LIKE THE ALAMO, the Texas Rangers embody the idea of Texas exceptionalism, the notion that the Lone Star State (there it is again) is different from the rest of the U.S. Almost everybody recognizes the iconic group, but only historians or the history-minded can name a single Ranger (Chuck Norris does not count). The most famous book about those doughty defenders of truth, justice, and the American way, Walter Prescott Webb’s The Texas Rangers: A Century of Frontier Defense, turns seventy this year and finds itself once more in the arena of public debate on the merits of the historical Rangers.
The problems with this particular Texas classic are many: Its narrative is scattered and diffuse; it tends to lapse into anecdotage (as do many of the works of the Big Three: Dobie, Webb, and Bedichek); and as novelist Rolando Hinojosa-Smith has said, it is virtually a “life of saints.” In the process of lionizing the Rangers, it whitewashes their excesses, offering excuses and justifications for illegal actions such as torture and murder. The Rangers’ lawlessness was well-documented in the Mexican War of 1846–1848 and later in their violent clashes with raiders from Mexico in the 1870’s. But Webb was an adept apologist for their conduct: “Affairs on the border cannot be judged by standards that hold elsewhere.” To Webb, the Ranger was “a very quiet, deliberate, gentle person who could gaze calmly into the