The Texas Rangers – The Original Texas Law Enforcement

The Texas Rangers are known as the oldest law-enforcement agency in North America with statewide jurisdiction. They’ve been compared to other world-famous agencies such as the FBI, Scotland Yard, Interpol, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. As an important part of Old West history and its mythology, scores of books have been written about the famous Texas Rangers.

The Rangers date back to 1823 when Stephen F. Austin recognized the need for a body of men to protect his fledgling colony. On August 5 of that year, Austin wrote that he would “…employ ten men…to act as rangers for the common defense.” These men “ranged” the area of Austin’s colony, protecting settlers from Indians. When no threat seemed evident, the men returned to their families and land.

By 1835, as the movement for Texas independence was about to boil over, a council of local government representatives created a “Corps of Rangers” to protect the frontier from Indians. These Rangers were paid $1.25 a day and could elect their own officers. They furnished their own arms, mounts, and equipment. The following year, when Texas declared its independence from Mexico, some Rangers took part in the fighting, though most served as scouts.

After independence, the debt-ridden government of the Republic of Texas soon found that the ranger company was the least expensive way to protect the frontier from Indians and the threat of Mexican attacks into the Texas side of the Rio Grande. During this era, such well-known rangers as Jack HaysBen McCulloch, Samuel Walker, and William “Bigfoot” Wallace first established their reputations as frontier fighters.

With annexation and the Mexican War, the experience of the rangers as scouts gained worldwide recognition. They were first used to scout the most practical route of the American army in its march to Monterrey. Later, because of their effectiveness against Mexican guerrillas, they became known by the natives in the region as “los diablos Tejanos“–the Texas devils.

Ranger Camp. The Ranger’s numbers generally declined throughout the last quarter of the 19th century. However, as shown in this photo taken in 1887, they were often called to the field to preserve law and order within Texas. (photo from collection of Mike Cox)

Because frontier protection after the Mexican War became the responsibility of the US army, the number (and notoriety) of the rangers dwindled. From this period through the Civil War and reconstruction, this once formidable force was reduced to a relatively less important duty.

By the end of Reconstruction, however, the urgent need for law and order returned. In addition to the continued threat of Indians on the western frontier and a resurgence of pillaging by Mexican bandits along the Rio Grande, a new and perhaps even greater threat to Texas appeared–that of lawless Texans.

In 1874, the Texas legislature sought to restore order by forming two groups of Rangers: the Special Force of Rangers and the Frontier Battalion. Under Captain Leander H. McNelly, the Special Force of Rangers moved into the Nueces Strip (between Corpus Christi and the Rio Grande) to combat lawlessness in that region. Meanwhile, the Frontier Battalion, a force of some 450 Rangers under Major John B. Jones, participated in over fifteen Indian battles and effectively neutralized the once-powerful Comanches and Kiowas. But perhaps more importantly, this group also “thinned out” more than 3,000 Texas desperados including bank robber Sam Bass and notorious gunfighter John Wesley Hardin.

Again, the Rangers did their job with such effectiveness that the need for their services was substantially reduced. Over the next twenty or thirty years until the turn of the century, their numbers were cut to only a fraction of their earlier levels.

While the nature of the Rangers changed as they entered the twentieth century, there remained a need for seasoned and highly trained officers to handle some of the state’s toughest law enforcement cases. Thus, in 1935, the Rangers became the elite force within the Texas Department of Public Safety, where they continue today as the state’s most highly trained officers for preserving law and order.

Frontier Fighters. Rangers from a unit of the Frontier Battalion helped retame Texas after the Civil War. In the 1870s, the Rangers apprehended or killed over 3,000 desperados, including Sam Bass and John Wesley Hardin. (photo from collection of Mike Cox)
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