The Bandit War

(Continued from last week)

Governor Ferguson responded to the Mexican/Tejano uprising by hiring a man named Henry Ransom [1] to serve as a Texas Ranger captain in South Texas. To put a fine point on it, Ransom was a ruthless killer who had been hardened by his earlier scrapes in Texas and his turn of the century military service in the Philippine Islands.  It was in the Philippines that Ransom saved the life of US Army Captain John A. Hulen.  As a reward for saving his life, Hulen, also a former Adjutant General for the State of Texas, influenced Ferguson to hire Ransom.  Ferguson ordered Ransom to form a new Ranger company, Company D, and to “… go down there [Rio Grande Valley] and clean it up —even if you have to kill every damn man connected with it [Plan of San Diego].”

Henry Ransom

Henry Ransom, seated far right

In essence, Ferguson offered Ransom and his rangers official protection from prosecution for first degree murder.  For his part, Ransom was eager to carry out Ferguson’s instructions. Insofar as Ransom was concerned, “Anyone who has guilty knowledge of crimes committed, or anyone who harbors bandits should be killed.”  To form his new company, Ransom recruited former prison guards and disreputable shootists from throughout South Texas.  Ransom stationed Company D in the border town of Harlingen, Texas, in Cameron County.  What subsequently transpired was a period of South Texas history referred to as the Bandit Wars.

In fairness, few people living in the Rio Grande Valley shared Ferguson’s and Ransom’s radical (and deeply un-American) views.  Cameron County Sheriff William T. Vann was one Texan who pushed back —and this began a long conflict between Vann and Ferguson, and by extension, between Sheriff Vann and the Texas Rangers.

On 2 August 1915, someone reported spotting fifty Mexicans crossing the Rio Grande near Brownsville.  At the time, Caesar Kleberg managed the politically influential King Ranch.  He and Jim Wells notified the State Adjutant General of this incursion and urged him to come personally to South Texas to deal with it.  Adjutant General Henry Hutchings promptly ordered Texas Ranger Captain J. Monroe Fox to move his entire company from Marfa [2] to Brownsville and, having done so, boarded a train for South Texas.  On the very morning Hutchings arrived in Brownsville, Luis De la Rosa attacked the settlement at Sebastian murdering two innocent men, a father and his son who were working in a nearby field.  He then set about looting several stores in Sebastian.   Before making his escape, De la Rosa made a chilling announcement: he intended to kill other prominent citizens in South Texas.  In reporting this incident, the Dallas Morning News reminded its readers that the De la Rosa raid should dispel any notion that these attacks originated in Mexico [3].

That night, Hutchings and Ransom led a posse to track down the bandit gang.  Three suspected raiders were shot and killed on the McAllen Ranch near Paso Real.  Sheriff Vann, who was a member of the posse, later insisted that these three men were not bandits —they were all unarmed.

Captain Fox and his Company B rangers arrived by train in Brownsville at noon on the following day. On the morning of 8 August, Fox received a telephone call from Kleberg informing him that Mexican raiders had been observed on his range near Kingsville.  Hutchings quickly organized a posse composed of Ransom and Fox, fourteen Texas Rangers, and eight men borrowed from the 12thCavalry under Corporal Allen Mercer.  This contingent departed Brownsville headed for Norias, a sub-unit headquarters location of the sprawling King Ranch.  The posse was eventually joined by a US mounted immigration inspector named D. Portus Gray, who with nothing better to do, decided that he wanted to share in the excitement.  Gray soon recruited Deputy Sheriff Gordon Hill, two customs inspectors (former Texas Rangers), and two civilian (cowboy) volunteers.

Norias is situated on a flat plain 75-miles north of Brownsville.  At that time, it was an isolated cattle shipping station for the King Ranch.  The headquarters building was a two-story wood frame house that stood 50-feet west of the railway tracks; it was more-or-less surrounded by out-buildings such as a railroad section house, tool sheds, piles of cross ties, and two bunk houses.  Residents of Norias consisted of only a handful of people associated with the King Ranch, including a foreman, three cowboys, a carpenter and his wife, a black cook and his wife, several Mexican railroad hands and their wives, and an elderly woman by the name of Manuela Flores.  A gentleman by the name of Tom Tate was also on hand serving as a special ranger [4] to the King Ranch.

Shortly after the posse’s arrival, Tate supplied them with horses and then led Hutchings and his men toward a water hole twelve miles southwest where they hoped to strike the trail of the suspected bandits.  The US troops were left behind to guard the Norias station.

Portus Gray and his men arrived at the Norias station around 5:30 p.m., and since the posse had already departed Norias, the Gray contingent were invited to join everyone else for supper.  Afterwards, while sitting leisurely on the porch, Customs Inspector “Tiny” Hines (who was anything but tiny) spotted the approach of riders in the distance.  He thought the posse was returning.  On closer examination, however, Gray noted the Mexican sombreros and a white flag with a red border.  He alerted everyone that the approaching riders were bandits, and everyone scurried to a defensive position.

Luis de la Rosa 1914

De la Rosa, 1914

In fact, there were sixty bandoleer-draped riders, armed with Mauser rifles, and they were fast approaching Norias Station.  Some of these men were Carranza’s soldiers (from Mexico), while others were Tejano adherents to the Plan of San Diego (The Plan), and all of them serving under the command of Luis De la Rosa.  Their intention was to wreck and rob the train and dispatch anyone who got in the way.  US troops quickly took up defensive positions behind a low rail bed.  As the raiders closed to 250-yards, the troops opened fire with their Springfield rifles; Mexicans quickly dismounted and returned fire. Three of the defenders were immediately wounded.  The rebels launched an aggressive attack, attempting an envelopment of the defenders. The largest battle of the Bandit Wars was joined.

Deadly fire from the defenders caused the seditionists to take cover behind a toolshed, the section house, and the stack of cross ties.  Having broken in to the section house, Antonio Rocha dragged Manuela Flores forward and demanded that she tell him how many defenders were at the ranch house.  The feisty older woman answered defiantly in Spanish, “If you want to know, go over there and find out.”  Rocha promptly shot her in the head.

The rebels positioned themselves so that they were delivering fire into the defenders from two sides.  One of the defenders, a cowboy named Lauro Cavazos, shot the horse out from under one of the rebel leaders.  With this sudden lull in the firing, the three wounded defenders were quickly moved to the ranch house.  Several raiders, who had managed to entangle themselves in barbed-wire east of the tracks, were shot down by the defenders.  Realizing that they had a limited supply of ammunition, the defenders carefully chose their targets.  The black cook, Mr. Albert Edmunds, reached a telephone by crawling along the floor and, contacting Kleberg, pleaded for help.  Then, braving lethal fire, Edmunds crawled from one defender to the next with much needed drinking water —and while the men were drinking, he took over his rifle and delivered accurate fire at the bandits.

The gunfight raged for more than two hours.  The defenders were nearly out of ammunition and the situation looked bleak.  Just as the sun went down, at about 8:30 p.m., the raiders mounted a coordinated charge shooting and yelling like wild Indians. At a range of about 40-yards, former Texas Ranger Pinkie Taylor shot and killed De la Rosa and the attack faltered. The bandits, having never figured on a stout defense at a place they imagined was lightly defended, then lost interest in continuing their assault.  Loading their wounded onto horses, they withdrew from Norias Station. Gray later said that the defenders had wounded half of the attackers.  After the Mexican withdrawal, the defenders maintained their positions and watch.

An hour later, the Hutchings posse returned to Norias oblivious to the firefight.  Surveying the damage, the Texas Rangers were embarrassed and chagrined to learn how narrowly they had missed the action. Captain Ransom then began lecturing the defenders on how they should have organized themselves, but former ranger Pinkie Taylor would have none of his arm-chair analysis and put him in his place.  Hutchings elected not to pursue the marauders fearing an ambush in the night.  This was probably a wise decision.

The next morning, the posse followed the raiders’ tracks.  They discovered four bodies on the plains east of the ranch house along with a white flag emblazoned with a large letter E.  One wounded bandit identified himself as Jose Garcia and said that he was from San Benito, Texas.  The goal of the attackers, he said, was to reclaim the Rio Grande Valley for Mexico. After making his statement, Garcia died. A subsequent inquiry by Sheriff Vann, however, suggests that Garcia was actually a man named Jesus Garcia of Brownsville.  There was some conjecture about how Garcia died, an inference that he was murdered by Ransom, but most believed he died from the wounds he sustained during the battle.

On the next day, a photographer named Robert Runyon arrived by train from Brownsville. Runyon had created a cottage industry photographing grizzly scenes of the Mexican Revolution and then selling his pictures as postcards.  Runyon took several pictures of the aftermath of the firefight at Norias Station. Texas Rangers posed proudly for him —as if they had had anything at all to do with the battle, but this was the nature of the Texas Rangers under Hutchings in 1915.  Nevertheless, Runyon’s photographs offended a large number of people in the United States and did nothing but anger the Mexicans —especially his still-photographs of Texas Rangers dragging dead bodies behind horses to a mass-grave pit.

The Norias Station Raid caused a sensation in the United States.  A massive operation was initiated to hunt down the surviving participants of the attack.  The local army commander, General Frederick Funston, ordered additional troops, heavy guns, and an aircraft to patrol the border.  Within ten days, according to one San Antonio newspaper, ten Mexicans and Tejanos had been shot dead or hanged in the Rio Grande Valley.  The Dallas Morning News reported, “To all practical purposes, a condition of guerrilla warfare exists along the border.  Nobody knows how many Mexicans have been killed in the brush in the last few days—and nobody will ever know.”

Given the circumstances of the Norias Station Raid and public knowledge of The Plan, almost everyone in South Texas started wearing or carrying firearms —and, whenever an armed Hispanic was encountered, he was assumed to be an insurgent and treated accordingly.

On the morning of 10 August, Captain J. Monroe Fox received a tip that a band of marauders was hold up at the El Merino Range, two miles west of Sebastian.  As Fox and his rangers rode toward the ranch house, an unknown number of Mexicans leaped on their horses intending to escape.  The rangers opened fire, killing two men —the rest making good their escape.

On 14 August, Fox was informed that one of the Norias Station raiders was located in Raymondville. They tracked him down and killed him. Upon Fox’s return to Brownsville, he reported that “virtually all of the Mexican bandits have either been killed or driven back into Mexico.”

The killing wasn’t over, however.  On 20 August, Fox and his rangers went to the home of Tomas Aguilar, who was suspected as one of the Norias Station insurgents.  From what we know, Aguilar at first attempted to hide from the rangers, but then he grabbed a rifle and ran for his horse, firing at the rangers as he ran.  The rangers returned fire, hitting him.  That evening, from his hotel in Raymondville, Fox wrote his report informing General Hutchings that they had captured and killed Aguilar, that he had admitted to robbing the depot at Combs, Texas, and setting fire to the railroad bridge.  Aguilar also admitted to murdering a farmer and his son in cold blood. Apparently, Ferguson’s “shoot to kill” order had taken hold among the Rangers.  From Captain Fox’s own report, Aguilar made his confession —and was then executed.  Soon after, Company B was soon ordered back to the Big Bend area of Texas.

Carranza

The bearded Venustiano Carranza, standing left

Apparently, the Plan of San Diego wasn’t as absurd as some imagined —the raids were real and deadly, but they actually began in 1910 and lasted through 1919.  They were initially carried out by Mexican rebels from Tamaulipas, Coahuila, and Chihuahua, Mexico.  The Carranza faction was responsible for most of these, but the Tejano seditionists played a large role, as well.  While never able to implement The Plan in the way it was envisioned, the seditionists played havoc with South Texas communities —essentially widening the gap between Anglo and Hispanic communities.

The facts are that the first raids targeted prominent Mexican-Americans (Tejanos).  Deputy Sheriff Pablo Falcon was the first victim of The Plan.  One of the men who killed him was a Mexican whom Falcon had arrested the week prior. The overall leaders were Luis de la Rosa and Aniceto Pizana, who organized their guerrilla bands that consisted of between 25 and 100 men.  In addition to targeting prominent Hispanic citizens, they intended to kill all white men over the age of 16 years.  They intended to raze public and private property, to instill fear within South Texas communities.  They disrupted communications by pulling down telephone and telegraph wires.

In order to maintain this assault, it was crucial to maintain support from Mexico.  Half of the men on guerilla missions were Mexicans. Additionally, Mexican newspapers were used as propaganda tools within border towns, which exaggerated the success of Mexicans against white Americans and actively recruited others to participate in the raids.

Understandably, white Americans became increasingly hostile toward and suspicious of Hispanics —during and years after the Bandit Wars.  The unhappy result of these actions were illegal executions of Mexicans at the hands of the Texas Rangers, county sheriffs, and local police officers. Private citizens also participated in the indiscriminate killings.  Local whites established the Law and Order League in 1915, a vigilante group. Before the end of 1916, more than 300 Tejanos were slain in Texas.

Francisco Pancho Villa

Francisco “Pancho” Villa

Then, in March 1916, Pancho Villa  raided Columbus, New Mexico.  This act prompted President Woodrow Wilson to send General John J. Pershing into Mexico to capture him.  Pershing never found Villa, but the crisis escalated to a point just short of general war between the United States and Mexico.  Eventually, the issue was resolved diplomatically, but after the Zimmerman Telegram became public knowledge in 1917, South Texas whites looked upon Hispanics as enemies of the United States.

Personal note: having lived in the Rio Grande Valley for a decade (albeit twenty years ago), I can say that the suspicion, distrust, and resentment between whites and Tejanos generated during the Bandit Wars continues to simmer beneath the surface of South Texas society.

Sources:

  1. Texas Monthly, Rivers of Blood, (January 1986)
  2. Boessenecker, J: Texas Ranger, The Epic Life of Frank Hamer, the Man Who Killed Bonnie and Clyde(2016)
  3. Webb, Walter P: The Texas Rangers: A Century of Frontier Defense, (1935)
  4. Texas State Historical Association, The Handbook of Texas

Notes:

[1] When it was revealed that the Houston police force was unable to cope with the explosion of crime, Mayor Horace Baldwin Rice, a wealthy progressive reformer, hired two former Texas Rangers as his personal police agency to stop the violence. These men were Henry Lee Ransom and Jules J. Baker.  Of the two, Ransom was the most dangerous; his willingness to shoot anyone he suspected of a crime, particularly if they happened to be black or Tejano, resulted in his indictment for murder on more than one occasion.  He always seemed to escape punishment, however.  In 1910, Ransom was 39-years old, stood five-foot, 8-inches tall, and weighed 140 pounds.  Ransom was a veteran of the Spanish-American war with service in the Philippine Islands at a time when US Army troops destroyed villages and wantonly murdered military prisoners and civilians in cold blood.  According to one biographer, “Trouble followed Henry Ransom like horseflies on a cow pony.”

[2] Marfa, Texas is located in northeastern Presidio County in the high desert of the Trans-Pecos between the Davis Mountains and the area known as Big Bend (now a national park).  The town is twenty miles south of Fort Davis and 18 miles west of the city of Alpine.

[3] This wasn’t the first time the newspaper “got it” wrong —or the last.

[4] At this time, special Texas Ranger commissions were offered to certain politically connected individuals.  The commission gave men the same rights as a regular Texas Ranger, including certain law enforcement powers, but they were not state employees.  It is likely that Tate’s commission was granted to him because he was employed by the politically powerful King Ranch and it was convenient to the King Ranch to have such a person on their payroll.

 

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5 Responses to The Bandit War

  1. Andy says:

    Excellent article. We’ve come to expect nothing less from you, Mustang. And you never disappoint.

    Like

  2. Kid says:

    Very enjoyable read. Glad I wasn’t there.

    Liked by 1 person

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