by lyle e davis
Lots of kids might want to grow up to be president but millions of young Texans want to grow up to be white-hatted, silver-badged Texas Rangers. After all, the Texas Rangers are the oldest law enforcement agency in North America with statewide jurisdiction.
Rangers have a heritage that traces to the earliest days of Anglo settlement in Texas. They often have been compared to four other world-famous law enforcement agencies, the FBI, Scotland Yard, Interpol, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
The Rangers are part of the history of the Old West, and part of its mythology. Over the years, a distinct Ranger tradition has evolved.
That tradition comes as a result of a combination of the mystique of the old order of the mounted, fighting Texans, combined with a rich history, and a lot of very favorable publicity.
One of the most recognizable forms of publicity came from an old radio, and later, tv show known as “The Lone Ranger.”
For those youngsters who read The Paper, let us give a brief synopsis of the plot:
Created in 1933 by George Trendle for Detroit radio station WXYZ , the Lone Ranger was an overnight success. Over six decades later, the popularity of the Lone Ranger remains high. The character starred in nearly 3,000 radio episodes, two movie serials, three feature movies, 18 novels, more than 220 television episodes, uncounted newspaper comic strips, comic books, cartoons and promotional items.
Who was that "masked man?"
The Lone Ranger is the sole survivor of an ambush that killed five of his Texas Ranger comrades. With the help of Tonto, a friendly Indian who came to his aid, the Ranger buried his five companions and recovered from his injuries. In order to mislead the outlaws into thinking that all of the Rangers died, the Lone Ranger dug a sixth grave which was left empty. Hiding his identity with a black mask, he set out with his new friend to track down and apprehend the outlaws. Hi-Ho, Silver! Away!
The popularity of the television western faded to near extinction in the 1970s. In the late 1980s it was reborn when baby-boomers, who grew up with the Lone Ranger and Tales of the Texas Ranger, hit middle age. The Lonesome Dove mini-series and Walker, Texas Ranger had introduced the Ranger to a whole new generation of fans.
Today’s Texas Rangers seldom are found in major shootouts . . in real life or on tv. Often they don’t even ride horses. If you can believe this, there are some Rangers that flat dislike horses!
"Rangers ride helicopters more than horses," said a Rangers spokesman. "We may have one or two who don't even know how to ride a horse." One Ranger who preferred to ride in cars or aircraft was Bill Wilson. As senior Ranger captain in 1977, he told a journalist: “I don't even like horses. I swore the last time I got off a horse I'd never get on one again."
Early Rangers were required to provide their own horses and equipment. They fought battles in which they were often outnumbered by as much as 50-to-1, so it was common for each man to carry multiple pistols, rifles and knives.
One writer said that a Texas Ranger could "ride like a Mexican, trail like an Indian, shoot like a Tennesseean, and fight like the devil."
Frontier Battalion Co. B about 1880 ©2003 - Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum - Photo by Mike Cox -
As former Ranger Captain Bob Crowder once put it, "A Ranger is an officer who is able to handle any given situation without definite instructions from his commanding officer or higher authority. This ability must be proven before a man becomes a Ranger." That definition worked well more than 150 years ago and still fits today. Yet, unlike years ago, today Texas Rangers have access to modern communications, which keeps them in touch with the rest of the world.
Despite the long history of the Rangers, the term "Texas Ranger" did not appear officially in a piece of legislation until 1874.
The Ranger story begins many years ago. In 1823, the Father of Texas, Stephen F. Austin realized the need for a body of men to protect his fledgling colony, the land settlement effort that marked the beginning of Texas' development.
On August 5, 1823, Austin wrote that he would "...employ ten men...to act as rangers for the common defense...the wages I will give said ten men is fifteen dollars a month payable in property..."
These men, not soldiers, not even militia, "ranged" the area of Austin's colony, protecting settlers from Indians. When no threat seemed evident, the men returned to their families and land.
Despite Austin's plan to pay a group of Rangers, the defense effort continued primarily on a voluntary basis.
By 1835, as the movement for Texas independence was about to boil over, a council of local government representatives created a "Corps of Rangers" to protect the frontier from Indians. These Rangers would be paid $1.25 a day and could elect their own officers. Almost all the early Rangers may be labeled 'citizen soldiers.'
When Texas declared its independence from Mexico, some Rangers took part in the fighting, though most served as scouts.
Certainly one of the most famous early-day Texas Rangers was John Coffee "Jack" Hays. He came to San Antonio in 1837 and within three years was named a Ranger Captain. Hays built a reputation fighting marauding Indians and Mexican bandits. An Indian who switched sides and rode with Hays and his men called the young Ranger Captain "bravo too much."
Hays' bravado was too much for many a hostile Indian or outlaw. In dealing with those deemed a threat to the young Republic, Hays helped establish another Ranger tradition--toughness mixed with a reliance on the latest in technology.
The Republic of Texas was one of the earliest customers of a New England gun maker, Samuel Colt. Colt had invented a five-shot revolver, a weapon Hays and his men used with deadly effect in defense of the Texas frontier. In fact, one of Hays' men, Samuel H. Walker, made some suggestions for improving the pistol that Colt carried out. The new weapon, which against bows and arrows or single-shot weapons was the frontier equivalent of a nuclear bomb, was called the Walker Colt.
In 1842, Walker and another former Ranger, Big Foot Wallace, took part in the ill-fated Mier Expedition, in which a group of Texans invaded Mexico. The Texans were captured and every tenth man was ordered executed.
The fate of the prisoners was determined in a drawing. Those who drew white beans lived; a black bean meant death. Walker drew a white bean. So did Wallace.
In 1846, within a year of Texas' admission as the 28th state of the Union, the United States and Mexico were at war. Walker joined one of several Ranger companies that were mustered into federal service to function as scouts.
The Rangers fought with such ferocity in the war that they came to be called "Los Diablos Tejanos"--the Texas Devils. The luck Walker had after Mier did not hold. He was killed in the fighting.
For the next decade after the Mexican War, the Rangers existed primarily as volunteer companies, raised when the need arose and disbanded when their work was done.
One of the best known Rangers of this period was John S. "Rip" Ford, whose nickname stood for "Rest in Peace." Ford--medical doctor, newspaper editor, and politician--lived up to his nickname in 1859, when Juan Nepomuceno Cortina took over the border city of Brownsville. The bandit had in mind retaking, in the name of Mexico, all of Texas below the Nueces River.
The Texas government saw it differently, and dispatched Ford and a company of Rangers to mitigate the matter. Cortina was defeated in a running fight that cost the lives of 151 of his men and 80 to 90 Texas citizens, including some Rangers.
In his memoirs, Ford later described the kind of men who served under him as Rangers:
“A large proportion...were unmarried. A few of them drank intoxicating liquors. Still, it was a company of sober and brave men. They knew their duty and they did it. While in a town they made no braggadocio demonstration. They did not gallop through the streets, shoot, and yell. They had a specie of moral discipline which developed moral courage. They did right because it was right."
Captain John S. “Rip” Ford
By the second half of the decade, the biggest threat to Texas was lawless Texans. In 1874 the Legislature created two Ranger forces to cope with the situation--the Frontier Battalion, led by Major John B. Jones and an organization called the Special Force under Captain Leander McNelly.
Captain McNelly did not like a lot of paperwork. Witness his report below:
In five years time, the Rangers were involved in some of the most celebrated cases in the history of the Old West. Much of the fact that would later be mixed with Ranger legend occurred during this turbulent period.
Texas' deadliest outlaw, John Wesley Hardin, a preacher's son reputed to have killed 31 men, was captured in Florida by Ranger John B. Armstrong. After Armstrong, his long-barreled Colt .45 in hand, boarded the train Hardin and four companions were on, the outlaw shouted: "Texas, by God!" and drew his own pistol. When it was over, one of Hardin's friends was dead. Hardin had been knocked out cold, and his three surviving friends were staring at Armstrong's pistol. A neat round hole pierced Armstrong's hat, but he was uninjured.
Hardin served a lengthy prison sentence, only to die in a shoot-out in El Paso in 1896 shortly after his release.
Another well-known Texas outlaw who had a run-in with Texas Rangers did not make it to prison. Train robber Sam Bass, who had been in Texas since 1870, was confronted by four Rangers in Round Rock in the summer of 1878. In the shoot-out that followed, one of Bass' gang was killed outright. Bass was gravely wounded, but managed to escape. He was found, taken back into town, and later died.
Preserving Law and Order
In the 1890s, Rangers preserved law and order in Big Bend mining towns, tracked down train robbers and even were called on to prevent an illegal prize-fight from taking place on Texas soil. The promoters of the storied Fitzsimmons-Maher bout finally had to settle for staging the boxing match on an island in the Rio Grande.
One Riot, One Ranger
The law authorized four Ranger companies of a maximum of 20 men each. The career of Company "B" Captain W. J. McDonald, and a book written about him, added much to the Ranger legend, including two of its most famous sayings.
The often cited "One Riot, One Ranger" appears to be based on several statements attributed to Captain McDonald by Albert Bigelow Paine in his classic book, Captain Bill McDonald: Texas Ranger. When sent to Dallas to prevent a scheduled prize-fight, McDonald supposedly was greeted at the train station by the city's anxious mayor, who asked: "Where are the others?"
To that, McDonald is said to have replied, "Hell! ain't I enough? There's only one prize-fight!"
In 1894-95, the Rangers scouted 173,381 miles; made 676 arrests; returned 2,856 head of stolen livestock to the owners, assisted civil authorities 162 times and guarded jails on 13 occasions.
In 1900, the Frontier Battalion faded along with the frontier; but by July, 1901, the Legislature passed a new law concerning the Ranger service. The force, to be organized by the governor, was created "for the purpose of protecting the frontier against marauding or thieving parties, and for the suppression of lawlessness and crime throughout the state."
Ranger Captains picked their own men, who had to furnish their own horses and could dress as they choose. They did not even have a standard badge.
And on the title page of Paine's 1909 book on McDonald are 19 words labeled as Captain McDonald's creed: "No man in the wrong can stand up against a fellow that's in the right and keeps on a-comin." Those words have evolved into the Ranger creed.
Adjutant General W. H. Mabry wrote of the Rangers in his 1896 report to the Legislature that "This branch of the service has been very active and has done incalculable good in policing the sparsely settled sections of the state where the local officers...could not afford adequate protection."
As the turn of the century approached, the reputation of the Ranger as the person required to take care of a situation beyond the means of local law enforcement was well established.
Going back to the time when the original Rangers came into being, Author Robert M. Utley offers the controversial view that the original Texas Rangers were probably much akin to those folks who today make up Blackwater. He says, for example:
"Motives for enlisting in early Ranger units didn't include pay. Although usually promised, it was almost never forthcoming. To protect family and property, to punish the enemy, or the sheer love of adventure afforded motives. But there was one powerful motive almost never mentioned.
That motive was plunder.
Indian villages yielded spoils, especially horses,” he said. Those motivating attacks on any Indians, deserved or not, sometimes resulted in unseemly quarrels over division of the plunder and a reluctance to return to owners stock or other stolen property, says Utley.
While Mr. Utley is stepping on well-booted toes there is some historical evidence to suggest that the Texas Rangers were not always the one wearing totally white hats. There was a time, early in its history, when an entire company of Rangers were dismissed for exceeding and abusing their authority. This event goes back to a time when circumstances were such that the Rangers found themselves up against men in the wrong as always, but some of the law enforcement problems these officers confronted were as new as the century itself.
Since the days of the Mexican War, Rangers had occasional work to do along the long, meandering Rio Grande, but the emphasis on the river increased in 1910 with the outbreak of revolution in Mexico. Generally easy to ford, the Rio Grande had never been much more than a symbolic boundary. Some of the violence associated with the political upheaval in Mexico crossed the river into Texas.
On several occasions, Mexican bandits raided into Texas. And at least twice, Rangers returned the favor, making punitive strikes into Mexico. In one battle in 1917, as many as 20 Mexicans may have been killed by Rangers who crossed to the south side of the river. During this time, the Ranger force was as large as it ever was in its history, and historians who have studied the period agree there was some dilution of quality. After one Ranger raid into Mexico, an entire company was dismissed as they had been found to have exceeded and abused their authority.
Texas was growing up--the Rangers were part of the state's civil authority, and had to learn to do their work within the framework of the law, no matter the necessary liberties some of their predecessors had taken in earlier years . . . which brings in the parallel drawn to today’s Blackwater crew. They, too, are highly trained in the use of weaponry - they, too, are recognized as outstanding fighters, and are often called upon to defeat forces larger than their own . . . but in recent months, allegations have been made that they, too, have exceeded and/or abused their authority.
Whether Congress reins in Blackwater as state legislators did with the early Texas Rangers remains to be seen.
In spite of the occasional black eye, the Texas Rangers largely have a clean, and honorable, reputation. So much so that it is a highly sought after position. Not just anyone can be a Texas Ranger. For every position that opens up you usually have a minimum of 100 applicants from the Texas Department of Public Safety who would love the job. Texas Ranger PR folks will point out that the myth of Rangers shooting first and asking questions later has been largely dispelled. They claim they seldom shoot nowadays except at the range.
Texas was in a state of transition, and so were the Rangers. Rangers still rode the river on horseback, but they also used cars. The automobile was taking over as the principal mode of transportation in Texas and the rest of the country.
One of the best-known Rangers who made the transition from horse to car was Frank H. Hamer. He first joined the Rangers in 1906. By 1921, he was Captain of Ranger Company "C", stationed in Del Rio. At the beginning of 1922, he was transferred to Austin, where he would spend the next decade as a Ranger Captain.
One of the major problems facing the Rangers during Hamer's tenure as Senior Ranger Captain was bank robbery. The situation got so bad the Texas Bankers Association offered a standing $5,000 reward for bank robbers. There was one catch--the money would be paid for dead robbers only.
As the Depression took hold in Texas, unscrupulous types began setting up phony holdups, hiring men to rob a bank and then killing them in the act so the reward money could be collected. This was a situation the Rangers could not solve with force. Instead, Hamer went to the press, exposing what was happening. Hamer's move paid off--the banking association's reward policy was changed.
The Texas Senate eventually created a state law enforcement agency to be known as the Department of Public Safety. This creation merged the Texas Rangers and the Highway Patrol into a Public Safety Department that, essentially, formed a single state police force. On August 10, 1935, it became effective.
Under the new DPS, the Ranger force would consist of 36 men. Though smaller than it had been in years, the Texas Rangers would have for the first time in its history the benefits of a state-of-the-art crime laboratory, improved communications, and, perhaps most importantly, political stability. In name, the Rangers were 100 years old. With the creation of the DPS, the Rangers would have professionalism to match their tradition.
Tom Hickman, a veteran Ranger, was named Senior Captain of the Rangers. The force was organized into five companies, each headed by a captain.
Fingerprint and modus operandi files were available for Ranger use and Ranger vehicles were equipped with police radio receivers, though two-way radio would not be available to Rangers until the 1940s. They also had the benefit of chemical ballistic and microscopic testing in their criminal investigations.
In their early years as part of the DPS, Rangers were furnished a Colt .45 and a lever action Winchester .30 caliber rifle by the state. Rangers had to provide their own car, horse, and saddle, though the DPS issued horse trailers and paid automobile mileage.
For the first time, Rangers had the benefits of in-service training. Weekly activity reports of their activities were required.
The Texas Rangers were part of another agency, but their duties essentially were the same as they had been for years. Rangers were called upon to enforce the state's laws, with particular emphasis on felony crimes, gambling and narcotics. Rangers also were used in riot suppression and in locating fugitives.
By 1945, the authorized strength of the Texas Rangers had been increased to 45 men. Two years later, the force was increased again, to 51 men.
In their first year under the DPS, the Rangers took part in an estimated 255 cases; two decades later, in 1955, the Rangers were involved in 16,701 cases.
Keeping the Peace
Rangers continued to add to their legend during the 1950s. When inmates in the Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane rioted and took hostages, Ranger Captain R. A. "Bob" Crowder walked into the maximum security unit armed only with the .45 on his hip. Crowder and the leader of the mob had a conversation and the inmates surrendered.
Rangers made national headlines by their quiet but firm presence at various campuses in the state as school integration was for the most part peacefully implemented. When violence seemed possible at the high school in Mansfield, Rangers were sent to the school. A photograph of Ranger Sergeant Jay Banks, reflectively leaning against a tree in front of the high school as students walked into the building beneath a dummy hanging in effigy, was widely published.
Also during the 1950s, Rangers calmed down a violent steel mill strike in East Texas; shut down illegal gambling in Galveston and participated in numerous cases, some sensational, many merely routine investigations.
This was Ranger Zeno Smith's report for July 3, 1956: "Wilson County Sheriff requested the assistance of one Ranger in the investigation of twenty-five head of cattle near Floresville. A lengthy investigation resulted in the filing of five complaints and indictments in each case against the suspect who is still at large. 115 hours."
With a population of 20 million, Texas has only 107 Rangers. Fourteen are Mexican-Americans and six are African-Americans. Two Rangers are female: Marrie Garcia, based in San Antonio, and Christina Nix in Waco. Twenty-eight are college graduates, and three have master's degrees. College credit hours average 81. Average age has dipped from 50 in the 1970s to near 40 today. Ranger Sgt. Leo Hickman refuses to retire. He's 73.
Today's Rangers are detectives. In fiscal 1997-1998, Rangers handled 5,205 investigations that led to 829 felony and 130 misdemeanor arrests.
As of 2007 the size of the Ranger increased to 116 commissioned members. These Rangers are supervised by a Senior Captain, Captain, Assistant Commander, six field captains and seven lieutenants. The force is organized into six companies, "A" through "F," and a Headquarters office in Austin and an Unsolved Crimes Investigation Team in San Antonio. Other Rangers are stationed in various towns and cities in the state, each Ranger having responsibility for a minimum of two to three counties, some with even larger areas.
High-powered sniper rifles, night vision scopes, tear gas guns and grenades and gas masks are available for each Ranger company. Black lights, used for detecting fluid traces on clothing and other items, also are available at the company level. Sophisticated electronic surveillance equipment is at the disposal of the Rangers as well.
Today's Rangers travel by car, airplane or helicopter and occasionally by horse. Rangers are not issued uniforms, they dress as they need to. A Ranger in Dallas might wear a suit and tie while a Ranger assigned to a rural area would likely choose Western wear. During normal everyday activity, Rangers are still expected to wear western boots and have their badges pinned to their shirts.