The Texas Rangers are a modern law enforcement agency that traces its origins to 1823, when Stephen F. Austin, the leader of the Anglo colonists in Texas, proposed the formation of a volunteer force to defend white settlements from Indian raids. Formally established twelve years later, the constabulary gradually evolved from a group of citizen soldiers into a professional, paramilitary organization that served the needs of the state’s political and business leaders. After 1870 the Rangers were invested with the responsibilities typical of peace officers. For much of the nineteenth century, however, Texas authorities used the constabulary to promote the state’s territorial and economic development. This mission involved the expulsion of Native peoples, the defense of cattle syndicates from aggrieved homesteaders, and the policing of industrial disputes. The force achieved its greatest notoriety, however, by subjugating ethnic Mexicans in South Texas between 1850 and 1920.
Ranger anti-Mexican vigilance must be understood in the context of intense white prejudice against Tejanos (Mexican Texans), which in the nineteenth century flowed from a host of sources. For one thing, notwithstanding the fact that a number of Mexicans had fought alongside Sam Houston and other white leaders during the struggle for Texas independence, bitter memories of the slaughters perpetrated by the Mexican Army in 1836 at the Alamo and Goliad, coupled with doubts about Tejano political loyalty to the new Republic of Texas, fostered a climate of white distrust. Moreover, the southern origins of most Anglo-Texans imbued many of them with the racist tenets of herrenvolk democracy, characterized by a low opinion of those not belonging to the supposed master race. Ranger atrocities committed against Mexicans during the Mexican-American War—actions for which they became known as los diablos Tejanos (the Texan devils)—deepened the animosity between whites and Mexicans during the late 1840s.
Conditions for Texas Mexicans deteriorated rapidly after 1848. Although guaranteed equal citizenship by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Tejanos who elected to remain in the United States following the war became second-class citizens and suffered dispossession at the hands of a small but powerful Anglo elite that included Mifflin Kenedy, Richard King, Stephen Powers, and Charles Stillman. Throughout the 1850s, Texas Mexicans lost much of their land in the Nueces Strip (the area between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande), a process facilitated by tight white control of the legal establishment. Such injustices led some South Texas Mexicans to take up arms in the fall of 1859 under the leadership of Juan Cortina, a wealthy landowner. Although the rebellion was crushed the following spring, Ranger excesses during the fighting, which included the lynching of an elderly Cortina lieutenant, once again worsened relations between white Texans and Mexicans.
While the Civil War caused a lull in such hostilities, the period immediately after the conflict witnessed a surge in racial violence in South Texas, which was the result of widespread cattle rustling. Anglos blamed Mexicans (including Juan Cortina, who had taken refuge across the Rio Grande in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas), but the question of theft was thorny, for Tejanos insisted that they were merely reclaiming livestock that had been stolen from them by whites since 1848. Responding to the unrest, in 1874 the Texas legislature institutionalized two divisions of the Rangers, with one of them, the Special Force, charged with ending alleged Mexican depredations in the Nueces Strip.
Under the command of Leander McNelly, a Confederate veteran of the Civil War, the Special Force initiated a brutal campaign against Mexican “bandits” (a ubiquitous pejorative intended to discredit Tejano grievances). In June 1875, for instance, McNelly’s squad encountered a party of Mexicans herding a large group of cattle allegedly stolen from white ranchers. Without warning, the Rangers attacked them, killing all twelve of the suspected raiders and stacking their bodies in the plaza at Brownsville as a warning to other prospective rustlers. Later that same year, McNelly and his men crossed the Rio Grande into Mexico, where they hoped to recover another herd of supposedly stolen livestock. Acting on a bad tip, they ambushed the wrong ranch, killing at least five (and perhaps as many as thirty) vaqueros (Mexican cowboys). Though the Rangers continued on to their intended destination, they were intercepted by several hundred Mexicans, who drove them back to the Rio Grande. Once at the river, the Rangers dug in to fight, but they eventually crossed back into Texas under cover provided by a U.S. Army detachment posted nearby. Incredibly, McNelly bluffed the Mexicans into returning sixty-five cattle.
The Rangers employed other strategies besides ambush and invasion to eradicate cattle theft by Mexicans in South Texas, including torture and extrajudicial killings. Some of the latter were performed under the auspices of la ley fuga, or the “fugitive law,” by which an unarmed suspect (allegedly in the act of escape) was shot and killed. (The “fugitive law” provided for the shooting of a criminal suspect who attempted escape; the Rangers exploited this provision, murdering Mexicans in cold blood and then claiming the prisoner had tried to flee.) The force also used intimidation and the threat of violence to hold Tejanos in thrall, as recalled by one member of McNelly’s squad, Ranger N.A. Jennings. In his memoir, A Texas Ranger (1899), Jennings wrote that members of the Special Force visited border towns in the 1870s in order “to carry out a set policy of terrorizing the residents at every opportunity.” Describing police tactics, he explained that, “If we could find a fandango, or Mexican dance, going on, we would enter the dancing-hall and break up the festivities by shooting out the lights” (pp. 151–152). Such actions made the Rangers hated among Tejanos, who used the derogatory term rinche to describe members of the constabulary.
As the nineteenth century waned, the Rangers broadened their efforts to subdue Mexican unrest in the Lone Star State. In 1877, near the West Texas town of El Paso, an ad hoc Ranger detachment attempted to quell a disturbance arising from the privatization by a white entrepreneur of salt lakes used communally by the area’s large Mexican population. When local residents killed the Anglo businessman, a local merchant, and one of the Rangers, the detachment (augmented by vigilantes from New Mexico) perpetrated a series of rapes and murders against Mexicans as retribution. Then, during the 1890s, the force helped the U.S. Army to defeat an insurrection led by the journalist Catarino Garza, and they also clashed with Mexican residents in the border town of Laredo when the police attempted to enforce an unpopular smallpox quarantine. Rangers also took part in the storied 1901 pursuit of Gregorio Cortez, a South Texas ranchero wanted by Anglo authorities for murder. Cortez was apprehended just as he was about to cross into Mexico.
The low point for Tejanos came in the summer of 1915. Earlier that year, a group of Mexicans from both sides of the border had fomented a rebellion aimed at creating an independent nation carved from lands seized by the United States after the Mexican-American War. Although the U.S. Army was on hand to protect Texas residents, the Rangers—whose ranks were swelled by “specials” sworn in to meet the perceived emergency—led a backlash directed against the rebels (and ethnic Mexicans more generally), killing at least 300 and perhaps as many as 5,000 people. Ranger atrocities committed during the so-called Plan de San Diego uprising led José Tomás Canales, the sole Tejano member of the state legislature, to launch a probe into the activities of the force in 1918. In the end, the constabulary was reduced in size for a variety of reasons, and in 1935 it was folded into the Texas Department of Public Safety, where it continues to serve as the primary investigative arm of the agency.
Although the Texas Rangers of the early twenty-first century have moved well beyond their reputation as oppressors of the state’s Tejano population and now count many ethnic Mexicans among their number, the force remains a divisive symbol. For instance, some of the old animosities surfaced in the late 1960s during a bitter strike by agricultural workers in the Rio Grande Valley. The laborers were Mexican, and the Rangers seemed to favor the Anglo farm owners, leading some observers to conclude that race relations in South Texas had changed little since the days of the Canales investigation. Others accused the Rangers of intimidating Mexican political activists, such as those who agitated in 1963 and 1969 against corrupt Anglo rule in the town of Crystal City. While the Rangers continue to exert a cultural influence within and beyond the Lone Star State, a surge in recent scholarship on the force has opened new lines of debate about their role in enforcing exclusion in the Southwest.
Graybill, Andrew R. 2007. Policing the Great Plains: Rangers, Mounties, and the North American Frontier, 1875–1910. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Samora, Julian, Joe Bernal, and Albert Peña. 1979. Gunpowder Justice: A Reassessment of the Texas Rangers. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.
Webb, Walter Prescott. 1935. The Texas Rangers: A Century of Frontier Defense. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Andrew R. Graybill
TEXAS RANGERS. In 1823 Stephen F. Austin hired ten men he called "rangers" to conduct a raid against the Indians. On 24 November 1835 the Texas legislature created a police force of three companies, fifty-six men each, known as Texas Rangers. Their numbers and reputation rose and fell, influenced by threats to the Texas Republic and governmental economy. Organized along military lines, the rangers had no uniforms in the nineteenth century. Later they began to wear suits with the ubiquitous cowboy hat.
Rangers served in the Texas Revolution as scouts, but their numbers remained small. In December 1838 Mira-beau B. Lamar, president of the Republic, added eight companies. Until the Mexican-American War the rangers were Indian fighters. During his second presidency of Texas, Sam Houston used 150 rangers under the command of Captain John Coffee Hays to protect the frontier from Indian raids, and the rangers gained a reputation for toughness and dedication to duty.
After Texas became a state, from 1848 to 1858, the rangers had no official duties since the United States controlled the border and the frontier. In January 1858 Senior Captain John S. "Rip" Ford led attacks on Indians from the Red River to Brownsville. During the Civil War and Reconstruction the rangers contributed little to law and order, but subsequently they pacified the border with Mexico and stopped various feuds in the state. Between 1890 and 1920 the state legislature dramatically reduced the number of rangers.
The Mexican Revolution changed the situation. Reacting to Pancho Villa's raid on Columbus, New Mexico, rangers killed approximately five thousand Hispanics from 1914 to 1919. Shocked, the state legislature set new standards of recruitment and professionalism. In the 1920s the rangers dealt with riots, labor strikes, the Ku Klux Klan, and oil strikes. The Great Depression marked a low point in the organization's history. Because the rangers supported her opponent in the Democratic primary, Miriam A. "Ma" Ferguson fired all forty-four rangers. The new force was only thirty-two men.
In 1935 legislators created the Texas Department of Public Safety and administratively combined the rangers, the highway patrol, and a state crime lab. The five companies of rangers were restored, and qualifying examinations and behavioral standards were instituted. Between 1938 and 1968 Colonel Homer Garrison Jr. shifted the rangers' focus to detective work. During that time, in response to World War II, fears of sabotage, the civil rights movement, and urbanization, the number of Rangers increased.
After 1968 the rangers worked closely with local police and improved their recruitment, training, and scientific methods. By 1993 the ninety-nine officers included two women, and by 1996 Texas had 105 rangers.
Procter, Ben. Just One Riot: Episodes of the Texas Rangers in the Twentieth Century. Austin, Tex.: Eakin Press, 1991. A brief scholarly evaluation.
Webb, Walter Prescott. The Texas Rangers: A Century of Frontier Defense. 2d ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1965. The major source for understanding the Rangers' behavior and their resulting reputation.
See alsoTexas .
Texas Rangers ★★ 2001 (PG-13)
Western featuring Van Der Beek and Kucher (they're dreamy!) as greenhorns who volunteer to fight bandits along the Rio Grande in 1875 Texas. McDermott's Ranger McNelly of the famous Texas Rangers is their demanding mentor who teaches them a'ropin' and a'shootin'. All are robbed of their families by the bad guys, and there's a passel o' gunfights, but taming the West takes a backseat to the real drama centered mostly around the ailing McNelly's fate in this revenge actioner. Cast is good but hindered by a weak script and direction. After sitting on the shelf for two years, yella-bellied studio execs denied the stale oater an advance screening, well aware of its weak appeal. 90m/C VHS, DVD . US James Van Der Beek, Dylan McDermott, Ashton Kutcher, Usher Raymond, Robert Patrick, Rachael Leigh Cook, Leonor Varela, Randy Travis, Jon Abrahams, Matt Keeslar, Vincent Spano, Marco Leonardi, Oded Fehr, Joe Spano, Tom Skerritt, Alfred Molina; D: Steve Miner; W: Scott Busby, Martin Copeland; C: Daryn Okada; M: Trevor Rabin.