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.
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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 toll between “five hundred and . . . five thousand, but the actual number can never be known.” Today another figure is bruited about in the daily press. In a recent syndicated column about the Border War, Dallas Morning News journalist Ruben Navarrette Jr. wrote: “Estimates of casualties clock in at more than 3,000, or about the same number of people who died in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.” But no convincing evidence or documentation has ever been brought forward to demonstrate such levels of carnage. Other historians, such as Charles H. Harris III and Louis R. Sadler, in their meticulously researched The Texas Rangers and the Mexican Revolution: The Bloodiest Decade, 1910–1920 (2004), conclude that about three hundred Mexicans and Mexican Americans were killed, as compared with only twenty Anglos. This sorry episode in Ranger history led directly to hearings in the state legislature in 1919 and to the issuance of a voluminous, largely unread report. In fact, publicity surrounding the legislative investigation is what gave Webb the idea of writing about the Rangers. The report also led to the enactment of some needed reforms in the structure and mission of the Ranger organization.
The closing chapters of Webb’s book introduce a personal dimension. First of all, he devotes many pages to his friend Frank Hamer, famous for carrying out the fatal ambush of Bonnie and Clyde. And in the last chapter, Webb recalls the glorious time in 1924 when he joined a group of Rangers for an extended trip on horseback along the border, from the Rio Grande Valley to the Big Bend area—camping out, armed and dangerous, just like the old-time Rangers. He even participated in the capture of some bootleggers (this was during Prohibition, remember). There is a funny story about Webb among the Rangers. Not wanting to appear the tenderfoot, who would be the butt of practical jokes, he managed to survive the outdoors drama unscathed. But later, in a little cafe in West Texas, when the Rangers stuck him with the bill for breakfast, he forked over two dollar bills and asked the waitress, “How much will you take off for cash?” She fired back, “Everything but my shoes, Baldy.” The Rangers didn’t stop laughing all the way back to Austin.
Webb’s book ends in 1935, the year that the Rangers were absorbed into the Department of Public Safety. He thought that they were going to disappear, but they did not. The Rangers retained their separate identity as well as all the mythic baggage, both positive and negative. By the end of the twentieth century, they had morphed from a band of hard-core white males into a more diverse group. By 1998, a force of 105 included 2 women, 6 African Americans, 14 Hispanics, and 1 Asian American. The Rangers were beginning to look like the face of Texas, of America. Their methods were changing too. No more six-gun justice, no more ambushes of Bonnie and Clyde. The last publicized capture of a desperado by a Texas Ranger occurred in 1999, when Angel Maturino Resendiz, the Railroad Killer, surrendered to Sergeant Drew Carter. Instead of a gun, the Ranger’s weapon was a telephone. He had called Resendiz’s family members and urged them to persuade the fugitive to give himself up.
Just as the Ranger organization changed, so did Webb’s opinion of his book. Comparing it with his most important works (The Great Plains, The Great Frontier), he regarded it as merely a “competent journeyman’s job.” He had also come to believe that his picture of the Rangers, particularly their notorious activities in South Texas, had failed sufficiently to consider the Mexican and Mexican American points of view. He intended to make some changes in a new edition, telling his friend Frank Wardlaw, the director of the University of Texas Press, “If a man can’t grow in thirty years, he may as well be dead.” But a fatal auto wreck in 1963 ended any chance of revising the record in the edition that UT would reissue two years later, with an adulatory introduction by that other Lone Star icon, President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Although Webb is still regarded as the greatest historian the state has produced, The Texas Rangers is not the work on which to build such a case. There are flashes of excellent writing and some solid research and well-told stories. And it offers a window into the racial and masculinist biases of the old-time Anglo Texan male. But ultimately it seems dated, like a lot of books confined to Texas materials and not connected to a national narrative. That’s why the word “Texana” was invented.