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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
Maj. John B. Jones, the architect of the Frontier Battalion, presided over its transformation into a state law-enforcement agency. More than any other man, the rangers owed their march toward institutional continuity to him. Like Hays, Jones didn’t look like a Ranger. Spare, with a high forehead, penetrating eyes, and a drooping mustache, he dressed impeccably and sat his horse erectly. He was forty in 1847, a bachelor, dignified and humorless, religious, a user of neither tobacco nor alcohol, softspoken, courteous, kind, and indefatigably determined to a fashion an organization capable of carrying out its assigned mission.
Jones succeeded in asserting mastery over administrative, logistical, financial, and political concerns in Austin while exercising operational control of his companies and riding the frontier several times a year. At the same time, he reshaped the Texas Ranger tradition without destroying it. Rangers still provided their own horses and arms. They still wore no uniforms. They still enjoyed an easy camaraderie with one another and with their officers. Yet they were no longer citizen soldiers springing to arms to meet a threat and then returning to their homes; they were men recruited to serve for as long as the money held out. They were, in short, a special breed of soldier, drawn not just from the frontier but from anywhere in the state and trained in the hard school of experience. Despite informal relationships within a company, moreover, they served in a plainly military organization, one in which Jones insisted on system, order, discipline, subordination, accountability, and diligent performance of the mission.
Although the law authorized a battalion of 450 men—six companies of 75 men each—the legislature never appropriated enough money to sustain such a force. By the close of 1875 it had peaked at five companies, each consisting of a captain and 21 Rangers.
John B. Jones shared the beginning of a new Ranger era with an even more improbable figure than he, Leander H. McNelly. McNelly headed a militia company called out by the governor to suppress the violent Sutton-Taylor feud. In most essentials, the company resembled those of the Frontier Battalion. The men regarded themselves as Rangers, and so did the public—“McNelly’s Rangers.” In one respect, however, no other company resembled McNelly’s Rangers: the captain himself. A full brown beard and bushy mustache failed to offset the gaunt face and frail body. Although wracked by tuberculosis, Leander McNelly possessed in full measure the ingredients of leadership that had endowed great captains of the past. As one of his recruits recalled, “The way Captain fixed control over this bunch can’t be told. I still don’t know how he did it, but he did. One thing, he didn’t waste a word or a move. He appeared to know exactly what he wanted to do and how to go about doing it. I got the feeling that here was a man who could tell you what to do and you’d do it and never have any suspicion that he might be wrong.”
McNelly failed to suppress the Sutton-Taylor feud but soon found himself combating Mexican cattle thieves on the Rio Grande. Like most Anglo Texans, he looked on Mexicans as inferior and all their able-bodied men as bandits. He maintained his own secret spy service south of the border, and he resorted to unconventional methods to extract information from captives. As the federal commander in Texas observed of a McNelly success, “The officer of the State troops in command had learned the whereabouts of this raiding party by means which I could not legally resort to, but which were the only means of getting at the actual facts. He caught one of the number and had him hung up until he was made to confess where the rest of the raiders were.” McNelly’s interrogator and sometime executioner was Jesús Sandoval, who regularly served his captain with methods the Army could not legally resort to.
McNelly’s most spectacular feat was an inglorious exploit that earned him glory. On November 18, 1875, going after stolen cattle, he led his 30 Rangers across the Rio Grande near Las Cuevas. They charged into a village mistakenly thought to be the refuge of the thieves and shot down a dozen or more men unfortunate enough to be caught in the streets. A large Mexican force drove the invaders back to the river, and the two sides exchanged fire all day. McNelly refused the “advice” of U.S. Army officers on the Texas side to withdraw, even when confronted with 400 troops gathering to defend Mexican sovereignty. For two days he held his position. Only when the Mexican leader promised to turn over the stolen herd and the thieves the next day did McNelly boat his little company back to Texas.
As it turned out, the Mexican officials delivered only a third of the cattle and none of the bandits. Even so, McNelly’s reputation soared. Texans admired brave men who threw aside legalities to right wrongs by direct action. The unpleasant realities—that the Rangers had killed a dozen or so Mexicans of uncertain guilt, that McNelly’s stubborn refusal to withdraw from Mexican soil had almost got his command obliterated, and that the return of a few score stolen cows was less a victory than a formula for backing down without losing face—were drowned in public applause for a handful of bold Rangers who had outfought and outfoxed overwhelming numbers.