and supplies to carry out his revolution in Mexico.  Some later claimed that Villa’s brother-in-law was the leader of the Brite Ranch raid.

[2] One of the passengers remains buried a short distance from the ranch’s current headquarters.

[3] On 4 June 1918, Governor William P. Hobby disbanded Company B and dismissed five rangers for their participation.  The massacre was investigated in 1919, but no one was ever charged for the crime.

 

 

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4 Responses to The Brite Ranch Raid

  1. bunkerville says:

    Fences make good neighbors comes to mind… thanks for the tale,,

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Andy says:

    A fascinating bio of Brite and his struggles. Raids out of Mexico by Mexican bandits, Indians, and renegade Texans occurred well into the 20th Century along the southern border. Except for true historians, little is known of these raids and the fight Texas ranchers put up to defend their lives and property. Thanks for publishing one of those stories.

    Liked by 1 person

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