By Ashley Kath-Bilsky
We live in an age when most people think professional baseball when they hear Texas Rangers and not the “oldest law enforcement body on the North American Continent.” Still, there is little doubt what inspired the Texas Rangers baseball team name. And as much as I love baseball and am a loyal fan of the Texas Ranger team located in Arlington, Texas, I am here today to talk about the ‘real’ Texas Rangers and their history.
Texas Rangers were prominently featured in short weekly matinee serials of the 30s and 40s. In addition to the widely popular Lone Ranger radio program, a western radio drama entitled Tales of the Texas Rangers aired in the 1950s with movie star Joel McCrea as Texas Ranger Jayce Pearson. Rather than the fictional Lone Ranger, Tales of the Texas Ranger featured episodes which reenacted actual Texas Ranger cases.
From cartoons, comic books, merchandise, weekly television shows like Walker, Texas Ranger and the award-winning miniseries Lonesome Dove, to western classics like The Searchers, Judge Roy Bean, True Grit, Bonnie and Clyde, and most recently, No Country for Old Men, there is little doubt the Texas Ranger character has been immortalized in many formats.
But just who were the real Texas Rangers, and how (and when) did they come into existence?
In 1820, when Texas was still under Spanish rule, Moses Austen (father to Stephen F. Austin) traveled from Missouri (once under Spanish dominion) to Spanish Texas and was the first Anglo-American granted an empresarial contract. As an empresario (meaning entrepreneur in Spanish), this contract meant he was the first Anglo American authorized to settle in Texas and establish a colony of 300 families. However, while returning home to Missouri, Moses Austin was attacked and would later die at home of pneumonia on 21 Jun 1821. Upon his death, his empresarial contract was inherited by his son, Stephen.
With settlement came bloodshed and death as Comanche and other Indian tribes viciously attacked. Raids and killings became so prevalent that Stephen F. Austin formed a militia unit to defend and protect the people of Texas.
In May of 1823, an initial company of volunteer men were assembled by Austin and Moses Morrison (his lieutenant) to defend the Texas coast. In August, Austin asked for ten more men to supplement Morrison’s company. His exact words were as follows:
“Since the commencement of this colony, no labor or expense has been spared on my part toward its organization, benefit and security, and I shall always be ready and willing to risk my health, my property or my life for the common advantage for those who have embarked with me in this enterprise. As a proof of the reality of this declaration I have determined to augment at my private expense the company of men which was raised by the late governor Trespalacios for the defense of the colony against hostile Indians. I therefore by these presents give public notice that I will employ ten men in addition to those employed by the government to act as rangers for the common defense. The said ten men will form a part of Lt. Moses Morrison’s company and the whole will be subject to my orders. The wages I will give the said ten men is $15 a month payable in property they find themselves. Those who wish to be employed will apply to me without delay. Stephen F. Austin – August 1823”
Men volunteered as needed and were required to provide their own horses and equipment. Multiple weapons, including rifles and knives, were necessary. After all, these men could be outnumbered by as much as fifty to one. [Pictured: Antique powder horns - Photo by AKB]
Corps of Rangers
However, in 1835, a Corps of Rangers was formally created by a council of colonial Texas representatives to help defend the frontier against increasing Indian attacks. Wages were fixed at $1.25 per day, and the rangers were authorized to elect officers. They were still required to furnish their own horses, weapons, and equipment. This first Corps of Rangers was commanded by R.M. Williamson, with William Arrington, Isaac Burleson, and John J. Tumlinson serving as Captains.
Also in 1835, the desire for Texas independence from Mexico had quickly escalated. By 1836, that fervent desire had ignited into a rebellion for freedom. During this volatile time, Texas Rangers “covered the retreat of civilians from dictator Santa Ana’s army”. And, it should be noted, that when Col. William B. Travis issued his plea for help in defending the Alamo, the only men who answered and rode to help him, and who fought and died in that historic battle were Rangers.
Perhaps one of the most famous Texas Rangers was John Coffee “Jack” Hays. Within three years of his arrival in San Antonio in 1837, Hays had earned such a reputation for fighting Indians and bandits that he was made a captain of the Rangers.[Photo of John Coffee "Jack" Hays courtesy Hays County Historical Commission]
Called “brave too much” by an Indian who had left his people to ride with Hays, the Ranger captain was also known for using the best weapon available at that time – namely the Colt Revolver. One of Samuel Colt’s earliest customers was the Republic of Texas. In fact, there is little doubt that Colt’s reputation as a gun manufacturer was established by the Texas Rangers. And it was a Texas Ranger in Captain Hays’ unit who made suggestions for improving the Colt pistol they used. Samuel H. Walker, a Texas Ranger, worked with Samuel Colt to invent the powerful 5-lb. Walker-Colt revolver.
The Official Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum in Waco, Texas, has an outstanding collection of Colt revolvers on display, including the Walker-Colt revolver. [See photo by AKB].
A year after Texas statehood in 1845, war was declared between the United States and Mexico. Texas Rangers from various companies were mustered into federal service as scouts, including Samuel Walker (who was killed in the war). After the war, the Texas Rangers returned to being a strictly volunteer paramilitary company, recruited when needed and disbanded when their service was no longer required.
In 1861, the Civil War ignited, dividing the country and turning brother against brother on countless battlefields. Texas seceded from the Union, and thousands of Texans joined the Confederate Army. During their absence a Regiment of Rangers provided frontier protection back home. In time they would also become part of the Confederate Army. When the war ended, and Restoration began, the United States Military disbanded the Rangers.
The southern states were ravaged by the War, and many families lost everything. Hoping for a new life, a wave of new settlers migrated to Texas. Indian attacks, although less frequent, still occurred. Crime also increased. Under Union control, the frontier became increasingly unsafe. To deal with this increasing problem, the 1874 Texas Legislature passed a bill creating six Ranger companies and a Special Force Ranger Company. In addition to continuing to protect against renegade Indians, the Rangers were authorized to restore law and order in Texas.
Frontier Battalion and Special Forces
The six Ranger companies were named the Frontier Battalion, and were charged with protecting citizens from Indian raids. The Special Forces unit, led by Capt. Leander McNelly, handled cases that involved criminal activity including the capture of murderer John Wesley Hardin and train robber Sam Bass.[Photo below: Lithograph James Gang robbing train - Public Domain]
From its early days as a volunteer militia to its formation as the Frontier Battalion and Special Forces unit, the Texas Rangers were heroic defenders of the innocent as they worked to provide law and order in Texas. During the one-year period of 1894-1895, the Texas Rangers “scouted 173,381 miles, made 676 arrests, returned 2,856 head of stolen livestock to their owners, assisted civil authorities 162 times and guarded jails on 13 occasions.” Yet, by 1900, the need for a Frontier Battalion had diminished, and the Special Ranger Force had been dissolved in 1881.
Dawn of a New Century
In July 1901, the Texas Legislature passed a new law about the Rangers. The Frontier Battalion was restructured into a Texas Ranger Force. This force included four companies, with 20 men in each company. The law stipulated the force would be organized by the governor “for the purpose of protecting the frontier against marauding or thieving parties, and for the suppression of lawlessness and crime throughout the state”. Captains would choose their own men who still had to provide their own horses and provide their own clothing.
As Texas entered the 20th century, Rangers served with diligence and skill to thwart everything from bandit raids and racist political insurrections to assisting federal officers during prohibition against bootleggers. During WWI, an additional 400 Special Rangers were appointed by the governor. When the war ended, 1919 Legislature reduced the force to four companies of 15 men, as well as a sergeant and captain. A “headquarters unit” comprised of six men and a senior Ranger captain was also established in Austin.
In 1935, the 44th Texas Legislature created the Department of Public Safety, and the Texas Rangers were made part of it. On the 112th anniversary of the month when Stephen F. Austen organized his first rangers, the name of Texas Rangers was made official. Six new companies were created. Commanded by a captain, they were lettered Company A through Company F. Badges and credentials were also issued at this time..
As mentioned previously, official badges were not issued until 1935. However, this does not mean Texas Ranger badges did not exist. The badges were purchased by individual Rangers at their own expense. These now rare, original badges of the 19th century were made out of a Mexican silver dollar and crafted by a jeweler or gunsmith. During the frontier law period, the Texas Rangers went from a paramilitary unit to a law enforcement organization. And since they were often based near towns, the badges were "used to identify themselves and as a symbol of authority", particularly necessary when other law enforcement personnel or hired guns might be present.
The earliest authenticated badge of this type is dated 1889. An easy way to identify a genuine historic Texas Ranger badge of this period is to look at the reverse side of the badge. The Mexican coin markings are still visible. [See Photo by AKB of the Ocho Reales Badge below.]
Another type of badge made before the official distribution of badges in 1935 was known as a Shield badge. Now considered rare, one such badge was carried by “Special” Railroad Ranger Milton Poole during the 1920s. Poole worked directly for the railroad and was, therefore, not paid by the state.
Over the years, many badges have been made and sold as being 'authentic' which were, in fact, replicated fake copies. There is certain criteria which helps identify a fraudulent badge. For example, the Lone Star Flag for the State of Texas has never been used on an official badge. The size of the badge itself, including either the circle or star, varies on fraudulent badges. And any badge which uses "current department emblems or wording" is considered fraudulent and violates state law.
In 1962, the Texas Rangers returned to the original tradition of using a Mexican silver dollar for the badges. The ‘new’ official Ranger badge replicated the original badge and was made out of a Mexican five peso silver dollar.
An article from the Texas Department of Public Safety in 1962 describes the meaning of the badge as follows: “The five-pointed star on the badge symbolizes the “Lone Star” of Texas. The points are supported by an engraved wheel, which is termed the ‘wagon wheel’ badge…” “The oak leaves on the left side represent strength and the olive branch on the right signifies peace…” “The cutout center star has engraving on it and the center of the star is reserved for the Company designation or the rank of Sergeant or Captain or Senior Captain.” “The edges still often have the coin lines and the coin is still highly visible on the reserves of the badge.”[Quote Citation: Colonel Homer Garrison, Jr., Director of the Texas Department of Public Safety and Chief of the Texas Rangers, announced in October, 1962]
Texas Rangers in the 21st Century
Texas Rangers have authority throughout the State of Texas, and are called in by various communities and cities for their expertise in solving cases. They are an official law enforcement organization and have the same power as any local sheriff with one exception. The authority of a Texas Ranger extends throughout the State.
Since 1993, the Texas Rangers are recognized as a major division of the Department of Public Safety with “lead criminal investigative responsibility for the following: major incident crime investigations, unsolved crime/serial crime investigations, public corruption investigations,officer involved shooting investigations, and border security operations.” Highly skilled with knowledge of the latest and most scientific methods for their investigations, they provide exceptional assistance to law enforcement throughout the State of Texas, very much like the FBI does for the United States. And since 9/11, the Texas Rangers have also become involved with homeland security matters in the state.
The statewide Texas Ranger headquarters is located in Austin, Texas. Individual company headquarters, A-K are as follows:
Company “A” – Houston
Company “B” – Garland
Company “C” – Lubbock
Company “D” –San Antonio
Company “E” – Midland
Company “F” – Waco
Company “G” – McAllen
Company “K” – El Paso
Wearing civilian clothing, a Texas Ranger is often recognized by his western hat and boots. And above the left pocket of his shirt is his official badge, still made as an homage to their predecessors from a silver Mexican coin – a testament to their history and their legacy.
A wonderful place to visit and learn more about the history of the Texas Rangers is located in Waco, Texas. The Official Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum, sponsored by the City of Waco, Texas strives to preserve the proud history of the Texas Rangers, serving as a repository of artifacts and documentation, a research and study center, as well as honor the men who proudly served the State of Texas as Texas Rangers.[Photo by AKB]
The Texas Ranger Law Enforcement Association
The Official Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum, Waco, Texas
The Texas Rangers by Walter Prescott Webb, 2008
Hays County Historical Commission