June/July 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 3
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.