Ethnic Lawmen in Texas

Most Americans have a misperception about the old west lawmen.  I did too for many years.  It wasn’t our fault, though.  With scant exceptions[1], all liberal Hollywood ever presented to us in the cinema was white lawmen, wearing white hats, carrying white-handled pistols, often riding on a white horse.  The bad guys always wore black, whether they were white guys, brown guys, or an occasional black guy.  Whether Hollywood planned this whole thing, or if it was part of the most fantastic coincidence you’ve ever seen, most of us grew up thinking that the American west belonged to Anglo-Americans.  Well, I suppose it did in some ways, but the reality is that Americans of all skin tones and ethnicities helped to tame the west.  There were never all good races or all bad ethnicities; there were only people, most were good, some were bad, some were strong, some were weak, most were somewhere in the middle, and none of them deserved Hollywood’s racism.

Given the above, whenever people think of the Texas Rangers, they tend to think of white fellows protecting the Texas frontier from hostile Indians, Mexican bandits, and scroungy former rebel sociopaths.  There were white Texas Rangers—and there were also Hispanics and a few American Indians wearing the Cinco Peso.  The truth of this comes from enlistment records of the Texas Rangers on file with the Texas Ranger Historical Center.  Why we never seem to have heard about them, beyond intentionally keeping this information from us, is easily explained —and interesting, as well.

Early Texas was a land of many languages: Spanish, English, French, German, Czech (forgive me if I omitted one), and Indian languages, as well.  Despite the richness of languages, most Texans were illiterate or barely literate.  Caution: don’t confuse illiteracy with stupidness.  None of those old rangers were stupid; they just never learned to read or write.  Of course, the Rangers had some educated men, but most —no matter what their skin color, did not attend school.

Illiterate candidates for the Texas Rangers could not write their names, so when it came time to enlist, they often said their names to people who could write.  They, in turn, wrote down the name they heard or thought they heard.  No matter what they wrote down, the enlistee wouldn’t have known the difference.  Did they hear, for example, REED or REID?  It was even worse with Hispanic names, as most of the men writing the enlistment papers were Anglos.  Most could speak Spanish, but they weren’t literate in Spanish.  A recruiter may have recorded Pedro Gutiérrez-Villalobos as Pedro Villalobos.  Juárez may have become Harris; Luis became Lewis.  In this example, what we know today of the history of Texas Ranger Luis Antonio Martinez-Juárez could be contained within a file marked Lewis Harris.

But even worse than the discombobulation of Spanish names were the Indian names.  There was no written language for most Indian languages, so if an Indian spoke Spanish, the enlistment officer transliterated what he heard of the Spanish language.  Still, how does one record Shot the Dog, Over the Branches, or Many Tongues?  In most cases, the enlistment officer solved this problem by making up Christian sounding names.  If the Apache came from San Carlos, he might have ended up as Big John San Carlos; Many Moons became Buck Moon, or just as easily, a single named ranger, such as Antonio, or Alloverbigness.  One Indian Texas Ranger was named Cat Floating.  Another was twice named, first as Cooshatta and next as Cooshatta Killer.  I have no idea what a Cooshatta is.

However, we know that the Texas Rangers enlisted Hispanic and Indian men because a roster of Hispanic and Indian Texas Rangers dating back to 1835 is several pages long.  As Texas Rangers, these men were least interested in tracking down (insert whatever ethnic slur you wish) and much more focused on tracking down evildoers without getting killed themselves.

In Doug J. Swanson’s recent book Cult of Glory: The Bold and Brutal History of the Texas Rangers, he argues that while the Texas Rangers often acted heroically and selflessly, some members of the force were repeatedly guilty of heinous crimes.  Swanson isn’t the only one to criticize.  Monica Martinez’ The Injustice Never Leaves You speaks to ranger violence against Tejanos in Texas.  That there have been injustices and hateful conduct is beyond question.  I only suggest that in the decades written about, two things were also correct.

First, there were some awful bad guys “back in the day,” truly bad-asses who could only have been beaten by men who were as tough, relentless, and dangerous.  Sedition in South Texas was not a myth; innocent people (Anglo and Tejano) died at the hands of murdering Mexicans.  How should the Texas Rangers have reacted?  A heartfelt discussion over afternoon tea, perhaps?  I think not.

Second, between 1865-1965, most Americans harbored racial prejudices; none of it was in any way justified, and none of it was necessarily confined to the American South.  Racism reflected how parents raised their children.  We do, and should, deplore this … but we must not pretend as if we can go back in time and change history.  We can’t.  We shouldn’t.  What we should do is “get better.”  We were making progress until 2007—a signal year in which a majority of white Americans voted for a Negro presidential candidate.  After that, with the elected-presidents reverse racism policies, America lost ground from “getting better.”

I applaud Swanson and Martinez for writing history honestly. Still, it is an illogical proposition to suggest that we rid ourselves of the Texas Rangers today because of events from 55 to 155 years ago.  We have to be better than that.  If we are no better than that, then our Republic is in grave jeopardy.  There are some among us today who wish to see the American Republic fail.  Whomever they are, whether journalists are looking to make a name for themselves, or only good people who are hurting from injustices they never actually experienced themselves, or Hollywood/television producers with a particular agenda, the rest of us should keep a wary eye on them.  No good can come from it.

Sources:

  1. The Austin Statesmen, “Texas history: New book censures ‘bold and brutal’ Texas Rangers,” Michael Barnes, 31 July 2020.
  2. Texas Ranger Museum, “A Brief History of the Texas Rangers,” Mike Cox, 2018.

Endnotes:

[1] In U.S. productions of Zorro, Douglas Fairbanks played a role in 1920, 1926; Robert Livingston played Zorro in 1936; Tyrone Power in 1940; Guy Williams play Zorro in the television series (1958-60) and a film in 1959.  Frank Langella played a role in 1974, George Hamilton, in 1981.  A Hispanic finally got the part (Antonio Banderas) in 1998 and 2005.  Between 1950-56, Duncan Renaldo played the Cisco Kid, a bandit, but a likable “Robin Hood” sort of desperado.  Burt Lancaster played the part of Bob Valdez in the 1971 film.  It was a good film, but I wondered, in 1971, weren’t there any Hispanic actors who could play the part?

About Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.
This entry was posted in Society, Texas, Texas Rangers. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Ethnic Lawmen in Texas

  1. kidme37 says:

    I’d say it gets worse from here in terms of denying or rewriting or simply not teaching history. My guess is they do all three. If the biden thing stands it will all happen very quick. The left will bring their entire wishlist. Who’s gonna stop em.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      People deserve the government they elect. I keep wondering why the main candidates over the past 30 or so years are the best we have. Perhaps truly good men have no interest in the presidency. That, of course, leaves us with mediocre candidates. Our choices always seem to be (a) Dumb, or (b) Dumber. I grow weary of voting against candidates. One day, I’d like to vote “for” someone.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. That was unexpectedly short 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. rhouston@satx.rr.com says:

    Coushatta are a Native American people that had settlements in Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma.

    I think you did a good job of addressing the question of the ruthlessness of the early Texas Rangers. It would have been foolhardy to go against the desperados on the Western frontier with anything less than a ‘do what it takes’ attitude. If these Rangers had not been as bad as – or perhaps even worse than – the ‘bad guys,’ it’s unlikely they would have outlived them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      Okay, that makes sense. Thanks for the information.

      The number of thugs found “not guilty” of murder in old west courts is mind-blowing. One judge advised a local lawman, “If you want justice, leave these buzzards in the brush.” I can’t imagine a modern judge giving that advice, but it does offer some insight into the minds of the concept of justice “back in the day.”

      As always, thank you for your thoughtful comments. Glad you’re one of my regulars.

      Semper Fi

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.