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An early depiction of a group of Texas Rangers, c. 1845.

The Texas Ranger Division, commonly called the Texas Rangers, is a law enforcement agency with statewide jurisdiction based in Austin, the capital of Texas, in the United States. Over the years, the Texas Rangers have investigated crimes ranging from murder to political corruption, acted as riot police and as detectives, protected the Texas governor, tracked down fugitives, and functioned as a paramilitary force at the service of both the Republic (1836-45) and the state of Texas. The Texas Rangers were unofficially created by Stephen F. Austin in 1823 and formally constituted in 1835. It was dissolved by the federal authorities during the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, but was quickly reformed upon the reinstitution of home government. From 1935, the organization has been a division of the Texas Department of Public Safety. It fulfills the role of Texas's State Bureau of Investigation. As of 2005, there are 118 active Rangers. It has been called the oldest state-level law enforcement agency in the United States of America.

The Rangers have taken part in many of the most important events of Texas history and were involved in some of the best-known criminal cases in the history of the Old West, such as those of gunfighter John Wesley Hardin, bank robber Sam Bass, and outlaws Bonnie and Clyde. Scores of books have been written about the Rangers, from well researched works of nonfiction to pulp novels, making them significant participants in the mythology of the Wild West. During their long history, a distinct Ranger tradition has evolved; their cultural significance to Texans is such that they are legally protected against disbandment. They played their part in bringing law and order to isolated parts of the land, and therefore in the pursuit of Manifest Destiny, that is, the American mission of spreading the rule of law, and democracy, across the land from the Atlantic Ocean in the East to the shores of the Pacific Ocean in the West.

History

Cartoon of an 1840s Texas Ranger.
Source: Library of Congress

Creation and early days

By the early 1820s, the Mexican War of Independence had subsided, and some 600 to 700 families had settled in Texas-most of them from the United States. Because there was no regular army to protect the citizens against attacks by Native Americans and bandits, in 1823, Stephen F. Austin organized small, informal armed groups whose duties required them to range over the countryside, and who thus came to be known as "rangers." Austin's rangers, of whom there were to be ten, would receive fifteen dollars a month. John Jackson Tumlinson Sr. is considered by many Texas Ranger historians to be the first Texas Ranger killed in the line of duty. Texas Rangers date the anniversary year of their organization to this event.

However, it was not until 1835 that the Texas Rangers were formally constituted, when Austin returned to Texas after having been imprisoned in Mexico City. Upon his return, Austin helped organize a council to govern the group. On October 17, at a consultation of the Provisional Government of Texas, Daniel Parker proposed a resolution to establish the Texas Rangers, totaling some 60 men distributed among three companies. This was instituted by Texas lawmakers on November 24. On November 28, 1835, Robert McAlpin Williamson was chosen to be the first Major of the Texas Rangers. Within two years the Rangers comprised more than 300 men.

In their early days, Rangers performed tasks of protecting the Texas Frontier against Indian attacks on the settlers. During the Texas Revolution, they served mainly as scouts, spies, couriers, and guides for the settlers fleeing before the Mexican Army and performed rear guard during the Runaway Scrape and general support duties. These minor roles continued after independence, when the region became the Republic of Texas under President Sam Houston. Houston, who had lived with the Cherokee for many years (and who had taken a Cherokee wife), favored peaceful coexistence with Indians, a policy that left little space for a force with the Rangers' characteristics.

This situation changed radically when Mirabeau B. Lamar became president in December 1838. Lamar had participated in skirmishes with the Cherokee in his home state of Georgia; like most Texans, he had not forgotten the support the Cherokee had given the Mexicans at the Cordova Rebellion against the Republic. He favored the eradication of Indians in Texas-a view that he shared with Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Thomas Rusk. Lamar saw in the Rangers the perfect tool for the task, and he obtained permission from the Texas Legislature to raise a force of 56 Rangers, along with other volunteer companies. During the following three years, he engaged the Rangers in a war against the Cherokee and the Comanche and succeeded in weakening their territorial control.

Mexican-American War

Capt. John Coffee "Jack" Hays.

Sam Houston was re-elected President of Texas on December 12, 1841. He had taken note of the Rangers' cost-efficiency and increased their number to 150. Under Captain John Coffee "Jack" Hays's leadership, the force played an important role in the defense against the Mexican invasion led by General Adrian Woll in 1842 and against attacks by Indians. Despite his youth at the time, the charismatic Hays was a rallying figure to his men and is often considered responsible for giving cohesion, discipline and a group mentality to the Rangers. Flacco, a chief of the allied Indian tribe of the Lipan, used to call Hays Bravo too much.1 The adoption of the state-of-the-art five-shot Colt revolver (which had been turned down by the U.S. Army) was also his work. Hays trained his men to aim, fire and reload their weapons from horseback, a radical innovation from the usual contemporary technique of dismounting before shooting at enemies and reloading, which was a necessity with more cumbersome weaponry. This tactic was put to devastating effect, and it was imitated shortly afterward by the military. At the suggestion of one of Hays' officers, Samuel Hamilton Walker, these revolvers soon evolved into the famous, enhanced six-shot version, the Walker Colt. During these years, famous Rangers such as Hays, Walker, Benjamin McCulloch and William "Bigfoot" Wallace first established their reputation as frontier fighters.

With the annexation of Texas within the United States and the Mexican-American War in 1846, several companies of Rangers were mustered into federal service and proved themselves at the battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma. From that moment on, their effectiveness as guerrilla fighters and guides to the federal army through a territory that they were familiar with marked the pace of the American offensive. Rangers played an important role in the battles of Monterrey and Buena Vista. The army, commanded by General Winfield Scott, landed at Veracruz in March 1847, and the Rangers once again provided valuable support at the ensuing Siege of Veracruz and the battles of Cerro Gordo and Chapultepec. They were also responsible for the defeat of the fierce Mexican guerrilleros that hindered the advance of the federal troops, which they achieved ruthlessly and efficiently. By then, the Rangers had earned themselves a considerable reputation that approached the legendary among Mexicans, and when Ranger companies entered and occupied Mexico City with the U.S. Army in September 1847, los Diablos Tejanos (the "Texas Devils") were received with reverence and fear. Their role in the Mexican-American War also won them nationwide fame in the United States and news of their exploits in the contemporary press became common, effectively establishing the Rangers as part of American folklore. As the Victoria Advocate reported in the November 16, 1848, issue:

Four newly raised ranging companies, have all been organized, and taken their several stations on our frontier. We are much pleased. We know they are true men, and they know exactly what they are about. With many of them Indian and Mexican fighting has been their trade for years. That they may be permanently retained in the service on our frontier is extremely desirable, and we cannot permit ourselves to doubt such will be the case.

Capt. John "Rip" Ford

Despite these popular stories and their fame, most of the Ranger force was disbanded during the years following the end of the Mexican-American War on February 2, 1848, since the protection of the frontiers was now an official duty of the U.S. Army. But as more settlers sought to establish homesteads in lands traditionally occupied by Indians, the skirmishes with the native peoples became a major political issue. During the 1850s, the Rangers were intermittently called on to deal with this problem, and with the election of Hardin Richard Runnels as governor in 1857, they once again regained their role as defenders of the Texas frontier.

On January 27, 1858, Runnels allocated $70,000 to fund a force of Rangers, and John Salmon "Rip" Ford, a veteran Ranger of the war with Mexico, was commissioned as senior captain. With a force of some 100 Rangers, Ford began a large expedition against the Comanche and other tribes, whose raids against the settlers and their properties had become common. On May 12, Ford's Rangers, accompanied by Tonkawa, Anadarko, and Shawnee scouts from the Brazos Reservation in Texas, crossed the Red River into Indian Territory and attacked a Comanche village in the Canadian River Valley, flanked by the Antelope Hills in what is now Oklahoma. Suffering only four casualties, the force killed a reported 76 Comanche (including a chief by the name of Iron Jacket) and took 18 prisoners and 300 horses.

In December 1859, Ford and his company were assigned to Brownsville, in south Texas, where the local Mexican rancher Juan Cortina had launched an attack and briefly occupied the town and later conducted a series of guerrilla actions and raids against local American landowners. Together with a regiment of the U.S. Army commanded by Major Samuel P. Heintzelman (who later became a notable general of the Union in the Civil War), Ford's Rangers took part in the Cortina War, and on December 27, 1859, they engaged and defeated Cortina's forces in the battle of Rio Grande City. Pursued and defeated by Ford and his Rangers again a few days later, Cortina retreated into Mexico, and although he would continue to promote minor actions against the Texan ranchers, the threat of a large-scale military incursion was effectively ended.

The success of these campaigns marked a turning point in Rangers' history. The U.S. Army could provide only limited and thinly stretched protection in the enormous territory of Texas. In contrast, the Rangers' effectiveness when dealing with these threats convinced both the people of the state and the political leaders that a well-funded and organized local Ranger force was essential. Such a force could use the deep familiarity with the territory and the proximity with the theater of operations as major advantages in its favor. This option was not pursued in the light of the emerging national political problems, and the Rangers dissolved until 1874. However, the conviction of their usefulness had become firmly established, and the agency was eventually reconstituted.

Civil War and late nineteenth century

Members of the Frontier Battalion, a company of Texas Rangers, c. 1885.

After Texas seceded from the United States in 1861 during the American Civil War, many Rangers enlisted individually to fight for the Confederacy, such as Walter P. Lane, George W. Baylor, Thomas S. Lubbock, Benjamin McCulloch, John B. Jones, Leander H. McNelly, and John Ford. Although the famous Eighth Texas Cavalry regiment was widely known as Terry's Texas Rangers, neither its leader and founder, Benjamin Franklin Terry, nor the majority of its members had been affiliated with the state agency. The fact that both groups have often been regarded as related (and Terry's men themselves had thus adopted the organization's name) speaks of the widespread fame that the Rangers had achieved by that time. During the Civil War, the duties of scouting the state frontiers for Union troops, hostile Indians and deserters devolved upon those who could not be drafted into the Confederate Army because of their age or other disabilities. This mixed group was never officially considered a Ranger force, although their work was essentially the same.

During Reconstruction, the Rangers were replaced by a Union-controlled Texas State Police. Charged with enforcing unpopular new laws that came with reintegration, that organization fell into disrepute.2 The TSP only existed from July 22, 1870 to April 22, 1873.

The scenario changed radically for the Rangers with the state election of 1873. When newly elected Governor Richard Coke took office in January 1874, it marked the end of Reconstruction for the Lone Star State, and he vigorously restored order to Texas in pursuit of improvements to both the economy and security. Once again Indians and Mexican bandits were threatening the frontiers, and once again the Rangers were tasked with solving the problem. That same year, the state legislature authorized the recommissioning of the Rangers,3 and a special force was created within its aegis: the Frontier Battalion, consisting of six companies of 75 men each under the command of Major John B. Jones. This group played a major role in the control of ordinary lawbreakers as well as the defense against hostile Indian tribes, which was particularly necessary in the period of lawlessness and social collapse of the Reconstruction.

Capt. Leander McNelly.

The Frontier Battalion was soon augmented with the Special Force, a second military group of 40 men under Captain Leander H. McNelly, with the specific task of bringing order in the area of south Texas between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande, called the Nueces Strip. At this particular region, the general situation of lawlessness was aggravated by the proximity of Texas to Mexico and the conflict between agrarian and cattle interests. Raids along the frontier were common, and not only perpetrated by ordinary bandits but also promoted by local Mexican caudillos. In particular, Juan Cortina's men were again conducting periodic guerrilla operations against local ranchers. In the following two years, McNelly and his group energetically engaged these threats and virtually eradicated them.

It was at these times that many of the Rangers' myths were born, such as their success in capturing or killing notorious criminals and desperados (including bank robber Sam Bass and gunfighter John Wesley Hardin) and their decisive role in the defeat of the Comanche, the Kiowa and the Apache peoples. It was also during these years that the Rangers suffered the only defeat in their history when they surrendered at the Salinero Revolt in 1877. Despite the fame of their deeds, the conduct of the Rangers during this period was questionable. In particular, McNelly and his men used ruthless methods that often rivaled the brutality of their opponents, such as taking part in summary executions and confessions induced by torture and intimidation.4 McNelly also made himself famous for disobeying direct orders from his superiors on several occasions, and breaking through the Mexican frontier for self-appointed law enforcement purposes. Arguably, these methods either sowed the seeds of discontent among Mexican-Americans or restored order to the frontier. After McNelly's retirement because of health problems, the Special Force was dissolved in 1877 and their members absorbed into the Frontier Battalion, which continued to function even after Jones' death in the line of duty in 1881. By the last years of the nineteenth century, a high measure of security within the vast frontier of Texas had been achieved, in which the Rangers had played a primary role.

Mexican Revolution and early twentieth century

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Texas's frontiers had become more settled, thus rendering the 1874 legislation obsolete after the organization had existed as a quasi-military force for more than 25 years. Amidst serious legal troubles that questioned the authority of the Rangers to exert such a role, new resolutions appropriate to the current times were adopted. The Frontier Battalion was disbanded with the passing of new legislation on July 8, 1901, and a new Ranger force was created, consisting of four companies of "no more than 20 men each" with a captain in command of every unit. The Rangers had slowly but firmly evolved into an agency with an exclusive law enforcement focus.

Capt. Monroe Fox and two other Rangers on horseback with their lariats around the bodies of dead Mexican bandits, October 8, 1915.

The Mexican Revolution that began in 1910 against President Porfirio Díaz changed the relatively peaceful state of affairs along the border drastically. Soon after, violence on both sides of the frontier escalated as bands of Mexicans took over Mexican border towns and began crossing the Rio Grande on a near-daily basis. Taking over trade routes in Mexico by establishing themselves as road agents, Mexican banditos turned towards attacking the American communities for kidnapping, extortion, and supplies. As Mexican law enforcement disintegrated with the collapse of the Diaz regime, these gangs grouped themselves under the various caudillos on both sides of the border and took sides in the civil war most simply to take advantage of the turmoil to loot. Then, as the lack of American military forces for defending the border was made more abundantly clear, the scope of the activities soon turned to outright genocide with the intention of driving Americans out of the Southwest entirely and became known as the Plan de San Diego in 1915. In several well rehearsed attacks, Mexicans rose up and in conjunction with raiding Mexican guerrillas among the Villistas within weeks killed over 500 Texan women, children, and men.

The political decision of the Texans was clear: restore control and order by any necessary means. As Governor Oscar Branch Colquitt instructed Ranger Capt. John R. Hughes: "… you and your men are to keep Mexican raiders off of Texas territory if possible, and if they invade the State let them understand they do so at the risk of their lives." Hundreds of new special Rangers were appointed by order of the state, which neglected to carefully screen aspiring members. Rather than conduct themselves as law enforcement officers, many of these groups acted more like vigilante squads. Reports of Rangers abusing their authority and breaking the law themselves became numerous. The situation grew even more dramatic when on March 9, 1916, Pancho Villa led 1,500 Mexican raiders in a cross-border attack against Columbus, New Mexico, increasing the high tension that had already existed between the communities.

The final straw that broke the camel's back was the killing of innocent villagers wrongly accused of raiding the Brite Ranch Store on Christmas Day in 1917. In January 1918, a heavily armed group of Texas Rangers, ranchmen, and members a troop of U.S. Cavalry descended upon the tiny community of Porvenir, Texas on the Mexican border in western Presidio County. The Texas Rangers and company rounded up the inhabitants of the village and searched their homes. The vigilantes then proceeded to gather all the men in Provenir (fifteen Mexican men and boys ranging in age from 72 to 16 years) were marched off into the cold and bitter darkness. A short distance from Porvenir, the innocent men were lined up against a rock bluff and shot to death. The innocent men were Manuel Morales, 47, who possessed a deed to 1,600 acres, Roman Nieves, 48, who possessed a deed to 320 acres, Longino Flores, 44, Alberto Garcia, 35, Eutimio Gonzales, 37, Macedonio Huertas, 30, Tiburcio Jaques, 50, Ambrosio Hernandez, 21, Antonio Castanedo, 72, Pedro Herrera, 25, Viviano Herrera, 23, Severiano Herrera, 18, Pedro Jimenez, 27, Serapio Jimenez, 25, and Juan Jimenez-the youngest victim at age 16. In January 1919, the Porvenir massacre came under the scrutiny of the Texas House and Senate Investigation of the State Ranger Force.

Before the decade was over, thousands of lives were lost, counting Texans and Mexicans alike; although by far, the wanton rape, murder, and execution of innocent civilians fell greater upon the former. In January 1919, at the initiative of Representative José T. Canales of Brownsville, the Texas Legislature launched a full investigation of Rangers' actions throughout these years. The investigation found that from 300 up to 5,000 people, mostly of Hispanic descent, had been killed by Rangers from 1910 to 1919 and that members of the Rangers had been involved in many sordid misdeeds of brutality and injustice.

These were the most turbulent times in the history of the Rangers, and with the objective of recycling the force's membership, putting it back in tune with its past and restoring the public's trust, the Legislature passed on March 31 1919, a resolution to purge it and enhance it and its procedures. All special Ranger groups were disbanded; the four official companies were kept, albeit their members were reduced from 20 to 15 each; better payment was offered in order to attract men of higher personal standards; and a method for citizens to articulate complaints against any further misdeeds or abuses was established.

Destruction of liquor at the Brownsville Customs House during Prohibition, December 20 1920.

The reforms proved positive, and the new Ranger force eventually regained the status of a respectable agency. Under the command of captains such as Frank Hamer (who later became famous for leading the party that killed the outlaws Bonnie and Clyde), the Rangers displayed remarkable activity in the following years, including the continuous fighting of cattle rustlers, intervening in the violent labor disputes of the time and protecting the citizenry involved in Ku Klux Klan's public displays from violent mob reaction. With the passage of the Volstead Act and the beginning of the Prohibition on January 16, 1920, their duties extended to scouting the border for tequila smugglers and detecting and dismantling the illegal stills that abounded along Texas's territory.

One of the Rangers' highest-profile interventions during this period was taming Texas's oil boomtowns (beginning with Spindletop's discovery in 1901), which had developed into lawless territories. During the 1920s, martial law was decreed on several of these towns, such as Mexia and Borger; at others, like Desdemona, Wink, Ranger, Kilgore, and Burkburnett, the situation was also very serious, and the Rangers were called in to quell agitated locals and terminate all illegal activities. This trouble continued until well in the 1950s, but the Rangers prevented it from growing into an even more dramatic problem.

Modernization and present day

The Great Depression forced both the federal and state governments to cut down on personnel and funding of their organizations, and the Rangers were no exception. The number of commissioned officers was reduced to 45, and the only means of transportation afforded to Rangers were free railroad passes, or using their personal horses. The situation worsened for the agency when its members entangled themselves in politics in 1932, by publicly supporting Governor Ross Sterling in his re-election campaign, over his opponent Miriam Amanda "Ma" Ferguson. Ferguson was elected, and immediately after taking office in January 1933, she proceeded to discharge all serving Rangers. The force also saw its salaries and funds slashed by the Texas Legislature, and their numbers reduced further to 32 men. The result was that Texas became a safe hideout for the many Depression-era gangsters escaping from the law, such as Bonnie and Clyde, George "Machine Gun" Kelly, Pretty Boy Floyd, and Raymond Hamilton. The hasty appointment of many unqualified Rangers to stop the increasing criminality proved ineffective.

Captain Manuel "Lone Wolf" Gonzaullas in 1942, with an official Rangers' automobile.

The general disorganization of law enforcement in the state convinced the members of the Legislature that a thorough revision of the public security system was in order, and with that purpose it hired the services of a consulting firm from Chicago. The resulting report yielded many worrying conclusions, but the basic underlying facts were simple: The criminality levels in Texas were extremely high, and the state's means to fight them were underfunded, undermanned, loose, disorganized, and obsolete. The consultants' recommendation, besides increasing funding, was to introduce a whole reorganization of state security agencies; especially, to merge the Rangers with the Texas Highway Patrol under a new agency called the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS). After deliberating, the Legislature agreed with the suggestion. The resolution that created the new state law enforcement agency was passed in 1935, and with an initial budget of $450,000, the DPS became operational on August 10.

With minor rearrangements over the years, the 1935 reforms have ruled the Texas Rangers' organization until present day. Hiring new members, which had been largely a political decision, was achieved through a series of examinations and merit evaluations. Promotion relied on seniority and performance in the line of duty. More sophisticated means of crime fighting were put at their disposal, like automobiles, advanced weaponry and forensics. By the late 1930s, the Rangers had one of the best crime labs in the United States at the Headquarters Division in Austin. The appointment of Colonel Homer Garrison in September 1938 as director of the DPS proved decisive as well. Under his leadership, many respected captains such as Manuel T. Gonzaullas worked extensively to restore the good name of the force that had been compromised in the

Senior Captain Ray Coffman, Chief in command, 2005.

The quality of the force in terms of training, funding, modernization and number strength has continued to improve. In the last few decades, the Rangers have intervened in several thousand cases with a high level of effectiveness,5 including many high-profile ones such as the pursuit and capture of serial killer Ángel Maturino Reséndiz. The agency is also fully integrated with modern Texan ethnic groups, counting numerous officers of Hispanic and African American origin among its members. Today, the historical importance and symbolism of the Texas Rangers is such that they are protected by statute from being disbanded: "The division relating to the Texas Rangers may not be abolished."

The Texas Rangers' internal organization still maintains the basic outlines that were set in 1935. The agency is formed into eight companies: Six District Companies lettered from "A" to "F," Company "G"-the Unsolved Crimes Investigation Team-and Headquarters Company "H," each commanded by a captain. (Company "G" is functionally a part of Headquarters Company and is commanded by the Headquarters Captain.) The number of personnel is set by the Texas Legislature; today, the Texas Rangers number 118 commissioned officers (including one woman), three crime analysts, one forensic artist, one fiscal analyst and 17 civilian support personnel (largely women). The Legislature has also made a provision for the appointment of 300 Special Rangers for use in emergency situations. The statewide headquarters of the Texas Rangers is located in Austin at the Texas DPS headquarters. Many incorrectly assume that Waco is the Rangers' headquarters, because the Ranger Hall of Fame is located there. Since August 31, 2005, the Chief of the Texas Rangers has been Senior Captain Ray Coffman. Captain Jim Miller serves as Assistant Chief.

The District Companies' headquarters are distributed in six geographical locations:

  • Houston is the headquarters for Company A, commanded by Capt. Tony Leal
  • Garland is the headquarters for Company B, commanded by Capt. Richard H. Sweaney
  • Lubbock is the headquarters for Company C, commanded by Capt. Randy Prince
  • San Antonio is the headquarters for Company D, commanded by Capt. Clete Buckaloo
  • Midland is the headquarters for Company E, commanded by Capt. Barry K. Caver
  • Waco is the headquarters for Company F, commanded by Capt. Kirby Dendy

The two statewide companies are based in:

  • San Antonio is the headquarters for Company G, commanded by Capt. Gerardo De Los Santos.
  • Austin is the home of Headquarters Company H, also commanded by Capt. Gerardo De Los Santos.

Old West image

William Callicot, one of McNelly's Rangers, 1875. Callicot is wearing sombrero and cross-draw holster, typical of Rangers of the period.

From its earliest days, the Rangers were surrounded with the mystique of the Old West. As it happened with many Old West myths like Billy the Kid or Wyatt Earp, the Rangers' legendary aura was in part a result of the work of sensationalist writers and the contemporary press, who glorified and embellished their deeds in an idealized manner. The case of the Rangers is, however, unique: It was a collective force that, in exercise of the authority granted by the government, protected Texas against threats considered extremely evil at the time. While some Rangers could be considered criminals wearing badges by a modern observer, many documented tales of bravery and selflessness are also intertwined in the group's history.

"One Riot, One Ranger"

Texas Rangers gathered at El Paso to stop the illegal Maher-Fitzsimmons fight, 1896. At the front row from the left are Adj. General. W. Mabry, and Capts. J. Hughes, J. Brooks, Bill McDonald (author of the famous phrase) and J. Rogers.

One of the most enduring phrases associated with the Rangers today is One Riot, One Ranger. It is somewhat apocryphal in that there was never actually a riot; rather, the phrase was coined by Ranger Captain William "Bill" McDonald, who was sent to Dallas in 1896, to prevent the illegal heavyweight prize fight between Pete Maher and Bob Fitzsimmons that had been organized by Dan Stuart, and patronized by the eccentric "Hanging Judge" Roy Bean.6

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