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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
Tuberculosis killed Leander McNelly in September 1877, and his company was later incorporated into Major Jones’s Frontier Battalion, but McNelly’s exploits had pumped new life into a legend subsiding since the glory days of Hays and Ford. The colorless Jones, destined for legendary status in a later generation, laid the groundwork for the rise of Texas Rangers in popular esteem. Elevated to adjutant general of Texas (to whom the Rangers reported), he died in 1881. His two successors, however, kept inflating the legend even as the state legislature cut appropriations and reduced the number of Rangers.
Adj. Gens. Wilburn H. King (1881–91) and Woodford H. Mabry (1891–99) tried to cover the state with fewer than 50 men but extolled their virtues and successes in ringing rhetoric that was short on specifics. These were the years of stars like Lam Sicker, Sam McMurry, Frank Jones, Ira Aten, John A. Brooks, John R. Hughes, and John H. Rogers. The handful of Rangers contended with cow thieves, fence cutters, train and bank robbers, railway and mine strikers, family and political feudists, vigilante mobs gone bad, and Mexican bandits.
Border Mexicans, reared on stories of McNelly and the excesses of Rangers during the Mexican War, loathed los rinches , who were believed to treat every Mexican male as a bandit. It was a loathing justified only by a few well-publicized incidents. Moreover, to Mexicans rinches meant all Anglo lawmen, not just Rangers, who were so few that not many operated on the border.
One who helped keep the torch blazing was William J. McDonald, who captained a company from 1891 to 1907. “Captain Bill” possessed courage, bravery, dedication, persistence, mastery of horse and gun, and criminal investigative skill. Six feet tall, lithe, and wiry, he projected authority with riveting blue eyes deeply set in a face framed by big ears and adorned with a mustache merging into muttonchop whiskers. More than any other Ranger captain, he was a showman, a self-promoter who reveled in notoriety. He cultivated politicians and newsmen and made certain that his exploits received public acclaim, often at the expense of his men.
AN ANACHRONISM TO SOME, TO MANY THE TEXAS RANGERS REMAIN THE EMBODIMENT OF MEN IN THE RIGHT WHO JUST KEEP ACOMIN’.
McDonald gained a merited reputation for talking down mobs. “I used to tell him,” recalled one of his men, “’Cap, you‘re going to get all of us killed, the way you cuss out strikers and mobs.’” “Don’t worry, Ryan,” was the response. “Just remember my motto.” He repeated his motto often enough to bequeath it to all successive generations of Rangers: “No man in the wrong can stand up against a fellow that’s in the right and keeps on acomin’.”
Bill McDonald also was the inspiration for an enduring Ranger myth. The tale survives in many versions, but in all of them an impending riot leads to a call for Rangers. One arrives, and when asked where the others are, he answers that there’s only one riot. Since 1961 an imposing eight-foot statue of a steely-eyed Ranger has dominated the terminal of Dallas’s Love Field airport. The pedestal bears the inscription “One Riot, One Ranger.” Pneumonia killed Captain Bill in 1918, but even in death he continued to proclaim his motto. His tombstone in a Quanah cemetery bears the inscription “No man in the wrong can stand up against a fellow that’s in the right and keeps on acomin’.”
Throughout the twentieth century the Texas Rangers reveled in McDonald’s righteous motto. At the same time, they committed atrocities against Mexicans that brought the force to the edge of extinction, suffered ruinous politicization at the hands of the notorious governors James E. and Miriam A. (“Pa” and “Ma”) Ferguson, and as late as the 1960s deployed under orders of Gov. John B. Connally as strikebreakers against unionized Mexican agricultural laborers in South Texas.
On the positive side, the Rangers tamed oil boom-towns, aggressively carried out Prohibition laws, and warred on gangsters. One of their number, although recently flushed out of the force by politics, set up the ambush that killed Bonnie and Clyde.
The move toward a truly professional law-enforcement agency began in 1935, with the creation of the Department of Public Safety. This reform removed the Rangers from the adjutant general’s command and combined them with the highway patrol. Since then they have served as the state’s criminal investigation arm, often with dramatic success. At the same time, they only grudgingly admitted minorities to their ranks and resisted women until forced into a feeble tokenism.
Over the past century two competing images of the Texas Rangers have emerged, both in scholarly studies and in popular thought. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, they still war with each other, one sustaining the bright legend, the other inspiring periodic attempts to abolish the Rangers altogether.