For many, the Texas Rangers bring to mind heroes roaming the open range, keeping everyone from Austin to Amarillo safe from marauders, murder, and mayhem. While many Texans would quickly claim to be familiar with this iconic image, few could tell the complicated history of the Rangers. Even some historians, such as Walter Prescott Webb, have glossed over the group’s more sordid affairs. It’s time to examine the legend.
The story of the Rangers begins with a familiar Texas name—Stephen F. Austin. In 1822 Austin settled his colonists at a site between the lower Colorado and Brazos rivers, and a year later he hired ten experienced frontiersmen to fight the Native Americans. In 1835, the year before the outbreak of the Texas Revolution, Texas lawmakers named the group, which had grown to 56 men divided into three companies, the Texas Rangers. The Rangers played a minor role in the Texas Revolution, performing menial tasks and serving as scouts and couriers for $1.25 a day.
Work for the Rangers picked up in 1838 when the Republic of Texas’s second elected president, Mirabeau B. Lamar, used an expanded Texas Ranger force to wage all-out war against the Native Americans, who were angry because the government of Texas was forcing them off their land. Annexation into the United States of America in 1845 and the Mexican War in 1846 propelled the Rangers into the spotlight. Their ruthless techniques led the Mexican people to dub them “los diablos Tejanos” (“the Texas devils”). After the war ended, the United States took responsibility for the protection of the frontier, and the Rangers were again left without a real function. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, the unoccupied Rangers individually joined the men in gray.
With the 1870’s came an increase of violence in Texas—Native Americans, Mexican bandits, and Anglo robbers wrecked havoc along the Rio Grande—prompting the Legislature to expand the Rangers’ size and power during the period between 1874 through 1882. The remainder of the nineteenth century saw a Ranger force that was losing its prestige as the face of the frontier changed and the need for Ranger-style enforcement dwindled.
After almost three decades of relative quiet, the Mexican uprising against President Porfirio Díaz in 1910 stirred up tensions around the border. The Rangers came out of hibernation to once again meet the Mexicans head-on, but this time with far graver results. In 1915 authorities in McAllen arrested Basilio Ramos Jr., who happened to be carrying a copy of a revolutionary manifesto called the Plan de San Diego. The manifesto called for Mexican Americans, African Americans, Native Americans, and Japanese to band together and free themselves from United States oppression. With more raids later that year, the Texas government responded by increasing Ranger companies to their greatest size yet. But with the new recruits came a lack of control and training. With orders to keep Mexican raiders out of Texas, some companies began to adopt a style of vigilante justice.
The Porvenir Massacre of 1917 marked one of the lowest points for the Rangers. A series of robberies by “suspected Mexican bandits” near Presidio County in November, followed by a raid on Brite Ranch in December, led Ranger Company B to Manuel Morales’s ranch in Porvenir. When the Rangers left, they had killed fifteen Texans of Mexican origin, instigating the flight of 140 Porvenir residents to Mexico.
Anglo participants blamed the Mexicans for initiating the violence, and historians such as Webb echoed this cadence. But not all agreed with this explanation. Henry Warren, whose father-in-law was killed at Morales’s ranch, called the event a massacre, suggested the entire encounter was a cover-up for an Anglo horse thief, and noted that the event orphaned 42 children. Governor William P. Hobby disbanded Company B and dismissed five Rangers in 1918.
The Porvenir Massacre was just one of many confrontations between Rangers and Mexicans in what historians Charles Harris and Louis Sadler dubbed ”the Bloodiest Decade,” but sources disagree about the actual death toll. An article by Ben H. Procter in The Handbook of Texas says that the Rangers killed approximately 5,000 Hispanics between 1914 and 1919. The Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum Web site states that Mexican raids in Texas between 1915–1916 resulted in 21 American and 300 Mexican deaths. Harris and Sadler’s The Texas Rangers and the Mexican Revolution cites a similar number for the years 1910–1920.
Regardless of the exact number, the deplorable behavior of the Texas Rangers led Representative José T. Canales of Brownsville to demand the overhaul of the force in January 1919. The Porvenir Massacre was highlighted as one of the most serious acts of Ranger misconduct in Canales’s report. The Legislature decided to maintain four Ranger companies but to reduce their numbers and work to attract “men of high moral character” through increased salaries. Lawmakers also created specific procedures for citizen complaints of Ranger transgressions.
After this, Ranger duties varied from catching tequila smugglers during Prohibition to preventing injury and vandalism during Ku Klux Klan demonstrations to keeping oil boomtowns in check. In 1935 the Rangers became one portion of the three-legged stool that included the Highway Patrol and the Headquarters Division. While the Rangers of the first quarter of the century had been chosen based on political patronage, Rangers were now appointed through examinations and recommendations, with increased mental and physical standards.
From 1938 to 1968 the Rangers thrived under Col. Homer Garrison Jr. They became plainclothes detectives—counterparts to the uniformed highway patrolmen. Garrison’s successor, Colonel Wilson E. Speir, implemented even higher standards for applicants, including at least eight years of on-the-job police experience and four hundred to six hundred hours of classroom instruction. Over the past thirty years the force has expanded to become the elite arm of Texas law enforcement. The Rangers of the twenty-first century balance a deference to history—wearing the boots, white hats, and pistol belts of the past—with a dedication to modern law enforcement. Today the diverse force boasts eight companies totaling in 117 Rangers, including one woman, fourteen Hispanics, five African Americans (including Senior Captain Earl Pearson), one Asian, and one Native American.
For those interested in learning more about the Texas Rangers, visit the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum, in Waco. Go to www.texasranger.org for details.