Late 19th Century, 1875-1901

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Bloody feuds, lynch mobs, cattle thieves, and killers marked the period following Reconstruction.  The abolishment of the State Police and the withdrawal of Federal troops created a noticeable gap in law enforcement.  The state’s frontier settlements remained vulnerable to incursions by Native Americans and Mexican bandits.  In response, the Texas Legislature created the Frontier Battalion on April 10, 1874 to defend against Native Americans and to enforce law and order.

When confronting an external enemy, the Texas Ranger was expected to be a soldier. When enforcing law within the state, the Ranger became detective and police officer.

Led by Major John B. Jones, a Confederate veteran from Navarro County, the Frontier Battalion was organized into six companies of 75 men each. The Rangers intercepted Mexican and Native American marauders that crossed into Texas.  By September 1875, no raids were reported in the battalion's area of operations, an area 100 miles wide stretching 400 miles from the Red River to the Rio Grande. By their count, the Rangers killed 27 Native Americans, not counting the wounded that died subsequently. They fought their last fight with Native Americans in January 1881 in far west Texas.

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There were still local battles to be fought. From 1894 to 1895, the Rangers scouted 173,381 miles, made over 600 arrests, returned over 2,000 heads of stolen livestock to the owners, assisted local law enforcement, and guarded jails.

As a result, Texan folklore vested them with superhuman abilities. News articles and popular fiction reinforced their legendary status.  Memoirs and first-hand accounts of pioneers intermingled fact with fiction.
The decline of the Frontier Battalion coincided with the death of Major Jones and the resignation of its captains in 1881.

Items in this exhibit

The links shown below to the items displayed in this exhibit will open in PDF format in a separate window or tab. The documents are shown here in their entirety so some of the files contain multiple pages.

“Red Men and White” by Owen Wister, 1896. TSLAC Main Collection, 813.4 W768rs.

Dime novels and other short works of fiction captured popular imagination in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The stories typically focused on the dramatic adventures of a single heroic character. The idealized figure of the Texas Ranger lent himself well to tales of life on the frontier where the virtuous cowboy was pitted against outlaws and the “savage Indian.” Mainstream media helped transport the mythology of the Texas Ranger beyond just the state and found a loyal fan base in young children and men.  

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Bowie knife, TSLAC Artifact Collection, ATF0468.

Named after frontiersman James Bowie, the Bowie knife was a popular weapon with the Texas Rangers by the time of the outbreak of the Mexican War in 1846.  During the Civil War, it was possible to determine a man’s loyalties by the markings on the blade of his knife, which included patriotic scrolls, defiant mottos and the American eagle. After the introduction of the Colt revolver, the Bowie knife diminished in favor. By the mid-1870s, it was used primarily as a hunting knife.

The blade of this knife is marked: G. Wostenholm & Son, Washington Works, I*XL, the real IXL knife, The Hunters Companion. The flat, unsharpened area of the blade just above the guard bears the image of an officer on horseback, presumably a likeness of Mexican War hero and eventual president, General Zachary Taylor.

General Order No. 5, 1874. Adjutant General Department Ranger Records, Frontier Battalion Correspondence, 1933/001.

The Frontier Battalion was like most other military units. Much time and thought was devoted to organizational structure, bureaucracy, keeping up the spirits and discipline of its men, and weeding out undesirable recruits. A number of general orders were issued to this effect by Major John B. Jones.

General Order No. 5 was in regards to the onlookers, admirers, supporters and speculators that traveled alongside the Rangers as they moved from one location to the next.  The order reminded the men that they were “in the employment of the Government” and as such should “be constantly engaged in some sort of service.”

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A Texan Ranger, July 6, 1861. Prints and Photographs Collection, #1/125-32.

Even though the Texas Rangers were gaining a reputation for law enforcement and discipline, it took a while for the rest of the country to shed its traditional image of mountain men in the American West. The shift from savage to heroic began in the 1870s with the formation of the Frontier Battalion. The Texas Ranger became a romanticized figure characterized by his fierce fighting ability, cool calm, and stoic demeanor.

Charles August Johnson, Frontier Battalion, 1892. Prints and Photographs Collection, #1/32-1.

Actual Rangers, such as Charles August Johnson, were ordinary men recruited from the communities they served to protect. For this photograph taken in 1892, Johnson likely walked his horse inside a photography studio at an unidentified location.

Texas Rangers at the El Paso County Courthouse, 1896. Prints and Photographs Collection, 1957/011-4.

In 1895, a heavyweight championship bout was announced between Bob Fitzsimmons and James J. Corbett, scheduled for October 31 in Dallas. Governor Charles Culberson made prizefighting a state felony on October 3, 1895. A group of people in El Paso raised $10,000 for the prize and planned to stage the fight in Juarez, Mexico. Boxer Peter Maher was brought in to replace Corbett who decided to retire. Mexican President Porfirio Diaz warned that he had sent cavalry to arrest anyone entering Mexico to take part in the fight.  Governor Culberson sent Texas Rangers to El Paso, Texas.

After months of delay, on February 20, 1896, fans arrived in Langtry, Texas. Judge Roy Bean brought the spectators, press and Rangers to a sandbar on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande. The Rangers had no authority there, and there were no Mexican law men to be found.  The fight lasted 95 seconds.  Fitzsimmons knocked Maher out in the first round and claimed the $10,000 purse.

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Page last modified: May 20, 2016