In its duties, this unique law enforcement body operates somewhere between the military and local authorities. Historically, Texas Rangers have ”ranged” over the state of Texas, assisting city and county officials with peacekeeping, investigations, and general cleanup of outlaws. As stated in Art. 4413 (11) of the Texas Revised Civil Statutes:
They shall have authority to make arrests, and to execute process in criminal cases; and in civil cases when specially directed by the judge of a court of record; and in all cases shall be governed by the laws regulating and defining the powers and duties of sheriffs when in the discharge of similar duties; except that they shall have the power and shall be authorized to make arrests and to execute all process in criminal cases in any county in the state.
Since there are 254 counties in Texas stretching across 266,807 square miles, canvassing the state takes some doing.
In 1823, Stephen F. Austin, civil and military leader of the Anglo American colonists in Texas, employed ten men to serve as peace officers, naming them Rangers. Three years later, Austin added to their number in a written agreement with six militia districts to keep ”twenty to thirty Rangers in service all the time.” The force gained legal status in 1835 with the outbreak of the Texas Revolution. War with Mexico drained manpower from the western frontier, leaving settlers vulnerable to Indian attack, so a larger corps of Rangers was assembled to patrol the borderland. Then from 1836 to 1845, the period of the Republic, Texas, having won independence from Mexico, was fearful that the Mexicans no less than the Plains Indians would seek to recapture their land. How to handle the threat of encroachment was the burning question. Eminent Texas historian Walter Prescott Webb (1952, 756) tells what was decided by the leaders of the fledgling Republic:
Experience proved that the most effective force was a squad of well-mounted men who would ride the great distances along the two frontiers and repel or destroy raiding parties. Legally these forces were given all sorts of titles, such as mounted gunmen, spies, mounted riflemen, etc., but it became the custom to refer to them in common parlance as Texas Rangers.
During this time men such as Ben McCulloch, Samuel H. Walker, W. A. A. ”Big Foot” Wallace, and John Coffee Hays earned reputations as gutsy Rangers able to surmount whatever odds were against them. For instance, McCulloch and a group of Rangers rode alongside a volunteer army in pursuit of Comanches who had stolen from and murdered settlers in the Guadalupe Valley. They all met on August 12, 1840, in what was to be called the Plum Creek Fight. There the Rangers fought boldly, and the surviving Comanches retreated farther west out of Texas. Hays, equally a hero, also beat back Indians by using the newly developed Colt revolver.
In 1845, Texas entered the Union, and on the heels of that event a second war with Mexico commenced. John Coffee Hays, made a colonel, was ordered to raise a regiment of five hundred Texas Rangers to assist in the war effort. For the first time in their history the Rangers fought as a unit in the U.S. Army. It was to be something of a drawback, though, because they were not military per se but free spirits; they lacked spit-and-polish discipline and tended to despise the Mexicans to a degree beyond that generated by mere warfare.
Another development concomitant with entry into the Union was that Texans expected federal troops to take over defense of the borderlands. This relief never materialized; the federal troops remained stationary, not riding roughshod across the dusty miles meting out justice as did the Rangers. As a result, in the minds of many Texans, their Rangers were irreplaceable.
During the Civil War, the Rangers lost some of their luster, since they stayed at home to continue guarding the Indian frontier while other Texans trudged east to the real battle. After the Civil War, reconstruction governor E. J. Davis oversaw legislation to create the first state police for Texas, which would overshadow the Rangers. Davis’s intention was to make sure that reconstruction policies would be adhered to, but what Texas got was three years of police corruption, culminating in Chief James Davidson’s absconding to Belgium with $37,434.67 of the state’s money. On April 22, 1873, the act authorizing the state police was repealed and the force abolished.
Rise to Greatness
Between 1874 and 1890, the Texas Rangers knew glory enough to fill a hundred legends. Lawlessness in the state had grown to alarming proportions before Governor Richard Coke charged the state legislature with enactment of a legal remedy. Out of its deliberation came the creation of two fighting forces. Major John B. Jones commanded the larger of the two, the Frontier Battalion, composed of six companies, each under the command of a captain. The battalion roamed the border to repulse any Indian uprising, although Major Jones and his Rangers spent more time correcting civil matters: riots, feuds, murders, and train robberies. Captain L. H. McNelly led the second contingent, called the Special Force, comprised of about thirty men. Its duty was to suppress cow theft and brigandage. One of McNelly’s most famous actions was the Las Cuevas affair, in which sixteen bandits paid with their lives for driving stolen cattle into Mexico. The Texas Rangers were not to be trifled with, and almost any crime committed near the border was dealt with harshly—that was the widespread warning of Las Cuevas.
Men from these forces achieved even greater notoriety by hunting down and capturing such outlaw killers as John Wesley Hardin and Sam Bass when it appeared that no one else could stand up to them. The anecdote of the day was that in a small Texas town, an angry mob was about to destroy the place when, livid with fear, the mayor sent for the Texas Rangers. At noon a train arrived and off stepped a lone man armed with a Winchester rifle, his steely eyes fixed on the mob. The mayor asked, ”Who are you?” ”I’m a Texas Ranger,” he replied. Hoots and laughter shook the town. ”What, only one Ranger? When we’ve got a mob! Where are your men?” The Ranger answered in a calm, clear voice, ”You’ve got only one mob, haven’t you? Now what’s the ruckus?”
A Well-Established Institution
Into the twentieth century, the Texas Rangers still maintained border patrol even though Indian raids had stopped and cattle rustling was on the decline. In 1911, Pancho Villa’s bandits were smuggling guns from Texas into Mexico and had to be stopped. A few years later, in 1918, with the coming of Prohibition, the contraband reversed direction; this time illegal liquor flooded into Texas from Mexico. Both unlawful activities kept the Rangers more than busy.
Perhaps the single greatest search for a band of criminals on the loose occurred in 1934. Destiny ordained that the Barrow gang, led by Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, was to meet head-on with Frank Hamer, the quintessential Texas Ranger. When Hamer got the assignment to go after them, the gang had already killed twelve people in cold blood. Hamer, a superlative looking man who was reported to have killed sixty-five outlaws in thirty years of law work, caught up with Bonnie and Clyde in Louisiana. He had stalked them for 102 days. From ambush he and other lawmen blasted the couple in their Ford, riddling metal and flesh with bullets, thus ending their spectacular crime spree. For bringing Bonnie and Clyde to justice, the State of Texas paid Hamer at the rate of $180 a month for the time he was on their trail.
But such heroics were not enough to sustain the life of the Texas Rangers, or so it seemed. In 1932, two years before Hamer’s historic confrontation, during the gubernatorial race, the Rangers supported Ross Sterling in opposition to Miriam ”Ma” Ferguson. When ”Ma” won the election, she fired all forty-four Rangers in service and replaced them with her appointees. Her vendetta tarnished the good name of the force, built up over 110 years, as Texans witnessed one of her ”Rangers” convicted of murder, several others declared guilty of using confiscated equipment to rig their own gambling hall, and a captain arrested for theft and embezzlement.
Understandably, after such misuse of authority, high-level talk centered around abolishing one of the best-known law enforcement bodies in the world. Only the election of a new governor, James V. Allred, saved the day. Governor Allred appointed Albert Sidney Johnson chairman of the new Public Safety Commission to resuscitate the Texas Rangers. Before Johnson was through, he had erected new quarters at Camp Mabry, placing the State Highway Patrol and the Rangers under one roof, had beefed up personnel, and had purchased every description of crime-solving equipment.
Today, the Texas Rangers operate as a part of the Texas Department of Public Safety and are still considered second to none in their role as free-agent lawmen. They carry on the tradition of their past brethren James B. Gillett, Ira Aten, Buck Barry, Captain John R. Hughes, Captain Bill McDonald, James Pike, and others who traversed Texas to make it a safe place to live. All of the Rangers mentioned in this brief history can be read about in colorful biographies that challenge any Western novel for genuine gallantry.
- Douglas, Claude Leroy. 1934. The gentlemen in the white hats: Dramatic episodes in the history of the Texas Rangers. Dallas, TX: South West Press.
- Mason, Herbert Molloy, Jr. 1967. The Texas Rangers. New York: Meredith Press.
- Webb, Walter Prescott. 1935. The Texas Rangers: A century offrontier defense. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
- Webb, Walter Prescott. ed. 1952. The handbook of Texas. 2 vols. Austin, TX: Texas State Historical Association.
- Webb, Walter Prescott. 1957. The story of the Texas Rangers. Austin, TX: Encino Press.