Tales Of The Texas Rangers


In 1935 Professor Walter Prescott Webb of the University of Texas gave scholarly respectability to the first image. In his conception, “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.” Webb’s Ranger knew no fear and called on unlimited reserves of courage.

Beginning in the 1960s, revisionist scholars drew a darkly contrasting portrait. It features a brutal, lawless Ranger, one who as a soldier indiscriminately slaughtered Indians and Mexicans and as a lawman systematically practiced ley de fuga (“law of the fugitive”) in which prisoners were routinely shot while supposedly trying to escape. This Ranger shot first and asked questions later. Today he would be called a rogue cop.

Not surprisingly, Ranger history yields a few dauntless men who fit Webb’s definition as well as a few of the rogue cops of his challengers. But the vast majority of Rangers of then and now come across as real people with their share of talents and shortcomings, who have sometimes lived up to the legend.

The legend has burned brightly for more than a century. The effusions of Adj. Gens. King and Mabry helped inspire popular fiction, verse, and balladry celebrating the strong, silent, fast-shooting lawmen of legend. In 1892 a frontier housewife composed her own six-stanza homage, concluding:

He may not win the laurels, Nor trumpet tongue of fame, But beauty smiles upon him, And ranchmen bless his name. Then here’s to the Texas Ranger, Past, present, and to come, Our safety from the savage, The guardian of our home.

Even as the twentieth-century Ranger came under severe criticism and verged on extinction, the Old West lawmen flourished in print and film. Comic books and pulp Westerns continued to star the Rangers. Zane Grey’s The Lone Star Ranger (1915), dedicated to the Rangers, reached the theaters twice as a silent and once, in 1930, as a talkie. Films featuring the Texas Rangers appeared as early as 1910 and have never stopped. Mike Cox’s “Texas Ranger Filmology” lists 118 Ranger movies between 1910 and 1995.

The Lone Ranger galloped into radio in 1933. With William Tell as overture, the masked rider of the plains and his faithful Indian companion, Tonto, warred against frontier evil and with a silver bullet disarmed badmen without ever drawing blood. With radio giving way to television after World War II, Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels appeared in 1949 in a longrunning series that gave visual form to the heroes of the radio generation. The Lone Ranger still lives. Internet Web sites provide the most arcane detail any aficionado may want about this giant of popular culture.

The Lone Ranger did not dominate television portrayals of the Rangers. Series came and went, and feature-length films exploited and fueled the legend. In 1989 the television miniseries drawn from Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove gained a huge audience, giving graphic expression to the first of four books about the Rangers that enjoyed triumphant sales. Chuck Norris starred in the top-rated series Walker, Texas Ranger , a foolish epic so implausible that it probably embarrassed every modern Ranger but which ran for eight years.

Late last year Hollywood brought out the saga of Leander McNelly. “An epic adventure of love and courage in a rugged land,” ran the publicity, “Texas Rangers revives the great tradition of the pure American Western.” (Perhaps, although the producers upended the script and made McNelly the unlikely foil for a nasty squad of punks in the Young Guns tradition.)

The legend offends some Texans, who regard the Rangers as an anachronism, a survival from frontier times that should have been abolished long ago. But to many more Texans they are still the embodiment of men in the right who just keep acomin’. This appealing vision fortifies public opinion and promises the abiding affection and political support of the majority of Anglo Texans. (A burgeoning Hispanic population, verging on the state’s majority, may one day change this dynamic.) Despite the continuing efforts of scholars to recast the image of the Texas Ranger, in the legendary ideal inspired by Jack Hays and fleshed out by the Old West lawmen, he still rides in the popular imagination—in Texas, in the nation, and around the world.