Ira Aten, Texas Ranger

Texas StarIra 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.

ATEN Ira 001Born 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.”

Ira AtenThe 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. Ross[1]arrived 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


[1]Lawrence Sullivan “Sul” Ross was a Texas Ranger, soldier, statesman, and university president.  He served as governor of Texas from 1886 to 1891.

Posted in History | 8 Comments

The Texas Fence-Cutting Wars

cropped-texas-star.jpgOld West Texas was a land of vast grasslands uninterrupted by natural barriers.  The landscape was devoid of rock and timber from which landowners might have erected fencing to mark land boundaries or control grazing livestock.  In 1883, a clash occurred among landed cattlemen and maverick stockmen and farmers that would become known as the Texas Fence Cutting Wars.

Under the Homestead Act of 1862, the US government offered 160 acres in the west to those who were willing to reside on and improve their selected parcel of land.  Farmers were seeking cheap, plentiful land on which to raise their families, crops, and small herds of livestock; the Homestead Act precipitated a sudden influx of migrants into Texas.  Over time, some of these men accumulated more cattle than others; companies and syndicates began to invest in large cattle operations. Those with larger holdings of cattle and other livestock were variously known as cattle kings, cattlemen, or cattle barons.

Barbed wire had been available in Texas since the 1870s, but initially, it wasn’t considered to be a durable form of fencing by cattlemen; cattlemen initially thought that it might be as useless as the smooth wire fencing that had previously failed to hold their stock.  On the other hand, mass-produced barbed wire was cheap and eventually seen as a viable product to fence in private land holdings, hold back maverick cattle from encroaching private land, and prevent landless cowmen from using privately owned land to graze their stock.

Beginning in the 1880s, livestock owned by newcomers were beginning to overcrowd the herds of the larger cattlemen.  This led cattle kings to fence off their lands to prevent access to privately owned rangeland and water.  It was an action that infuriated many homesteaders, particularly when some of these cattle kings not only fenced their own land, but public lands as well. Irate homesteaders retaliated by cutting the barbed wire fencing to allow their livestock access to public lands, and these activities prompted the Fence Cutting Wars.

Fence cutters (also called nippers) were mainly small-scale stockmen who used free ranges out of necessity; they resented its appropriation by men who were much wealthier than themselves.  They also detested the fact that their stock could get tangled up in the fences, injuring or killing the animals.  This was one of the down-sides to barbed wire; injuries to livestock caused by rusted barbed wire that went unnoticed and unattended led to screwworm infestations, causing the death of many cattle and a concurrent loss of revenue among cattle ranchers.

A severe drought in 1883 was especially hard on cattlemen, rich or poor.  Creeks, rivers, and watering holes dried up almost completely in the summer and fall of that year; grass was withering all over the open range. Landless cattlemen had little choice but to move west, but when they did, they were faced with even more fencing. The move west also brought cattlemen into contact with homesteaders, mostly farmers who disliked the fences because they quite often crossed public roads and impeded travel.  These were the conditions that prompted maverick cattlemen and homesteaders to protest the growing number of wire fences.  The Texas Greenback Party soon joined the protests.

After several unsuccessful meetings, protests, and unanswered letters, landless stockmen decided that the only option left open to them was to cut the fences.  Well-organized groups were formed; large scale fence nipping began[1]. As the drought worsened, even legally-installed fencing was cut. Pastures were set on fire, and landowners were threatened with violence. Groups of cowboys calling themselves Owls, Javelinas, or Blue Devils embarked on fence cutting raids.  Ranchers reciprocated by hiring gunmen to battle the anti-fence cowboys.

There were pro-fence activists as well.  The most influential of these was a widowed and debt-ridden lady by the name of Mable Doss Day.  Her protests to elected representatives and the governor led to the passage of legislation that would punish the act of fence cutting and pasture burning as felonies, with sentences of up to five years in state prison.  The fence cutters didn’t care about the legislation, however, and the cutting of fences continued until 1889, when the governor sent in the Texas Rangers.  Well, in truth, the governor sent in one Texas Ranger to stop the Texas Fence Cutting Wars.  His name was Ira Aten … and what a clever fellow he was; I’ll post an article about him in the near future.

Nevertheless, the implications of the Fence Cutting Wars were numerous because to begin with, they represented the last attempt toward keeping the open range alive.  After the Fence Cutting Wars, western settlement patterns increased.  Barbed wire soon crossed more formerly open ranges.  Illegal fencing would become more common than fence cutting, as barbed wire continued to make its way across the region.  As one scholar noted, “barbed wire closed off land, closed people in, and enabled some people to acquire land illegally.

Overall, damages caused by fence-cutting was estimated to be in the range of $20 million by the fall of 1883.  At least four people, including a Texas Ranger named Ben Warren, died in the conflict.  The conflict was ultimately resolved when wealthy landowners settled their disagreements with maverick stockmen and farmers by agreeing to remove fence barriers across public roads and land not owned or leased by them, allowing fence-nippers passage through their gates, in return for an end to the wire-cutting.


[1]The Fence Cutting Wars were not confined to Texas, although Texas experienced the fiercest fence nipping activities. Fencing wars also developed in New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana.

Posted in History, Justice | 5 Comments

Gambling, Hard Drinking, and Gunfights

Long Branch SaloonNearly everyone interested in the old west is familiar with the Long Branch Saloon in Dodge City, Kansas but what most people don’t know is that the saloon was named after one of its founder’s home towns, Long Branch, New Jersey. William H. Harris was a prominent gambler and saloon keeper who partnered with Chalkley Beeson in the purchase of a saloon, named after Harris’ home town.  The Long Branch was a typical frontier saloon.  No fancy furnishings in the Long Branch … the idea was to drink, gamble, and dally with the dance hall girls.

Whenever we think of old western saloons, we probably recall the way these places were depicted in Hollywood westerns.  Beyond the usual clientele (the cowboys and such), we’d have to add the town drunk, local miners, and soldiers posted to nearby outposts.  The Hollywood version of these watering holes wasn’t too far off the mark, although some had a bit more substance than others.  For example, we might recall the dual wooden doors that swung open to reveal the cowpokes lined up along the bar.  Some of these fellows were puffing on cigars, others were conspiring to shoot the sheriff, and other characters were playing cards at 11:00 a.m.  Outside the saloon we might find a wide boardwalk, and beyond that a filthy street where some folks tied their horses to a hitching rail.  Still, we should probably imagine that the cowboy who earned only $25 to $40 a month wouldn’t be drinking alongside the posh banker, or the dandy gambler (unless the lean-to saloon was the only game in town), and they wouldn’t be doing any of this at mid-morning.

Wayne SaloonIn the Hollywood saloon we should expect to find a long oak or mahogany wood bar; in real life, the bars were more than likely long wood planks set down on top of casks of beer or whiskey.  (Shown right, John Wayne in a saloon scene in the film The Shootist, 1976).  In truth, most saloons were little more than A-frame tents or lean-tos quickly thrown together near road junctions.  Saloons also consisted of two prairie wagons parked side-by-side with a canvas roof.  Gambling tables would be a plus, but these would probably have to wait until the road junction became more of a settlement —the beginnings of a small town.  When that happened, then saloons would become more substantial.

Early Western SaloonSaloons usually cropped up wherever pioneers set up small settlements, or where trails crossed.  The first establishment of this kind may have been the saloon near Brown’s Hole, which was near the Wyoming-Colorado-Utah border.  Brown’s Saloon was established in 1822; it catered to the mountain men who made their living trapping fur.  Another saloon known to exist in the early 1800s was located at Bent’s Fort in Colorado.  The gold rush prompted more such places, as evidenced by the sudden increase in saloons in and around Santa Barbara, California.  In 1848, Santa Barbara had but one Cantina.  Within a year of the discovery of gold, thirty saloons competed for the miner’s hard-earned nuggets.

I’ve written before about the prevalence of “Bright’s Disease.”  This was a misdiagnosis by physicians who were still in the learning stage of their profession.  Bright’s Disease was actually a serious condition of the liver, and I have little doubt that a destroyed liver was the by-product of “rot gut” liquor.

Whiskey served in the average saloon was a combination of raw alcohol and any number of other ingredients designed to color the liquid. Materials included burnt sugar, chewing tobacco, old shoes, molasses, red peppers, and the heads of snakes.  Whenever the barkeep watered down his whiskey, he used such things as turpentine, ammonia, gun powder, and cayenne peppers. Whoa!

Cactus wine was made from tequila and peyote tea. There was also a concoction called a Mule Skinner, which consisted of whiskey and blackberry liquor.  Other whiskey mixtures were called Tarantula Juice, Coffin Varnish, and Stagger Soup.  To these servings we must add Rye and Bourbon, which came from back east, and beer of course.  Given what we know about the whiskey, beer was probably a better choice.  In the old west, cowpoke didn’t sip his beer—he guzzled it.  This was because the beer went flat within a very short time.  If I’m surprised by any of this, it is probably that more cowboys didn’t die from liver disease.

Speaking of whiskey, we’ve all heard about the low-down rascals who sold this stuff to Indians.  Native Americans called it firewater because merchants would pour a few drops of whiskey onto a fire, which made the fire burn brighter.  This proved that the whiskey was high in alcohol content.  Perhaps nothing destroyed Native American culture as much as alcohol addiction, but it was still only one of several low-down things whites did to eradicate Indians.

Faro Card Game Old WestSaloons were also known for gambling —but not poker, as shown on most older films.  Yes, poker was one game, rolling dice was another, but nothing was more popular than Faro from about 1820 to just after World War II.  Faro was so popular during the Civil War that is was offered in more than 150 establishments in Washington, D. C.  While popular, Faro was a dishonest scam.  One individual remarked that if you ever saw a man winning at Faro, he was a shill in league with the Faro dealer.  Faro was also called “bucking the tiger,” or “twisting the tiger’s tail.”  This was because early card backs featured a drawing of a Bengal tiger.  Also, the term “tiger town” was applied to areas where Faro games were widespread.  Several western personalities made their money as Faro dealers, including the Earp brothers, Dock Holliday, Luke Short, and Bat Masterson.  Because they knew how the game was played, these same men were quick to call out a crooked Faro dealer.  What may have made this interesting is that these men were notorious gunslingers.

 Gambling and drinking often led to gunplay. Calling out a man as a cheat, even if it were true, would completely ruin a friendly game of cards.  It was for this reason that many of the old west towns passed laws against carrying guns inside the city limits.  In most cases, anyone toting a firearm had to surrender his weapons to either the town marshal or to the barkeep.  The weapons could be collected just before leaving town. It was just such an ordinance that led to the famed shootout at OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona.

As small-town characters learned to prosper from human vices, the saloon itself began to change.  The transition went from a place to drink, to a place to drink and gamble, to a hotel that offered all of these, and dance hall girls who did more than dancing and singing.  Saloons became 24-hour operations.  Then restaurants were added.  Saloons became a money-making enterprise.

Not everyone was welcome, though.  Chinese immigrants were not allowed in saloons, and neither were soldiers, often blamed for the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.  A respectable woman wouldn’t be caught dead inside a saloon, so people began to assume that any woman found inside a saloon wasn’t respectable.  This attitude, by the way, was prevalent through the end of World War I.  Speaking of the respectable ladies, they’re the ones who led the temperance movement in America.

A well-established saloon was very likely the largest building in town.  For this reason, saloons began to fulfill a secondary role, as civic halls.  The infamous Judge Roy Bean handed down a lot of decisions in his part-saloon/part-court room, and, given Bean’s reputation for drinking, I imagine that trials in Judge Bean’s court were among the shortest judicial proceedings on record.  Why?  Because alcohol would not be served while court was in session.

I find it interesting that several noted old west gunmen and lawmen owned saloons, including Wild Bill Hickok, Bill Tilghman, Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Ben Thompson, Doc Holliday, and Luke Short —to name a few.  Short died of a liver disease, Holliday died from consumption, and Hickok, Tilghman, and Thompson were shot to death by cowardly fellows inside or near a saloon. Only Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson died of natural causes: Masterson in 1921 from a heart attack at age 67, and Wyatt Earp in 1929 from Cystitis at age of 80.  Hardly anyone knew who Wyatt Earp was until after his death.

Today, the most popular bars in America are those that maintain an old western saloon flavor.


Posted in Uncategorized | 10 Comments

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.


Posted in History, Justice | 8 Comments

The Comanche

Before the arrival of horses from Europe, Comanche people were pedestrian hunters and gatherers.  After the introduction of horses, they became a highly mobile warrior class of people who were able to control vast territories.  In the mid-1800s, the Comanche population may have numbered as high as 45,000; this, when combined with their mobility and fierceness, helps to explain their dominance over other Native peoples.  Moreover, not only did the Comanche take captives from weaker tribes during periods of warfare, selling them as slaves to Spanish and later Mexican settlers, they also took prisoners from among Spanish, Mexican, and American settlements; the number of these captured people numbered in the thousands —and, because many of these captives were absorbed into Camanche culture, tribal populations increased dramatically.

Today, the federally-recognized Comanche Nation consists of just over 15,000 people, half of which live within tribal jurisdictional areas around Lawton, Fort Sill, and other areas of south west Oklahoma.  Presently, however, only about one-percent of the Comanche population speaks their native languages.  The name Comanche originates with the Ute language, “Kimantsi,” which means enemy.

Comanche Warriors 001Historically, the Comanche emerged as a distinct group of people around 1700 A. D.  They were originally part of the Shoshone Nation, living along the upper Platte River in present-day Wyoming.  Some experts believe that when Comanche bands acquired horses, it may have helped to initiate the split away from the Shoshone.  Horses, after all, provided the Comanche with greater mobility, encouraging their search for autonomy and better hunting grounds.  On this basis, horses were a likely key element in the emergence of a distinctive Comanche culture.  In 1770, Athanase de Mezieres[1]opined that the Comanche were so skilful in horsemanship that they had no equal.  (Painting by Bo Newell).

Initially, migration took the Comanche into the southern plains extending from the Arkansas River to Central Texas.  By the early 1700s, the migration reached into present-day New Mexico and the Texas Panhandle.  Their arrival, dominance, and aggressive hostility forced the Lipan Apache to move further southward.  A major battle ensued, lasting some nine days, along the Rio de Fierro (present-day Wichita River) where the Apache were soundly defeated.  Within a period of 100 years, the Comanche had forced the Lipan into the Rio Grande Valley, and additionally, had pushed the Mescalero Apache to present-day Coahuila, Mexico.

One corollary to this migration was a substantial increase in the Comanche population.  This was due to an abundance of buffalo, an influx of Shoshone migrants, and Comanche adoption of a significant number of women and children who were taken captive from rival tribes.  It is interesting to note that the Comanche never formed a single cohesive tribal unit, but rather were divided into a dozen autonomous bands.  These groups did share a common language and culture, and they rarely quarrelled with one another.  And because the Comanche absorbed thousands of captives from Spanish, Mexican, and American settlements, their culture evolved into one mixed race descendants.

By the mid-1800s, the Comanche were supplying horses to French and American traders, settlers, and migrants passing through their vast territory on the way to California.  To the Comanche, there were never too many horses and so to maintain their vast herds, they routinely raided horses from other tribes; they were, in the view of some, formidable horse thieves and cattle rustlers. These activities frequently led to hostilities on the open plain.

The Comanche also had access to large numbers of wild horses, which within the Comancheria alone, numbered around two-million.  In the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, the Comanche lifestyle demanded one horse for each adult male, but warrior bands often possessed many more than that. Given our understanding of Comanche human population, that being between thirty and forty-thousand people, the Comanche owned or controlled from ninety to one hundred twenty-thousand horses.

Having developed strategies for using traditional weapons and for fighting on horseback, the Comanche were formidable opponents; open warfare was a major part of Comanche life.  Raids into Mexico typically took place during the full moon, when the Comanche could see well enough to ride at night.  This led to the expression “Comanche Moon,” a time when they raided for horses, captives, and weapons.

Experts have found four distinct divisions within Comanche society: the nuclear family, extended family, residential local groups, and bands, which linked several local groups through kinship, hunting and warrior groups.  Various bands were also known by the manner of their lifestyle, such as the root-eaters vs. buffalo-eaters.  Despite the organization of residential groups and bands (which were often limited in size to around 100 people), and in spite of the quite-large area of the Comancheria, the Comanche people never evolved into a nation-state.  Various bands respected one another as equals, seldom fighting with one another, and valuing one another’s autonomy.

The band was the primary social unit of Comanche culture, and several of these might attach themselves to a larger tribal entity.  They also just as easily detach themselves from one Tribal group in favour of another. Before the mid-1700s, there were three such tribal divisions: Yamparika, Jupes, and Kotsoteka.  After that time, the Kotsoteka Comanche branched off and moved to the Southeast —the result of which was the development of two tribal groups: western Comanche, and eastern Comanche (the Kotsoteka group).  Western Comanche lived in the area of the upper Arkansas, Canadian, and Red Rivers, and the Llano Estacado[2], while the eastern Comanche lived along the Edwards Plateau[3], the Texas plains of the upper Brazos and Colorado Rivers, eastward to the Cross Timbers Region[4].  Later, as Comanche culture began a general disintegration, members of some Comanche bands enlisted as scouts attached to either the US Army or Texas Ranger frontier battalion —which, at the time, were fighting against the Comanche bands that remained hostile to white settlements.

Comanche bands were altered in several ways over several decades.  The Jupes, for example, vanished from history (likely merging with other tribes).  Many of the Yamparika moved southeast, joining the eastern tribes and calling themselves Tenawa, and many Kiowa and Plains Apache (also called Naishan) moved north to associate themselves with the Yamparika or Tenawa.  Additionally, new tribes formed (such as the Nokonis, who were closely linked with the Tenawa, and Kwahadi, who emerged as a new tribal faction on the southern Llano Estacado).  The east-west distinctions changed in the mid-1800s to become northern, middle, and southern Comanche groups.  Eventually, the southern Comanche became known as Penateka Comanche —one of the largest concentrations of Comanche on the edge of the Edwards Plateau.

The Nokoni Comanche roamed in the eastern part of the Comancheria, between the Colorado and Red Rivers.  South of them were the strong but smaller bands of Tenawa and Tanima.  Together, these were often called middle Comanche. The powerful Kotsoteka (or Buffalo eaters) lived in region north of the Nokonis, in the Red River Valley between the Red and Canadian Rivers. They were joined by the Yamparika, which was actually the northern-most tribe, who retained many of their Shoshone traditions.  To simplify matters, white settlers simply referred to these tribes as Northern Comanche.

As previously stated, the Comanche were fierce warriors.  When we speak of the Comanche Wars, we are talking about a long series of armed conflicts targeting Spanish, Mexican, and American settlers.  The Comanche Wars began as early as 1705 and continued until around 1880.  Thus, for more than 150 years, the Comanche were the dominant Indian group living in the region, even though they shared parts of the Comancheria with Kiowa, Wichita, Apache, Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indians.

In 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.  Hoping that more settlers would reduce the near-constant Comanche raids, 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.

Under the 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[5],after his death.  Thousands of Americans realized the value of these land opportunities, but it brought them into direct conflict with the Comanche.  For their part, the Comanche resisted every foreign effort to settle the within the Comancheria.  The Comanche had been fighting against settlers from Spain since 1705; the wars would continue until around 1880, even though Comanche power peeked in the mid-1840s (when they conducted large-scale raids hundreds of miles into Mexico proper).  Added to this, the Comanche were, at one time or another, a war with virtually every other Native American group while also warring against Anglo-Americans and Tejanos settling in Texas.  Part of the reason for their overall decline in population was illness, including epidemics of cholera and smallpox[6], and of course, wars of attrition with US and Texas military forces.

Eventually, the United States forced the Comanche to cede most of their tribal lands.  The US began a concerted effort in the late 1860s to move the Comanche onto reservations, with the Treaty of Medicine Lodge (1867), which offered churches, schools, and annuities in return for a vast tract of land totaling over 60,000 square miles.  The government promised to stop the buffalo hunters, who were decimating the great herds of the Plains, provided that the Comanche, along with the Apaches, Kiowas, Cheyenne, and Arapahos move to a reservation totaling less than 5,000 square miles of land.

Isatai'iThe government did not prevent the slaughtering of the buffalo herds, however.  In retaliation, the Comanche under the war chief Isa-tai[7] (shown right) retaliated by attacking a group of hunters in the Texas Panhandle in the Second Battle of Adobe Walls (1874). The attack was a disaster for the Comanche.  The US Army was called in during the Red River War to drive all remaining Comanche in the area onto the reservation, culminating in the Battle of Palo Duro Canyon. Within ten years, the buffalo were on the verge of extinction, effectively ending the Comanche way of life as hunters.

In 1875, the last free band of Comanches, led by the Quahada warrior Quanah Parker surrendered and moved to the Fort Sill reservation in Oklahoma.  (Note: Quanah Parker was the son of Cynthia Ann Parker, who had been kidnapped in 1836 at the age of 9, and who eventually married a Comanche war chief).  By 1875, the last independent Kiowa and Kiowa Apache had also surrendered.

In 1876, unhappy with life on the reservation, 170 warriors and their families, led by the war chief Black Horse left the reservation to settle on the Llano Estacado.  Additional attacks on buffalo hunters’ camps led to the Buffalo Hunter’s War of 1877.

Several hundred of the Lipan Apache and Mescalero Apache, joined by some Comanche, held out in northern Mexico until the early 1880s when Mexican and U.S. Army forces either drove them onto reservations or into extinction.  The 1890 US Census reflected that there were 1,598 Comanche living at the Fort Sill reservation, which they shared with 1,140 Kiowa and 326 Kiowa Apache.


[1]A French explorer in the service of the King of Spain.

[2]A region of the Southwestern United States that includes eastern New Mexico and north western Texas.

[3]The Edwards Plateau is a region of west-central Texas which is bounded by the Balcones Fault to the south and east, the Llano Uplift and the Llano Estacado to the north, and the Pecos River and Chihuahuan Desert to the west.  San Angelo, Austin, San Antonio, and Del Rio, Texas provide a rough outline of this area. The eastern portion of the plateau is known as the Texas Hill Country.

[4]This term is used to describe a strip of land that runs south east of Kansas and across Central Texas.  This region contains a mix of prairie, savanna, and woodland and forms the boundary between the heavily forested eastern United States and the nearly treeless Great Plains.

[5]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 successful colonization of the region by bringing 300 families from the United States to the region in 1825.

[6]While the Comanche managed to maintain their independence and increase the size of their territory, they faced annihilation by the mid-19thCentury because of a wave of epidemics due to Eurasian diseases, to which they had no immunity.  These included epidemics of smallpox and measles in 1817 and 1848, and cholera in 1849.  The death toll attributed to these incidents reduced Comanche populations from an estimated 20,000 in 1860 to just a few thousand by the 1870s.

[7]Isatai (c.1840 – 1916) was a Comanche warrior and medicine man.  Isatai gained enormous prominence for a brief period in 1873-1874 as a prophet and messiah of Native Americans.  He was originally named Kwihnai Tosabitu (White Eagle), but after the debacle at Adobe Walls on 27 June 1874, for which he was blamed, he was known among his own kind as Isatai (which translated means Coyote Vagina).


Posted in History | 13 Comments

Happy Yankee Doodle Day

To get to where we are today with the use of the word Yankee, we have to go back in time to Great Britain.  There are two things to discuss here: the melody of the song, and the words used in the song.  The melody is believed to have originated in Holland in the 15th Century, and may have had several applications over a few hundred years.  Nevertheless, the melody was later adopted by the British.

The word “Yankee” is an expression used by Dutch settlers at New Amsterdam (present-day New York); it was pronounced “Yanka,” meaning “Little John,” referring to English settlers in Connecticut who were the primary competitors with the Dutch.  Yanka eventually translated into Yankee; it was a belittling remark applied to all English colonials by the rest of the European world at the time.

The tune “Yankee Doodle” appears to have been first used by the British in 1754, during the French and Indian Wars. It was a song popular among the British for belittling American colonists who formed militias to support the British Army.  These colonials were hardly as well dressed (or as well trained) as their British soldier counterparts, and often they used all manner of weapons that were significantly inferior to the British rifle.  Worse, however, the British soldier scorned the fighting spirit of the colonial conscript.  The original song went something like this:

Brother Ephraim sold his cow, and bought him a commission

And then he went to Canada, to fight for the nation.

But when Ephraim[1], he came home, he proved an errant coward,

He wouldn’t fight the Frenchman there, for fear of being devoured.

Sheep’s head and vinegar, buttermilk and tansy

Boston is a Yankee town, sing “Hey doodle dandy.”

By 1776, the British lyrics had changed a bit reflecting even more scorn of the American colonist:

The Congress send great Washington, all clothed in power and breeches

To meet old Britain’s warlike sons and make some rebel speeches.

Yankee Doodle came to town, for to buy a firelock

We will tar and feather him, and so we will John Hancock.

Not to be undone, an American revolutionary and minuteman by the name of Edward Baines developed his own version of the tune:

Father and I went down to camp, along with Captain Gooding,

And there we saw the men and boys, as thick as hasty pudding.

Yankee Doodle keep it up, Yankee Doodle Dandy,

Mind the music and the step, and with the girls be handy.

Additional variations included:

Yankee Doodle is the tune, that we all delight in,

It suits for feasts, it suits for fun, and just as well for fighting.

As British soldiers sang Yankee Doodle to mock the American army and its militia, the Americans turned the song around to mock their British adversaries.

Thus, we can see the term “Yankee Doodle” actually originates from a popular British song speaking derisively at American colonists who, between 1763 and 1776, began to compete with British society in matters their standard of living.  The fact is that George Washington was somewhat obsessed with the notion that American colonists were every bit as sophisticated as Londoners; he spent a considerable fortune purchasing British made clothing and furnishings for himself and his wife, Martha.

As one may recall the song, Yankee Doodle went to town, riding on his pony; he stuck a feather in his hat and called in Macaroni, the term “Yankee” evolved into a derogatory British reference to colonials, and the word “doodle” meant among other things, a vain simpleton … a British suggestion that American colonists were intellectually inferior to the folks back home.  Apparently, the Brits had forgotten that in 1763, American colonials were also British.

As for the reference to placing a feather in one’s cap and calling it Macaroni, the term was used in England to describe someone who traveled throughout Europe, bringing back to England French and Italian fads in goods, attire, and hairstyle.  One of these goods was an Italian pasta called Macaroni.  In its daily usage, then, a Macaroni was someone putting on airs by adopting foreign culture, and whose personal appearance seemed to fall somewhere between a “fob” and a “dandy.”

The English themselves described this phenomenon as follows:

“There is indeed a kind of animal, neither male nor female, a thing of the neuter gender, lately started up among us.  It is called macaroni.  It talks without meaning, it smiles without pleasantry, it eats without appetite, it rides without exercise, and it wenches without passion.”

Hence, in mocking terms, one did not transform himself into a person of means or sophistication by simply placing a feather in his cap.  It was an expression equally applied to the dandies in England and the colonists in America.

There is an expression that goes like this: whatever goes around, comes around.  When the British surrendered at Yorktown, French Marquis de Lafayette taunted them by playing “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”  The song subsequently became a patriotic symbol of the Revolutionary War … I suppose because even if we Americans were simpletons, we still managed to defeat overwhelming British forces and secure our independence.  On that note, HAPPY INDEPENDENCE DAY, AMERICA!


[1] Today thought to refer to Colonel Ephraim Williams of the Massachusetts militia killed at the Battle of Lake George during the French and Indian War —hardly a fitting tribute to a British colonial citizen who gave his life for his country.

Posted in History | 12 Comments

Jim Courtright

cropped-texas-star.jpgBorn Timothy Isaiah Courtright near Springfield, Illinois during the spring of 1845, Courtright married Sarah Elizabeth Weeks in 1870 and may have had three children.  Courtright enlisted in the Union Army when he was just 17-years of age and fought with the Seventh Iowa Infantry under General John (Black Jack) Logan.  During his civil war service, Courtright distinguished himself by his display of courage under fire at Fort Donelson and at Vicksburg.  Courtright acquired the nickname Jim when someone mistook Tim for Jim.  While serving as an Army Scout after the war, Courtright acquired the name “Longhair Jim” from the manner in which the scouts wore their hair.

One source indicates that during the Civil War, while assigned to General Logan’s staff, Courtright took a bullet intended for Logan. Logan supposedly admired Courtright for his selfless act and his manly conduct, although such a proposition assumes that Courtright intentionally took the bullet.  In any case, after the war Logan enlisted Courtright as a hired gun in New Mexico.

Courtright was fascinated with firearms, even as a teenager —and reputed to have practiced shooting and drawing his guns out of their holster for hours on end.  As a gunman, Courtright always wore two six-shooters, butts forward, drawing from the right hip with his right hand.  There were two gunmen known to be faster on the draw than Hickok, Earp, and Masterson: Robert Clay Allison and Jim Courtright.  Drawing fast is one thing, drawing fast and shooting accurately is another; Allison and Courtright could do the latter.  Jim Courtright was such a good shot that he traveled with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show with Hickok offering marksmanship demonstrations. Sarah Courtright was also an excellent marksman.

Still, scripture tells us “… for all who draw the sword will die by the sword[1].”  That is exactly what happened to Big Jim Courtright.

CourtwrightIn 1873 living outside of Fort Worth, Texas, the Courtright’s tried their hand at farming, but the farm failed and the family moved to town where Jim worked as a jailer.  In 1876, the citizens of Fort Worth elected Courtright as city marshal, although by the closest of margins: three votes.  Since its incorporation as a city in 1873, Fort Worth managed to attract unsavory elements of society —the kind of men who preferred to gamble, drink, bully others with fists or guns, and chase loose women.  One sobriquet for Fort Worth was “Hell’s Half-Acre.”  With crime increasing, the citizens of Fort Worth needed a marshal who would protect them —but gambling and other vices brought money to the city.

Courtright had to learn how to balance the enforcement of city ordinances with keeping the peace.  What the city’s merchants wanted most was the income that vice brought in and this put Jim Courtright into the cross-hairs of the city council, who made it clear: stop the flow of blood, but not the liquor.  Courtright failed to do this, of course, so a candidate for city marshal named S. M. Farmer handily defeated Courtright in the election of 1879.

The loss of this election should come as no surprise to Jim Courtright; during Courtright’s tenure as City Marshal, he was responsible for killing at least four men who contested his authority, and additionally responsible for the murders of several unwilling business owners to pay into Courtright’s protection racket.  After losing the election, Courtright attempted to start a detective agency. That too was a failure and Courtright began drinking and gambling.

Courtright may have relocated to New Mexico as early as 1881, leaving his family behind at Fort Worth.  There appears to be some basis in fact that Courtright obtained an appointment as a lawman at Lake Valley, that he worked as a guard for mining operations, and that he worked as a ranch foreman for the American Valley Cattle Company.

In 1880, former Civil War General John A. Logan, a serving United States Senator from Illinois, became interested in developing a cattle interest in New Mexico. He hired Captain John P. Casey, W. C. Moore, and Henry M. Atkison to purchase this land.

By 1883, the company controlled a vast territory measuring around sixty-six miles by seventy-two miles, and by this time, Casey and Moore had already run off some 90 residents in the area of Rito Quemado, New Mexico.  This vast range was insufficient; Casey and Moore wanted to increase their holdings by another 3,400 acres, the acquisition of which would give them access to water rights and a de facto expansion of about three million acres.

Two men stood in their way: Mr. Alexis Grossetete and Mr. Robert Elsinger who were ranching at Gallo Springs.  According to an article published in the New York Times, October 22, 1884 [Extract]:

“In 1882 two men, one known as Moore, the other as Capt. Casey, made their appearance in our locality and began to locate ranches.  The manner in which they spent money and generally conducted themselves soon showed that they had a power behind them.  They were entirely unknown in the country, and it afterward transpired that they had no means of their own, yet they were able almost immediately to hire a number of men, to arm them to the teeth, and to terrorize and crowd out men who had settled upon claims.  These settlers were mostly natives of Mexico, who were either too ignorant to know, or too weak to protect their rights.  It seems that after Casey and Moore had started their career, it became known that they were the agents of what is now called the American Valley Cattle Company.  What their interest in the concern was I have no means of knowing, but judging from the manner in which they spent money, the men they controlled, the sums they expended from time to time in acquiring property, I should say they must at least have had the full confidence of their backers.  They commenced their operations at a place called Rito-Quemado, a hamlet inhabited by New-Mexicans who were mostly poor and ignorant, and after acquiring strength they reached out in other directions.  It was generally believed by the people at that time in the country that Casey and Moore intended to drive out the settlers that stood in their way by fraud, or, if need be, force.”

Among the guns brought in to assist Casey and Moore was Jim Courtright, former subordinate to General John A. Logan and a trusted lackey.  (See also: New York Times, October 21, 1884).  The men Jim Courtright and Jim McIntire murdered in New Mexico were not Mexican squatters; they were two ranchers with a legitimate claim to land at Gallo Springs, New Mexico: Robert Elsinger, and Alexis Grossetete.  Ranchers all across the territory were almost immediately outraged over these murders.  Courtright quickly returned to Fort Worth after authorities in New Mexico charged him with murder.

Soon after, Texas Rangers and New Mexico territorial officials arrived at Fort Worth and announced their intention to arrest Jim Courtright.  Fort Worth citizens numbering some 2,000 armed and refused to allow the Rangers to take Courtright into custody, but eventually Courtright agreed to cooperate and he stood trial in 1884.  The fix was in, apparently: a jury acquitted Courtright of these two murders.

Returning to Fort Worth once more, Jim became a deputy marshal during the Great Southwest Strike of 1886[2].  Against the wishes of striking railroad workers, Courtright attempted to move the trains along.  After two men lost their lives to union violence, railroad workers blamed Courtright for siding with the railroads.

In February 1887, gunman Luke Short was invested in a gambling hall/saloon called the White Elephant located near the Fort Worth stockyards.  Luke was attempting to sell his interest in the saloon because he needed the money to address two serious legal issues.  One of these involved his brother Henry, charged with murder in San Angelo, Texas.  Courtright’s protection racket was making the sale of Short’s interest difficult —especially in light of the fact that Short refused to pay Courtright any protection money.

On the night of February 8, 1887, Jim Courtright and Luke Short stood facing one another on the sidewalk outside the White Elephant Saloon.  If the two men exchanged words, no one heard them.  This is the testimony given by Luke Short, the only man standing after the confrontation:

“Early in the evening I was getting my shoes blackened at the White Elephant, when a friend of mine asked me if there was any trouble between Courtright and myself, and I told him there was nothing.  A few minutes later, I was at the bar with a couple of friends when someone called me.  I went out into the vestibule and saw Jim Courtright and Jake Johnson.  Jake and I had talked for a little while that evening on a subject in which Jim’s name was mentioned, but no idea of a difficulty was entertained.  I walked out with them upon the sidewalk, and we had some quiet talk on private affairs.  I reminded him of some past transactions, not in an abusive or reproachful manner, to which he assented, but not in a very cordial way.  I was standing with my thumbs in the armholes of vest and had dropped them in front of me to adjust my clothing, when he remarked ‘Well, you needn’t reach for your gun,’ and immediately put his hand in his hip pocket and pulled his.  When I saw him do that, I pulled my pistol and began shooting, for I knew that his action meant death.  He must have misconstrued my intention in dropping my hands before me.  I was merely adjusting my clothing, and never carry a pistol in that part of my dress.”[

Before his death, people feared Jim Courtright.  While serving as City Marshal, he did reduce Fort Worth’s murder rate by half.  Courtright was a man to fear: he was a murderer, a bully, and a thief.  While a large number of people did attend his funeral, it is impossible to know whether this was an expression sadness, or relief.


  1. Oliver Knight, Fort Worth: Outpost on the Trinity, 1953
  2. L. Stanley, Jim Courtright, 1957
  3. H. Williams, The News-Tribune in Old Fort Worth, 1975
  4. K. DeArment, Jim Courtright of Fort Worth: His Life and Legend, 2004

[1]Matthew 26:52

[2]The largest strike in Texas history called by the Knights of Labor against railroad baron Jay Gould.  The walkout lasted for more than a year and ended when Gould agreed to cease discriminating against union workers.

Posted in History, Justice | 6 Comments

The Hanging Judge

Isaac Parker 001This fellow has been portrayed in a number of Hollywood films, two of the best by actors John McIntyre and Pat Hingle—although the character played by Hingle was entirely fictionalized in the film Hang ‘Em High.  But Judge Isaac C. Parker was a real man, a real judge, in the real Fort Smith, Arkansas, in the real American old west.  True, folks back then did call him “the hanging judge” and he did in fact hang a few people, but of the 13,490 cases heard in Judge Parker’s court, only 344 were capital offenses.  Of the 160 defendants sentenced to death by hanging (156 men, 4 women), only 79 were in fact hanged.  The rest either died while incarcerated, or had their sentences commuted on appeal, or were pardoned.  What is also true is that Judge Parker preferred hanging people six at a time —to get the most effect from those who might consider going astray.  It was a different time; it was a dangerous time.

In April 1861, Parker ran as a Democrat for the position St. Joseph, Missouri part-time city attorney. He served three one-year terms from April 1861 to 1863.  The Civil War began four days after he assumed his post in 1861 and, motivated by a sense of duty, Parker enlisted in a home guard unit.  By the end of the war, Parker was advanced to the rank of corporal in the 61stMissouri Emergency Regiment.  He meanwhile continued both his legal and political careers.  In 1864, Parker ran for election as a Republican for county prosecutor in the 9thMissouri Judicial District.  His split from the Democratic Party came from conflicting opinions over the issue of slavery.  In the fall of that year, he served in the Missouri electoral college, which overwhelmingly supported the re-election of Abraham Lincoln.  In 1868, Parker won a six-year term as judge of the 12thMissouri Circuit.

In 1870, Judge Parker was nominated to run for Missouri’s 7thCongressional District, backed by the radical faction of the Republican Party.  He resigned his judgeship to devote his energy to this campaign.  He won that election after his opponent withdrew from the race two weeks before the election.  During his tenure in Congress, Parker helped to secure pensions for Civil War veterans in his district, campaigned for a new federal building to be built in St. Joseph, sponsored a failed bill designed to enfranchise women and allow them to hold public office in United States territories, and he sponsored legislation to organize the so-called Indian territories under a territorial government. Throughout his term in congress, Parker was highly regarded as both trustworthy and influential.

In 1874, Parker considered running for the United States Senate, but by this time, the political winds had shifted, and it seemed unlikely that he could be elected.  He instead sought a presidential appointment as a federal judge in the Western District of Arkansas.  In May 1874, President Ulysses S. Grant nominated Parker to serve as Chief Justice of the Utah Territory.  Parker instead asked to serve in the Western District of Arkansas, which President Grant granted.

Parker arrived in Fort Smith, Arkansas a year later.  His first session began on 10 May 1875 with William H. H. Clayton serving as federal prosecutor.  Standing before the court were 18 men accused of murder —15 of whom were convicted by jury trials.  Judge Parker sentenced eight of these men to death.  Of these, six were ordered hanged on 3 September 1875.  One of the eight was killed while trying to escape from custody and another received a commutation to life imprisonment due to his minority.

In 1875, tribes within the so-called Indian Territories exercised jurisdiction over their own citizens, while all non-Indian U. S. Citizens fell under the auspices of federal territorial authority.  Between 1875 and 1889, Judge Parker exercised appellate jurisdiction over Indian tribunals.

The federal court for the Western District of Arkansas was required to meet four terms each year, but the caseload was so large that the terms in Parker Court’s ran together.  To ensure that they tried as many cases as possible during each term, the Parker court sat six days a week; courtroom sessions often involved ten-hour days.  In 1883, Congress reduced the jurisdiction of the court, reassigning parts of the Indian Territory to federal courts in Texas and Kansas.  Increasing numbers of settlers moving into the Indian Territories, however, increased the court’s workload.  It was a grueling schedule for all concerned.

In his time on the court, Parker presided over several high-profile cases, including the trial of Crawford Goldsby, who was known as Cherokee Bill. Crawford was a rotten to the core murdering thug, but you can’t be a genuine bad ass with a name like Crawford, so somewhere along the way, he adopted the moniker Cherokee Bill.  Crawford was born on 8 February 1876; he was just a little past his 20thbirthday when he took his step into the bowels of hell.

Now, as it happens, Cherokee Bill’s father was a man named George Goldsby, a Buffalo Soldier[1]who married a half-Cherokee mulatto woman named Ellen Beck.  Their relationship ended when George became involved in a shootout in the Morris Saloon at San Angelo, Texas.  The scrape came from too many people drinking too much fire water.  At some point in the initial fray, cowboys held down a Buffalo soldier from Fort Concho, ripped off his rank insignia, and tossed him into the street[2].  The soldier later returned with several soldiers from Company D, including Sergeant Goldsby.  In the melee that followed, one cowboy was killed, two others received gunshot wounds, one soldier was killed and another wounded.

A few days later, Texas Rangers showed up to take custody of the Buffalo Soldiers.  The officer in command of the post was Colonel Benjamin Grierson.  He refused to turn the soldiers over to the Rangers, arguing that they had no jurisdiction on his post.  George Goldsby was smart enough to see what might next happen, and so he deserted his post and fled to unknown parts.  Ellen soon left Fort Concho for Fort Gibson in the Indian Territory.  She took with her a daughter and two other sons, but placed Crawford into the care of an elderly black woman named Amanda Foster. “Auntie Amanda” cared for Crawford until he was seven years old and then sent him off to an Indian school in Cherokee, Kansas.  Three years later, Crawford was sent to an Indian School at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania.  From the time he was 12 years old until he reached his 18thbirthday, Crawford floated back and forth between Fort Gibson (where his mother remarried a man named William Lynch), and his sister’s home near Nowata, Oklahoma (she had married a man named Mose Brown).  Crawford apparently had problems getting along with others.

Beginning after his 18thbirthday, Cherokee Bill was involved in the following incidents:

  • Train robbery at Red Fork on 18 July 1894
  • Bank robbery in Chandler, Oklahoma —murdering J. B. Mitchell on 31 July 1894
  • The murder of railroad agent Dick Richards in August 1894
  • The murder of trainman Samuel Collins at or near Fort Gibson in August 1894
  • The murder of brother-in-law Mose Brown in September 1894
  • Post Office robbery at Donaldson’s Store at Watova, October 1894
  • The murder of Ernest Melton during the robbery of Shufeldt & Son’s General Store, 8 November 1894
  • Armed robbery of Nowata, Oklahoma Station Agent Bristow on 23 December 1894.

Cherokee BillAfter the last episode, authorities stepped up their pursuit of Bill Goldsby (shown right) and cohorts who were collectively known at the Cook Gang.  Realizing the law was after them, the gang split up.  Most of these hombres were captured or killed, but Cherokee Bill managed his escape until authorities offered up a reward of $1,300 for his capture.  At this time, his so-called friends stepped forward to aid in his capture.  On 30 January 1895, Constables James McBride and Henry Connelly captured Cherokee Bill and transported him to Fort Smith, Arkansas to stand trial.  Convicted of the murder of Ernest Melton, Crawford was sentenced to death on 13 April 1895.  His lawyer managed to postpone the date of execution, however.

Meanwhile, Cherokee Bill became fast friends with Sherman Vann, a trustee at the jail.  Sherman managed to smuggle a six-shooter into Goldsby’s cell.  On 26 July 1895, night guard Lawrence Keating was securing prisoners into their cells when Cherokee Bill jumped him.  Keating was shot in the stomach; then, as Keating staggered down the passageway, Bill shot him again in the back.  Other guards soon arrived, preventing Goldsby’s escape but the man was armed, and the incident resulted in a standoff that lasted a few hours.  Finally, fellow prisoner Henry Starr offered to help get Goldsby to surrender.  This he was able to do and Goldsby surrendered his weapon.

A second trial lasted three days.  Convicted again of murder, Judge Parker ordered Cherokee Bill to be hanged on 10 September 1895.  Goldsby’s lawyer appealed the conviction, but the Supreme Court affirmed the sentence on 2 December 1895.  His new execution date was 17 March 1896.  On that morning, Cherokee Bill awoke, ate a light breakfast, and was reported to have been in a good mood.  Shortly after 2 p.m., Crawford was led to the gallows where he was asked if he had anything to say for himself.  He answered, “I came here to die, not to make a speech.”

After twelve minutes of hanging from his neck, Cherokee Bill was pronounced dead.  We don’t know if anyone was disappointed by his lack of speechifying, but we do know that Judge Isaac Parker served honorably on the federal bench for twenty-one years.  We also know that he suffered from Bright’s disease (a kidney ailment) and that he passed away while in office on 17 November 1896 —eight months after he sent Cherokee Bill to hell.

Although several great actors played the part of Judge Parker, no one comes close to the real man.  We cannot say for certain that the hanging judge ever deterred murder, but we can say that no one became a victim of Cherokee Bill after 17 March 1896.

Parker’s tenure as a judge in the Western District of Arkansas wasn’t without some controversy, however.  Because the U. S. Supreme Court overturned nearly two-thirds of Parker’s judgments, Parker had several clashes with the high court.  In 1894, Judge Parker gained national attention in a dispute with the Supreme Court over the case of Lafayette Hudson[3], who was convicted of assault with intent to kill.  Parker sentenced him to four years confinement. Hudson appealed his case to the Supreme Court, who granted him bail.  Judge Parker refused to release Hudson claiming the Supreme Court did not have the authority to demand Hudson’s release.

Judge Isaac Parker lived during a dangerous time in American history.  During those times, and at that place, he may have been one of the old west’s greatest of men.


[1]Buffalo soldier is a term assigned by Native Americans to black soldiers.  At this time, black soldiers served in units segregated from their white counterparts. All-black units consisted of the 9thand 10thCavalry Regiments, and the 24thand 25thInfantry Regiments.

[2]In the old west, tossing someone into the street was particularly insulting, since the streets were covered in filth from animal excrement.

[3]Hudson v. Parker, 156 US 277 (1895)

Posted in History, Justice | 6 Comments

Lee McNelly

The post-Civil War period in America was a dangerous time to be alive; this is especially true in the American Southwest, where a massive increase in human migration triggered conflict and profane behavior among those who were disenfranchised by the destruction of a bloody war.  Settlers heading to the American west could not have known what awaited them there. They only knew what they’d been told … and what they heard sounded much better than what they had back east.

The settlers did know that it would take hard work and many years to carve out a small place where they could sustain their families; they probably also realized that if anyone were to achieve success on these small plots of land, it would more than likely be their heirs rather than themselves.  What they may not have expected were threats imposed against their safety by native tribes, villainous behavior of renegade whites, and/or terrorism imposed by bandits from Mexico.

Banditry existed on both sides of the US-Mexico border.  In the minds of the American outlaws who routinely raided Mexican ranches murdering vaqueros and their families, and rustle their cattle and horses, border raids were simply a matter of “easy pickings.”  In the minds of Mexican bandits, Texas and other border states and territories were lands wrongfully taken from Mexico; border raids were vendettas against intruders.  The men who perpetrated these crimes were of the worst sort; they were killers, rapists, and thieves … it would take men who were equally capable of violence to reign them in.

One such man was Leander (Lee) H. McNelly (1844-1877).

Lee was born in Follansbee, Brooke County, Virginia (now, West Virginia) the son of P. J. McNelly and Mary Downey.  In 1860, the McNelly’s left their home in Virginia and headed for Texas which was popularly regarded as a land of opportunity.  In Texas, the McNelly’s engaged in raising and herding sheep. With the outbreak of the Civil War, on September 13, 1861, Lee enlisted as a private in Company F of the Fifth Texas Cavalry.

In 1863, McNelly participated in the Battle of Galveston[1]under Captain George Campbell and Colonel Thomas Green.  After Green’s promotion to brigadier general and his assumption of command over the Texas Cavalry Brigade, McNelly was assigned as Green’s aide-de-camp.  Then, in recognition of McNelly’s daring gallantry during the Battle of Valverde, Arizona Territory[2], Green commissioned McNelly a captain in the Texas Cavalry and appointed him to command the brigade scouts.  During Green’s southern Louisiana campaign of 1864, Captain McNelly fulfilled a major role in the Battle of Brashear City[3]and Lafourche Crossing.  During the Battle of Mansfield in April 1864, McNelly received serious wounds and was relieved of his duties.

After recovering from his wounds, McNelly returned to his command in May 1864 where he took part in the battle of Yellow Bayou.  He was then ordered into the Bayou Lafourche country of southern Louisiana to scout and harass the enemy.  On July 1, 1864, after Green’s death at the battle of Blair’s Landing, Louisiana, McNelly was transferred to General John A. Wharton’s[4]cavalry corps.

On July 6, 1864, Captain McNelly was ordered to employ his company east of the Atchafalaya River to gather information about enemy movements.  McNelly continued to harass his enemy throughout the swamps and canebrakes of Louisiana.  It was typical of his exploits to overwhelm superior enemy forces with a strength of only one-hundred scouts[5].  After a period of tracking down Jayhawkers[6]on the Calcasieu, Captain McNelly was transferred to the command of Major General John G. Walker where he was detailed to ferret out and arrest deserters near Hempstead, Texas.

At the end of the war, McNelly returned to his Texas home and resumed farming near Brenham, Texas.  It was there that he met and married Miss Carey Cheek.

In July, 1870 Texas Republican Governor Edmund J. Davis organized the Texas State Police (TSP), its purpose to combat crime during the Reconstruction Era.  Despite its initial success, the TSP remained unpopular among some Texans, particularly the former slave-owners, because the police force included black police officers. In September 1870, citizens of Hill County, Texas blocked the TSP from arresting members of the Kinch West gang. Later that year, Hill County citizens refused to allow the arrest of those accused of murdering former slaves.

Nevertheless, Leander McNelly was one of four men commissioned as captains of the Texas State Police (which included John Jackson Helm, murdered by John Wesley Hardin in 1873).  McNelly was assigned command of the TSP in Walker County.  Not long after his assignment there, McNelly investigated the murder of a Negro named Sam Jenkins.  Four men were arrested, one being at once released from pre-trial confinement.  The remaining three men received smuggled guns while attending a hearing the courthouse and at a time when McNelly was returning them to jail, opened fire. McNelly was wounded.

In a later newspaper interview, McNelly chastised the local sheriff for not knowing these men were armed.  Captain McNelly was also unhappy with Governor Davis, who had promptly declared martial law in Hill County.

The Texas Legislature abolished the Texas State Police on April 22, 1873, about 9 months before the Democratic Party regained control of Texas.  In 1874, lawlessness was rampant in Texas so newly elected governor Richard Coke created the Texas Rangers divided into two branches: A Frontier Battalion under command of Major John B. Jones, and a Special Force commanded by Leander McNelly (largely funded by South Texas cattle ranchers).

Captain McNelly’s first assignment was to travel to DeWitt County to resolve the Sutton-Taylor Feud[7].  In 1874, a member of the Taylor family killed a member of the Sutton family; McNelly and 40 Texas Rangers arrived in Clinton, Texas to ensure that Taylor and the witnesses against him lived through the trial.  During this assignment, McNelly became ill and returned home to recuperate. In his absence from duty, members of the Texas Rangers engaged in a gunfight with unknown parties outside of Clinton.  Of the Texas Rangers, one man was wounded, one was missing in action, and two horses were killed.

After his return to duty in April 1875, Governor Coke ordered McNelly to take his special force into the Nueces Strip; the governor assigned him the specific task of bringing order to this region of Texas[8], a hotbed of cattle rustling and banditry organized and directed by General Juan Cortina[9].  Cortina commanded the Mexican military region of the Rio Grande frontier and orchestrated guerrilla operations against Texas ranchers.

Within two days, Captain McNelly recruited 40 men to serve as Texas Rangers.  He rejected most native Texan applicants so that they would not have to face the possibility of confronting their own relatives and friends.  McNelly’s rangers became very loyal to him; they called themselves “Little McNellys.”

Captain McNelly was an aggressive leader who, in the performance of his duty, reminds me somewhat of the modern U. S. Marine: one does not hand a mission to an American Marine and then moan about how he went about achieving that assignment.  In our present day, scholars who have never placed themselves in harm’s way for any reason question McNelly’s methods, but at a dangerously violent period in American history, when faced with armed and ruthless men, individuals who would have killed McNelly without hesitation, Captain McNelly did carry out his mission —which was solving the problem of lawlessness on the Mexican-American border. Any bandit who drew his weapon against a Texas Ranger was dealt with severely, permanently, and at once.  McNelly also did not hesitate to extract information from captured outlaws —information that was vital to the completion of his mission and the safety of his men.

There was another aspect of Lee McNelly that has made him famous: he willfully disobeyed orders about pursuing outlaws across the Mexican border.  Captain McNelly reasoned that if an outlaw realized that crossing into Mexico was no guarantee for his personal safety, the outlaw might decide that thievery, murder, and mayhem may not be worth the risk.

In 1875, McNelly was faced with how to eliminate several Mexican bandit gangs. The first and worst of these was Juan Cortina. For years Cortina had raided settlements in the area of Brownsville, Texas, always retreating across the Rio Grande to avoid Texas law enforcement.  Cortina was from a wealthy family that owned more than 260,000 acres (about 680 square miles) of land in South Texas, which had once included the location of the town of Brownsville.  Cortina commanded a force of more than 2,000 armed Mexican outlaws and gunmen.

The first major gunfight between the Rangers and Mexican bandits occurred in June 1875.  McNelly’s Rangers surprised a group of sixteen Mexican cattle thieves and one American man, driving about 300 head of cattle toward the Rio Grande River (and toward Juan Cortina and a steamer headed for Cuba).  These were Cortina’s hand-picked men, who had boasted they could cope with any Rangers or vigilantes. Captain McNelly issued his orders. “Don’t shoot to the left or the right.  Shoot straight ahead.  And don’t shoot till you’ve got your target good in your sights.  Don’t walk up on a wounded man.  Pay no attention to a white flag. That’s a mean trick that bandits use on green-hands.  Don’t touch a dead man, except to identify him.”

Sighting the approach of the Rangers, the Mexican bandits took flight, driving the herd before them at a frenzied pace until they reached a spit of land inside a salt marsh.  The Mexicans then turned and waited for the Rangers, who were right on their heels, to cross the shallow, muddy lagoon.  Lee McNelly anticipated an ambush and stopped to issue his pep talk, “Boys, across this Resaca[10] are some outlaws that claim they’re bigger than the law — bigger than Washington law, bigger than Texas law. This won’t be a standoff or a dog fall.  We’ll either win completely, or we’ll lose completely.”

The battle is often referred to as either the Red Raid or the Second Battle of Palo Alto.  It was waged nearly all day in a succession of single hand-fights, which left dead Mexicans and horses covering a swath through the prairie about two miles wide and six miles long.  All the Mexican drovers were killed, as well as the gringo named Jack Ellis, who had beaten and mistreated a shopkeeper’s wife at Nueces.  Two hundred and sixty-five head of stolen livestock were rounded up and eventually returned to their rightful owners near the King Ranch.  Nine of the fourteen saddles recovered turned out to be Dick Heyes’ saddles stolen in the raid at Nueces town three months earlier.

One Ranger, seventeen-year-old L. Berry Smith, who wanted to be in on the action, also died in the fighting.  He was the son of camp cook, D. R. Smith and the youngest Texas Ranger ever to die in the line of duty.  Smith was apparently too inexperienced to fully appreciate McNelly’s terse orders because he got too close to a wounded Mexican bandit; the bandit killed the boy before Smith even knew what was happening.  Berry Smith was buried in the northwest corner of the Brownsville cemetery on June 16, 1875 with full military honors.

Further north and west along the Rio Grande River, McNelly was confronted by a band of outlaws led by General Juan Flores Salinas. This gang did not have the manpower of the Cortina’s gang, but was every bit as ruthless. The Salinas gang was headquartered at Camargo, Mexico, directly across the border from the US Army outpost of Ringgold Barracks, near Rio Grande City.  This confrontation is known as the Las Cuevas War, which occurred in November 1875.

McNelly and his rangers entered Mexico on November 20.  Under cover of brush and scrub oak, they made their way on foot to the Salinas stronghold at the Rincon de Cucharras outpost of the Las Cuevas ranch. Confronting the outlaws, McNelly demanded the return of stolen cattle and horses.  The ensuing gunfight pitted rangers against an estimated four hundred of Salinas’ men.  Fearing that mounted Mexicans would surround his men, McNelly ordered his men to pull back to the river to make a stand. At the river, about half the US Army’s 24thInfantry Regiment and 8thCavalry detachment, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel James F. Randlett, formed a defensive perimeter at the bank of the river on the Texas side.  In the fight that followed, with the aid of the US Army firing a Gatling gun on the Mexicans, General Juan Salinas (who also served as the Alcalde (mayor) of Camargo) and eighty of his outlaws died on the riverbank.  There then ensued a so-called Mexican standoff, with the Mexican militia retreating to regroup after their leader’s death, and Captain McNelly refusing to back down from his demands on the return of the stolen cattle. Later that afternoon, Major A. J. Alexander from Fort Ringgold arrived with a message from Colonel Potter, who commanded at Fort Brown (today, Brownsville, Texas).  His message, directed to Captain McNelly, was:

“Advise Captain McNelly to return at once to this side of the river.  Inform him that you are directed not to support him in any way while he remains in Mexican territory.  If McNelly is attacked by Mexican forces on Mexican soil, do not render him any assistance.  Let me know if McNelly acts on this advice.”

Captain McNelly responded:

“The answer is no.”

At sundown, another message arrived:

“Major Alexander, commanding: Secretary of War [William W.] Belknap orders you to demand McNelly return at once to Texas. Do not support him in any manner. Inform the Secretary if McNelly acts on these orders and returns to Texas. Signed, Colonel Potter.

In response to this second message, Captain McNelly penned this reply:

“Near Las Cuevas, Mexico, Nov. 20 1875.  I shall remain in Mexico with my rangers and cross back at my discretion.  Give my compliments to the Secretary of War and tell him and his United States soldiers to go to hell.  Signed, Lee H. McNelly, commanding.

After a night’s sleep, Captain McNelly moved his men directly opposite Camargo on the Texas side of the river. It was now Sunday, and the stolen cattle had been moved and penned in a corral, but still on the Mexican side of the border and under guard by plenty of armed horsemen riding herd.  Diego Garcia, a Camargo official next in charge to the dead alcalde, promised to move the cattle across by 3:00 pm. McNelly, however, was suspicious and pulled his men to Rio Grande City to relax while he made his plans.

At 3:00 pm, McNelly returned to the ferry landing, selected sixteen rangers to accompany him, and re-crossed the river in a rowboat.  He also took along five horses.  The squad of rangers included Captain McNelly, Lieutenants Tom Robinson and Jesse Lee Hall (alias Frank Bones), Sergeants George A. Hall, John Barclay Armstrong[11], R. P. Orrell, and Corporal William L. Rudd, and Rangers Lincoln Rogers Dunnison, Randolph D. Scipio, Robert H. Pitts, William Crump Callicott, Thomas McGovern, Horace G. Mabin, James R. Wofford, and interpreters Thomas Sullivan, George Durham, and Jesus Sandoval.  The five mounted men included Robinson, Sandoval, Hall, Armstrong, and Orrell.

The squad of Texas Rangers marched up the riverbank to the customs house and demanded the return of stolen cattle.  When a Mexican captain replied that they didn’t do business on Sunday, the Texans promptly took him prisoner.  McNelly then hauled the prisoner to the Texas side and informed him that if he did not return the stolen animals within the hour or he would die.  McNelly was surprised to learn that rather than the 250 head being returned as expected, more than 400 stolen cattle were crossed back into Texas.  Nearly every brand in the Nueces Strip was in the herd, from the King Ranch’s “Running W” up near Corpus Christi to Hale and Parker’s “Half-moon” brand over near Brownsville.

From among the American outlaws, Lee McNelly’s greatest rival was Texas gunman by the name of John King Fisher[12](referred to as King Fisher) and his band of outlaws.  Although most notable as livestock rustlers, Fisher’s gang rarely raided against Texas civilian populations; they concentrated more on rustling their neighbors of the border.  This added to tensions among the Mexicans living in northeast Mexico and gave an excuse for Mexican bandits to raid inside the United States.

Within one year’s time, McNelly had destroyed both the Cortina and Salinas gangs; he did this by disregarding orders not to cross the Rio Grande River, and by employing stern measures against outlaws, whether from Mexico or the United States.  Following a raid on his ranch by the Texas Rangers, and the arrest of King Fisher, this gang too dispersed and Fisher retired from raiding inside Mexico. McNelly apparently convinced Fisher that continuing raids inside Mexico would not be good for his health.  Fisher later became the Sheriff of Uvalde County, Texas.

Lee McNelly suffered the effects of tuberculosis (called consumption in those days) and because of his ill health, he retired from the Texas Rangers in 1876.  He passed away on September 4, 1877 at his home in Burton, Texas.  He was survived by his wife Carey Cheek McNelly and two children. He is remembered as a tallish, thin man with a quiet manner and a soft voice.  Apparently, his bite was much worse than his bark … and despite modern-day criticism of the techniques he employed to restore law and order to South Texas, he did get the job done.  In my view, Leander Harvey McNelly was one of America’s greatest men.


[1]The battle involved land and naval forces. As described by the Confederate Congress, “The bold, intrepid, and gallant conduct of Major General J. Bankhead Magruder and other officers and men of the Texan Rangers on January 1, 1863 entitle them to the thanks of the Congress and the Country.”  Galveston, Texas remained in the hands of the Confederate forces throughout the balance of the war.

[2]Now, Valverde, New Mexico

[3]Now, Morgan City, Louisiana.

[4]In April 1865, an unarmed Major General Wharton was killed by Major General George W. Baylor over a personal quarrel, a so-called an unpleasant misunderstanding of military matters.  Baylor was acquitted of murder in 1868.

[5]McNelly captured 380 Union troops at Brashear City, Louisiana.

[6]The origin of the term Jayhawker may extend back to the American Revolution when it was used to describe a group of men associated with patriot John Jay.  During the Civil War, the term applied to militant bands affiliated with anti-Slavery free-soilers.  During the war, a Jayhawker was a guerrilla fighter.  Today, Jayhawk is a nickname for native-born Kansans.

[7]The Sutton–Taylor feud arose from a growing animosity between the Texas Taylor family —headed by Pitkin Taylor, the brother of Creed Taylor (a Texas Ranger)— and local lawman, William E. Sutton —a former Confederate soldier, who had moved with his family to DeWitt County intending to raise cattle.  Sutton had been elected deputy sheriff in Clinton, Texas prior to the feud’s inception in 1862.  The feud lasted almost a decade and has been called the longest and bloodiest in Texas history.

[8]The Nueces Strip or Wild Horse Desert is the area of south Texas between the Nueces and Rio Grande Rivers.  The Republic of Texas claimed the Rio Grande River as its southern border, while Mexico claimed the Nueces River (150 miles north of the Rio Grande) as its northern border.  Both countries invaded it, but neither controlled it nor settled it. The Nueces Strip was the scene of the first fighting in the Mexican-American War of 1846.  In the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed in 1848, Mexico ceded the Nueces Strip to the United States.  Ever since then, the Nueces Strip has had a reputation for lawlessness and smuggling; it was the primary zone of operations of the Texas Rangers.

[9]General Cortina was a Mexican rancher, politician, military leader, outlaw, and folk hero in Mexico.  He was an important caudillo, military officer, and regional governor who effectively controlled the Mexican state of Tamaulipas.  In borderlands history he is known for leading a paramilitary mounted Mexican militia during the so-called Cortina Wars. These wars were raids targeting Anglo-American civilians whose settlement Cortina opposed near the several leagues of land granted to his wealthy family on both sides of the Rio Grande.

[10]A type of oxbow lake that can be found in the southern half of Cameron County, Texas.  Resaca’s constitute former channels of the Rio Grande River, are naturally cut off from the river, and having no inlet or outlet.

[11]Armstrong was later instrumental in the capture of famed outlaw John Wesley Hardin and the killing of outlaw Sam Bass near Round Rock, Texas.

[12]By the late 1870s, Fisher had earned the reputation of a fast gun.  In 1878, an argument between Fisher and four Mexican vaqueros erupted. Fisher is alleged to have clubbed the nearest one to him with a branding iron, then as a second drew a pistol Fisher drew his own pistol and shot and killed the man. He then spun around and shot the other two fellows, who merely sat on the fence during the altercation and had not produced any weapons.  Fisher was arrested several times for disputes in public by local lawmen and had been charged at least once with “intent to kill”.  Quite often, chargers were dropped against Fisher when no witnesses came forward to offer testimony.  Although well known as a trouble maker, Fisher was well liked in south Texas.


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