The Texas Rangers

This is probably a good point to note that much of this blog will be broad outlines and will not go into any real depth. There is so much more to the Texas Rangers than what I am about to say, but I really just need to you to understand who they were and how their mythology is so embedded in U.S. border enforcement. So this is broad, and arguable. I get that. But for later border guards, who we think the Texas rangers were is far more important than who they actually were. Always keep that in mind.

The U.S. border with Mexico was always kind of blurry, at least until the war ended in 1848. But Texas has always had a border with Mexico, especially when Texas was Mexico. Beginning with its independence from Mexico in 1836, Texans have long fetishized the border, often seeing the state as the protector of America’s innocence from the ravages of “illegal aliens.” Today, the great state of Texas is known primarily for two things: tacos in every gas station and the Texas Rangers. One of those two things has turned out to be a gift to both Texans and visitors alike. Unfortunately, it’s not the one you think.

On the first page of Walter Prescott Webb’s paean to the Texas Rangers, he writes that “the character of the Texas Ranger is now well known by both friend and foe. As a mounted soldier he has had no counterpart in any age or country…. Chivalrous, bold and impetuous in action, he is wary and calculating, always impatient of restraint, and sometimes unscrupulous and unmerciful. He is uninformed, and undrilled, and performs his active duties thoroughly, but with little regard to order or system….”[1] To ride a horse and wear a badge in South Texas has long meant riding with the spirit of the Texas Rangers. The Texas Rangers mythos is all over Texas, with every nook and cranny oozing “independence,” “patriotism” (to Texas? To the United States? Depends on who is president), and a weird sort of racism that makes being Mexican American really complicated. Many racist Texan Anglos will set aside their dislike of people of color (at least temporarily) for the relative middle ground of being Texan. Much of this incredibly complicated racist tapestry can be traced back over a century, to when everyone in Texas was either a Texan or not, when a newly independent Texas had to protect itself from external interlopers. That was the job of the Texas Rangers.

The Texas Rangers were officially created in 1835 in an “Ordinance Establishing a Provisional Government.” The ordinance included a call for “a corps of rangers under the command of a major.” The framers of the ordinance were looking for an irregular force unlike traditional law enforcement or volunteers, and if anything describes the Texas Rangers, its “irregular.” The Rangers would supply their own weapons, horses and powder and shot, which was not as big a deal as it sounds. Every Texan had his or her own weapons, horse, powder, and shot. Each company was led by captain who answered to a major.[2] The Rangers were formed to protect the residents of Texas from Indians, who continued living their best lives with or without the Mexican government.

The Texas Rangers would get about thirteen years of Indian killing under their belts before they got the opportunity to do what had made their daddies great: fight Mexico. They would go on to distinguish themselves in the War with Mexico, in much the same way that my childhood friend Grant distinguished himself with me. He would protect me from bullies, but if there were no bullies, he would beat me up himself. He also peed in my bunkbed at a sleepover, somehow managed to lose my turtle, and broke my dad’s Maglite (broke.my.dad’s.Mag Lite.) Both Generals Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott commented negatively on the discipline of the Texas Rangers and positively on their fighting ability, likely believing as I did about Grant that maybe the occasional loss was worth not associating with someone who peed in their bunk. Regular soldiers were also not impressed with the discipline of the rangers. Sure, the Texas Rangers were vicious fighters and killed a lot, but they did it when they felt like it, how they felt like it. It was like firing a gun and never really knowing which end of the gun the bullet would come out of, if at all. Even so, as historian Robert Utley points out, “[t]he Mexican War nationalized the Texas Ranger tradition and earned it an enduring place in the imagination of Americans.”[3] The Texas Rangers, historians agree, were pretty good at rangering, but sometimes discipline is helpful. The Texas Rangers were never absorbed into a larger agency, which worked out best for everyone involved. After the war, the Texas Rangers went back to doing whatever they wanted to in Texas.

But the realities of Texas Rangers never really mattered. Sure, they were good fighters, but they killed Indians for no reason other than being Indians, they harassed Mexicans and Mexican Americans, and they lynched whoever they wanted for whatever reason they had. They were as violent as cats in a washing machine. But the public, oh my God,the public. Not only in Texas, of course, but on the East Coast, readers, especially male readers, would get all atwitter at the adventures of the Texas Rangers. Not the real adventures, the shooting unarmed, outgunned Indians, lynching Mexicans and Mexican Americans, or breaking the law in a myriad of creative ways, but the romanticized exploits of the great white saviors of the West. In the latter half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century countless books were produced that detailed the adventures of the Texas Rangers (both real and imagined, but generally some combination of the two). 

For example, in 1856, publisher R.M. Dewitt published The Rangers and Regulators of the Tanaha; in 1865, J.R. Hawley published The Scout and Ranger: Being the Personal Adventures of Corporal Pike, of the Fourth Ohio Cavalry, as a Texan Ranger, in the Indian Wars ; around the turn of the century, publisher John E. Potter released The Scouting Expeditions of McCulloch’s Texas Rangers in Philadelphia; and in 1906, Whipkey Printing Company published Captain Jeff or Frontier Life in Texas with the Texas Rangers.[4] These were pretty exciting adventures, as loyal to the real Rangers as almond milk is to milk. The stories had the faint odor and texture of Ranger life, but were mixtures of actual events, mythology, exaggerations, and retellings of stories that originally probably made the Rangers look less godlike. Times and places were vague, virtually impossible escapes were choreographed, and very little that occurred could be verified one way or the other. But nobody read the books for truth, which is often kind of boring. They read them for drama, excitement, and what early twentieth century readers considered entertaining prose. Consider this quote regarding an Indian attack from The Rangers and the Regulators of the Tanaha: “The frowning Fates hovered around them, and the very atmosphere they breathed was full of mortal poison, as the dark shade of that Indian tree, whose piercing odor is prompt and powerful to kill as the lightning of heaven!” Or this, from “The Ranger’s Song” in The Scouting Expeditions of McCulloch’s Texas Rangers in Philadelphia:

Mount! mount! and away o’er the green prairie wide,
The sword is our sceptre, the fleet steed our pride;
Up! up! with our flag! let its bright star gleam out
Mount! mount! and away on the wild border-scout!

Give me a moment. I always have to sit down after reading that. Gets the knees weak. Straight white guys (and white guys desperately needing to appear straight in a time where hypermasculinity and aggressive heterosexuality was valued) looked to dime novels as evidence that somewhere adventure could still be had.  It is hard to imagine that the books did not influence men facing the crowded urban conditions of eastern cities. This is incredibly important and I will return to it later. Suffice it to say that this ethos, this search for masculine validation through the Texas Rangers, the West, and especially the borderlands, will be at the root of the first armed, militarized, federal agency to patrol the border, but it’s not the one that just popped into your head.

Next post, meet some Texas Rangers

So, like I said, this actually comes later in the book. I had to make some decisions so the book actually has two sections, roughly pre 1907 and post. The question for me was where to fit in the Texas Rangers. My research focuses on 1894 to 1924 and the Texas Rangers are not really at the center of it. But they are very important. They don’t show up until near the end of the first part because most of the first part is about the press and politics. The federal government didn’t care about the border until 1882 with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act so I had to explain the origins of anti-Chinese sentiment and how a West Coast issue comes to dominate national politics even as it reveals itself to really be a nonissue. In fact, in the first days of my research I didn’t really think about the Texas Rangers. But then, something changed.

            All of my early research focused on the years leading up to the creation of the Bureau of Immigration (lots more on them later). Inspectors for the Bureau initially worked the ports, especially Ellis Island, then also Angel Island. The Bureau did not even assign any officers to the Mexican border until 1884 or so. That led me to wonder where they got those men. Early on they were locals. They were also Customs officers who had been there a while. So I started to wonder what type of men wanted these jobs. The reports showed an amazing stubbornness and unwillingness to be led. The later years (when there were better records) showed many Bureau of Immigration and Customs inspectors came from the ranks of the Texas Rangers. It all suddenly made sense. I could connect the Rangers to the Border Patrol.

            The section on the Texas Rangers shows up when I introduce the line riders (a colloquial name for United States Immigration Service inspectors, but again, much more on them later) because I needed to explain not only who they were and what they did, but try to explain their motivations. This is hard to do with government records, but the tone of the records, what really triggered the inspectors, their methods, how and when they defended themselves to their superiors, all took me back to the Texas Rangers. For the blog, though, they come first because its where they go chronologically. Next is the War with Mexico (after I introduce you to some Rangers), but I don’t really go into too much detail except with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. That is a key document in the history of border enforcement.

JED

Sources:

Mike Cox, Mike. The Texas Rangers (New York: Forge, 2000)

Utley, Robert Marshall. Lone Star Justice: The First Century of the Texas Rangers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002),

Webb, Walter Prescott. The Texas Rangers; a Century of Frontier Defense. [2d ed.] (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1965),


[1] Walter Prescott Webb, The Texas Rangers; a Century of Frontier Defense. [2d ed.] (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1965), 2. [This quotation is originally from Luther Giddings, Sketches of the Campaign in Northern Mexico: In Eighteen Hundred Forty-six and Seven / by an Officer of the First Regiment of Ohio Volunteers (New York: G. P. Putnam & co., 1853), 97.

[2] Mike Cox, The Texas Rangers (New York: Forge, 2000), 47.

[3] Robert Marshall Utley, Lone Star Justice: The First Century of the Texas Rangers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 58, 47.

[4]  Alfred W. Arrington, The Rangers and Regulators of the Tanaha, or, Life Among the Lawless: A Tale of the Republic of Texas (New York: S. C. Reid, 1856); The Scouting Expeditions of McCulloch’s Texas Rangers, or, The Summer and Fall Campaign of the Army of the United States in Mexico–1846: Including Skirmishes with the Mexicans, and an Accurate Detail of the Storming of Monterey; also, the Daring Scouts at Buena Vista; Together with Anecdotes, Incidents, Descriptions of the Country, and Sketches of the Lives of the Celebrated Partisan Chiefs Hays, McCulloch, and Walker (Philadelphia: John E. Potter. [publishing date unknown, likely 1890]); W. J. Maltby, Captain Jeff: or, Frontier Life in Texas with the Texas Rangers; Some Unwritten History and Facts in the Thrilling Experiences of Frontier Life… (Colorado, Tex.: Whipkey printing co. 1906).

Further Reading:

Cult of Glory: The Bold and Brutal History of the Texas Rangers

The Texas Rangers: Wearing the Cinco Peso, 1821-1900

The Conquest of Texas: Ethnic Cleansing in the Promised Land, 1820–1875

Author: theprogressivehistorian

Immigration historian

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