No man in the wrong can stand up to a man in the right who just keeps on a-comin’.—The Texas Ranger Creed
The Texas Rangers are one of Texas’ oldest and most legendary institutions. Established almost 175 years ago to defend frontier settlements from Indian attacks, the Rangers became nationally famous when they fought with such ferocity in the Mexican war that they became known as “Los Diablos Tejanos”—the Texas Devils. Immortalized in poems, songs, and dime novels, the Rangers were already icons of popular culture by the mid 1800s.
Scores of books, comics, movies, and TV shows later, the Ranger legend shows no sign of riding off into the sunset.
The Ranger legacy has survived in part because of the enduring appeal of that most durable of heroic archetypes, the self-reliant, independent man on horseback, acting out stories of heroism and brave determination in a rugged frontier environment. The Ranger legacy has also survived because it has been preserved and perpetuated by enthusiastic storytellers of all types, including former Rangers and those who have been simply captivated by Ranger lore and legend.
One writer in particular who has found himself on both sides of the Ranger saga is Mike Cox. He’s written about the Texas Rangers as a newspaper reporter (for twenty years) and as an author of six Texas history books, including an outstanding new one, Texas Ranger Tales: Stories Worth Telling. As public information officer for the Texas Department of Public Safety, Mike Cox is also the official spokesman for the Rangers.
If you caught Mike on CNN recently during the standoff between the Rangers and the Republic of Texas at Fort Davis, you caught a glimpse of what it must be like for the modern Texas Ranger, who might spend the morning on horseback and the afternoon on a laptop computer. For a closer look at the history of that most Texan of Texas institutions, keep a firm grip on the reins of your browser and you too can ride the open range of the cyber frontier to explore the trails.
The History Trail
The Texas Rangers, the oldest law enforcement agency in North America with statewide jurisdiction originated when impresario Stephen F. Austin authorized the deployment of ten men to defend his fledgling colony. The Agency will turn 175 years old in 1998, so now seems as good a time as any to browse through some stirring quotes, factoids, developments, and controversies including a lingering debate as to the official position of one of the most famous Rangers of all time, Leander H. McNelly. To explore how the Ranger tradition was born and how it has evolved over the years, follow these signposts on the history trail.
The origin of the Texas Rangers dates back to 1823, when Stephen F. Austin wrote a note on the back side of a proclamation from then land commissioner Baron de Bastrop, authorizing the employment of “ten men… to act as rangers for the common defense.” These “rangers” were to be paid fifteen dollars a month, not in cash, but in land. And that’s how it all began, sort of.
Actually, the idea of “rangering” originated in Europe several hundred years earlier. So the Texas colonists didn’t really have such an original idea to begin with, but it did tend to get more Texanish with a little practice. And according to Ranger spokesman Mike Cox, the original Rangers most likely picked up a trick or two from their Spanish counterparts, as he explains in his interview.
Mankillers and Riots
After the Civil War, the Texas Legislature created two Ranger forces— the Frontier Battalion, which would consist of six separate Ranger companies, and an organization called the Special Force. Many of the Rangers most celebrated cases occurred during this period, as Texas adjusted to the realities brought on by the South’s defeat in the Civil War—recovery from the turbulence of Reconstruction and transformation by the burgeoning beef industry. The cattle industry was a boon to Texas, and not just to law-abiding cowboys, either. One of the most notorious law-breakers during this period was John Wesley Hardin, the son of a Methodist preacher who may have killed more than 40 men. Hardin killed men during card games, during feuds, on the cattle trail, and at least once, at a circus! His supporters claimed that Hardin never killed a man that didn’t need killing, and he pretty much got away with it for the better part of six years—his first killing occurred at the age of 15, in 1868, and one of his last (a Brown County deputy named Charles Webb), on his 21st birthday. But by that time, law-abiding Texans, and the Texas Rangers, had had enough. With the aid of an undercover Ranger named John Duncan, Ranger John Armstrong tracked Hardin down in Florida and brought him back to Texas to stand trial. Hardin served 16 years at Huntsville and was pardoned by Governor Jim Hogg in 1894. The following year, Hardin was playing dice in the Acme Saloon in El Paso when Constable John Selman walked in and blasted Hardin in the back of the head. El Paso residents sighed with relief and looked on the bright side. Some who viewed Hardin’s body stated that, aside from being dead, the old gunfighter had never looked better.
In 1878, the Rangers received a tip that the legendary trainrobber, Sam Bass, planned to knock over the bank in Round Rock. Bass was killed in a shoot-out with the Rangers. According to one account, the outlaw’s last words were “Life is but a bubble, trouble wherever you go.”
The Rangers finished out the 1800s preserving law and order in Big Bend mining towns, tracking down train robbers, patrolling the border, and doing whatever was necessary, including the prevention of illegal prize-fights. In 1894-1895, according to the official account, 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.
The Frontier Battalion was disbanded in 1900.