The legend and the reality
As heroes of legend, few bands of lawmen have made the mark that the Texas Rangers have. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, perhaps, with whom the Rangers have often been compared, have a similar cachet but in sheer mythic status and appearance in novels and (especially) Hollywood films, it’s the Rangers who take the prize. Unlike the Mounties, though, the reputation of Rangers has also been stained by disgrace and shame, as the organization passed through periods of obloquy.
In reality, despite the fact that again and again Texas Rangers were shown in films as lawmen with badges hunting down outlaws, they were first and foremost a paramilitary force of citizen soldiers called together to defend the (shifting) frontier against depredations, especially of Indians. They later also rode along the Rio Grande dealing with Mexicans. It was only once these threats had receded and after the Civil War that the Rangers became primarily a body of state police. And in the nineteenth century they didn’t wear badges. Officers (but not men) carried a document which warranted their authority. Towards the end of the century a few Rangers started making various badges from five-peso pieces and it was only really in the twentieth century that badges became common or standardized.
An early badge, c 1900
The early Rangers were minutemen or militia who joined up for very limited terms to confront a particular threat, notably depredations of Comanche from the north. Stephen F Austin first called up such men in 1823 to protect settlers on the Brazos River. They wore no uniform, provided their own arms and horses and adopted an informal discipline. Most were farmers or jobless young men out for adventure. They were a rapid-deployment troop of mounted marksmen who “ranged” the frontier. Various names were applied to these forces. Popularly they have all been known as Texas Rangers but they were originally the Frontier Battalion.
Early Texas Rangers
Some of the men loved the life and enlisted repeatedly. These, when under effective leaders, developed a cohesion and team spirit that gave some continuity and permanence to the Rangers as an institution. They served long enough to hone their horsemanship and marksmanship and become superior combat troops.
The pro-Ranger view
The best known early historian of the Texas Rangers was Walter Prescott Webb, whose 1935 book The Texas Rangers: A Century of Frontier Defense extolled their virtues in glowing terms. Sometimes he was ridiculous.
The real Ranger has been a very quiet, deliberate, gentle person who could gaze calmly into the eye of a murderer, divine his thoughts, and anticipate his action, a man who could ride straight up to death. In fatal encounter – the last resort of a good officer – the Ranger has had the unhurried courage to take the extra fraction of a second essential to accuracy which was at a premium in the art and the science of Western pistology.
To Webb, Texas Rangers were telepathic superheroes. He adds:
To speak of courage among the Texas Rangers is almost a superfluity … A captain not only had courage … but he had what is better, a complete absence of fear.
Accepting for a moment that there are people with a “complete absence of fear” (such men must be very rash and short-lived), how does he know this? Were there no fearful captains? And isn’t true courage not the absence of fear but being afraid and doing it anyway?
TE Fehrenbach, an authority on the Comanche struggle (Comanches: The Destruction of a People, 1974) reinforces this wild flight of fancy:
That they were adventurous and uniformly courageous needs no explanation; they were all volunteers. More significant was the repeated assertion by observers that the Ranger captains were unusual men – not merely brave, but officers who showed an utter absence of fear.
He adds a bizarre claim of his own:
From 1836 onward, the history of the Texas Rangers was … only a little less than the history of Texas, while the history of all west Texas was only a little more than the story of the Ranger force.
This borders on the silly.
In fact, of course, there were some pretty bad captains. Some were political appointees rather than men who had proved their competence on the range. William G Tobin, for example, was an ambitious businessman who married the San Antonio mayor’s daughter and persuaded the townspeople to fund a company of fifty men to relieve Brownsville during the Cortina troubles. Tobin was militarily incompetent and his men little more than brigands. They lynched Cortina’s lieutenant, burned ranches and hanged Mexicans, and then stupidly rode straight into a lethal Cortina ambush. It wasn’t until the competent Rip Ford took command that the Cortinistas were dealt with.
Other poor captains, “fearless” or not, were Warren Wallace, George Schmitt, Joe Shely, JS McNeel and Tom Ross. One of the great Ranger heroes, Leander McNelly, while an effective commander, was particularly ruthless in the Nueces strip in 1875, and was (and is) admired by many Anglo Texans exactly for this reason. And then there was the improbably named Bass Outlaw, a good Ranger when sober but a demon when drunk. He was discharged and eventually shot to death in an El Paso brothel in 1894. These Rangers were not paragons of virtue, courage, probity or military competence.
Many Comanche had good reason to detest the Rangers who rode down on their villages, on the rare occasions they could find them, and slaughtered women and children. Mexicans, too, loathed the rinches with their shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later approach, their propensity for hanging any Mexican, rustler or not, their use of the ley de fuga (shooting down prisoners who were ‘trying to escape’) and other atrocities. Los diablos Tejanos certainly committed what today would be termed war crimes during the Mexican war.
Workers, too, Anglo or not, did not always love the Rangers. The force’s history in labor disputes is far from glorious and while individual captains did sometimes try to maintain a certain level of impartiality, rail and coal workers, in particular, usually found that the Rangers were firmly aligned with the bosses.
The Mexican standpoint
In the folklore of Spanish-speaking Texans and border Mexicans, corridos sang of Ranger cowardice, brutality and racial abuse. It is true that many, perhaps most Anglo Texans had a visceral hatred for Mexicans after the Alamo and Goliad and though this softened with time, the Anglos, and especially the Rangers, stubbornly maintained a feeling of racial superiority which was at best patronizing and at worst racial discrimination of an ugly kind.
This gave rise to an anti-Ranger school of history led by folklorist Américo Paredes and the trio of scholars Julian Samora, Joe Bërnal and Albert Peña. But their accounts proved to be as biased as the ones that glorified the Rangers and all their deeds.
Keeping the peace or racial murder?
The San Ambrosio affair in 1885 and the Cerda killings in 1902, in particular, are used as proof of racially-inspired Ranger atrocity. In the first, according to the Ranger version, two horse thieves resisted arrest, fled and then turned and shot two Rangers, one fatally, and were then wrongly protected from just retribution by other Mexicans. Border Mexicans, however, believed that two countrymen innocent of any wrongdoing were unjustly attacked by Rangers, for purely racial reasons, and they defended themselves as best they could. Either view, or a combination, could be true. We don’t have enough evidence to say. But ‘historical’ accounts have tended to put one side or other of the case without restraint.
Similarly, in 1902, Rangers under Captain Brooks, attentive as ever to the interests of the great King ranch (by now the domain of King’s widow), came upon one Ramon Cerda, purportedly rebranding a stolen King calf. An affray ensued in which the horse of Ranger sergeant AY Baker was killed and Cerda fatally wounded. Justice Encarnacion Garza concluded that Cerda had been tied and dragged before he was shot. Feeling ran very high. Brooks arrested both Garza and Cerda’s brother Alfredo. The latter vowed to kill Brooks but when the two chanced to meet in a Brownsville store Baker shot and killed Alfredo Cerda with his Winchester. Rangers justified their actions but never to the satisfaction of the vast majority of Spanish-speaking Texans and border Mexicans.
San Ambrosio and the Cerda killings were just two examples. Both sides took, and often still take a firm stance on such affairs and many will never be convinced that their own version is not true. One or other account could be factual or the truth may lie somewhere in between. However, today we simply do not have sufficient evidence to be sure.
The great Ranger captains
There most certainly were great Ranger captains. Jack Hays in the 1840s was one such. His pioneering use of the Colt five-shooter gave his small force a significant edge over Comanche raiders. While his fame and glory were probably inflated by newspapers and the reminiscences of those who rode with him, and some of his famed deeds probably did not happen, he was nevertheless clearly a talented, honest and courageous leader. His exploits in the Mexican war (when his regiment of volunteers were not officially Rangers but were certainly thought of as such by most), along with those of Sam Walker, of Walker Colt fame, burnished the Ranger legend.
Hays’s lieutenant Ben McCulloch (about whom Steve Earle sings on Train a’Comin) became one of the great Rangers too. He distinguished himself especially against Vasquez’s attack on San Antonio in 1842, was named chief of scouts under Zachary Taylor in the Mexican war and played significant parts in the battles of Monterrey and Buena Vista. He and Hays both went out to California after the war and both were elected sheriffs. McCulloch became a brigadier general in the Confederate army when the Civil War came.
After the Civil War great Ranger captains like John B Jones and Wilburn H King kept the legend alive and in the last decade of the century the “four great captains”, as they were known, did the same. They were John R Hughes with his Company D at El Paso, WJ McDonald of Company B at Amarillo, JH Rogers of Company C at Fort Hancock and JA Brooks in command of Company A at Alice.
John R Hughes, Bill McDonald, JH Rogers and JA Brooks: the four great captains
Governors and the Texas legislature were always keen to raise companies of Rangers to deal with various threats but not so ready to finance them. They never voted enough support and the result was an ever-shrinking force that even as the Indian and Mexican menaces subsided had to deal with more and more problems, from vicious feuds in various counties to labor disputes to disorder in oil boom towns, the El Paso Salt War, and heaven knows what else, all in an environment where they were supposed to bow to the authority of local sheriffs, yet these sheriffs were often partial or corrupt.
In fact, despite individual acts of daring and ‘successes’ against the Comanche, overall it is likely that such actions incited more retaliatory raids and the overall effectiveness of Ranger campaigns, in terms of settlers protected, must be called into question.
As lawmen, Rangers nevertheless pulled off several coups, notably the killing of outlaw Sam Bass in 1878 and the apprehension by Ranger JB Armstrong and others of John Wesley Hardin, perhaps the most famous Texas gunman of them all, in 1877. And they will be largely remembered as lawmen hunting down outlaws.
Wes Hardin and one of his captors, Sgt. Armstrong of the Texas Rangers
What to read
One of the principal histories of the Texas Rangers is Robert M Utley’s Frontier Justice: The First Century of the Texas Rangers (Oxford University Press, 2002), which I have just read (hence this post) and the very title of this book emphasizes this aspect of Rangers history, even though, as I have said, the first part of their story is not one of intrepid lawmen but that of citizen soldiers. Utley is one of my favorite authorities on the old West and I have reviewed elsewhere his works on such iconic Western figures as Billy the Kid, General Custer and Sitting Bull.
Utley’s sequel is Lone Star Lawmen: The Second Century of the Texas Rangers (Penguin, 2007) and this is a more accurate title. Another authority on the Rangers is Austin historian Mike Cox, whose The Texas Rangers: Wearing the Cinco Peso, 1821 – 1900 (Forge, 2008) and its companion volume Time of the Rangers: Texas Rangers: From 1900 to the Present (Forge, 2009) are other standard texts these days.
Mike Cox lists no fewer than 118 movies from 1910 to 1995 featuring Texas Rangers. Zane Grey’s best-seller The Lone Star Ranger of 1915 was a seminal work of Ranger mythology; it was a silent movie twice (1919 with William Farnum and 1923 starring Tom Mix) and a talkie in 1930 with George O’Brien as lead. Buck Jones starred in The Texas Ranger in 1931.
Paramount made a successful black & white Western in 1936 titled The Texas Rangers with Fred MacMurray, Jack Oakie and Lloyd Nolan, and this was remade in color in 1949 as Streets of Laredo with an excellent William Holden, supported by William Bendix and Macdonald Carey. Both of these had heroic Rangers catching outlaws. Columbia also had a go with The Texas Rangers in 1951, starring George Montgomery.
Willard Parker and Harry Lauter were (fictional) Rangers Pearson and Morgan in the 1955 TV series and in 1957 Trackdown started too. From 1965 to 67 NBC aired Laredo, a more light-hearted Rangers story. More recently, of course, Chuck Norris took the emblematic Ranger name of Walker for his (modern) series. In 2001 Steve Miner directed a new version of The Texas Rangers, set just after the Civil War. Dylan McDermott played Leander McNelly, Alfred Molina was John King Fisher and Robert Patrick was Sgt. John Armstrong.
Of course Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call were ex-Rangers in Lonesome Dove and the various prequels tell of their life in the force. Different aspects of Ranger history and lore are woven into the narrative (such as the Santa Fe expedition and the black beans). The two heroes carry on Ranger tradition by combatting Comanches and hanging Jake Spoon as a horse thief (even though they have been thieving horses as well; but that was across the Rio Grande so didn’t count).
Probably the most famous radio, comic and small, then big screen Texas Ranger wore a mask and had an Indian sidekick. He roamed the West doing good and not using his silver bullets to shoot anyone unless he absolutely had to. But he was an ex-Ranger too so probably doesn’t count. His brother was a Ranger captain, shot down with his (badge-wearing) men in a canyon by the evil Butch Cavendish.
The legend lives on
Well, fact or fiction, the legend of the Texas Rangers, good and bad, lives on. The Texas Ranger Division of the Texas Department of Public Safety, headquartered at Austin, has its own museum in Waco, TX. In 2010 the force numbered 144 officers and 26 civilian support staff. They have the motto Courage, Integrity, Perseverance. Many (but not all) Texas Rangers have shown those qualities.