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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
Still short-term volunteers, the Rangers had earned the admiration and respect of Anglo Texans. The Mexican War gave Hays and his comrades the opportunity to nationalize their tradition, to make the Texas Ranger known to all the nation. As federalized volunteers they made hardly any concession to the regulations that bound other regiments; they clung to their traditional habits: short terms of service, no uniforms or flags, scorn for the chain of command and military proprieties. They also inflicted atrocities on Mexican civilians, revenge for Mexican atrocities at the Alamo and elsewhere during the Texas Revolution and the decade of the Republic. Gens. Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott welcomed the Rangers’ steadiness in combat and their value as scouts; but both generals also bemoaned the Rangers’ consistent troublemaking. Taylor asked “that no more troops may be sent to this column from the State of Texas.”
The rangers produced the first hero of the war. In April 1846, even before Taylor won his victories at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma, near the mouth of the Rio Grande, Sam Walker made a name for himself by bearing dispatches across chaparral flats infested by Mexican irregulars. His exploits earned the Army’s applause and quickly found their way into newsprint in the East. President James K. Polk commissioned Walker a captain in the Regular Army, and New Orleans admirers presented him “a fine-blooded war steed” and “a very elegant and serviceable sword.”
Walker’s singular contribution to the war, however, lay in the East. Samuel Colt, in Connecticut, seeking to interest a hidebound Ordnance Department in his revolving pistol, approached Walker for an endorsement. Responding enthusiastically, the captain described how a handful of Rangers armed with the Paterson Colt had bested five times their number of Comanches at Walker Creek a couple of years earlier. “With improvements,” he asserted, “I think they can be rendered the most perfect weapon in the World for light mounted troops.”
Appealing directly to President Polk and the Secretary of War, Walker helped Colt circumvent the Ordnance Department’s opposition to repeating arms and gain a contract. He also worked with the gunmaker on the improvements. The result was the first six-shooter, which the inventor named the Walker Colt. It was a heavy, powerful handgun, weighing four and a half pounds, .44 caliber, with a nine-inch barrel and a large cylinder to accommodate six rounds backed by hefty powder charges. It was sturdier than the old Paterson and easier to load. In striking power, it rivaled the regulation Army musket and, at 100 yards, even the rifle. In the hands of Texas Rangers, the Walker Colt fully met expectations. Colts blazing at Mexican lancers, Walker himself took a mortal wound at the Battle of Huamantla.
After the war Jack Hays emigrated to California, where he played an influential role in building the new state. His mantle fell on his wartime adjutant, John Salmon (“Rip”) Ford. More than six feet tall, lean and blue-eyed, voluble, and fun-loving, Rip Ford had led a varied life, practicing medicine, studying law, dabbling in surveying and politics, editing an Austin newspaper, and serving Hays effectively in the Mexican War.
Rip Ford began his career as a Ranger captain in 1849, when he was thirty-four. Throughout the 1850s he proved a successful and respected leader, a terror to Comanche raiders, and a worthy successor to Hays. His most significant feat occurred in 1858, when he surprised and routed the Comanche band of Iron Jacket at the Battle of Antelope Hills, on the Canadian River in the Indian Territory north of Texas.
THE NEW COLT, HEAVY AND POWERFUL, RIVALED THE REGULATION ARMY MUSKET IN FIREPOWER AND, AT 100 YARDS, EVEN THE RIFLE.
The U.S. Army had built forts and garrisoned Texas, but neither federal troops nor the Rangers could slow the pace of Comanche raiding. They scored occasional successes but the Texas frontier endured the ravages of Indian raids for nearly half a century. Not until the Army’s Red River War of 1874–75 did the northern raiders settle on a reservation and leave Texas alone.
The Red River War coincided with the beginnings of the second phase of Ranger history—law enforcement. In 1874 the Texas legislature authorized what administratively came to be known as the Frontier Battalion. The authors of the law meant to create a permanent military force to do what the citizen soldier had done, only better. The Rangers of this outfit displayed many of the defining features of their predecessors, but they were no longer citizen soldiers. Although the Frontier Battalion was designed to fight Indians, when the Indian menace subsided it recast itself as a corps of lawmen. Thereafter Texas Ranger meant “state lawman” rather than “Indian fighter.” Unlike the citizen soldier, he contended with offenders against the laws of Texas.