When I first learned about the Texas Rangers, I sat on my grandpa Guillermo’s couch in San Antonio. We had just finished watching the 1976 film The Outlaw Josey Wales, which ends with two Rangers riding out of town. As the credits played, my grandpa told me how Rangers patrolled Texas during its early days, bringing the law to remote and violent parts of the state. I remember the excitement I felt when he told me that the Rangers still existed. I was enthralled with the thought that some version of that old Texas lived on: a place of six-shooters and horses, adventure and grit.
The Texas Rangers were created two hundred years ago, by Stephen F. Austin, the leader of the first Anglo settlers here. If you’re from Texas, you already know who they are—and even if you’re not from this state, you probably have an image of a Texas Ranger in your head right now, whether or not you’ve ever realized it. You can picture a man with a silver star on his shirt, riding his horse through brushland and plateaus. In your mind, you can see his pistol bouncing on his hip; you can see his white Stetson hat.
Watch the White Hats trailer below.
Video by Riley Engemoen
The entire idea of that horseback hero, the cowboy-lawman—whom I saw over and over again in old westerns with my grandfather—springs from the Texas Rangers’ true stories. The Rangers are our archetype for the Wild West: they’re the brave men with pistols settling a dangerous frontier.
There’s the Ranger captain Jack Hays, who rode into battle alongside the Lipan Apache chief Flacco and who fought the Comanche. There’s Samuel Walker, who helped invent the Colt Walker revolver, the iconic six-shooter of the American West. There’s Frank Hamer, the storied Ranger who finally took down the outlaws Bonnie and Clyde.
I know Rangers like this had a charisma for my grandfather Guillermo. When I once asked my grandmother why he watched so many western movies, she laughed and said, “I think he dreams about being one of those men.” Like the heroes of westerns, the Rangers offer a vision of Texans who are powerful, self-reliant, and righteous. I think we’d all like to think of ourselves that way.
But real Texas history is not a western. The figures of our past will struggle and fight back when we try to organize them into the “good guys” and “bad guys.”
When I started reporting on the Rangers this year, I spoke to people like Lacy Finley, the executive director of the Texas Ranger Association Foundation. Finley grew up in a small town in West Texas, out among the mesquite and the pump jacks. And she was taught something growing up: “When you’re out in a rural community, and something really bad happens, you look for the man or the woman in the white hat. That’s the person that’s going to help you,” she told me.
For Texans like Finley, the Rangers’ white hats—still a part of their official uniform—stand for protection and justice.
I have learned that’s not true for all Texans.
Driving with my grandma home from a lunch of enchiladas and flautas this year, I mentioned offhand that I was working on a story about the Texas Rangers. “I remember growing up, we were always scared of them,” she told me. My head spun to look at her where she sat in the passenger seat. I knew she had grown up in a tight-knit community in San Antonio in the 1940s. “We were taught they didn’t like Mexicans,” she said. To my grandmother in her youth, a white hat meant “run.”
To this day, old Mexican ballads, corridos, tell stories of los rinches, the men in the white hats who kill Mexicans. This is how a dark and bloody chapter of Texas history has survived in our communities’ own oral histories. There was a time when the Texas Rangers hunted, tortured, and killed hundreds of Mexicans. It reached a horrifying climax in 1918, when Rangers detained and then executed fifteen innocent Mexican American men and boys in the small village of Porvenir, on the banks of the Rio Grande. It was one of the worst instances of state-sanctioned violence in United States history.
I traveled to Porvenir, now a ghost town, earlier this year. And I’ve spoken with descendants of Mexicans killed by Rangers in the 1910s; descendants of Comanche people who fought the Rangers; and scholars trying to bring forth a fuller picture of this history.
Today, Rangers don’t go around killing Mexicans or Native people. As a spokesperson for the Department of Public Safety told me, “There are the historical Rangers, and then there are the modern Rangers.” In the last hundred years, the force has changed, professionalized—today, the standards for becoming a Ranger are strict and selective.
However, next year, the Rangers will commemorate their 200th anniversary with parades and parties across the state. New monuments will go up. The struggle the Rangers face in dealing with their own history is the struggle all Texans must grapple with: when we inherit the great bounty of Texas heritage, must we also accept its debts?
Image credits: 1: UNT Libraries/The Portal to Texas History/Marfa Public Library; 2: Roy Wilkinson Aldrich Papers/e_rwa_0106/The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History/The University of Texas at Austin; 3: Roy Wilkinson Aldrich Papers/e_rwa_0119/The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History/The University of Texas at Austin; 4:Photograph by Mathew B. Brady/Library of Congress; 5: UNT Libraries/The Portal to Texas History/Taylor Public Library; 6: Roy Wilkinson Aldrich Papers/e_rwa_0107/The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History/The University of Texas at Austin; 7 (video clip): Imageways/Getty; 8: AP; 9: Bettmann/Getty; 10: UNT Libraries/The Portal to Texas History/Hardin-Simmons University Library; 11: General Photograph Collection/UTSA Special Collections; 12: Robert Runyon Photograph Collection/RUN00101/The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History/The University of Texas at Austin; 13: UNT Libraries/The Portal to Texas History/Austin History Center/Austin Public Library; 14: FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images