The Texas Rangers are older than Texas itself—at least by one metric. Stephen F. Austin created the group of cowboy-lawmen in 1823, thirteen years before the founding of the Texas Republic and more than two decades before the state of Texas joined the Union. (Tejano, Black, and Indigenous Texans had already lived here for centuries.) While modern-day Rangers rarely ride horses, they serve as our statewide police force and remain deeply entrenched in the state’s identity and culture. The version of Texas history that many of us learned in public schools casts them as unblemished heroes, and they still wear white Stetson hats.
But as with any narrative, the true story of the Texas Rangers is much more complex. While many Texans are grateful to individual Rangers for protecting them from violence or for bringing criminals to justice, others recall a very different experience. They tell stories of “los diablos tejanos,” the Texan devils who visited violence upon Mexican and Mexican American communities that had been in place for centuries before the first Anglos arrived but were viewed by many Rangers as an obstacle to Anglo settlement. Only in the past few decades have historians and activists succeeded in bringing to light the uglier parts of the Rangers’ past, blood and all.
Texas Monthly has been documenting these evolving accounts of the Rangers’ history for years, as the following stories attest. Our new podcast, White Hats, joins that effort. The first four episodes are available here.
Gabriel Daniel Solis, director of the Texas After Violence Project, grew up in Seguin, where his father still lives and works as a general contractor. His dad wasn’t aware of the Rangers’ long history of violence when he agreed to help build one of several monuments to the agency. Still, as Solis wrote in this July 2022 story, his father had a sense of “how these histories manifest today” from his personal experiences with certain white Texans.
In 2021, Border Patrol agents found the body of a migrant hanging from a tree in Brooks County, about an hour’s drive north of McAllen and the U.S.-Mexico border. San Antonio congressman Joaquin Castro called for an investigation into this possible lynching. Bill Minutaglio, a veteran journalist and former University of Texas professor, wrote about how the incident recalled hundreds of racist murders through much of the state’s history, including the 1918 Porvenir massacre perpetrated by Texas Rangers.
UT professor, MacArthur fellow, and Uvalde native Monica Muñoz Martinez has spearheaded the movement to document the real history of racial violence in Texas. She spoke with Texas Monthly in September 2021 about the importance of remembering an ugly past.
“The Texas Rangers Tried (and Failed) to Capture Pancho Villa. The Conflict Still Shapes the Texas-Mexico Border Today.”
Between 1916 and 1917, a series of conflicts erupted on the Texas-Mexico border in what has come to be known as the Punitive Expedition, or the Pancho Villa Expedition. War on the Border, a 2021 book by Jeff Guinn, details the clashes and the Texas Rangers’ role in them. “U.S.-Mexico hostilities would serve as the impetus for an international incident that helped change the course of world history,” wrote reviewer Chris Vognar.
On December 19, 1860, a contingent of Texas Rangers and their supporters brutally killed four Comanche women and three males (two of whom were likely boys). This event was long known as the Battle of Pease River, rather than what it really was: a massacre. In this January 2021 story, Austin-based writer W. K. Stratton detailed how a false story spread by early Texas Ranger Sul Ross became accepted as fact.
“ ‘A Watershed Moment’: How Scholarship and Activism Finally Toppled a Texas Ranger Statue in Dallas”
For nearly sixty years, a bronze statue of Texas Ranger captain E. J. “Jay” Banks greeted travelers at the Dallas Love Field airport. The statue finally came down on June 4, 2020, amid widespread protests over Confederate monuments across the South. The watershed moment was a response to D Magazine’s publication of an excerpt of Doug J. Swanson’s book, Cult of Glory: The Bold and Brutal History of the Texas Rangers.
The question of how to tell the story of the Texas Rangers is just one part of a larger argument over how Texas schoolkids should learn about their state’s past. In this 2019 feature article, Christopher Hooks introduced readers to a new generation of scholars challenging traditional histories of Texas—as well as to those pushing back.
This 2018 article by Carlos Kevin Blanton, a professor of history at Texas A&M, reviewed Monica Muñoz Martinez’s groundbreaking book, The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas. In connecting past pain to the sharp divisions of the present, the “unflinching” volume “refuses to repeat the same old justifications for violence,” wrote Blanton.
Many folks’ understandings of the Texas Rangers and their important role in state history come not from textbooks or historical accounts, but from pop-culture depictions in films and television shows such as Lonesome Dove and Walker, Texas Ranger. In this 2018 column, the Texanist provided a helpful roundup of those fictitious portrayals and how they’ve shaped popular views of the real squad.
Perhaps no book did more to propagate the hero myth of the Texas Rangers than Walter Prescott Webb’s overtly racist 1935 ode, The Texas Rangers: A Century of Frontier Defense. In this 2005 article, Don Graham, a University of Texas English professor and Texas Monthly contributor who died in 2019, turned a critical lens on the work. He wrote that “Webb traffics in the grossest of stereotypes, announcing that there is ‘a cruel streak in the Mexican nature.’ ”
The Texas Rangers began allowing women into their ranks in 1993. While many viewed the change as progress, other Texans—including some within the Rangers’ own ranks—protested it. The controversy over who could wear the Ranger badge was one part of a larger existential crisis the squad faced as it entered the modern world, as detailed in this 1994 story by Robert Draper.