The Texas Rangers

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The Texas Rangers

A Century of Frontier Defense

By Walter Prescott Webb

Foreword by Lyndon Baines Johnson

This classic history of the Texas Rangers has been popular ever since its first publication in 1935.



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6 x 9 | 608 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-78110-8

Webb's classic history of the Texas Rangers has been popular ever since its first publication in 1935. This edition is a reproduction of the original Houghton Mifflin edition.

  • Foreword
  • Acknowledgments
  • They Rode Straight Up to Death: A Preface
  • I. Texas: A Conflict of Civilizations
  • II. Out of the Revolution
  • III. The Rangers and the Republic
  • IV. From Cherokee to Comanche
  • V. The Captain Comes: John C. Hays
  • VI. The Texas Rangers in the Mexican War
  • VII. First Years in the Union
  • VIII. The Bloody Years, 1858-1859
  • IX. The Cortinas War on the Rio Grande
  • X. Sam Houston's Grand Plan
  • XI. The State Police
  • XII. McNelly and His Men in Southwest Texas
  • XIII. McNelly and the War of Las Cuevas
  • XIV. McNelly's Successors: Lee Hall and John Armstrong
  • XV. The Frontier Battalion: Major John B. Jones
  • XVI. The El Paso Salt War
  • XVII. Sam Bass: Texas's Beloved Bandit
  • XVIII. The End of the Indian Trail: The Rangers in the Far West
  • XIX. The Closed Frontier: Last Services of the Frontier Battalion
  • XX. The Texas Rangers in the Twentieth Century
  • XXI. Revolution, World War, and Prohibition
  • XXII. Frank Hamer: Modern Texas Ranger
  • XXIII. Some Adventures of a Ranger Historian
  • Bibliography
  • Index

1. The Land

The organization commonly known as the Texas Rangers may be defined as a fighting force which had its origin in a three-cornered racial and cultural conflict. The history of this conflict, which constitutes a unique chapter in American life, is a little less than the history of the Texas frontier and a little more than the history of the Texas Rangers.

To understand the conflict it is necessary to consider the land on which it occurred. Texans frequently speak of the great area of their state or hear it spoken of by others. Large as it is, Texas constitutes but a part of that long slope which descends from the foothills of the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi and the Gulf. From the upper side of this tilted plain many rivers flow southeasterly in almost parallel courses. The Red River, which is the largest, forms the northern boundary of Texas as far west as the hundredth meridian, while the longest river, the Rio Grande, separates Texas from Mexico for almost a thousand miles. Between these two streams are the Sabine, Neches, Trinity, Brazos, Guadalupe, San Antonio, Nueces, and their tributaries. Farther west the Pecos, a tributary of the Rio Grande, deserves especial mention, because it sets off a desert region, the Trans-Pecos country, which with much of the Rio Grande valley constitutes a semi-desert environment.

The casual observer of the map might think that the natural geographic divisions of the state north of the Rio Grande would consist of a series of river valleys or hydrographic basins, more or less parallel, with a general descent to the southeast. While these valleys exist, they do not furnish the dominant feature of the land, and not one of them presents the character of a homogeneous environment. For example, if one should start at the mouth of the Trinity, the Brazos, or the Colorado and traverse the stream to its source, he would find himself passing from a heavily timbered and well-watered country into a level prairie region--the blackland belt--which was covered originally with tall grass and scanty trees--and thence onto a high, subhumid plain of the purest type known on this continent. This transition from the forests to the plains is approximately marked by the ninety-eighth meridian which bisects Texas into almost equal parts. The ninety-eighth meridian separates the Eastern Woodland from the Western Plains; it separates East Texas from West Texas. East Texas is but the southwestern corner of the Great Eastern Woodland which covers the right half of the United States; and West Texas is but the southern and eastern section of the Great Western Plains which occupy the left half of the country.

Between the Eastern Woodland and the Western Plains nothing is so striking as the contrasts, and these must be considered carefully by one who seeks to understand the social and cultural problems of the people.,, Interesting as the subject may be, we cannot here consider the contrasts between the two great environments, but must confine our attention to that part of each region which lies in Texas.

East Texas--like the whole Eastern Woodland--is a land of plenteous rainfall, ranging from fifty inches on the Louisiana side to thirty inches along the western. The topography and the vegetation of East Texas arise directly from the climatic factor of rainfall. The land is deeply eroded and the top soil has in many places been washed away to lay bare rolling red hills. Upon these hills and in the numerous valleys grow forest trees of all sorts--walnut, hickory, sweet gum; long leaf, short leaf, and loblolly pine, offering shade in summer and shelter in winter to both animal and human life. The only part of East Texas that is not forested is the narrow coastal plain along the Gulf shore and the region south of Matagorda Bay. East Texas is not different in general appearance, in climate, or in vegetation from Mississippi, Georgia, or other southern states.

In West Texas the rainfall nowhere exceeds thirty inches and in the higher and western part, it falls to fifteen or in some places to ten inches, approaching in spots the true desert. Because of scant rainfall, forest trees do not grow in this western half. The mesquite--a scrubby gnarled tree with a mighty root system--is found from the ninetyeighth meridian westward for some two hundred miles. Along the streams the hackberry, cottonwood, and willow make ribbons of foliage which wind over the Plains towards the foothills of the Rockies.

The western half of the state was the grasslands. There grew the tall grasses of the prairie region, the needle and wheat grasses, and the curly mesquite which has in it enough of the distilled spirit of the vast sun and the sweet rain of the dry country to make wild broncs out of old horses in a month's grazing. Farther west and to the north--in the Panhandle--was the buffalo grass, a coarse bunch grass which gave sustenance to the wild herds whose millions of hoofs thundered across the Plains for unknown thousands of years.

To the southwest -beyond the Pecos and in the upper valley of the Rio Grande--the scene changes from that of the grasslands to the desert, where rainfall is less than fifteen inches on an average. Instead of level or rolling plains mantled with grass, one sees the wild forms of desert topography, battlement and mesa, fault and escarpment, chimneys and towers, surviving fragments of an older plain which has been worn down not so much by rain as by wind and sun beating upon a bare surface. The vegetation is the cactus in a thousand species and varieties, the greasewood, and the sage.

2. The Indians of Texas

It would have been strange indeed if the conditions of the land, as set forth above, had not been reflected in the life, the culture, and the character of the Indians. Because the Indians lived close to the land, they were finely adapted to it--were truly its children. 'The earth is our mother and the sun our father,' was their way of expressing the truth. As Texas was divided into a forest and a plain, so were the Indians divided into forest tribes in East Texas and Plains tribes in West Texas. They were two peoples whose respective ways of life, whose culture, differed as much as their homeland, as the grassy rolling Plains differ from the tree-clad hills, as a wigwam from a tipi or a log cabin from a soddie. The eastern tribes, for example, were sedentary and agricultural; they lived in permanent villages, built their wigwams of bark and tree, made and used pottery, and supplemented the game they killed with corn, squash, and bean. The western Indians were nomadic wanderers who knew little or nothing of agriculture. They lived among the millions of buffalo, and from the clumsy animal they supplied practically every necessity of life save water. From the hides they made their clothes and their tipis; from the bones their crude tools; from the tendons thread; from the hoofs glue; while the meat served as almost their sole article of food. On the whole, the lot of the Plains Indians was harder than that of the timber tribes because the Plains dwellers had to wander about in search of subsistence. While all Indians were more or less warlike, the Plains tribes were by their wild habits of life fierce and ungovernable. They were constantly shifting about, fighting for possession of land and water, and for social distinction.

The location of the Texas Indian tribes as they were in the first quarter of the nineteenth century now concerns us. Among the Woodland Indians the Caddo stock, or confederacy, was the most important. From their original home in Louisiana, they spread into Texas. Their traditions do not lead back to the time when they were not agricultural. When they emerged from the underworld, there came first an old man carrying in one hand fire and a pipe and in the other a drum, then came his wife with corn or maize and pumpkin seed. The absence of weapons and the presence of corn and pumpkin seed are indicative of their dispositions and inclinations. They were farmers and not warriors primarily.

The Caddo Indians spoke of their confederacy as texas, texias, or techas. The word in the narrow sense meant 'allies' and in a broader sense it meant 'friends,' an appropriate name because these tribes were usually friendly with the European peoples.

Along the coast, in the vicinity of Matagorda Bay, dwelt the ferocious Karankawa, who were not numerous enough to stand long before the white races. By 1860, under the repeated blows of the Europeans, they had perished.

In the transition region between the forests and Plains dwelt several transitional tribes exhibiting a culture, half plains and half forest. In the south were the Lipans, an offshoot of the Apaches, separated from the main tribe by a Comanche wedge, and northward were the Tonkawas, Tawakonis, Wacos, and the Wichitas. Some of these Indians cultivated the soil to a limited extent, but all made regular excursions after the buffalo. They were not strong, but they were dangerous and troublesome. They may be called the semi-plains or prairie tribes. Farther west, ranging the Plains from southern Texas to Kansas, were the fierce Comannhhs of Shoshone stock who had come but recently from the mountains of the northwest to take the southern Plains. West of them, in the foothills of the Rockies and along the Pecos were the principal Apache groups. South of the Rio Grande in what is now Mexico were numerous small bands, but these played an insignificant part in Texas Indian problems and may therefore be disregarded.

The Indian situation as just described was disturbed in the first third of the nineteenth century by the migration of tribes from the eastern and southern United States. The most important among the newcomers were the Cherokees who, under their leader Colonel Bowl, came to Texas about 1824. and settled on a tract of land along the Angelina, Neches, and Trinity rivers, where they remained for fifteen years. The expulsion of the Cherokees in 1839 constitutes one of the many tragic episodes in American Indian relations. Other, though smaller, bands, such as the Kickapoos, Coshattas, and Seminoles, came to or through Texas, running like frightened game before the devastating fire of the American frontier. Some of the fugitives stopped in Texas, many sojourned there, and some went into Mexico and settled along the Rio Grande where they could depredate in Texas when they considered such an adventure feasible.

From the above sketch of the Indian situation in Texas during the early part of the nineteenth century, it should be apparent that the first permanent settlers--Anglo-Americans from the United States--would find a complicated and troublesome Indian problem to solve before they could hold their land in peace. It should be equally obvious that more than half their difficulties would come from the Plains, mainly from the Comanche and to a less extent from the Apache, Tawakoni, Lipan, Wichita, and Waco bands.

3. The Coming of the Spaniards

The essential facts about the Spanish frontier are that it advanced on Texas from the south and that it finally came to rest on the Rio Grande, the southwest border of the state. With Mexico City as a center, the Spaniards began early in the sixteenth century to conquer and incorporate the native population and push the frontier line farther and farther northward. In 1601, Santa Fe was established and in the latter part of the century missions and presidios were set up in East Texas adjacent to the French in Louisiana. More important, however, for our purpose was the planting of a permanent Spanish stronghold in San Antonio in the year 1718. Santa Fe and San Antonio constituted the strongest northern outposts of the Spanish Mexican frontier until the end of the Spanish regime. Between these two outposts lay that part of Texas occupied and stubbornly defended by the Comanches and Apaches.

Many reasons have been advanced for Spain's failure to extend or even hold this northern line, but they are general reasons, applicable to the whole frontier line and to all Spanish possessions; and while they are, in a measure, true, they are not needed to explain Spain's failure between San Antonio and Santa Fe. The important factor on that segment of the frontier was the Plains Indians.

The scope of this work does not permit a narrative of what went on between the Spaniards and these Indians. The general theme of the story would be one of continuous war in which tragedy and disaster dogged the Spaniards. On the east side the Comanches slaughtered all the priests at San Saba, signally defeated Parilla on Red River, broke up the settlement at Bucareli, and terrorized the troops and citizens at San Antonio; on the west side the Apaches did their work equally well. Father Garces declared that he did not write of them for want of paper, a stock of which would be required to tell of the troubles with the Apaches.

One fundamental reason why Spain failed to cope successfully with the Plains Indians was that Spain attempted to subdue them with the same methods and the same frontier agencies which had been used successfully with an entirely different kind of Indian. Spain's frontier institutions were made in the West Indies and further developed in the fertile Mesa Central around Mexico City, where the Indians were civilized, sedentary, agricultural, and, as compared with the nomads of the Plains, as docile as sheep.

Among these tribes Spain went with three agencies: the conquistador to conquer, the religious to convert, and the encomendero to exploit. This machine worked with marvelous effectiveness and speed in the rich and humid Mesa Central, but as it advanced northward into the arid country, it began to fail. Naturally the economic part of it broke down first--broke as soon as it ceased to show a profit, and the encomienda system was abandoned in 1720, though its failure had been evident long before it was acknowledged. Two agencies now remained, the religious and the military, to uphold the frontier. Spain established a string of missions from Louisiana to California and continued with royal support the effort to advance northward. The labors of the holy fathers were at best wholly negligible for the Indians and often disastrous to the missionaries. The wild Comanche and Apache were not amenable to the gentle philosophy of Christ nor were they tamed by the mysteries and elaborate ceremonials of the church. The warwhoop was sweeter to them than evening vespers; the crescent bow was a better symbol of their desires than the holy cross; and it was far more joyful, in their eyes, to chase the shaggy buffalo on pinto ponies than to practice the art of dry-farming under the direction of a black-robed priest.

In 1772, Spain tacitly admitted that the church had failed by abandoning the missions on the northern frontier. Thereafter sole dependence for further advance was the citizen and the soldiers. At the time the missions were abandoned, the frontier was pulled back from the Plains and the soldiers were established in a line of fifteen presidios, only two of which--Santa Fe and San Antonio--lay north of the Rio Grande. Later events caused Spain and Mexico to abandon these two positions, and in 1848 the boundary between Texas and Mexico was permanently established. The Rio Grande, occupied by a Latin-Indian race, constituted one side of the cultural triangle. Thus it was that Spain turned the southern Great Plains back to the Comanches and Apaches who became bolder and more aggressive than ever. They carried the war into Mexico with the result that at the end of the Spanish-Mexican régime they were more powerful and in possession of more territory than they were at any time before. The task of subduing them remained for the Americans who were making their way into the Plains from the east.

4. The Coming of the Americans

With the coming of the Americans the three races or cultures which were to struggle for supremacy were all present in Texas. The Americans, slow, powerful, inexorable, made their way westward, coming at length into conflict with the Mexicans along the Rio Grande and with the Indians of the Plains. Out of the three-cornered conflict has come the unique character of Texas with its dramatic history and peculiar institutions.

When the United States purchased Louisiana from Napoleon in 1803, the American political frontier made a long stride westward, leaving the frontier of occupation far behind. For twenty years the pioneers moved rapidly forward over a broad front only to find the Spanish province of Texas directly in their path. The movement of the Pioneers was apparently as blind, instinctive, as the migratory progress of the cutworms or locusts, and even a poor prophet could see that the horde would not stop at a political boundary. Those first independent spirits who entered Texas without any sort of official sanction from either government concerned are called filibusters, a polite name for freebooters and international trouble-makers. Such men as Peter Ellis Bean and Philip Nolan came to catch wild horses, to trade, and to spy out the country. Like the first teal of the season, they were the forerunners and heralds of thousands of swift followers.

The legal and more orderly occupancy of the Spanish province by the Anglo-Americans was initiated in 1820 by Moses Austin and was successfully carried out after his death by his talented young son, Stephen. The Austins began their negotiations for a grant of land in Texas under auspicious circumstances. For one thing, they had lived in Missouri when Missouri was Spanish territory and therefore they could approach the officials as patriots who wished to resume their former relationship as subjects of the Spanish crown. Even when Mexico revolted from Spain and in 1821 established a republic, the cause of Austin's colony prospered because Mexican officials looked with favor on the American form of government and likewise on Americans. Notwithstanding such providential favors, Stephen F. Austin needed all the tact and sound common sense that he possessed to carry him through the trying years when he was attempting to plant an American colony in a Mexican territory and struggling to harmonize the interests of a self-willed and cocksure group of Americans with the vague desires of a conglomerate Latin-Indian population.

With that good judgment which ever characterized him, Austin chose the most desirable portion of Texas for his colony--the country that lies between the Colorado and the Trinity rivers. The soil and climate there were similar to much of that in the United States from whence the settlers were to come. There were few Mexicans in that part of the province; the Indians in the immediate vicinity were neither numerous nor unfriendly; the Comanche and the Apache were far enough west to offer no immediately serious problem. Therefore the colony flourished and grew with no more difficulties than usually attended such pioneer movements.

The movement of Americans to Texas was greatly accelerated when in 1825 Mexico passed a general colonization law designed to encourage foreign emigration. By 1830 the American population of Texas numbered thirty thousand; it was larger than the population of Mexicans and Indians combined.

Mexico became alarmed at the rapid influx of Americans, and in 1830 passed a law closing the door which had five years before been so generously opened to foreigners. It was not without cause that Mexico did this, for the Americans had been both turbulent and troublesome. Some of them had set revolutionary movements on foot in Texas, and many more were always ready to join such adventures. From 1830 to 1835 there was constant and increasing friction between the American colonists and the Mexican government. The Texas Revolution began in 1835; complete independence was declared on March 2, 1836, and in the following month it was made secure by the decisive victory on the field of San Jacinto where Santa Anna was captured and made to acknowledge that Texas was free.

5. Indian Warrior, Mexican Vaquero, and Texas Ranger

By the opening of the Revolution the three races that were to struggle for supremacy were all present in Texas. The Indians held undisputed possession of the Plains; the Mexicans held the southwest with their line of occupation resting on the Rio Grande; and the Anglo-Americans, henceforth called Texans, had virtual possession of the timbered portion of the then Mexican province. Since the three races were to wage constant war one with another, it was necessary for each to produce its representative fighting man. The Comanche had his warrior brave and the Mexican his caballero, ranchero, or vaquero. To meet these the Texans created the Ranger, who, since he was the latest comer, found it necessary to adapt his weapons, tactics, and strategy to the conditions imposed by his enemies. In spite of the fact that each of these fighters influenced the others, each remained the true representative of the customs and ideals of his respective race, a symbol of the fighting genius of his group.

The Indian warrior, first in the field, was out of a nomadic people whose ideals and purposes never harmonized with those of their European foes. It is not the purpose here, or anywhere in this volume, to praise the Indian or to condemn him, but rather to understand him and to see his way of life as he saw it. His home was the wild prairie and the broad high plain where roamed millions of buffalo and countless droves of deer, and smaller game. He loved these things with devotion and fought for them with all his ferocious cunning. His tactics in war were in thorough keeping with his primitive nature. He knew nothing of the white man's code of war, of his so-called humanity. He could not take prisoners for the simple reason that he had no prison to hold them and no food to sustain them. He killed the men, took the women, and adopted into the tribe the children who were too young to run away. The Indian's religion was to the white man mere superstition and his education would not merit the name in the white man's vocabulary. Yet both were well suited to the red man's purposes. His religion taught him that the earth was his mother and the sun his father, that the Giver of all good was the Great Mystery, that it was his duty to be courageous--after the Indian fashion--to be generous to his friends and faithful to his comrades in arms. Had the Indian and not the white man written history, he would have filled it with true stories of the hazardous feats of warriors in carrying their slain or wounded comrades off the field of battle. It was a part of the Indian's religion to save his comrades from the enemy and give him a decent burial with his scalp where nature placed it.

The Indian's education--by which is meant preparation for life--was not found in books, but in nature and in tradition which was for him nature's lore. The movement of wild animals, the flight of birds, the bent twig, and the tracks by the water holes told the Indian stories that the white man has all but forgotten. All the red man's education was based on primary sources.

War was the end and aim of the Indian's life. His arms were therefore of major importance to him. They consisted originally of the bow and arrow, and though the tomahawk was found among the timber tribes, it played a much smaller part in the forays of the Plains folk. In the later period, the Indians used firearms to some extent, but they kept the bow and arrow until the end of the chapter.

The most singular factor in Indian warfare in Texas, and in all the Plains country, was the horse. The Spaniards brought horses with them to the New World, and in the sixteenth century some of these horses escaped from Coronado, DeSoto, and others, to run wild, to multiply, to spread northward, to supply the lowly pedestrian-nomads of the plains with mounts. Steam, electricity, and gasoline have wrought no greater changes in our culture than did horses in the culture of the Plains Indians. When the cultural anthropologist tells us that the horse did not introduce new culture traits among the Plains Indians but rather emphasized and accentuated those already present, he gives us a glimpse of the meaning of the horse to these people, tells us that they were ready and waiting for the horse to come. The horse made the Plains Indians more nomadic, less inclined to agriculture, greater raiders, better hunters, and more dangerous warriors than they had ever been. The horse enlarged the tipi but did not change its material, shape, or structure, increased the quantity of wealth without affecting the variety, and enabled the chief to take more wives because he could provide more food and clothing for them.

The horse was not the first beast of burden, for the Indians were using the dog and travois when the horse arrived. The Indian merely made his dog harness larger, lengthened the poles of his travois, and, as an indication of appreciation of the boon which had been conferred upon him, named the horse the God-dog. It was the horse primarily that enabled the Plains Indians to extend their power southward, to beat back the Spaniards and Mexicans for more than a century, to fight the Texans over a thousand-mile frontier, and to contend, oft-times successfully, with the American army from the Mexican border to the Canadian line, over a belt of country twenty-five hundred miles long and more than a thousand miles wide. These mounted warriors of the Plains, led by Quanah Parker and Lone Wolfe of the Comanches, Geronimo of the Apaches, Little Wolf of the Cheyennes, and Sitting Bull of the Sioux and many other lesser ones have come to typify the American Indian.

The Mexican caballero, whose complex character is more difficult for us to understand than is that of the Indian warrior, now passes before us. The Mexican nation arises from the heterogeneous mixture of races that compose it. The Indian blood--but not Plains Indian blood--predominates, but in it is a mixture of European, largely Latin. The result is a conglomerate with all gradations from pure Spanish to pure Indian. There are corresponding social gradations with grandees at the top and peons at the bottom. The language is Spanish, or Mexican, the religion Catholic, the temperament volatile and mercurial. Without disparagement it may be said that there is a cruel streak in the Mexican nature, or so the history of Texas would lead one to believe. This cruelty may be a heritage from the Spanish of the Inquisition; it may, and doubtless should, be attributed partly to the Indian blood. Among the common class, ignorance and superstition prevail, making the rabble susceptible to the evil influence of designing leaders. Whatever the reasons, the government of Mexico has ever been unstable, frequently overturned by civil war, and changed but seldom improved by revolution. This constant political ebullition has made any governmental policy, however good it might be, impossible of realization, and transitory.

The Mexican warrior, like the Indian, was a horseman, and in the northern part of the country mainly a ranchero. He loved gay attire, both for himself and horse; the braided trousers, the broad sombrero, the gay serape, the silver spurs, and the embossed and inlaid saddle exhibit a facet of his character.

He carried the lance for show, and was most skillful and devastating with the knife. As a warrior he was, on the whole, inferior to the Comanche and wholly unequal to the Texan. The whine of the leaden slugs stirred in him an irresistible impulse to travel with rather than against the music. He won more victories over the Texans by parley than by force of arms. For making promises--and for breaking them--he had no peer.

The Texan, who composed the third side of this cultural triangle, was a transplanted American, an outrunner of the American frontier. His qualities are too well known to warrant description. The mountains of Tennessee, the turbulent society of Missouri, the aristocracy of Virginia contributed their adventurous elements to his composition. These outriding frontiersmen were farmers primarily, woodsmen, riflemen, and fighters. They were Protestant in religion, democratic in politics and social life, individualists in all things, following only such leaders as could stay out in front. These early Texans knew nothing of Mexican character, had never seen the Plains, and had no knowledge of fighting Indians on horseback. They had used horses for transportation, but they were not habitual horsemen, and their weapons were unsuited to mounted warfare. They were intelligent, cool, calculating, and capable of sustained endurance and suffering. For weapons they carried the long rifle, which they used with unerring precision; the horse pistol and the knife constituted their side arms. Finding none of these weapons suitable for use on horseback, they later adopted and improved the revolver which became their own sweet weapon.

The Texas Rangers represented the Texans in their conflict with Plains warriors and Mexican vaqueros and caballeros and in the fighting that followed they learned much from their enemies. In order to win, or even to survive, they combined the fighting qualities of three races. 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 a devil.


“The beginning, middle, and end of the subject.”

—J. Frank Dobie