Article first published in Vol. 18, 1999.
By Diana Carson, Claudia Carpio and Greg Tvnan
A bearded long-haired man carrying a rifle and possessing a couple of pistols, a rope and a knife. A serial killer? A 1960s hippie? A mountain man of the 1800s? He could have been an early Texas Ranger. Rangers wore no uniforms and had to supply their own weapons and horses. Their job was to patrol long stretches of land and they often. slept under the stars.
The earliest use of the name "ranger" occurred in 1823 when Stephen F. Austin, known as the Father of Texas, hired a group of men to protect frontier colonies along the Brazos River. These men "ranged" across a large expanse of territory, traveling light and ready to fight at a moment's notice. The Texas Rangers moved from one troubled spot to another, hunting cattle thieves, bank robbers and fence cutters. Walter Prescott Webb says, "In the words of an observer, a Texas Ranger could ride like a Mexican, trail like an Indian, shoot like a Tennessean, and fight like the devil."
As time went on, the Rangers came to be known as protectors of the frontier against Indians after Texas won its independence. Historian Andrew Sowell says the men originally recruited were largely adventurers and rabble, occasionally bringing credit upon the Texas Republic and at times disgracing it.
When the Mexican-American War broke out in 1846, General Taylor used the Rangers as anti-guerrilla forces and scouts. Reluctant to take prisoners, the Rangers usually shot Mexicans who could not account for their presence. Innocent people died but the number of Mexican guerilla operations also decreased. These random killings appalled Taylor who referred to the Rangers as a "lawless set.
As American armies pressed deeper and deeper into Mexico, the Texas Rangers became known far out of proportion to their strength and effective fire power. William Malt by, early chronicler of the Rangers, says that when the Army entered Mexico City, huge throngs crowded the streets, anxious to see what "Los Diablos Tejanos" (Texas Devils) looked like.
In 1877, the peace and tranquility in El Paso (then known as Franklin) came to an abrupt halt with the outbreak of the bloodiest civil disorder in the country's history known as the Salt War. The Texas Rangers were called in to help settle the dispute between different factions who tried to use the salt flats in the Guadalupe Mountains as political weapons.
Major John B. Jones organized the Company C Frontier Battalion and recruited rangers locally. They were no match for the furious mob they faced in San Elizario.
After several men were brutally murdered and one Ranger killed, the detachment of Rangers surrendered, marking the only such instance in the history of the Texas Rangers.
Rangers were also instrumental in protecting against the Indians. Victorio, an Apache chief, was the root of a long-lasting fight in this region. Victorio and a band of 125 warriors escaped from their reservation in the fall of 1879, along with some of their women and children. For two years, Victorio and warriors went on a rampage, leaving bloodshed and disaster in their wake. Both Mexico and the United States suffered intense fear and panic.
Two years after Victorio's escape, the Mexican militia finally captured him at Tres Castillos, Chihuahua, and he was put to death on October 14, 1880. Leon Metz reports that Lt. Col. Joaquin Terrazas supposedly earned $17,250 for the scalps of 78 Apaches and $10,200 for the 68 prisoners taken, all women and children, who were then sold into slavery.
Three months later, Lieutenant George W. Baylor and his company of Texas Rangers, stationed at Ysleta, ambushed a party of Apaches from Victorio's group and killed four warriors, two women and two children. This fight at Sierra Blanca marked the last Indian fight in Texas.
Some Rangers continued their careers in law enforcement after their stint with the Rangers ended. One of these was James B. Gillett who served over six years as a Texas Ranger. He left the Ranger force in December of 1881 and became the fourth marshal of El Paso.
Another incident the Rangers handled in El Paso was a dispute over prize- fighting in 1896. Governor Charles Culberson, who abhorred the sport, calling it "a public display of barbarism," managed to have the Texas Legislature declare prize-fighting illegal. The Texas Rangers were called in to prevent the fight from taking place in Texas. Although Mexico did not want the fight to occur there either, the two-minute bout did take place in a river bed on the Mexican side, with the Rangers watching from a cliff on the El Paso side.
The Texas Rangers were instrumental in maintaining law and order in the early years of El Paso and its surrounding areas. The Rangers were used as both a civil and military police force. Today, the Texas Rangers are strictly used as civil police. They have belonged to the Department of Public Safety since 1935 and wear a white dress shirt, black tie, Stetson hat, black cowboy boots and carry a shotgun and semi-automatic weapons.
The Texas Rangers Museum, located in Waco, houses memorabilia of earlier days including hats, weapons, letters, journals and photographs. The oldest state Law Enforcement Agency in the nation and an enduring symbol of the Texas and American West, the Rangers celebrated their 175th anniversary in 1998.