Q: I grew up in California and shamefully admit that everything I know about the Texas Rangers I learned from TV, mainly Lonesome Dove and Walker, Texas Ranger. But I moved to Houston almost five years ago and haven’t ever seen a Texas Ranger. At least, I don’t think I have. Do they wear uniforms or drive patrol cars? What is their jurisdiction and what kind of authority do they have? I guess my question for you is, are the Texas Rangers for real?
Ronald McNamara, Houston
A: The fact that you have not had any personal interactions with the actual Texas Rangers since your arrival is not an entirely bad thing. Crossing paths with your new state’s most iconic law enforcers could serve as a clue that you are a dirty, lowdown, villainous crook of such ill repute that the Texanist would be forced to withhold his assistance on both legal and moral grounds. Thankfully, it appears that you are just curious about your new home, and are not up to no good. So let’s proceed.
The Texas Rangers are indeed for real and they have been for as long as Texas has been for real. Way back in 1823, just two years after Anglo-American colonization of the territory that would eventually become Texas formally began, Stephen F. Austin, the “Father of Texas,” engaged ten experienced frontiersmen to “act as rangers for the common defense.” Today, under the auspices of the Texas Department of Public Safety, there is a force of some one hundred and sixty commissioned Texas Rangers who are aided by an additional sixty or so support personnel.
Between then and now lies a history so rich and colorful as to have spawned an entire genre of television shows, big-screen movies, and books. Among the numerous depictions are the two you mentioned: 1989’s TV miniseries Lonesome Dove (based on the fine Larry McMurtry novel, a book you really should read), and Walker, Texas Ranger, the TV series starring Oklahoma native Chuck Norris that ran from 1993 to 2001 (and is not, to the best of the Teaxnist’s knowledge, based on a book you need to read). But let’s not forget the Lone Ranger franchise, which started on radio back in 1933 and has seen a dizzying number of iterations, remakes, and reruns (around the Texanist’s house we do not speak of the 2013 big-screen version). Let’s not forget, either, such memorable silver-screeners as 1983’s Lone Wolf McQuade, which starred a younger Chuck Norris, and the 1969 (Glen Campbell) and 2010 (Matt Damon) versions of True Grit.
Every one of these versions, however, even with their fanciful fictionalizations, pales in comparison to the actual tales of the real-life men who chased, captured, and killed more than their fair share of marauders, bandits, and outlaws.
Among the hall-of-fame-level Texas Rangers (FYI, there is an actual Texas Ranger Hall of Fame, located in Waco) are such characters as John Coffee “Jack” Hays, the prototype Ranger; Samuel Walker, of Colt Walker six-shooter fame; Bigfoot Wallace, who survived the Mier Expedition’s infamous Black Bean Episode and is also reputed to have once gobbled down twenty-seven eggs in a single sitting; John S. “Rip” Ford, who, as regimental adjutant during the Mexican War, earned his nickname after shortening his usual “rest in peace” closing of the mounting casualty reports to “R.I.P;” Manuel Trazazas “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullas, who, in the oil fields and along the borderlands, singlehandedly chased gamblers, bootleggers, and drug runners; and Frank Hamer, a Ranger noted for the ambush and killing of murderous celebra-gangsters Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow.
And there are so many more, with so many more notches to their credit. Dastardly gunman John Wesley Hardin was apprehended by Rangers in Florida in 1877. Notorious train robber Sam Bass was felled by Ranger bullets in Williamson County in 1878. And jailbreaking rapist spree murderer Animal McFadden was captured by Rangers in 1986. The list goes on.
Over the decades, beginning with the ten original Rangers who lit out in 1823 and continuing with those who fought in the Texas Revolution, those who fought in the Mexican War, those who assisted in the taming of the frontier, and those who protected the oil fields and the borders, the Rangers have endured—and, let’s acknowledge, engaged in the occasional bouts of ugliness, including the persecution of Hispanics. But they have adapted and evolved.
Today, the Texas Rangers, who are posted in six companies that are HQed in Houston, Garland, Lubbock, Weslaco, El Paso, and Waco/San Antonio, are the state’s lead crime investigators, tasked with handling major incidents, unsolved crimes, serial crimes, public corruption and violations of public integrity, officer involved shootings, and border security.
Simply put, they are the state’s top cops.
It’s not all that surprising that you’ve never spied one. There are, as the Texanist already said, a mere one hundred and sixty of them. And carrying on the stand-apart traditions that the Rangers began with, today’s Rangers wear a uniform that is decidedly uniform, officially consisting of “a western hat, a dress shirt, a tie, a dress coat, appropriate pants, western belt, western boots, and the official Texas Ranger badge pinned above the left shirt pocket.” Their official vehicle is an unmarked Chevrolet, Dodge, or Ford pickup truck.
So if you want to spot one, keep your eyes peeled. But don’t hold your breath. If you continue to mind your Ps and Qs, you may never see a real-life Texas Ranger in the flesh. And that’s okay.
Have a question for the Texanist? He’s always available at [email protected] Write to him there and be sure to tell him where you’re from.