Fallen Heroes

Walter Prescott Webb’s The Texas Rangers tarnished his reputation, just as the lawmen’s actions during the Border War tarnished theirs. It’s time to revisit the history—and the historian.

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 eye of a murderer, divine his thoughts, and anticipate his action, a man who could ride straight up to death.” (This is the stuff of pulp fiction, and it comes as no surprise to learn that early in his career, in the twenties, Webb wrote and sold short stories about Texas Rangers.)

But the book’s most significant shortcoming by far is its racist rhetoric. Webb’s hierarchy of race reflects a common late-nineteenth-century misreading of Darwin that carried over into the twentieth century. At the top are the Anglos, and at the very top of the Anglo heap are the Texas Rangers (Anglo outlaws, however bad, are exempted from racist characterization). In Webb’s color-coded world, the Plains Indians rate higher than the Mexicans. Although he repeatedly calls them “savages,” the Comanche and the Apache are almost noble at times, living as they do close to Mother Earth. One thing is for sure: They weren’t some pantywaist East Texas squash-raisers like the Caddo and the Cherokee. Webb relates a story about an 1880 Ranger patrol in West Texas that sticks in the mind. Chasing an Apache raiding party, the Rangers came upon a herd of stolen cattle that had been left behind. The cattle were alive, but hunks of meat had been ripped from their bodies by the warriors, eager for a little flank steak alfresco.

The Native Americans have never offered a response to Webb, but Mexican Americans have returned heavy fire and continue to do so. The first serious challenge to Webb’s version of Ranger history came from the late writer and University of Texas professor Américo Paredes, who hailed from the lower Rio Grande Valley, where the Rangers’ depredations had been most numerous and flagrant. Paredes’s pioneering study of Mexican American culture, “With His Pistol in His Hand”: A Border Ballad and Its Hero (1958), drew attention to overtly racist language in both The Texas Rangers and another Webb classic, The Great Plains  (1931). In the latter, Webb characterizes the Mexican Indian as one “whose blood, when compared with that of the Plains Indian, was as ditch water.” Every Latino who has read the book can quote this line from memory. In the Rangers book, Webb traffics in the grossest of stereotypes, announcing that there is “a cruel streak in the Mexican nature.”

Today it’s mainly history buffs who are interested in the nineteenth-century Rangers. But a later chapter of their history—the Border War of 1915–1916—still resonates. Recent articles in the New York Times, the Dallas Morning News, and other newspapers around the country have examined this forgotten episode. The basic story is that in January 1915 a revolutionary manifesto, the Plan de San Diego, was issued in South Texas. It called for a coalition of Mexican Americans, blacks, Indians, and, strangely, Japanese to rise up against the American oppressors and—in one of its strongest provisions—kill all Anglo males aged sixteen and over. In the early summer of that year, armed raiders attacked Anglo ranch houses and burned bridges, creating a wave of terror along the border. Anglo reprisals followed, and the Rangers were particularly ferocious in their methods of punishing the sediciosos (the revolutionaries) and the innocent as well.

Much of the recent coverage of Ranger history in this period seems to have been spurred by the publication of Revolution in Texas: How a Forgotten Rebellion and Its Bloody Suppression Turned Mexicans Into Americans (2003), by Benjamin Heber Johnson, and by Kirby Warnock’s documentary film Border Bandits (2004). Johnson expresses a sense of amazement at never having heard of the troubles of 1915–1916: “The uprising was thus violent, large, and had important consequences. Then why had neither I nor my parents, all of us natives of Texas and products of its school system, even heard of it?” The answer is simple: (1) They had not read Webb, and (2) their history teachers were probably coaches. For all of his defense of Ranger behavior in The Texas Rangers, Webb actually spends several pages on the Plan de San Diego and its bloody aftermath, writing of the “death of hundreds of Mexicans, many of them innocent, at the hands of the local posses, peace officers, and Texas Rangers.” Surprisingly for those who criticize Webb for his Rangers bias, he condemns their activities in this instance: “In the orgy of bloodshed that followed [the raids by the sediciosos], the Texas Rangers played a prominent part, and one of which many members of the force have been heartily ashamed.”

Webb’s estimate of the number of Mexicans slain in South Texas was quite high, placing the death

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