Read an excerpt from William Hanson and the Texas-Mexico Border

Excerpt from William Hanson and the Texas-Mexico Border

At the Texas-Mexico border in the 1910s and 1920s, William Hanson was a witness to, and an active agent of, history. As a Texas Ranger captain and then a top official in the Immigration Service, he helped shape how US policymakers understood the border, its residents, and the movement of goods and people across the international boundary. An associate of powerful politicians and oil company executives, he also used his positions to further his and his patrons’ personal interests, financial and political, often through threats and extralegal methods.

Hanson’s career illustrates the ways in which legal exclusion, white-supremacist violence, and official corruption overlapped and were essential building blocks of a growing state presence along the border in the early twentieth century. In this book, John Weber reveals Hanson’s cynical efforts to use state and federal power to proclaim the border region inherently dangerous and traces the origins of current nativist politics that seek to demonize the border population. In doing so, he provides insight into how a minor political appointee, motivated by his own ambitions, had lasting impacts on how the border was experienced by immigrants and seen by the nation.

Read an abbreviated excerpt from the introduction of the book below, and get your copy of William Hanson and the Texas-Mexico Border; it officially publishes May 14!

Praise for William Hanson and the Texas-Mexico Border

William Hanson was the man on the scene, from the capture of Gregorio Cortez, through American efforts to stop the Mexican Revolution, to the early years of the Border Patrol. The macabre, fascinating story of his key role in creating the modern U.S.-Mexico borderlands is meticulously reconstructed and finally given the attention it deserves in this superb book.

Benjamin Johnson, Loyola University Chicago, author of Revolution in Texas: How a Forgotten Rebellion and Its Bloody Suppression Turned Mexicans into Americans

William Hanson and the Texas-Mexico Border reveals the illusory nature of state-building in the early twentieth century, convincingly using a ‘top-down’ approach to show that full state control of borders has long been a deliberate myth propagated by US officials. John Weber’s argument is highly original and thought-provoking, and this exceptionally well-done book makes important and interesting contributions to borderlands history.

Timothy Paul Bowman, West Texas A&M University, author of Blood Oranges: Colonialism and Agriculture in the South Texas Borderlands

Abbreviated excerpt from William Hanson and the Texas-Mexico Border


His name kept appearing, though it took me a while to figure out who he was. As a graduate student piecing together my dissertation on labor relations in South Texas, I kept finding references to William Hanson in my research. He was, for instance, a central figure in the brazen efforts of Texas governor William Hobby to eliminate Mexican American voting in South Texas. Under Captain William Hanson’s command, the Texas Rangers launched a campaign to scare Mexican American voters away from the polls on Election Day in 1918. Hanson was also one of the foremost targets of José Tomás Canales’s campaign to reform the Texas Rangers, which spilled into public view during the Texas legislature’s 1919 investigation of the Ranger force. Canales accused Hanson, tasked with investigating any wrongdoing by Ranger personnel as the inspector of the force, of instead trying to hide Ranger crimes.

Likewise, he appeared frequently in the secondary literature, particularly among Texas Ranger historians, but also in the work of historians covering a variety of topics in the history of the Texas-Mexico border region from 1900 to 1930.1 My cursory understanding of William Hanson from the secondary literature was that he was a purportedly successful landowner, irrigation promoter, and oil company executive in Porfirian Mexico. He operated a spy ring during the early years of the Mexican Revolution to aid Porfirio Díaz and various counterrevolutionary forces, which almost led to his execution by revolutionary forces in 1914 and forced his return to the United States. He was an interesting historical oddity who seemed to show up frequently at important moments and then disappear just as suddenly, but not someone who seemed significant for my study of the history of South Texas. He had a few moments of public notoriety, but he never held elected office and did not even warrant an entry in the massive online Handbook of Texas, so how important could he be?2 William Hanson was a peripheral figure in my dissertation and the book that emerged from it, only warranting a few mentions and one long footnote.3

Subsequent research, however, continued to bring me back to Hanson. In June 2011, while looking into a completely different matter at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, I found a series of documents in State Department files about Hanson’s involvement in a scheme to deport Mexican exiles on trumped-up immigration charges back to officials in Mexico eager to eliminate potential voices of dissent. William Hanson, I learned from these documents, had been appointed to a key position in the Immigration Service and used that position to aid what appeared to be an international kidnapping and murder-for-hire plot. Officials in the State Department and consular officials along the Texas-Mexico border tried to stop Hanson’s activities but were unable to thwart the deportation of two exiles who were subsequently killed by Mexican officials after their rendition across the Rio Grande. I had to leave this story alone while I finished my first book, but it added to my perverse fascination with William Hanson.

In August 2015, my first book out of my hands, I traveled to Saint Louis to find William Hanson’s personnel files at the National Archive’s Federal Personnel Records Center.4 I knew that one of William Hanson’s sons, Mortimer, worked alongside his father as a Border Patrol agent in Laredo, so I requested his personnel file as well. In that personnel file, I found investigation documents produced by top Border Patrol officials that made clear that Laredo Border Patrol personnel operated a smuggling ring with associates south of the Rio Grande between 1923 and 1926, and that William Hanson oversaw these operations. William and Mortimer Hanson had decided to monetize their federal law enforcement positions. I now had evidence of two different criminal schemes operated by William Hanson during his time with the Immigration Service, which lasted less than three years. If he viewed his position with the federal government as an invitation to official corruption, then what had he been doing in previous positions? How did he ascend to important positions in the Texas Rangers and the Immigration Service? Was this just a spectacularly corrupt person, or was there something more important to be found from examining his actions?

As I traced his career back from his time with the Immigration Service, looking particularly to his time with the Texas Rangers and his years as a cheerleader for US intervention in Mexico, a few broad patterns appeared. First, it was difficult to ignore his frequent proximity to moments of historical importance. As a deputy United States marshal in 1901, he was involved in the pursuit of Gregorio Cortez, an event commemorated in border oral tradition and the subject of the landmark book by scholar Américo Paredes, With His Pistol in His Hand.5 Hanson left for Mexico a few years later and played a tangential role in the growth of agribusiness and the oil industry in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, alongside more important and better-known magnates of foreign capital in Porfirian Mexico. He barely managed to escape back to the United States in January 1914 after he was arrested as a counterrevolutionary by officials in Tamaulipas.6 Tempting fate, Hanson returned to Mexico in April 1914, landing at Tampico just days before a violent conflict between US Navy sailors and Mexican civilians in the northern port city led to the US invasion of Veracruz (the first of two invasions of Mexico by the US military during Woodrow Wilson’s presidency).7 He managed to escape again, returning to South Texas. While racial violence in the border region spiraled out of control in 1915, William Hanson’s whereabouts and actions are unclear, but by 1916 he re-emerged into public view as a rabid opponent of the regime of Venustiano Carranza, the eventual victor in the internecine violence of the Mexican Revolution. Hanson eagerly aided any counterrevolutionary group that he thought could hurt the government in Mexico City. Those activities were rewarded with a position as a Texas Ranger captain, where he oversaw and attempted to cover up one of the most ignominious periods in the history of that law enforcement organization. After his time with the Rangers, he again turned his attention to disrupting Mexican governmental affairs by going to work for Senator Albert Bacon Fall and his Investigation of Mexican Affairs, an effort to strip away Mexico’s right to economic sovereignty at the behest of oil companies eager to exploit Mexican resources. After his time working for Fall, including an unsuccessful bid to share in the corruption of the Teapot Dome scandal, Hanson landed at the Immigration Service during a key moment in the effort to build a restrictionist system of immigration and border control.

It was also hard to miss William Hanson’s talent for receiving political patronage. Each step of his career was boosted by powerful political figures, particularly important officials in the Republican Party. President Theodore Roosevelt appointed him US marshal for the Southern District of Texas in 1902. Senator (and then Secretary of the Interior) Albert Bacon Fall employed Hanson as a senate investigator and then as an inspector for the Department of the Interior in the late 1910s and early 1920s. The Teapot Dome scandal eliminated Fall as a useful patron, but President Warren G. Harding then appointed Hanson to the Immigration Service despite his lack of civil service qualifications. Hanson’s political connections were not unique, of course, but his reliance on Republicans was notable given the lack of a functioning Republican Party in Texas in the first half of the twentieth century. Hanson never exhibited any tendency toward clear political beliefs, so his decision to side with the Republicans probably had nothing to do with ideology or unease with the actions of the Texas Democratic Party. He owed his ascension in the Texas Rangers in the late 1910s to his connections to the William Hobby wing of the Texas Democratic Party, so he was strikingly bipartisan in his willingness to accept patronage. Instead, Hanson seemed to view the Republican Party as a useful source of patronage during those times when the party held the White House. He owed his career to this spoils system that benefited the small number of Texas Republicans who sacrificed political success on the statewide level for more tangible financial benefits that would flow down from the national party.8

At no point in his life did Hanson hold elected office. He was a high-level bureaucrat in the state and federal governments tasked with enforcing laws and working at the behest of his bosses, and his activities during the 1910s and 1920s deserve the attention of historians. The way in which he conducted himself, his very public efforts to justify his actions as a law enforcement officer, and the people and forces he chose to serve all provide a window into the construction of the modern state in the early twentieth century. The Progressive Era state expanded during these years in an unsteady but unmistakable effort to rationalize and more rigidly order US society. That ordering involved the construction of a more rigid color line across much of the country at the same time that the nation’s doors were closed to much of the world’s population, processes justified through a mix of scientific racism and empty moralizing about the scourge of urban overcrowding and the threat of unwanted immigrants.9 This perceived need for change, narrow and lily-white in its concern for order and boundaries that served only the purposes of economic elites, drove a vast expansion of the bureaucracy of boundary setting and social control. That expansion empowered elites to use the new state machinery to shape US society to their needs, all the while justifying these changes as rational and necessary. William Hanson carved out space within this emerging bureaucracy at both state and federal levels to further the white supremacist aims of his bosses and, as an added bonus, make some illicit money. More than just a tale of corruption (and it is, in part, a tale of astounding corruption), William Hanson’s career provides repeated illustrations of the strained but important effort throughout the first decades of the twentieth century to use the levers of state power to depict the Texas-Mexico borderlands as a place of danger that could be controlled only through state violence.

A study of William Hanson reveals the ways in which state-building, white supremacist violence, and official corruption overlapped, intertwined, and were mutually constitutive of a growing state presence in South Texas in the early decades of the twentieth century. Hanson spent his career loudly proclaiming crisis at the border, depicting the region and the people who passed through it as inherently violent and in need of outside control. These declarations were not born of an unstable frontier or lack of state authority. They were instead reflections of the steady expansion of the Progressive Era state’s capacity for power and violence. William Hanson oversaw and participated in three distinct facets of that development during his time with the Texas Rangers, working for Albert Bacon Fall, and as the district director of the Immigration Service. Many politicians and bureaucrats have sought personal gain and career advancement by pushing to achieve white supremacist aims, but William Hanson’s career illustrates important but distinct ways in which those aims were realized.

It is worth stating at this point that this book is not a biography of William Hanson. The decision to avoid presenting a story of William Hanson’s entire life is largely driven by available records. William Hanson did not leave behind a personal collection of his correspondence or papers. Thousands of pages of his correspondence can be found in multiple archives—the Texas State Archives, multiple branches of the United States National Archives, and the Huntington Library, to name a few—but these archival materials rarely reveal anything beyond his professional responsibilities. His inner life, his family life, and his leisure-time activities almost never appear in these records. Likewise, his time with the US Marshals Service and his time in Mexico produced scant archival material. As a result, the focus of this book is on the thoroughly documented years from William Hanson’s return to Texas from Mexico in 1914 until his resignation from the United States Immigration Service in 1926. Hanson’s career as a political appointee and law enforcement official allows us to examine the development and longevity of state-building and border control practices along the Texas-Mexico border in the first quarter of the twentieth century from the point of view of the border region, rather than from the perspective of Washington.

This book seeks to build on and draws from a number of different historiographies that intersect with the life and career of William Hanson. An assessment of his time with the Texas Rangers complements the revisionist work of scholars such as Benjamin Johnson, Monica Muñoz Martinez, and the Refusing to Forget project.10 Hanson’s tenure with the Rangers shows how corrupt and lawless the state police force was in the late 1910s. He illustrates not only the absurdity of the heroic mythology that long served as the only history of the Rangers but also the mercenary reality of their actions.11 Hanson’s Rangers, while continuing the long tradition of white supremacist violence that shaped and animated the state police force, went along with whatever political faction held the governor’s mansion. Captain Hanson led the effort to eliminate Mexican American voting to win the favor of white farming interests in South Texas, spurning the Rangers’ longtime allies who ran the region’s political machines. An in-depth study of Hanson’s time with the Rangers illuminates the hardening of white supremacist politics in Texas and the manifestly political nature of this mythologized law enforcement agency.

Hanson’s work for Albert Bacon Fall, and their joint efforts to make good on oil company demands that Mexico bow down to US economic interests during the revolutionary and postrevolutionary eras, engages with the rapidly expanding historiography on the imperial standing of the United States in the early twentieth century by scholars such as Greg Grandin, Daniel Immerwahr, and others.12 William Hanson will never be mistaken for Edward Doheny, William Greene, or any of the other wealthy capitalists who sought to use the growing military and economic power of the United States for their own ends. During the most aggressive years of US interventionism in Latin America, however, Hanson and Fall projected a fearsome image of the nation’s imperial power to thwart reformism in Mexico and anywhere else within the growing sphere of US influence. Their goal was, first and foremost, to open up breathing room for US corporations to extend their informal imperial control over the economies and governments of neighboring nations. Hanson did not write policy or benefit directly from the corporate growth into Latin America, but he put himself at the service of those who did during an important moment of imperial expansion.

Hanson’s tumultuous time with the Immigration Service in the 1920s engages with the historiography of the gatekeeper state, border control, and Mexican migration by scholars such as Kelly Lytle Hernández, Mae Ngai, Julian Lim, Deborah Kang, and others.13 During the early years of immigration quotas and at the advent of the Border Patrol, William Hanson played an important part in channeling the growth of the infrastructure of restrictionism. He viewed his job in the Immigration Service as a public relations position, not a law enforcement position. William Hanson used his post to proclaim loudly that the border region was a place of danger, populated by dangerous people, at the same time that he trumpeted his own supposed successes in taming the violent nature of the region and its population. He was not the first to make this argument, and he has certainly not been the last, but Hanson’s efforts should be understood as an important moment in the rhetorical construction of the border region as a place that needs outside control. He announced the supposed problem and then declared a dubious victory, projecting an illusion of control that has been repeated time and again by bureaucrats in the same position.

By focusing on William Hanson’s moves through a series of positions in the state and federal government, this book seeks to tease out the interrelated factors in the development of a legalistic system of white supremacist politics in Texas, the institutionalization of the American empire, and the construction of a system of immigration restriction designed to deny admittance to the majority of the world’s population. It is worth noting again that William Hanson did not create the policies that furthered these state-building practices, but as the law enforcement official or bureaucrat sent out to achieve these goals, his actions and method of performance provide a valuable window into how these processes developed and were elaborated at a key moment in the growth of the modern US government. He is an ideal case study of a Progressive Era bureaucrat, eager to use the slowly expanding state apparatus toward one of the key goals of the amorphous progressive agenda: boundary setting. William Hanson was on the front lines of building state structures that narrowed the availability and applicability of citizenship rights as a central policy goal. His efforts supplemented the rise of de jure segregation and the legitimation of eugenics in shaping government policy. Each phase of his career after returning from Mexico centered on this basic concern. Whether he was helping to eliminate Mexican American voting in Texas, quietly justifying racist mob violence, seeking to foment an invasion of Mexico for the benefit of US investors, or building a deeply corrupt fiefdom in the Immigration Service in South Texas, Hanson always worked toward a public projection of boundary setting and wall building. His actions, and his efforts to justify those actions, help illuminate the making of the white supremacist gatekeeper state as an effort to project an image of securing the nation’s boundaries. The practice of boundary setting involved securing the physical borderline as well as the racial lines that grew more rigid in the first decades of the twentieth century. These efforts laid bare the construction of racialized legal boundaries to define individual status but, just as importantly, revealed the prosaic limits of government authority at the nation’s periphery. From his time with the Texas Rangers through his employment by the Immigration Service, William Hanson reiterated the same basic argument. The Texas-Mexico border region was dangerous and its population could not be trusted, but he would be able to push back against those forces and gain control.14 It was always a myth, but one he continued to repeat until his career ended. It is still a myth, but one that continues to be politically useful for those seeking power through fearmongering.

This book is divided into two parts. Part I, “Fragile Dreams of Empire,” focuses on William Hanson from the time he returned to the United States after his expulsion from Mexico in 1914 until he accepted a position in the United States Immigration Service in 1923. The first chapter, “Revenge, Impunity, and White Supremacy,” traces his activities from the time that he returned to Texas through his tumultuous tenure with the Texas Rangers. In those five years, Hanson focused primarily on events in Mexico. As an arms smuggler turned law enforcement official, he took every opportunity afforded him to push back against the Carrancista forces in Mexico, whom he blamed for his expulsion from the country. He openly colluded with counterrevolutionary Mexican exiles in the United States and actively aided rebel groups within Mexico. Occasionally, however, the directives of his job with the Texas Rangers forced Hanson to focus elsewhere. As a result, he played a central role in the state’s efforts to eliminate Mexican American voting in South Texas through the threat of armed violence from the Texas Rangers. He was also deployed throughout 1918 and 1919 to eliminate evidence of racial violence and lawlessness perpetrated by the Texas Rangers. His leadership position in the Rangers lasted less than two years, but it was a momentous, shameful period in their history, during which the Rangers left no doubt that they were the paramilitary arm of the white supremacist elites eager to solidify their control over Texas. At the center of Hanson’s efforts was a commitment to racialized violence, whether through his campaigns to destabilize Mexico or to disfranchise and brutalize ethnic Mexicans in Texas, as a means of exercising state power in the Texas-Mexico border region.

In 1919, Hanson left the Texas Rangers and went to work for Senator Albert Bacon Fall, who would remain Hanson’s primary employer until 1923. Chapter 2, “In the Employ of Fall,” focuses on Hanson’s activities working for Fall. First as the chief investigator for the Senate Investigation of Mexican Affairs, then as an unofficial foreign emissary for the secretary of the interior and his oil company allies, and finally in an ill-defined position with the Interior Department, Hanson remained out of the public eye even as he worked to sell off the foreign policy of the United States to corporate interests. This series of jobs allowed Hanson to maintain his focus on trying to punish the Carranza regime in Mexico for its supposed crimes against him, while it also put that focus to work benefiting the imperial reach of US oil companies insistent that the postrevolutionary Mexican government not inconvenience their exploitation of Mexican oil deposits. From his position in the shadows, Hanson helped Fall launch a concerted campaign to destabilize the postrevolutionary Mexican state, seeking both revenge and a cut of the spoils sure to flow to the oil companies.

Part II, “Gatekeeping,” focuses on Hanson’s time in the Immigration Service, from 1923 to 1926. This period witnessed the passage of the landmark Immigration Act of 1924, the creation of the Border Patrol, and a drastic expansion of the infrastructure of border control at the nation’s periphery. From his position as district director of immigration in San Antonio, Hanson oversaw these efforts in South Texas, though he remained primarily focused on using his position both to hide and to abet various corrupt schemes. Chapter 3, “Deportation, Inconvenient Exiles, and Postrevolutionary State-Building,” examines one of these schemes. While Hanson had aided many counterrevolutionary exiles in their efforts to re-engage in the Mexican Revolution before he assumed his position in the Immigration Service, by 1924 he began assisting the postrevolutionary Mexican government of Plutarco Elías Calles with the arrest and deportation of exiled political and military leaders in Texas. The reasons for Hanson’s willingness to aid the Calles regime in the elimination of potentially troublesome political enemies are hard to pinpoint, but Hanson frequently sought to justify his illegal and corrupt actions in establishing what was essentially a murder-for-hire operation as the simplest method to achieve border control. Bending deportation law and notions of control into whatever shape suited him, Hanson was eager to do the bidding of the Mexican government just a few years after he had publicly conspired to overthrow it.

Chapter 4, “Immigration Control and the Numbers Game,” looks at another scheme run by William Hanson through the Border Patrol at Laredo. Led by Mortimer Hanson, one of William Hanson’s sons, Laredo Border Patrol personnel ran a smuggling operation through their offices that allowed favored smugglers to bring Mexican laborers and liquor into Texas with the aid of border control officials. In order to receive Border Patrol permission to engage in these activities, however, smugglers had to hand over all European immigrants to immigration officials after they crossed the border. This strange scheme, inaugurated after the passage of immigration quotas that drastically limited the number of legal immigrants who could enter the United States from eastern and southern Europe, represented almost all of the immigrant apprehensions recorded in the Laredo sector from 1923 to 1926. William Hanson was well aware of this operation and used it to produce two desired outcomes. He was able to present arrest numbers that made it appear as though the officers of Hanson’s district were achieving their goal of securing the border, even if those arrests were largely fraudulent, and he was able to pocket money from the smugglers who collected fees from these hopeful migrants. In other words, the Border Patrol under William Hanson operated primarily as a smuggling operation meant to produce the image of a dangerous region brought under control by the aggressive actions of the Immigration Service. It was, in many ways, the logical culmination of William Hanson’s career.

Finally, the epilogue examines the importance and continuity of William Hanson’s mode of bureaucratic action. From his campaigns to achieve complete impunity for Texas Ranger misdeeds as part of an effort to cement a white supremacist form of state governance, through his actions to use the US government to push forward the interests of oil companies, culminating in his efforts to project an image of border control that failed to hide his own brazen corruption, William Hanson operated in the bureaucratic shadows in a way that was illegal, immoral, and, from the perspective of today, unpleasantly familiar. Later corrupt officials certainly never credited William Hanson as their inspiration, in large part because not many people knew who William Hanson was, but his methods of institutional corruption have been repeated time and again in the same institutions that he represented. Law enforcement impunity and efforts to foist the fiction of border control on an uninformed public are not new or rare, but the ways in which Hanson’s actions seem to echo down through the later actions of other bureaucrats and politicians is both illuminating and sobering. Current depictions of a region out of control are part of a long, depressingly consistent history of efforts to justify the militarization of the border that remain stuck in the same childish racism as the scaremongering of Hanson’s era. Current political opportunists screech about “broken borders,” “invasions,” and the need for walls while employing methods of amplification (cable news, the internet) that William Hanson could not have imagined. Yet they make the same lazy arguments that seek only to demonize.

This book examines a decade in the life of a man who never held elected office, does not have a personal archival collection, and is unknown to many historians to create a window into the creation of modern state structures. His career was built on political patronage and a hunger for engaging in official corruption. Those limited talents pushed him into important appointed positions in the state and federal governments, but he ultimately died five years after leaving the Immigration Service a poor, broken man soon forgotten by the institutions and individuals who allowed his rise to power. He was not a political powerbroker whose actions were celebrated or even remembered within the Texas Rangers or the Immigration Service. Hanson was a well-connected apparatchik who simply disappeared once he was no longer useful to his employers. His relative obscurity, however, should not be mistaken for irrelevance. At an important moment of public efforts to project state power over the Texas-Mexico border region, during a period when law enforcement and powerful corporations sought to solidify their control over non-white populations, William Hanson made himself an agent of these forces. The silent legacy of William Hanson is still felt in the current reality of the Texas-Mexico border region. He is long dead, but his spirit— motivated by greed, racism, and a lack of concern for the implications of his actions—continues to haunt the US-Mexico borderlands as successive waves of political opportunists have sought their own benefit in demonizing the people who live in and cross through the region. The inheritors of Hanson’s legacy have loudly proclaimed that the border region is inherently dangerous, their declarations serving as both a diagnosis of the problem and a catalyst for state violence that only ever worsens the problem. This story of a law enforcement officer and bureaucrat in the early twentieth century helps us make sense of the present by allowing us to see some of the roots of current efforts to demonize the border and its residents.

John Weber is an associate professor of history at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, and the author of From South Texas to the Nation: The Exploitation of Mexican Labor in the Twentieth Century.