The Real Ranger
There is not, nor has there ever been, a group quite like the Texas Rangers. For almost two hundred years the Rangers have created, maintained, and promoted an image of bold knights in cowboy hats who brought peace, law, and civilization to a violent, lawless, and uncivilized land. They have inspired hundreds of tales that relate their extraordinary toughness, skill, bravery, and heroism. Some of these are true.
The Rangers trace their origins to 1823, when Texas was still part of Mexico. As an irregular militia, they had no uniform, no flag, and-for decades-no badge. They were volunteers who arrived young, adventurous, and practically immune to danger. The early Rangers fought Indians, Mexicans, and many unfortunate others. A newspaper headline of the era called them "The Fightingest Men on Earth." Later they chased rustlers, smugglers, and roving gangs of marauders. As Texas changed in the mid-twentieth century, so did the Rangers, who were transformed into a force of professional state police pursuing gangsters, kidnappers, and lawbreakers of all stripes. The roles may have been altered, but the myth remained.
Nearly all societies foster creation narratives that recall their idealized selves. Because it was once an independent republic-for less than ten years, but fiercely independent nonetheless-Texas possesses a deep well of such material. The Alamo, with its mass sacrifice and valorous struggle, probably shines the brightest. If so, the Rangers run a close second.
"Nowhere," historian T. R. Fehrenbach wrote, "was the frontier violence in America so bloody, or so protracted, as on the soil of Texas." It is hard, maybe impossible, to believe the vast and wild territory that was Texas could have been tamed without the Rangers. With their eagerness to engage all manner of armed opponents under the harshest conditions, the Rangers played an essential role in Texas's development and ethos.
Yet most Texans, with the exception of those in law enforcement-and some criminals-probably have never even seen a real Ranger. As of this writing there are fewer than 160 active Rangers in a state with 254 counties and a population of twenty-nine million.
They have always been a small, elite force. It's the image that grew big.
The model Ranger has long been depicted as tall, steely-eyed, and strong-jawed. He shoots straight and brooks no challenge to the law or his personal code of honor. He can handle any situation. And he carries the role well, as journalist Richard Harding Davis observed in 1892. "There are still the Texas Rangers," Davis wrote, "and in them the man from the cities of the East will find the picturesqueness of the Wild West show and its happiest expression." Davis visited a Ranger camp in South Texas, marveled at their shooting skills, and gushed, "Some of them were remarkably handsome in a sun-burned, broad-shouldered, easy, manly way."
No law enforcement agency has been celebrated so much for so long in popular culture. Beginning in 1910, when a silent picture called The Ranger's Bride flickered briefly, more than three hundred movies and television series have featured a Ranger. Hollywood has, for example, given the world The Texas Ranger (1931), The Texas Rangers (1936), The Texas Rangers (1951), Texas Rangers (2001), and The Texas Rangers Ride Again (1940), as well as Red Hot Rangers (1947), The Fighting Ranger (1934 and 1948), Bandit Ranger (1942) and The Ranger and His Horse (1912). In 1943 alone, no fewer than seventeen feature films incorporated Ranger characters. Among them were Hail to the Rangers, The Return of the Rangers, and Border Buckaroos.
John Wayne played a Ranger on the big screen. So did Audie Murphy, Gene Autry, and Roy Rogers. Clint Eastwood too. In King of the Texas Rangers, released in 1941, legendary quarterback Sammy Baugh portrayed a Ranger thwarting enemy agents who attempt to attack Texas oil fields from a zeppelin.
Perhaps the most famous imaginary Ranger of them all-at least until Chuck Norris employed martial arts as Walker, Texas Ranger on television-was the Lone Ranger. Tales "from those thrilling days of yesteryear" began in radio serials and moved to television and film. The Lone Ranger owned a crime-fighting career that has spanned almost ninety years.
Dime novels and western pulp fiction presented the Rangers to generations of readers. Magazines like Texas Rangers, published from 1936 to 1958, delivered lively tales-"Lone Star Doom," for example, and "Pecos Poison"-monthly by mail. Larry McMurtry's 1985 novel Lonesome Dove, which won the Pulitzer Prize and was made into an acclaimed television series, had two ex-Rangers as its protagonists. Even bodice-ripper novels have done their part. To Love a Texas Ranger, published in 2016, gave readers the exquisitely named Sam Legend, who brings his exceptional skills to both a gunfight and the boudoir. He also offers rugged good looks.
The presentation of the quintessential Ranger owes much to fictional renderings, but a good portion of it came from the Rangers themselves. "For courage, patriotic devotion, instant obedience, and efficiency, the record of the Texas Rangers has been excelled by no body of constabulary ever mustered," wrote James B. Gillett, who joined the force in 1875. "For bravery, endurance and steadfast adherence to duty at all times the Ranger is in a class by himself." Scholar Amrico Paredes assessed it as an extension of Anglo Texans' claims to racial superiority. "The Texan has no equal anywhere," he wrote of this attitude, "but within Texas itself there developed a special breed of men, the Texas Rangers, in whom the Texans' qualities reached their culmination."
Some writers insist this larger-than-life portrait is drawn from real life. Historian Walter Prescott Webb spent years studying the force. "The real Ranger," he wrote in 1935, "has been a very quiet, deliberate, gentle person who could gaze calmly into the eye of a murderer, divine his thoughts, and anticipate his action, a man who could ride straight up to death." Webb painted this real Ranger as a solitary and essential defender of civilization. "When we see him at his daily task of maintaining law, restoring order, and promoting peace-even though his methods be vigorous-we see him in his proper setting, a man standing alone between society and its enemies."
In such contemplations, the title alone conveys superior power. "There is no question but that a definite potency exists in the name 'Texas Ranger,'" a former commander of the force wrote. "Take two men of equal size and arm them with identical weapons. Call one of them a deputy sheriff and the other a Ranger. Send each of these officers out to stop a mob or quell a riot. The crowd will resist the deputy, but will submit to the authority of the Ranger."
Nurtured by popular culture over generations, the American West of the imagination has maintained consistent characters and situations: cowboys, Indians, cattle drives, gunfights. The real West was, of course, far more complicated. But those figures, incidents, and morality plays endure, and the Rangers were in many ways the progenitors and archetypes. Their emergence as folk heroes on horseback-initially a product of their service in the Mexican War-predated by several decades the rise of the American cowboy. Their battles with Indians came well in advance of many historic conflicts with Native Americans in the western United States. And they were shooting it out with outlaws long before Wyatt Earp drew down on the Clanton gang in Tombstone, Arizona. The unfaltering romance of the western frontier-in all its epic violence, grandeur, and oversimplifications-took root and was nurtured in Texas with the Rangers.
Joe Davis was a real Ranger. He joined in 1969 and spent twenty-four years with the force. He had wanted to be a Ranger since he was fourteen-inspired by TV shows such as Tales of the Texas Rangers, which melded crime fighting, civic virtue, and cowboy trappings. "The good guys wore the white hats, and the Rangers were the good guys," he said. "And the good guys always won."
After retiring from the agency, Davis worked to raise money for the Texas Ranger Heritage Center in the city of Fredericksburg. But one museum does not satiate interest in the Rangers. There's also the state-approved Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum in Waco. Both tell of the dedicated and effective men who lived up to the good-guy, white-hat ideal. Many of these men risked their lives-and some lost their lives-in the line of duty. Frequently outnumbered, the Rangers depended on canniness, fortitude, and courage to win the day.
That has strong appeal, but it's the moral component that truly resonates with the public, Davis said. "The Rangers have always stood up for doing what's right, and doing the right thing. People are starving for stuff like that."
The RangersÕ action-packed and unique history includes no shortage of such rectitude and heroism. But the movies, TV shows, museum exhibits, and adulatory accounts usually skip past a big part of the story. Across the centuries, the Texas Rangers did this too:
They were the violent instruments of repression. They burned peasant villages and slaughtered innocents. They committed war crimes. Their murders of Mexicans and Mexican Americans made them as feared on the border as the Ku Klux Klan in the Deep South. They hunted runaway slaves for bounty. They violated international law with impunity. They sometimes moved through Texas towns like a rampaging gang of thugs. They conspired to quash the civil rights of black citizens. They busted unions and broke strikes. They enforced racial segregation of public schools. They botched important criminal investigations. They served the interests of the moneyed and powerful while oppressing the poor and disenfranchised. They have been the army of Texas's ruling class.
And they have consistently lied about it.
Many police and military institutions in America, even those held in highest regard, pass through periods when the restraints slip and tethers snap. At one time or another, all comprise individuals who bend rules, break laws, or otherwise invite disgrace. Some of these incidents are so notorious that the mere mention of their name calls forth the terrible story: My Lai, for instance. Or Chicago in 1968, Kent State, Wounded Knee. As a rule, the institutions at fault do not trumpet their failures. In some circumstances they may confront their atrocities, apologize, and attempt to make amends. Or they may bury the facts and hope the public forgets.
Here the Rangers have set themselves apart. Not only have they covered up their wrongdoing, they and their willing accomplices have perfected the art of mythic rehabilitation and resurrection. For decades, the Rangers operated a fable factory through which many of their greatest defeats, worst embarrassments, and darkest moments were recast as grand triumphs. They didn't merely whitewash the truth. They destroyed it.
Individual Rangers whose actions were questionable, inexplicable, or scandalous have been draped in heroic vestments. With rare exception, the lawbreakers, oppressors, incompetents, and killers were not scorned, prosecuted, or banished. Rather, many of these Rangers enjoyed honored status and were, in historical accounts and agency lore, imbued with almost superhuman qualities.
The old comic stereotype of the Lone Star braggart had its basis in reality. Texas has long promoted its virtues with vigor and possesses a prideful sense of self that no other state can match. From its days as a republic, it has fostered a narrative of exceptionalism, and the Rangers are an intrinsic part of that. The story of the Rangers is the story of Texas, and of the American West: majestic in its sweep, unmatched in its violence, luminous in its glory, and monumental in its deceptions.
The Guns of Eden
"Rangers for the Common Defense"
I entered this country in 1821, and commenced colonizing when it was a perfect wilderness, and have passed a laborious life; immense obstacles opposed our settlement, growing out of the uninhabited state of the country, hostile Indians, and other causes, but we have surmounted them all. -Letter from Stephen F. Austin, 1828
The land lay before him with beckoning promise. In the summer of 1821, Stephen F. Austin had come to the foreign province of Texas for the first time. He and his party of about a dozen men rode on horseback for more than two months, trekking from Louisiana in warm sunshine. The more Austin saw of Texas-here in its eastern regions, where rainfall could be gentle and generous-the more he embraced it as the perfect spot for the prosperous settlement of American colonists. The meadows shimmered thick and green, the lowland forests teemed with tall hardwoods and pines, and the creeks flowed clear and strong. Wild game, buffalo and deer especially, roamed in abundance. The soil felt rich and fertile, the weather temperate and welcoming. Austin wrote in his journal that he found this earthly paradise to be "country the most beautiful I ever saw."
Then he met the Indians.
On September 17, 1821, Austin and his explorers neared the Gulf of Mexico, close to the mouth of the languid Colorado River. A high-pitched sound arose from a thicket. To Austin it sounded like a "war whoop." About fifteen men, wearing loincloths and clutching longbows and arrows, emerged from the brush. They were tall and muscular, with dark tattoos on their chests and arms, their bodies slathered with grease. Size and markings identified them as Karankawas, which no doubt filled Austin with dread. They were reputed to be the most savage of the coastal tribes. The wildest of stories said they killed those who strayed onto their turf, cooked them, and ate them. Austin was a slender, college-educated, twenty-seven-year-old land speculator with a background in banking and politics, not a hardened Indian fighter. But he told his company to prepare for battle and rode ahead to meet the warriors.
The one who appeared to be the chief spoke to Austin in Spanish and asked where he was from and where he was going. He urged Austin to come to his camp. Fearing an ambush, Austin refused. The chief laid his weapons on the ground, and five women and children walked from the brush. "This satisfied me they believed us to be too strong for them and therefore that they [would] not attack us," Austin wrote, adding, "of their disposition I had no doubt if they thought they [could] have succeeded."
For the next few minutes, the man who would come to be known as the "Father of Texas" studied the newfound land's natives. "[Some] of the young squaws were handsome & one of them quite pretty," Austin wrote. They wore animal skins around their waist, he said, but were otherwise naked. "Their breasts were marked or tatooed in circles of black beginning with a small circle at the nipple and enlarging as the breast swelled." Austin gave the chief some tobacco and a frying pan, and the Karankawas offered advice on travel through the thick scrub. With that, Austin said, the two sides "parted apparently good friends." The Indians ghosted back into the thicket.