Texas has had its share of lawlessness. Since the 1820s the chief deterrent to crime in a multi-million acre territory has been the Texas Ranger. Stephen F. Austin organized two companies in 1823 "for the common defense." The provisional government in 1835 authorized a "ranging company" of 25 Rangers, later increased to three companies of 56 men each. Throughout the Republic period ranger units repelled Indian attacks and Mexican invasions. Texas Rangers under Capt. Jack Hays were the first to use the five-shot Colt revolver (Paterson model), proving its worth against the Comanche at the Battle of Walker Creek.
After Annexation, Rangers gained notoriety for their exploits in the Mexican War. They served thereafter as frontier defense and, during the Civil War, the Governor of Texas authorized the creation of the Frontier Regiment to provide defense against Indians and criminals. They served until 1863, when the entire force was mustered into Confederate service. The governor replaced them with the "Frontier Organization." Minute Men operated in the early 1870s, and in 1874 were joined by the Frontier Battalion and Special Forces.
The rangers continued to operate under the Adjutant General's Office until 1935. Following an 1934 investigation of corruption in the Ferguson administration, the Texas Legislature created the Texas Department of Public Safety headed by an independent Public Safety Commission. In 1998 the organization celebrated its 175th anniversary.
John Wesley Hardin had been a killer since his teen age years. From 1867, when he stabbed a fellow student in the schoolyard until his death in 1895 he continued a life of "gentlemanly" violence. He never killed a man, he said, who didn't need killing.
In May 1874 he killed Charles Webb, deputy sheriff of Brown County. From that time, Hardin was constantly pursued in Texas. John Barclay Armstrong, the Texas Ranger known as "McNelly's Bulldog," asked to be allowed to arrest the notorious gunman. He pursued Hardin first to Alabama, then to Florida, then confronted him and four of his gang on a train in Pensacola on July 23, 1877. In the affray that followed, Armstrong killed one of Hardin's men, rendered Hardin unconscious with a blow from his handgun, and arrested the remaining gang members.
Hardin was tried at Comanche for the murder of Charles Webb and sentenced, on September 28, 1878, to twenty-five years in prison. During his prison term he made repeated efforts to escape, read theological books, was superintendent of the prison Sunday school, and studied law. He was pardoned on March 16, 1894, and admitted to the bar. He was killed the next year. Armstrong was also one of the men involved in killing Sam Bass at Round Rock in 1878.
In the spring of 1878, Sam Bass and his gang held up four trains within twenty-five miles of Dallas. In April, Governor Richard Coke commissioned Junius W. Peak a second lieutenant in Company B of the Frontier Battalion and charged him with raising a special ranger detachment to track down Sam Bass and his gang. By May, Peak was captain of Company B. With the aid of local posses he and his men harassed Bass for several months, driving him from North Texas.
Bass evaded them until he was betrayed by one of his own men. Jim Murphy wrote to Major John B. Jones, commander of the Frontier Battalion. The rangers engaged Bass in a gun battle in Round rock on July 19, 1878. They found him lying wounded outside of town the next morning. Taken back to Round Rock, he died on July 21.
Eyewitness account of a massacre at Porvenir, Texas, from the 1919 investigation
By the turn of the 20th century, there was talk of abolishing the Rangers. The frontier had been tamed, and the Rangers seemed little more than a relic of earlier, more colorful times. Then came the Mexican Revolution. From 1910-1920, Mexico endured the misery of violence and civil war, and the border country of Texas was soon swept into the maelstrom.
Raids and cattle theft had been a sporadic problem along the Mexican border for decades, but in 1915, revolutionaries began to target symbols of American oppression for destruction, including farms, irrigation systems, and railroad lines. Local law enforcement could not cope with the escalating lawlessness. The Texas governor dispatched the Texas Rangers to restore order and chase the revolutionaries back to the Mexican side of the line. (The unrest spanned the terms of three governors: Oscar Colquitt, James E. "Pa" Ferguson, and William Hobby.) As the violence grew worse, the legislature authorized the creation of special companies called Loyalty Rangers to police the border.
Unfortunately, these Rangers wrote a black chapter in the history of their organization. Not content to police the area, they engaged in heavy-handed bullying of the Tejano population and worse. It is estimated that as many as 5000 Hispanics were killed by the Rangers between 1914 and 1919. (About 400 white Texans were killed in the unrest on the border, and millions of dollars in property was destroyed.) Some shocking atrocities were perpetrated against civilians on both sides.
In 1918, Texas state representative José T. Canales of Brownsville launched an investigation into the conduct of the Texas Rangers during the border wars and filed nineteen charges of misconduct against the Rangers. The following year, the Texas legislature formed a joint House-Senate committee to look into Canales's charges. They heard testimony for two weeks.
As a result of the investigation, the Loyalty Rangers were abolished, and the Texas Rangers were reduced in force. Higher recruiting standards were put in place, and the pay of Rangers was increased to attract and retain higher-quality officers. Finally, procedures were implemented to better hear complaints from citizens about misconduct. These reforms helped the Rangers return to a position of respect during the 1920s and 1930s.
The entire transcript of the 1919 Ranger investigation (almost 1500 pages) is now available in PDF format.
Warrant of authority for Frank Hamer, 1931
Frank A. Hamer enlisted in the Texas Rangers in 1906. He remained an active peace officer, both in the Ranger organization and in other law enforcement positions until 1932. He retired from active duty that year, but retained his commission as a ranger. On February 1, 1934, Marshall Lee Simmons, head of the prison system, asked Hamer to take the new position of special investigator for the Texas prison system. Hamer was assigned to track down the nationally known outlaws Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker.
The criminal duo broke into the Texas State prison in Huntsville to rescue a gang member, and shot their way out of two previous attempted arrests. Hamer and former Ranger Manny Gault decide to take no chances. On May 23, 1934, they set up an ambush near Gibsland on a rural Louisiana road and poured a hail of bullets into the car, killing the outlaws. The United States Congress awarded Hamer a special citation for catching the pair.