A look at straight-shooting Texas Ranger Captain Bill McDonald
In order for stories to become popular, whether based on fact or smothered in myth, they have to reflect the society that takes stock in them. Texas society has always had a love affair with their Rangers. Texas Ranger stories often contain both fact and myth, or if one prefers, somewhat embellished facts for the sake of making stories enjoyable. Did all Texas Rangers perform the role of shining knights in defense of their fellow citizens? Of course not. Some rangers were rascals; some walked on both sides of the law. But some performed daring exploits that are worthy of a good tale well-told. One of those worthy men was William J. McDonald, whom everyone knew as Captain Bill.
Prizefights in Texas
In 1896, prizefighting was illegal in Texas (as it was in most other states). But there was money to be made in prizefighting, which attracted promoters and gamblers to the sport — men such as famed gamblers and gunfighters Luke Short and Bat Masterson.
In February of that year, fight promoter Don Stuart planned to hold the Fitzsimmons-Maher bout in El Paso, Texas. He billed it as the World Heavyweight Championship. But the Governor of Texas was having none of it. He dispatched the so-called four great Texas Ranger Captains (John Harris Rogers, John Reynolds Hughes, James Abijah Brooks, and William Jesse McDonald) to El Paso to ensure there would be no fight in Texas.
The governor also sent the Texas Adjutant General Woodford Haywood Mabry to emphasize he wasn’t kidding. In El Paso, Mabry directed the Texas Rangers captains to observe the unloading of prizefighting equipment from the train and “make a general nuisance” of themselves. There was to be no question about the illegality of the proposed fight. So, everywhere Stuart, Fitzsimmons, and Maher went — a Texas Ranger followed.
Irritated by this attention, Stuart put the word out that famed gunman, and sporting enthusiast Bat Masterson would soon arrive with a hundred fighting men to see that the contest came off on schedule. Masterson was present, but he made no attempt to have a showdown with the Texas Rangers — and his 100 fighting men remained invisible to everyone the entire time.
When it became evident that the fight would not be held in Texas, and to appease potential gamblers, Maher feigned an infection of the eye … a delaying tactic until Stuart could arrange an alternate site. One of those alternate sites was Pirate Island, a no-man’s land between Texas and Mexico. General Mabry was quick in making it clear that there would also be no fighting on Pirate Island. Stuart then shifted his attention to Mexico, but the governor of Chihuahua also blocked that idea.
Finally, all of those involved in the fight’s promotion loaded their baggage and set out eastward toward Langtry, Texas, situated just east of Coahuila. Ultimately, Langtry/Coahuila was where the fight ended up taking place. Texas Rangers remained on the Texas side of the river but kept a careful eye on the event.
Bat Masterson, while somewhat chagrined, maintained a proper decorum throughout the event, which is generally a custom among well-armed men.
There was one minor incident, however. At Sanderson, Texas, a scheduled whistle-stop, fight enthusiasts de-trained for lunch. At the restaurant, a lone Chinese waiter had difficulty serving the sudden influx of many customers. Bat Masterson became impatient and began abusing the Chinese waiter. Masterson’s grumpiness caused Texas Rangers no problem; everyone gets crabby now and then.
At one point, however, Masterson picked up a heavy castor to hit the Chinese man, which caused Captain Bill McDonald to step in. Masterson, who was probably more exasperated with the Texas Rangers than with the Chinaman, challenged McDonald. Turning to McDonald, Masterson told him, “Maybe you’d like to take it up …”
It might be fair to say that many men in 1896 would feel a bit intimidated by the well-known gunman, but confronting shooters was not one of Captain Bill’s phobias. Captain McDonald simply turned toward Masterson and said, in a quiet tone, “I done took it up.” Mr. Masterson obviously intimidated himself, sat back down to finish his lunch.
Who was Bill McDonald?
McDonald (1852-1918) was born in Meridian, Mississippi but migrated to Texas with his family after the Civil War. His father was killed at the Battle of Corinth in 1862. In Texas, the McDonald family settled in Henderson. In 1868, 16-year-old Bill McDonald quarreled with blue-belly reconstruction officials, who charged him with treason to the United States. A jury of his peers found Bill “not guilty.”
The post-Civil War period through the beginning of the 20th century was a tough time for everyone in Texas — well, really, for everyone in the United States. A wide range of social changes took place within a compressed period. Massive numbers of people packed up their belongings and headed west. Indian hostilities increased proportionately to the influx of white settlers, railroads began expanding westward, machinery transformed the grasslands into meccas of agriculture, and the cattle industry took off like gangbusters. It was also a time when Civil War veterans discovered that it was much easier to rob someone at gunpoint than it was to find work.
Violence in the Trans-Mississippi West varied in number and kind — and space. Most western settlers were happy to build their small communities, perform back-breaking work, and attend small community churches on Sundays. Most people didn’t go around killing others for fun or sport. Most people didn’t rob banks and trains. The job of town marshals and county sheriffs (and their deputies) was, more often than not, dull, and uneventful. Most of their attentions involved minor offenses, rounding up drunks, stopping fistfights, and arresting people for petty theft and disorderly conduct. Despite the increase in violence (in some places), most people thought they lived in law-abiding communities; they embraced the idea of the social contract.
But we seem to know more about frontier violence because people find it more fascinating than reading about the frontier calm. No one in Hollywood ever made a film about a normal old west community where nothing happened. In that sense, today’s media programs us to think mostly about the unhappy, sordid, violent periods of America’s story. We know, for example, more about Jesse James and Butch Cassidy than we do about Joe Johnson, the blacksmith.
For the most part, Bill McDonald was one of those “normal folks” who were happy to run a store and attend church on Sunday. He worked at several jobs after graduating from Soule Commercial College in 1872 — from school teacher to store owner. His interest in law enforcement may have been piqued by a local justice of the peace named James S. Hogg, who also happened to introduce Bill to Miss Rhoda Isabel Carter, whom Bill married in 1876. Mr. Hogg later became a governor of Texas, and Bill McDonald later became a Texas Ranger.
While Bill was still finding his way in the adult world, post-Civil War Texas Rangers formed under a mounted “Frontier Battalion,” which consisted of six companies of 75-men each under the control of the State Adjutant General and governor. The duty of the Texas Rangers included all the duties and powers of a state police officer. For example, the Texas Rangers executed all criminal processes assigned to him and made arrests under lawfully issued warrants. But in 1874, Bill was still a few years away from becoming one of those fellows.
In 1883, Bill and Rhoda McDonald moved from Mineola to Wichita County and then to Hardiman County. In Wichita County, Bill served as a deputy sheriff. In Hardiman County, he served as a deputy sheriff, Special Ranger, and the Deputy United States Marshal for the northern district of Texas and the southern district of Kansas. In his later assignments, Bill McDonald was prolific in ridding the country of criminals, such as cattle rustlers, horse thieves, and outlaw shooters. When he had driven these bad hombres into the Cherokee Strip, he went looking for them there. They could run, but they could not hide from Bill McDonald.
In 1891, Governor Lawrence Sullivan (“Sul”) Ross appointed Bill McDonald a Captain of Texas Rangers and placed him in command of Company B, Frontier Battalion. Captain Bill retained this position until 1907. His tenure as a Ranger occurred in the second era (1874-1935) when there was much confusion about Texas Ranger jurisdiction and focus. Private Carl Ryan, in Sanderson, wrote to Captain Bill for clarification of his responsibilities. Ryan reported that in response to a request by the local sheriff, he had closed saloons on Sunday, as the law required. However, Ryan did not like this job because “… some are kicking about it, and some want them closed.” Ryan thought this sort of duty was the responsibility of local law enforcement. Captain Bill agreed and instructed Private Ryan, “Let the local authorities attend to such matters; our duties are to look after criminals and larger game.” McDonald’s advice was somewhat reminiscent of the biblical admonition: “Give unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar …”
McDonald was a wise man and utterly fearless in executing his duties, but not every Ranger could make that claim. Ranger leadership was always personality-dependent. Some exhibited poor judgment; others demonstrated exceptional judgment. Some men were exceedingly brave, others — not so much. But the one thing all Texas Ranger captains shared in common was the fact that when in the field, the law said whatever the captain said it said. They made up their own rules based on their immediate situations — they exercised command, which the State of Texas paid them to do. They also obeyed their orders and never questioned them — orders which flowed directly from the Governor or Adjutant General.
Part of McDonald’s flamboyance was in the way he presented himself. No doubt confident in his own abilities, his men often wondered if their Captain had a death wish. Private Carl Ryan allegedly once told him, “Cap, you’re going to get all of us killed the way you cuss out strikers and mobs.” McDonald answered, “Don’t worry, Ryan. Just remember my motto.”
“No man in the wrong can stand up against a fellow that’s in the right and keeps on a-comin’.”
There is no doubt that McDonald believed this and followed his own advice. His skill in subduing trouble-makers was legendary, and while he was once wounded, he never killed anyone in the line of duty. What mattered, according to one observer, was his presence in potentially dangerous situations. He insisted, “If you wilt or falter, he will kill you. But, if you go straight at him and never give him time to recover or to think, he will weaken ninety-nine times in a hundred.”
Whether bravado or something else, Captain Bill was always relentless in the pursuit of lawbreakers, and it was such that it became the hallmark of his reputation. He avoided gun battles and large possés whenever possible but knew enough when to bring in additional guns. In retrospect, McDonald’s success was likely a combination of his determination and his common sense. In any case, whether pursuing someone on the lam or conducting investigations, McDonald was always patient, analytical, and approachable to those who wanted to talk to him about what they knew. Once he took someone into custody, he always protected them from those who wanted to “even the score.”
No matter how good a Texas Ranger was, there was only so much they could do in response to feuds in Texas. Each captain used different methods of dealing with blood matches, but ultimately, if people refused to drop their hatred, there was little a Texas Ranger could do in preventing violence. In most cases, family disputes, personal grudges, political clashes, and mob-style ho-downs would simply have to run their natural course — which often took decades.
Vigilantes in San Saba County
Captain McDonald’s company responded to numerous issues throughout the state, including (as already mentioned) the Fitzsimmons-Maher bout, which was altogether a minor affair. But in 1897, certain citizens of San Saba County petitioned the Governor to send Rangers to investigate numerous murders and assassinations (reported as 43 violent deaths within a single decade). These citizens were justified in their concerns because San Saba County and the vast adjacent country, located in the center of the State, fell under the control of a de facto murder society.
At an earlier time, when law officers were few and far between in Texas, local citizens looked to their own interests through so-called vigilance committees. Some folks would call these committees mobs, and from every account, the San Saba Vigilance Committee evolved into that very thing. Rather than protecting county residents, the vigilantes menaced them.
Some of these vigilantes carried grudges against their neighbors or coveted their property. Over time, the vigilantes became a political organization that included constables, sheriffs, deputies, judges, county commissioners, bankers, and religious leaders. In all, the membership of the San Saba Vigilance Committee (allegedly) numbered three hundred men. When they met to discuss “business,” it was usually at a secret place called the Buzzard’s Water Hole. After posting sentries for security purposes, they always opened their meetings with a prayer.
Tasked by the Governor to “look into the matter,” Captain Bill dispatched three Rangers to investigate. One of these men was Sergeant William John L. Sullivan, who served with the Texas Rangers for twelve years. It didn’t take very long to substantiate the claim that a ruthless mob controlled the entire county, and it didn’t take long for the mob to realize they were under the scrutiny of Texas Rangers.
Sullivan and the county sheriff nearly slapped leather when Sullivan re-arrested a man the sheriff had only just released “on bail.” Texas had paid the county a bounty to arrest the man in the first place. But Sergeant Sullivan was asking too many questions. The buzzard mob temporarily solved this problem when the district judge manufactured a warrant for the arrest of a fictitious person and sent Sullivan out to find him.
After Sullivan notified Captain Bill of the district judge’s order, McDonald went to San Saba himself. Upon arrival, he found his other two rangers, Dud Parker, and Edgar Neil, patrolling the town with guns drawn and several citizens lined up across the street equally well-armed.
Within an hour or so after Captain Bill’s arrival, after consuming some quantity of rotgut, townspeople aligned with the buzzards began shooting up the town as an apparent attempt to intimidate the Texas Rangers. One might think Texans would know better. Captain McDonald promptly marched into the saloon, disarmed the rowdies, arrested them, and ordered them all to report to him the next morning for “further examination.”
The next morning, every hooligan reported to McDonald (as ordered). Captain Bill released these men from custody, of course, but he did accomplish his mission: (a) he demonstrated that the Texas Rangers were not in the least way intimidated by gangsters, and (b) he sent an important signal to the other 6,000 citizens of San Saba that their terror was coming to an end.
On the same morning, McDonald sent a message to Sgt. Sullivan ordering him to disregard the judge’s warrant and return to San Saba. It was then that the San Saba County Sheriff informed McDonald, “There’s no room in this town for both of us [he and Sullivan].” Captain McDonald replied, “Then, move.”
McDonald realized that his investigation would be a slow process; he knew that it would involve county officials and frightened citizens. He summoned several more of his rangers and set them up in camp along the San Saba River to assist his investigation. As soon as the buzzards realized that McDonald was conducting a thorough inquiry, they canceled their monthly meetings.
One of Bill McDonald’s earliest findings was that the murder of a man named Asa Brown, a farmer (and later, his son Jim) was likely carried out by Bill Ogle, aided by Jim Brown’s wife’s father and brother, Jeff McCarthy, and Jim McCarthy, respectively.
Meanwhile, the buzzards decided that the best thing they could do was kill Bill McDonald. As they were gentlemen, they sent McDonald anonymous warnings. Captain Bill wasn’t impressed and continued his investigation. High on his list of priorities was the arrest of Bill Ogle, who, up until then, had kept a low profile in San Saba. Local informants warned McDonald that Ogle was the most dangerous of the lot.
On one hot afternoon, Captain McDonald noticed a dour-looking man having a conversation with a town constable. Throughout the discussion, both men kept looking in his direction and nodding to one another. McDonald asked as a passer-by, “Who’s that fellow talking to your sorry constable?” The man told him, “That’s Bill Ogle.”
McDonald started walking toward Ogle, causing both men to part company. McDonald waylaid the constable and gave him a friendly warning: any lawman who associates with murders would be the first to hang, and McDonald would see to it personally. He then followed Ogle down the street.
Ogle found a few of his cohorts hanging out inside a hardware store and joined them. He may have thought his friends gave him the advantage of strength in numbers. It didn’t work out that way. McDonald walked up to the group of men, pointed to Ogle, and said, “Come outside. I want to talk to you.” No one in the group moved when McDonald grabbed Ogle by the arm and led him outside into the street.
McDonald informed Ogle that he had proof that he was the murderer of Jim Brown, and he intended to arrest him later that day. He suggested that if Ogle tried to resist arrest, that would be okay, too. In fact, Bill added, the entire gang could resist arrest if they wanted to. McDonald said he was prepared for any such contingency. As Ogle walked off, Captain Bill assigned a Ranger to keep an eye on him.
Meanwhile, McDonald went to see the buzzard district judge to “ask for his advice” in making a mass arrest. Actually, Captain Bill wanted the judge to know that the “jig was up.” He told the judge that he had the goods on the entire buzzard mob and intended to apprehend and shoot anyone who resisted arrest. The judge advised McDonald that it probably wouldn’t be a good idea, legally, to shoot everyone in town. Nevertheless, it was not long before buzzards began moving out of San Saba County.
Other Duties of Note
In April 1905, the State Adjutant General assigned Bill McDonald as a bodyguard for visiting President Theodore Roosevelt (Roosevelt later entertained McDonald at the White House).
In July 1906, the Army transferred black soldiers of the 25th Infantry Regiment to Fort Brown, Texas. The residents of Brownsville openly discriminated against the blacks, forcing them to comply with the so-called color-line mandates of the period. On 12-13 August, a reported assault of a white woman by a black soldier prompted the fort’s commander, Major Charles Penrose, to impose a curfew on his troops. Penrose wasn’t assuming his soldiers committed the assault; he was only trying to keep them out of harm’s way in a much-agitated town. The next night, someone fired random shots into the town center, killing a white bartender and wounding a Brownsville police officer. Brownsville residents blamed the shots on the black soldiers.
The Adjutant General of Texas sent Bill McDonald to investigate the incident. His inquiry focused on twelve soldiers, all of whom denied any involvement in the shootings. There were no witnesses, no hard evidence, and no worthwhile facts to convince a grand jury to issue indictments. Still, the town folks were angry, and they wanted something done about “those negroes.”
On the recommendation of the War Department, President Theodore Roosevelt ordered the dishonorable discharge of 167 black soldiers based on their “silent contempt.” Despite the absence of justice for the soldiers, the people of Brownsville lived happily ever after. President Richard Nixon overturned Roosevelt’s order in 1972.
In 1907, Governor Thomas Campbell appointed McDonald to serve as a state revenue agent. His efforts to enforce the Full Rendition Act were highly criticized in Texas, but he did increase the state tax valuation by almost $2 billion within two years. McDonald retired from state service in 1909.
After the Rangers
In 1912, at President Woodrow Wilson’s request, McDonald again served as a presidential bodyguard. Afterward, President Wilson appointed McDonald to serve as United States Marshal for the Northern District of Texas.
Bill McDonald passed away from pneumonia in Wichita Falls, Texas, on 15 January 1918. He was buried in Quanah, Texas. From every account, his life was “well-lived.” Texans remember Captain Bill McDonald today as one of the Four Great Captains of the Texas Rangers. Yes, he was a flamboyant cuss, but also courageous, honest, and dedicated to his service as a premier law officer. And, he offers us a romantic look at Old West Texas during a time when Texans needed a hard, steady hand.
- Baugh, V. E. A Pair of Texas Rangers: Bill McDonald and John Hughes. Potomac Corral, 1970.
- Hunter, J. M. Frontier Times Magazine. 1950.
- Mason, T. M. Riding for Texas: The True Adventure of Captain Bill McDonald of the Texas Rangers. Reynal & Hitchcock, 1936.
- Paine, A. B. Captain Bill McDonald, Texas Ranger: A Story of Frontier Reform. Little & Ives, 1909.
- Webb, W. P. The Story of the Texas Rangers. Encino Publishing, 1971.
- Webb, W. P. Walter Prescott Webb Papers. University of Texas, 1970.
- Weiss, H. J. Jr. Yours to Command: The Life and Legend of Texas Ranger Captain Bill McDonald. University of North Texas Press, 2009.
 They are known as the Texas Ranger’s four great captains because they were all stalwart public servants and dedicated to law and order in Texas. Captain Hughes was the deadliest shot, Brooks, and Rogers the wisest, and McDonald both effective and flamboyant.
 Pirate Island is a 15,000-acre ait near present-day Fabens, Texas. It was formed when the Rio Grande shifted its course. According to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the International Boundary Commission, the island is part of Texas, but its proximity to Mexico made it difficult to police owing to the fact that criminals could easily cross the dry river bed and escape into Mexico. In 1893, Pirate Island became the site of the Battle of Tres Jacales.
 In one study of violence in Arizona, Colorado, and Nebraska, historians found that 977 murders occurred in the 40 years between 1880 and 1920; this would be roughly equivalent to a single year in modern-day Chicago, Illinois.
 There are three generally-accepted Texas Ranger developmental periods: 1823-1874, 1874-1935, 1935-Present.
 In 1899, a Texas Ranger could arrest anyone (with or without a warrant), retain them in custody, and use whatever means available to them in service to law and order, including the use of deadly force. They could, for example, shoot to kill as a means of preventing arson, burglary, maiming, murder, rape, robbery, and theft after dark. They not only could do those things but did — and included the details of their activities in after-action reports.
 The purpose of the Full Rendition Act was to provide equality and uniformity in taxation and to secure the “just rendition” of all taxable property at its full value.”