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Tales Of The Texas Rangers
There have never been many of them, and they haven’t always behaved well. But for more than a century now, they’ve been one of the most famous law-enforcement out fits in the world.
June/July 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 3
The Texas rangers vie with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police as a constabulary known and admired throughout the world. Both played a notable role in the past and continue to enjoy high reputation and a good press. Both attained legendary stature at least a century ago and still bask in its glow today.
In the popular conception the Texas Rangers form an organized body of lawmen extending uninterruptedly back to the colonizing years of Stephen F. Austin in Mexican Texas. In truth, for at least four decades they were neither organized nor lawmen. Whether dating from 1823 (as modern Rangers like to think) or 1835 (as the contemporary record suggests), they began as citizen soldiers.
For nearly half a century the citizen soldiers contented with Indians who raided the settlements of the Texas frontier—mostly Comanches and Kiowas from north of the Red River—and this was the central and lasting purpose of their “ranging” units. During the years of the Republic of Texas, 1836 to 1845, citizen soldiers also gathered to fend off military incursions from Mexico, which had not conceded Texas independence, and after statehood they volunteered to fight as U.S. troops in the Mexican War. Finally, for both republic and state, the international border traced by the Rio Grande periodically drew companies of citizen soldiers to confront both Mexican bandits and raiding Indians.
Whatever the official designation, Ranger companies displayed certain common characteristics. The men volunteered to serve for a specified time, usually three or six months. They furnished their own mounts and arms. They wore no uniform. They bore no flag. They elected their officers. The elected their officers. They enjoyed an easy camaraderie with one another and with their leaders. And they held military regulation and discipline in contempt. Only a gifted captain could form these mulish freemen into a fighting team.
Such a man was John Coffee Hays. In 1844, under his leadership, three ingredients came together to crystallize the evolving Ranger tradition. This mix occurred at the Battled of Walker Creek, a ferocious fight with Comanche raiders in the hills north of San Antonio. The first ingredient was experienced fighting men, expert horsemen and marksmen seasoned by the dangerous life on the edges of settlement. The second was Hays, who knew that men prickly about their individualism had to be led by example, not command. The third ingredient was a revolutionary weapon. At close range the Comanche warrior employed his bow and arrow as a highly effective repeating weapon. What the Ranger needed was his own repeater. He got it in 1844. In 1839 the Texas navy had purchased 130 of Samuel Colt’s revolving pistols. When President Sam Houston disbanded the navy in 1843, Hays equipped his men from the surplus stock. These “Paterson Colts” (they were manufactured in Paterson, New Jersey) held five .36-caliber paper charges containing powder and a ball in a revolving cylinder. Cocking the weapon turned the cylinder to line up a new chamber with the barrel and hammer-activated percussion cap and also exposed a recessed trigger.
The Paterson Colts were fragile and delicate, but a Ranger armed with a Paterson and an extra cylinder could fire 10 rounds in 40 seconds, and Hays’s men often carried two pistols and spare cylinders. At last they had the firepower to stand up to Comanches in mounted combat.
At Walker Creek, on June 8, 1844, Hays and 14 men clashed with a Comanche force of 70 warrior. In a vicious close-range battle, with their five-shooters working deadly execution, the Rangers routed the enemy—the West’s finest horsemen and among its finest fighters. The Comanches left behind 23 of their number dead on the field, and carried off, in Hays’s estimate, 30 more wounded. Fewer than 20 escaped the battle-ground unhurt. Hays lost 1 man killed and 4 wounded.
Jack Hays hardly looked the part of a frontier fighter, or even an outdoorsman. Smooth-shaven, slim, and only five feet eight, he impressed one observer as a “delicate looking young man.” Moreover, he was modest, quiet, soft-spoken, and thoughtful, a man of few words either spoken or written. But he had no need to boast. His actions told all.
By 1845, when Texas joined the Union, Jack Hays had emerged as the pre-eminent Ranger captain. Others had gained distinction—Ben and Henry McCulloch, Richard Gillespie, and Samuel Walker—but Hays had become the ideal by which all subsequent generations judged a Ranger captain.