One Riot, One Texas Ranger

Texas StarIn 1821, Mexico’s War of Independence from Spain included the territory of present-day Texas, which became part of Mexico, incorporated as part of the state of Coahuila y Tejas.  At this time, there were very few Europeans living in this vast territory and those who did live there were isolated and vulnerable to native hostiles.  Hoping that more settlers would over time reduce near-constant Comanche raids, the government of Mexico liberalized its immigration policies to permit settlers from outside Mexico and Spain. Apparently, Mexican officials believed it was better for white settlers to have to deal with hostile Indians, rather than having to dedicate their own resources to solving this problem[1].  Beyond this, it was believed that an increase in white settlement (given the caveats of citizenship) would bring an increase to northern Mexico’s economic prosperity.

Under this new Mexican immigration system, large tracks of land were allotted to empresarios, who recruited settlers from the United States, Europe, and the Mexican interior. The first grant of land was made to Moses Austin, and this was eventually passed on to his son, Stephen F. Austin[2],after his father’s death.  Thousands of Americans realized the value of these land opportunities, but it brought them into direct conflict with the Comanche and other Indian tribes who were hostile to the settlements.

The Texas Rangers were created in 1823, two years after the start of white settlement in Texas, making it the second oldest state law enforcement agency in the United States.  Following the Mexican War of Independence (from Spain), some six to seven hundred families relocated from the United States to present-day Texas and they had no one but themselves to provide for their security.  It was thus that Stephen F. Austin and Green DeWitt[3]began to organize experienced frontiersmen as rangers who were initially answerable to local mayors (alcaldes).

It was not until October 17, 1835, however, that Texas formally established the force that has since been known as the Texas Rangers.  Robert McAlpin Williamson was chosen to serve as the first Major of the Texas Rangers.  The force began with a complement of fifty-six men organized into three companies; initially, however, the force was used only sparingly for the first few years. The Texas Rangers were focused on two things: first, protection of settlements from hostile Indians, and second, the apprehension of felonious outlaws.

During the Texian fight for independence, Rangers served as scouts and couriers. Other tasks were assigned to them, as well, such as retrieving cattle, escorting refugees, and guerilla raids behind Mexican lines.  Once independence was gained, the land became the Republic of Texas.  Because President Sam Houston was no fan of the Texas Rangers, the lawmen had very few duties under his administration.  However, when Mirabeau B. Lamar succeeded Houston as President in 1838, he engaged the Rangers in war against the several tribes inside Texas.  In addition to a company of fifty-six salaried Rangers, the legislature authorized Lamar to recruit of eight companies of mounted volunteers.  In the following month, five additional companies were recruited for service in Central and South Texas.

Over the next several years, Texas Rangers waged an all-out war against the Indians, successfully participating in a number of battles, which included the Council House Fight in San Antonio[4], the Linnville Fight, and the Battle of Plum Creek.  By the end of President Lamar’s term in office, the Texas Rangers had significantly damaged the human strength of the most powerful tribes.  By the time of Sam Houston’s re-election to the presidency in 1841, he had a much-improved opinion of the Texas Rangers.  On 29 January 1842, Houston approved a law that officially provided for a mounted company of men to “act as rangers.”  The result of this was the recruitment of 150 rangers under the leadership of Captain John Coffee “Jack” Hays.  His mission was to protect the southern and western portions of the Texas frontier.  Houston’s foresight was prescient in helping to repel the Mexican invasions of 1842, and for shielding settlers from Indian attacks through 1845.

Captain Hays was also responsible for improving the quality of recruitment, instituting a tough training program for new rangers, and developing within the Rangers an esprit de corps.  From this group came a number of celebrated captains, which include W. A. A. (Big Foot) Wallace, Ben and Henry McCulloch, Samuel H. Walker, and Robert Addison Gillespie.

In 1846, Texas became part of the United States, which also prompted the Mexican-American War.  The US insisted that the international boundary be fixed at the Rio Grande River. The war raged for two years. Texas Rangers were called on to assist the American Army and soon achieved worldwide fame as a fighting force. Superbly mounted with a large assortment of weapons the Rangers were found to be so successful against Mexican guerillas, that they soon earned the name “los diablos Tejanos” or the “Texas Devils.”

When the Mexican War ended on February 2, 1848, the United States assumed responsibility for protecting the Texas frontier. Having no official function, the Rangers soon lost a number of its famous captains and frontier defenders. A decade later in the Spring of 1858, they briefly saw combat again when they were sent north to the Red River to pacify a band of hostiles.

In 1861, Texas seceded from the United States during the Civil War. Shortly thereafter, the Eighth Texas Cavalry was formed around Colonel Benjamin Franklin Terry … less formally called Terry’s Texas Rangers[5].  Many former Texas Rangers enlisted under his command.  Colonel Terry was killed in December 1861 at Rowlette’s Station, Kentucky … the regiment’s first enemy engagement.

During the post-war reconstruction period of (1865-1873), the Texas Rangers were designated as state police.  It was a dark period in an otherwise rich and colorful history because the Rangers were tasked to enforce unpopular new laws that were associated with the reconstruction period.  More often than not, the Rangers acted as a kind of military police, particularly when enforcing reconstruction law, or when fighting Indians or Mexicans … but when pursuing outlaws, they functioned more on the order of a law enforcement agency.

By the time political power was returned to Texas in 1874, the state was overrun with outlaws, hostile Indians ravaged the western frontier, and Mexican bandits pillaged and murdered at will within the boundary of the Rio Grande Valley.  When in 1874 Richard Coke was overwhelmingly elected Governor[6], he worked with the legislators to appropriate $75,000 to organize six companies of 75 Rangers each.  Designated as the Frontier Battalion, Texas Rangers were stationed at strategic points over the state serving as somewhere between a police agency and a military organization.

John Wesley HardinIn 1877, the Texas Rangers found themselves on the outlaw trail, pursuing the infamous John Wesley Hardin[7].  Hardin had killed Deputy Sheriff Charles Webb from Brown County in 1874 and left the state. One Texas Ranger by the name of John Barclay Armstrong (better known as “McNelly’s Bulldog”) received permission to pursue Hardin across state lines.  Armstrong finally caught up with the notorious outlaw on a train in Pensacola, Florida and the inevitable shoot out occurred.  When the smoke cleared, Hardin had been knocked unconscious, one of his gang members killed and the rest were arrested on July 23, 1877.

In the spring of 1878, the outlaw Sam Bass and his gang held up two stage coaches and four trains within twenty-five miles of Dallas, Texas.  The gang quickly found themselves the target of a spirited chase across North Texas by a special company of Texas Rangers headed by Junius Peak.  Bass eluded his pursuers until one of his party, a fellow named Jim Murphy, turned informer.  As the Bass Gang rode south, intending to rob a small bank in Round Rock, Texas, Murphy notified Major John B. Jones, commander of the Frontier Battalion of Texas Rangers.  In Round Rock, Jones set up an ambush; a fierce battle between the Bass and the Rangers took place on July 19, 1878.  In the melee, Bass’ sidekick, a man called Seaborn Barnes was killed and Sam, though wounded, was able to ride away on his horse.  The next morning, he was found lying helpless in a pasture north of town and was brought back to Round Rock where he died from his wounds on July 21st.

Over the next several years, the members of the Texas Ranger Frontier Battalion captured more than 3,000 outlaws, but the Texas frontier was beginning to disappear by 1882.

During the next thirty years, in spite of their effectiveness in dealing with cattle rustlers, Mexican bandits, and Indian marauders, Ranger prominence and prestige waned.  By the turn of the century, critics began to urge abandonment of the Texas Rangers. The Frontier Battalion was abolished in 1901 and the Ranger forces were reduced to four law enforcement companies of twenty men each.  In spite of the fact that Ranger activities were redirected towards law enforcement, they continued to participate in numerous bloody brush fights with Mexican bandits.

During the early days of the First World War, Texas Rangers were given a new mission: identifying and capturing numerous spies, conspirators, saboteurs, and draft dodgers[8].  In 1916, Pancho Villa’s raid on Columbus, New Mexico intensified the already unsteady relationship between the United States and Mexico.  During this period, Texas Rangers killed or captured as many as 5,000 Mexicans who were engaged against American interests and security within US territory.

Still, the Ranger’s track record raised some eyebrows among the liberal press, so in order to restore public confidence, the Texas legislature overhauled the Texas Rangers in January 1919.  Four companies of Ranger recruits were cut from twenty to fifteen per unit.  In order to attract men of high character, the legislature also established higher salaries for Texas Rangers and established procedures for citizen complaints.

Following the enactment of Prohibition in 1920, Texas Rangers were employed patrolling the Rio Grande Valley to interdict illegal smuggling of tequila and the capture of cattle rustlers.  During the Great Depression, Texas Rangers were reduced to a force of just 45 men. Adding fuel to the fire, the Rangers openly supported Governor Ross Sterling against Miriam A. “Ma” Ferguson in the Democratic primary in the fall of 1932.  When Ferguson took office in January, 1933, she fired every ranger for his partisanship, salaries were cut, and the Ranger budget was further reduced to a force of thirty-two men.  Without the protection of the Rangers, Texas soon returned to a haven for outlaws … people such as Raymond Hamilton, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker.

bonnie-and-clyde.jpgIn 1934, Frank A. Hamer, a long-time Texas Ranger who had been fired during Ma Ferguson’s cutback, was asked by the head of the Texas prison system to utilize his skills in tracking down the outlaws Barrow-Parker Gang.  The two murdering bank robbers had successfully engineered a prison break of a member of the gang from Huntsville Prison, killing a guard in the process.

Hamer tracked the gang across nine states.  Working along with law enforcement officers in Louisiana, Hamer learned that Bonnie and Clyde had visited Bienville Parish in late May 1934, and that Barrow arranged a rendezvous there with fellow gang-member Henry Methvin.  Unknown to Bonnie and Clyde, Methvin was cooperating with law enforcement to set up an ambush along the route to the rendezvous.

The posse, led by former Texas Rangers Hamer and Manny Gault, included two additional Texans and two Louisiana lawmen who waited along Highway 154 between Gibsland and Sailes. The posse took their stations by 9:00 p.m. and waited all night and through the next day without any sign of Bonnie and Clyde. However, at around 9:10 a.m. on May 23, 1934, the posse heard the approach of Barrow’s stolen Ford.  When Barrow stopped to speak with Henry Methvin’s father, planted there with his truck that morning to distract Clyde and force him into the lane closest to the posse, the lawmen opened fire, killing Bonnie and Clyde while shooting a combined total of approximately 130 rounds.

Today, we still do not know whether Frank Hamer had the legal authority to employ deadly force to end the Barrow-Parker rampage; Bonnie Parker was not known to have personally killed anyone, but Hamer had every intention of ending the gang’s violence—even if it included killing Bonnie Parker.  For Hamer’s efforts, the United States Congress awarded him a special citation for trapping and killing the outlaws.

In 1935, Texas Governor James Allred signed into law a new public safety bill, which created the Texas Department of Public Safety.  The Department included the highway patrol, a scientific crime laboratory, and the Texas Ranger Division.  Since then, the Texas Rangers have investigated crimes ranging from murder to political corruption.  They’ve maintained the peace during riots, protected the state governor, and tracked down fugitives.  Today the Texas Rangers number 100 highly trained men and women, stationed across the State and are reputed to be among the most effective investigative law enforcement agencies in the world.

There are, of course, hundreds of interesting stories about the Old American West; I hope to write about some of these in the future.  Some of these stories will be about the bad guys, who according to most Hollywood films, always wear black hats.  I much prefer stories about the good guys … men like Ira Aten, Texas Ranger.  As a young man, Aten witnessed the shootout with Sam Bass in Round Rock, Texas.  When he grew old enough, he joined the Rangers and, over time, became one of the most efficient lawmen in the state of Texas. During the Fence Cutting War, Aten was commissioned by the governor to put a halt to these senseless episodes of violence … and by golly, Aten did exactly that.  How he went about it was less popular with the governor … but as Aten himself might have said, “If you don’t want an end to the violence, then don’t send in a Texas Ranger.”  This brings us back to the title of this post: One Riot, One Texas Ranger.


[1]From the outset of white migrations, the government of Mexico showed little interest in funding local militia or for providing regular troops toward the protection of settlements.

[2]Stephen Fuller Austin (November 3, 1793 – December 27, 1836) was an American empresario.  Known as the “Father of Texas”, and the founder of Texas, he led the second, and ultimately, the most successful colonization of the region by bringing 300 families from the United States to the region in 1825.

[3]Green DeWitt (February 12, 1787 – May 18, 1835) was an empresario responsible for founding theDeWitt Colony.  He was born in Kentucky, later moving with his family to Missouri, which was at the time, part of Spanish-held Louisiana.  At 18, he returned to Kentucky to complete his education and then returned to Missouri.  In 1808, he married Sarah Seely of Missouri and enlisted in the Missouri militia.  He fought in the War of 3000, rising to the rank of captain.  After the war, he was elected as Sheriff of Ralls County, Missouri.

[4]The Council House Fight was a decidedly lopsided combat between officials and Texas Rangers of the Republic of Texas and a delegation of Comanche chiefs during a peace conference in San Antonio, Texas on 19 March 1840.  The meeting took place under an observed truce with the purpose of negotiating the exchange of captives and, ultimately, facilitating peace after two years of war.  The Comanches sought to negotiate Texas’ recognition of the boundaries of the Comancheria, their homeland.  The Texians wanted the release of all Texan and Mexican citizens held prisoner by the Comanches.

The Comanche chiefs brought only one white captive to the meeting, as well as several Mexican children who had been captured separately.  Chief Muguara, the Penateka spokesman, refused to deliver more captives on the grounds that they were held in the rancherias of other chiefs over which he had no authority.  This was in fact the case, as the Comanche were not a confederated nation; the Comanche consisted of several tribes, within which, bands operated independently from central authority.

The white captive brought to the council meeting was Matilda Lockhart, a sixteen-year-old girl who had been held prisoner for nearly two years.  Mary Maverick helped care for the girl upon her presentment at the council meeting.  According to Maverick in a memoir written nearly sixty years later, Lockhart had been beaten, raped, and suffered multiple burns to her body.  Her face was disfigured; her nose almost completely burned away.  There is no evidence to suggest that any of Maverick’s account is true, but neither is there any evidence that it wasn’t true.

Because the Comanche delegation did not bring the expected number of captives with them to the talks —as previously agreed, delegate members were escorted to the local jail.  The talks were held at the Council House, a one-story stone building adjoining a jail on the corner of Main Plaza and Calabosa Street.  During the council, the Comanche warriors sat on the floor, as was their custom; the Texians sat on chairs on a platform facing them —as was their custom.

Miss Lockhart testified that she had seen 15 other prisoners at the Comanches’ principal camp several days before.  She maintained that the Indians had wanted to see how high a price they could get for her, and from that point, bring in the remaining captives one at a time.

In response to this testimony, the Texians demanded to know where the other captives were.  Chief Muguara responded that the other prisoners were held by various other bands of Comanche. He assured the Texians that he felt the other captives would be able to be ransomed, but that it would be in exchange for a great deal of supplies, including ammunition and blankets.  He then finished his speech with the comment “How do you like that answer?”

This response enraged the Texians and the Comanche delegation was informed that they would be held captive until the Texian and Mexican prisoners were released.  When the Comanche learned that they would be held hostage, a fight erupted in the council house.  Of the 65 members of the Comanche party, 35 were killed with 29 taken into custody. Texian casualties included 7 dead (including a judge, a sheriff, and a militia lieutenant), and ten more wounded. In the aftermath of the Council House Fight, the Comanche killed all white hostages sought by the Texians, and the Comanche war chief Buffalo Hump initiated the so-called Great Raid of 1840, which resulted in the death of 25 additional Texian settlers.

[5]“Terry’s Rangers” distinguished themselves at several battles during the Civil War.  In four years of combat, the regiment fought 275 engagements in seven states.  The regiment ranked among the most effective mounted regiments in the entire western theater of the Civil War.

[6]Coke previously served as a delegate to the Secession Convention at Austin in 1861.  He joined the Confederate States Army as a private.  Then, in 1862, he raised a company that was assigned to the Fifteenth Texas Infantry.  Coke served as a captain for the rest of war.  He was wounded in action in the battle of Bayou Bourbeau on 3 November 1863. In 1865, Coke was appointed a Texas district court judge, and in 1866 elected as an associate justice to the Texas Supreme Court.  In the following year, military governor Philip Sheridan fired Coke along with four other judges, claiming that they were an impediment to unionist reconstruction policy.  The firing of these jurists became a cause célèbre and made their names famous and synonymous in the public eye with resistance to Yankee occupation.

[7]John Wesley Hardin (May 26, 1853 – August 19, 1895) was a gunfighter/outlaw who from an early age, found himself in trouble with the law. Pursued by lawmen for most of his life, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison for murder in 1877. When he was sentenced, Hardin bragged about having killed 42 men, but newspapers of the day claimed that he had killed 27 men.  While in prison, Hardin wrote a self-aggrandizing autobiography and studied law.  He was released in 1894.  In August 1895, Hardin was shot to death by John Selman in an El Paso, Texas saloon.

[8]The Zimmermann Telegram was a secret diplomatic communication issued from the German Foreign Ministry in January 1917 that proposed a military alliance between Germany and Mexico in the event that the United States entered into World War I against Germany.  Zimmermann proposed that Mexico would recover Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico.  The telegram was intercepted and decoded by British Intelligence and shared with the Wilson administration in Washington.  Revelation of Zimmermann’s proposition enraged Americans, particularly after German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann admitted the proposal.  Apparently, Mr. Zimmermann was unaware of how many German immigrants were living in Texas.  In any case, the revelation helped to inspire American support for Wilson’s Declaration of War against Germany in April, 1917.  The decryption of the Zimmerman Telegram was the most significant intelligence triumph for Britain during World War I and one of the earliest occasions where signal intelligence influenced world events.


About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in History, Justice. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to One Riot, One Texas Ranger

  1. Kid says:

    Very interesting stories.


  2. Pablo says:

    My great-great grandfather was an early settler in central Texas and both he and his son (my great grand father) delt with a variety of challenges including cattle rustlers.
    Another great history lesson!
    Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      Let me invite you to write the story of your great-grand parents in Central Texas. Send them to me, and I’ll post them. I’m quite sure your kids and grandkids would like to know the family history.


  3. Chris and Bonnie says:

    Really enjoyed the history of the Texas Rangers. Learned a lot.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. “By the end of President Lamar’s term in office, ”
    Was that Hedley LaMar?


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