The South Texas Border, 1900-1920: Photographs from the Robert Runyon Collection collection of photographs by Robert Runyon captures the Lower Rio Grande Valley during the early 1900s. It includes negatives, slides, prints, and postcards that document the history and development of South Texas and the Mexican border, including the Mexican Revolution, the U.S. military presence at Fort Brown and along the border before and during World War I, and the growth and development of the Rio Grande Valley.
These online exhibits provide context and additional information about this collection.
These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection, although they may not be all-encompassing.
- Emergence of Modern America, 1890-1930
Related Collections and Exhibits
These collections and exhibits contain thematically-related primary and secondary sources. Browse the Collection Finder for more related material on the American Memory Web site.
- Hispano Music & Culture of the Northern Rio Grande
- Historic American Sheet Music, 1850-1920
- The Spanish-American War in Motion Pictures, 1898-1901
- Touring Turn-of-the-Century America, 1880-1920
- The Northern Great Plains, 1880-1920
Recommended additional sources of information.
Specific guidance for searching this collection.
For help with general search strategies, see Finding Items in American Memory.
The South Texas Border, 1900-1920 is a collection of over 8,000 photographs taken by Robert Runyon, many of which were sold as postcards, advertisements, portraits, and illustrations for American newspapers. These images comprise a multi-faceted documentation of the everyday lives of Anglo Americans and Mexican Americans in Southeastern Texas. They also document the agriculture of the region and U.S. military activity at the border during the early stages of the Mexican Revolution. Finally, the collection provides a unique record of the Mexican Revolution in Northeastern Mexico.
1) The Mexican Revolution
Under the thirty-year dictatorship of Profirio Díaz, an elite ruling class thrived in Mexico, as did foreign investors, while the majority of people lived in abject poverty. In 1910, political and social factions overthrew Díaz, calling for representative government, social and land reform, and decreased foreign control of Mexico's economy. This, however, was just the beginning of a ten-year succession of violent insurrections in which rebellious factions replaced the newly empowered governments. The South Texas Border's photographs portray three years of this turmoil, documenting the Mexican Revolution in Northeast Mexico between 1913 and 1916, as well as America's mobilization on the South Texas border.
Through Runyon's photographs, students can gain an understanding of the events of a battle, as well as a sense of a battle's violence and impact. In 1913, General Lucio Blanco led the Constitutionalists in capturing the city of Matamoros from the Federales. The events of this battle are outlined in a special presentation, "The Mexican Revolution:Conflict in Matamoros" (external link). Search on ammunition to see preparations for battle in Matamoros, or search Blanco for an image of the Constitutionalist General. The twenty-three-year-old Colonel, Antonio Echazaretta, led a contingent of volunteer Federales in defending Matamoros. Search on Echazaretta and June 4 for images that bring home the violence of battle in documenting the execution of federal prisoners after the invasion of Matamoros.
Arriving in Cuidad Victoria just after its fall, Runyon captured the aftermath of battle in images found by searching on Ciudad Victoria. After their victory in Cuidad Victoria, the Constitutionalists moved on the large city of Monterrey. Runyon reflected this conflict in images of the strong federal barricades and fortifications found by searching on Monterrey.
For more images pertinent to the Revolution, students can browse the photographs listed under execution, Mexico -- History -- Revolution, War -- Mexico, and soldiers in the Subject Index. Among these are images Runyon sold as picture postcards, including these three to the right. What sorts of messages did these postcards communicate to the Americans who bought them?
What might Americans have been led to think about Mexicans and the Revolution?
2) The U.S. Army At The Border
U.S. investors in railroads, mines, and agriculture in Mexico stood to profit by a counterrevolt against Madero and actively encouraged one. When General Victoriano Huerta overthrew Madero's government and then murdered him, American investors encouraged the new president, Woodrow Wilson, to recognize Huerta's government. However, Wilson took moral issue with Huerta and eventually backed Venustiano Carranza and his anti-Huerta contingency. Mexicans such as Francisco "Pancho" Villa resented American involvement in their country's business and politics and increasingly raided the American border. The Texas governor threatened reprisals against Mexico and the National Guard was called in to restrain the governor as much as to protect the border. Troops sent to Fort Brown in Brownsville were often seen marching through the streets of this town, which became the center of U.S. Army operations in Southeastern Texas. Search on Brownsville for more images of Army presence on the border, or Fort Brown, maneuvers, and camp for images reflecting every aspect of camp life.
National Guard units patrolling the border were joined by Texas Rangers who had a reputation for failing to discriminate between insurgents and Mexican-American farmers who worked just north of the border. Search on rangers for Runyon's documentation of three rangers with their victims' bodies following a raid on Las Norias. Or search for hang to locate images of two men who posed for Runyon in a nearby chapel before their public execution; they were convicted of killing civilians during a raid of Sebastian, Texas.
3) Social History
Documenting daily life in Southeastern Texas, the photographs of this collection provide a social history of the area during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Students can use the Subject Index to browse a variety of images and make inferences about what people and life must have been like in this time and place.
Students can learn about the region's climate and the people's relationship with the land through images of animals and agriculture. They may also ascertain the state of technology at that time by considering images of airplanes, railroads and automobiles.
Ask students to describe the culture of the region based on pictures of weddings and families. What can they infer about family and community life based on these pictures? According to the collection, how did people spend their leisure time? How was a sense of community created in this region? Ask students to find as many examples of different community gathering places and leisure activities as possible, such as churches, celebrations, and football. What do images of dwellings, residences, and streets indicate about the economic state of the region? What might the many pictures of cemeteries suggest? From 1910 to 1926, Robert Runyon was a commercial photographer, and many of his photographs were solicited by common people. What kinds of images were most likely solicited by the common people of Southeastern Texas? What does this suggest about what these people valued?
Texans' leisure activities were not limited by the border. Search on outing or bullfight for photographs of sojourns into Mexico. Direct students to notice the advertisements on the walls of the bullring in this picture from 1912. Why are most of these advertisements in English? What inferences can be made from these ads?
4) Popular Culture
Several photographs from the collection reflect the popular culture of the early twentieth century. Search on prohibition for images of U.S. officials destroying liquor at the Brownsville Customs House in 1920. Search on jazz for images of the King and Carter Jazzing Orchestra, in Houston in 1921. Politics of the era are reflected in photographs of President-elect Warren G. Harding on tour in South Texas and a campaign poster from the 1920 election of Democratic candidates James C. Cox and Franklin Delano Roosevelt; search on poster and Harding. Do these images surprise you? Do they represent prohibition, jazz, and politics of the twenties the way you had thought of them?
This collection's many photographs pertaining to rural life and agriculture reflect not only Runyon's own interest in botany, but the importance of agriculture in this region as well. Students can explore how climate and region affect agriculture by comparing images of agriculture and panoramic photographs in the Subject Index of this collection with the many related images comprising the Northern Great Plains collection. What kinds of crops are photographed in each region? How much variety is reflected? What kinds of animals and tools are used in the agricultural practices of each region? What are the similarities and differences between the farms documented in each collection? How do the crops, animals, and farms relate to the landscapes and climates of each region? Students may particularly enjoy searching on snake for images of Joe Guerrero on his Rio Grande Snake Farm.
Students can use South Texas Border to learn more about the Mexican Revolution while also practicing a variety of historical thinking skills. The collection's photographs can be used in fun timeline projects that encourage students to think chronologically and to research the Mexican Revolution in other resources. Other projects direct students to analyze the role images play in shaping public opinion and to examine the United States's military response to raids along the border. Finally, teachers can draw upon the visual nature of the collection to help students comprehend what it was like to live in the midst of the violence of a revolution, so far removed from most students' lives today.
Students can create a timeline of the Mexican Revolution to practice thinking of history chronologically. To ascertain the major events of the revolution, students can use the special presentation, "The Mexican Revolution: Conflict in Matamaros", resources about the revolution referenced there, and other materials. Then have them search the collection with the names of Mexican and American military leaders, such as Villa, Madero, Carranza, Blanco, and Pershing, incorporating the images they find into their timelines. They can also illustrate their timelines with photographs depicting battles in Northeastern Mexico.
They can further develop their timelines by going beyond the geographic and chronological scope of Runyon's photographs to include such international episodes as the Tampico Affair, the siege of Vera Cruz, Pancho Villa's raid on Columbus, New Mexico, and John J. Pershing's military expedition into Mexico. Finally, the timeline can be expanded to illustrate the place of the Mexican Revolution in world affairs by including other important events of the time, such as those surrounding World War I.
With some inference and imagination, students can use the collection's photographs of the Mexican Revolution to understand what it was like for people to live in the midst of a violent revolutionary movement. Search on wagons, and charity house for images of civilian refugees mingling with the military as they flee Monterrey, and others seeking aid from the Charity House across the border in Brownsville. Repercussions of violence also appear in photographs of the dead, wounded, and incarcerated; search on prisoners and war casualties.
Students can write an essay on the bitterness of this revolution based on their analysis of these images. Alternatively, students can imagine themselves a civilian resident of Monterrey or Matamoros during the battles there and write a journal entry or short story reflecting this perspective and experience.
Historical Analysis and Interpretation
Students can analyze images in this collection to see how the use and audience of an image can determine its meaning and impact. Have students searchon land distribution for images documenting a land distribution ceremony. The redistribution of land to the poor, or land reform, was one of the fundamental goals of the Mexican Revolution. Yet, this was a controversial issue even among the Constitutionalists who disciplined their own military leaders for redistributing land without official approval. One of these leaders was General Blanco who is pictured on the right in a ceremony in which he gave peasants land deeds for Los Borregos, a plantation he had seized outside of Matamaros. The government was angered by Blanco's initiative and transferred him to Western Mexico. Share this background with your students and have them analyze the photographs with the following questions:
- Some of these images portray peasants with land deeds. What effect would the circulation of these photographs have had upon owners of large estates?
- How might these photographs have enlisted support for or opposition to the Revolution?
- Why would the central government have been alarmed by field commanders such as Blanco distributing lands they had seized?
Some of Runyon's photographs were sold to Americans as postcards, others were used in American newspapers, while still others, found by searching on Lone Star, helped to promote land speculation. How might these different uses have changed the way Runyon took his photographs? What is the purpose of a postcard? What aspects of the Revolution would be appropriate for a postcard? Which aspects would not? What is the purpose of newspaper images? What is the purpose of promotional images? How do these considerations affect the way you look at these images and the inferences you make from them?
Historical Issue-Analysis and Decision-Making
Private Arthur Kraft, a young enlisted man, was assigned military duty on the South Texas border. He had only been there four months when he was killed by insurgents during a raid. This photograph of Kraft's casket aroused public concern at the time about the United States' retaliation against raids on the Mexican border. It can be used today by teachers to engage students in a discussion about the United States's most appropriate course of action in response to these raids during the Mexican Revolution. Teachers can structure discussion around the following questions:
- As a U.S. official deciding what course of action to take in response to the raids, what factors would you need to take into consideration?
- What are the alternatives to a military response? Which course of action do you think would have been the best?
- What pressure might you expect to come from the public after seeing this photograph in local and national newspapers?
- Should public pressure affect decisions about international incidents?
- Are there issues in the news today that are similar to the Kraft case?
Historical Research Capabilities
The limitations of Runyon's photographic record of the Mexican Revolution engender interesting questions that provoke further research of the war in other resources:
- Do Runyon's photographs comprise an accurate representation of the Revolution? Or do they distort the movement through the desire to sway U.S. public opinion for or against the Federales or Constitutionalists?
- Is Runyon's record of the Revolution in Northeastern Mexico and the South Texas border reflective of the Revolution throughout Mexico and along other parts of the Mexican border?
Alternatively, students may use the photograph of Francisco "Pancho" Villa with General Pershing as a starting point for research into these two individuals and their respective governments. What can students find out from the collection? What more do they need to know to get the complete picture? What search words can they formulate by looking at the collection? Teachers may want to assign several students to examine the New York Times or other newspapers for contemporary accounts of Pershing's American Expeditionary Force and its pursuit of Villa in Northeast Mexico. How did America's incursion into Mexico affect diplomatic relations between the two countries?
Arts & Humanities
Complementing the photographs of South Texas Border with texts and music, teachers can provide students with several creative language arts projects. Runyon's photographs of the Mexican Revolution and small towns in Texas can be used in conjunction with literature to understand these topics better, as well as the relationship between these two media. Folk songs from the American Memory collection, Southern Mosaic, bring another dimension to students' understanding of the border culture while also providing the impetus to learn about and write ballads. Runyon's photographs can also be used to learn about and practice journalism and the art of portraiture in image and word.
Literature and Small-Town America
Students can compare literary portrayals of small-town America with Runyon's photographic documentation of life in small Texas towns. Search on commercial and street for images of small-town business districts and commercial establishments, such as movie theaters, soda fountains, banks, and hotels. Or search on residence and interior for views of domestic life. What are the similarities and differences between homes and businesses as recorded in Runyon's photographs of the past and these places as they exist now? What would life in a small Southeastern Texas town have been like in the 1920s?
Sinclair Lewis portrays small-town America in the beginning of the twentieth century in his novel, Main Street. Students can read all or parts of this novel and use the following questions to compare it with Runyon's photographs.
- What visual imagery does Lewis use in his novel?
- How are Lewis's scenes similar to or different from those captured in Runyon's photographs?
- If Lewis had used a small Texas town as the setting for his novel, how would it have differed from his fictional midwest town, Gopher Prairie?
- Based on Lewis's novel and Runyon's photographs, would you conclude that there were so many similarities between small towns in America in the 1920s as to make one representative of all? Or do you find that regional differences outweigh national similarities?
- Why do you think Lewis titled his novel Main Street? Do you find these reasons reflected in Runyon's photographs?
- How does Lewis's portrayal of life in small-town America affect the way you view Runyon's images and the inferences you make from them?
Literature and the Mexican Revolution
Mariano Azuela's The Under-dogs, written in 1915, is acclaimed as the greatest novel on the Mexican Revolution. Students can read several chapters in this short novel and select photographs from The South Texas Border to illustrate scenes or events depicted by Azuela. Based on Runyon's documentation, do you find Azuela's portrayal of the Revolution to be realistic?
Poetry and Folk Music
In 1939, ethnologists John and Ruby Lomax traveled Texas and other southern states, making recordings of folk music now presented in the American Memory collection, Southern Mosaic. One type of song the Lomaxes collected is the border ballad, coming from the United States-Mexican border. Many of the Lomaxes' border ballads came from José Suárez in Brownsville, Texas, who explains in the collection's fieldnotes, "'Whenever, in the old days, anything exciting happened, a poet made verses about it and distributed the composition as a broadside. Musicians made up the air or tune for the verses.'" Students can read more about these ballads as well as some of their lyrics in section 6 of Southern Mosaic's fieldnotes. They can also hear recordings of some of these songs by searching on ballad and selecting one of the songs in Spanish. Included among these, are "Corrido villésta de la toma de Matamoros" about Pancho Villa in Matamoros, "Corrido del soldado", about a raid in Brownsville, and "Corrido de los rangers", about a feud between Texas Rangers and Brownsville officials in 1912.
Whether in poetry or song, ballads generally relate a detailed story. Students can write their own ballad lyrics based on Runyon's photographs. Have them browse and conceptualize some portion of the photographs as a story. They can supplement the photographs with text books to write a fairly factual story about a battle or a person, or they might create a more imaginative story loosely based on one of the images.
In addition to the narrative structure, students can practice using symbolism, simile, and metaphor. In one of José Suárez's ballads, a father laments to his son, "'When money was good, I bought chickens, cows, horses, etc., but at forty cents a hundred, I am very poor, and I walk the streets of Laredo like a deaf mule.'" Have students examine the simile with which this lyric ends. What does it mean to walk the streets like a deaf mule? Students may want to search for mule in The South Texas Border to understand the particular significance of mules to border communities and culture. Have your students identify other elements of border culture and use them in their lyrics to express feelings and ideas through symbolism, simile, and metaphor.
Many of Runyon's photographs, especially those of the Mexican Revolution, were used by American newspapers. Students can choose an image or set of images from the collection and write a newspaper article about the topic or event that the photographs document. By requiring students to use images of a particular aspect of the collection, such as the Mexican Revolution or small-town America, teachers may help establish and test students' comprehension of that topic.
As a basis for their writing, students can refer to examples of journalism in current-day newspapers or those of the early twentieth century, found in their local libraries, or on the World Wide Web. For a greater emphasis on journalism, this project could also involve comparing newspaper writing of the early twentieth century with that of today. Or, you can ask students to report on local and school events for a classroom newspaper. Those students with access to a camera can even take their own pictures for the newspaper.
Portraiture and Character Sketch
This collection of Robert Runyon's photographs includes nearly 3,000 portraits, catalogued as such in the Subject Index. They provide the impetus for two creative projects. First, students can study portraiture by comparing these images with portraits of today. Have students consider the similarities and differences with the following questions:
- What kinds of people are pictured?
- Based on the collection, when and why do you think people had portraits made? When and why do people commission portraits today?
- How are people dressed?
- How are they posed?
- What is the setting or background?
- What feelings or information are conveyed through portraits and how?
- Where does one find portraits today? For what are they used?
- What do you think were the main purposes of Runyon's portraits? What are the main purposes of portraiture today?
Use these questions in a class discussion to explore how different elements and techniques of portraiture are used to convey information or give impressions about people. Then challenge your students to use what they've learned in making their own portraits of people. Ask them to articulate what they want to convey about their subject, how they plan to do so, and whether they think they were successful.
Second, students may exercise their imaginations and descriptive-writing skills in using a portrait as a starting point for a character sketch or even a short story. You may want to supply them with literary examples to help them consider what techniques an author uses to create a powerful character. Students may also compare these techniques with those of a portrait photographer.