Ira Aten joined the Texas Rangers in 1883, serving as a member of Captain L. P. Seiker’s Company D. He later served as a Sergeant under Captain Frank Jones. Over all, Aten served as an active duty Texas Ranger for nearly seven years, and then served as a volunteer (without pay) until 1891. Most of his work took place in the counties bordering the Rio Grande, roughly from Pecos to Rio Grande City, Texas.
Born in 1862 in Illinois, Ira’s father was a circuit riding preacher who decided to move his family to Texas in 1876. The family settled near present-day Round Rock. In 1878, Ira witnessed the gunfight between the outlaw Sam Bass and members of the Texas Rangers. Listening to the tales told by these Rangers, Ira Aten decided that he wanted to become a lawman.
During his service, Aten became involved in many cases, but it best known for his participation in the so-called Fence Cutting Wars. When barbed wire was first introduced on the open range, many people took exception to having to relinquish the open range to anyone, be they cattlemen or farmers. Those who were opposed to fencing began to cut the wire, mostly that surrounding the larger tracts. This led to violent confrontations between landowners and fence cutters. In 1886, Ira Aten was called to Austin where he was assigned the mission of tracking down and capturing the fence cutters. In short, the governor of Texas wanted these wars stopped, and Aten was the man charged with stopping them.
To accomplish his mission, Aten often worked under-cover as a ranch hand. His investigations did have a noticeable effect on reducing damage to private property and gun violence, but it wasn’t quite enough. In 1888, Aten targeted areas of fencing that had been cut on several occasions and began constructing explosive devices that would only trigger when the fence was cut. According to Aten’s own memoirs, “I fixed the bombs so that when the fence was cut between the posts, it would jerk out a small wire laid in the grass to the blasting cap, and that would set off the dynamite.”
The Adjutant General of Texas did not approve of these methods and ordered Aten to remove the booby traps. Instead, Aten exploded several of them and then spread the word around that more bombs were present along the fencing. Suddenly, the fence cutting stopped in Navarro County. The story here is about a single ranger, tasked to stop a war that was becoming increasingly violent. He did that, but of course, those who never placed themselves in harm’s way criticized him for his methods, rather than praising him for his achievements.
Aten also participated in the Jaybird-Woodpecker War, a feud between two political factions for control of Fort Bend County, Texas. The Jaybirds were those who represented the wealthy class, and about ninety-percent of the white population. These were Democrats who sought to rid the county of any Republican (Woodpecker) representation. Woodpeckers, numbering only about 40 persons in the county, also claimed to be Democrats, but were seen by Jaybirds as part of the post-Civil War Carpet-bagger class because they were officials and former officials who had held office as Republicans, having won elective office because of black voters in the county. The conflict turned friends, neighbors, and relatives against each other.
The election of 1888 caused bitterness throughout the county. Serious altercations occurred between rival candidates. On 2 August 1888, Jaybird Leader J. M. Shamblin was killed. In September, another Jaybird Leader, Mr. Henry Frost, was seriously wounded. Jaybirds held a mass meeting on 6 September 1888 and resolved to war several black people to leave the county within ten hours. The blacks complied.
Members of both factions were heavily armed. Texas Rangers were sent to Richmond, Texas to keep the peace during election day. It was the heaviest voter turnout in the history of the county. Again, Democrats were defeated by Woodpeckers … and the breach widened even further. There were insults, threats, denunciations, and assaults. Mr. Kyle Terry, a Woodpecker tax assessor, killed Mr. L. E. Gibson at Wharton on 21 June 1889. A week later, Terry was killed by Volney Gibson. Fort Bend County became an armed camp and the so-called Battle of Richmond on 16 August 1889, became inevitable.
An exchange of bullets between J. W. Parker and W. T. Wade of the Woodpeckers, and Guilf and Volney Gibson of the Jaybirds signaled the begging of the battle. Most of the action took place around the courthouse building, the National Hotel, and the McFarlane residence. After twenty or so minutes of gunfire, Woodpeckers retreated into the courthouse, leaving Jaybirds in possession of the town. Casualties mounted. Jaybirds from all parts of the county hurried to Richmond to participate in further hostilities, but by the time they arrived, hostilities had subsided. Texas Governor Lawrence S. Rossarrived in Richmond and acted as mediator toward resolving the conflict. “Sul” Ross ordered a complete reorganization of the county government, which resulted in the removal or voluntary resignation of all Woodpecker officials, and selection of Jaybirds or other persons acceptable to the Jaybirds to fill newly vacated offices.
A mass meeting was held in Richmond on 3 October 1889 to form a permanent organization designed to maintain white control of the government. Among measures passed was the creation of a Fort Bend County Association of White People. Interestingly, Ira Aten was one of the signatories of the FBAWP Charter. A second meeting was held on 22 October, which organized the Jaybird Democratic Organization of Fort Bend County. More than four hundred men signed the membership roll. This organization controlled county politics for the next seventy years.
Not surprisingly, Ira Aten’s participation in the Jaybird-Woodpecker War caught the attention of leading citizens, resulting in his appointment as the Sheriff of Fort Bend County, Texas, where he served until the end of 1890. Aten then moved to Castro County, Texas, where he was elected as sheriff in 1893. In 1895, Aten was hired by the Capitol Syndicate Company to help stop cattle rustling on the XIT Ranch. To do this, he created a ranch police force consisting of two former Texas Rangers and twenty cowboys. The cattle rustling stopped after a short time.
By 1904, Aten relocated his family to the Imperial Valley of California. He passed away due to complications of pneumonia at the age of 91 and is buried in El Centro, California.
- Ira Aten, Six and one-half years in Ranger Service, 1945 Harold Preece,
- Lone Star Man,New York, 1960 Walter Prescott Webb,
- The Texas Rangers, Boston, 1935 Fred Wilkins,
- The Law comes to Texas, Austin, 1999
Lawrence Sullivan “Sul” Ross was a Texas Ranger, soldier, statesman, and university president. He served as governor of Texas from 1886 to 1891.