As Americans take a closer look at formerly revered symbols from the past, few would argue that, for Texans, one of the most highly charged developments might be the sustained and negative attention given in the past months to the Texas Rangers, the legendary militia and, now, elite police force.
On the national scene, Confederate statues have come down almost by the day in the wake of Black Life Matters protests against police brutality and systemic racism.
Native Americans and others have objected to triumphal images of Spanish explorers as well as to monuments to American leaders who aggressively pursued the policy of Manifest Destiny, the notion that the West was the natural realm of white settlers moving toward the Pacific Ocean.
In a dramatic gesture after decades of criticism, the Washington, D.C., NFL franchise recently announced that it was changing the name and logo of the Redskins, long a pejorative term for American Indians.
Now it’s the turn of the Texas Rangers.
Doug J. Swanson, a former Dallas journalist who attended the University of Texas and now teaches in Pittsburgh, has written a book, “Cult of Glory: The Bold and Brutal History of the Texas Rangers,” that has already changed minds about a force that, for almost 200 years, has remained a powerful part of Texan myth and identity.
For more than 400 pages, the author makes a well-documented case that, while the Texas Rangers often acted heroically, some were repeatedly guilty of heinous crimes, dating from the days when they effectively adopted Comanche horseback fighting and raiding techniques.
Other writers have made some of these crimes public.
One of the most compelling Texas histories of the past few years, for instance, is Monica Muñoz Martinez’s “The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas.” Muñoz Martinez also contributed to the work of a group of UT-based scholars laboring on the “Refusing to Forget” historical project, the impetus behind the Bullock Texas History Museum’s award-winning exhibit “Life and Death on the Mexican Border, 1910-1920.”
The cumulative effect has been decisive.
The research of scholars and journalists has already helped persuade the city of Dallas to take down its heroic Texas Ranger statue from Love Field. Meanwhile, some columnists have called on the Texas Rangers Baseball Club, along with other sports teams, to change its name.
The club has declined to do so.
How we got here
Nelson chose the words in his book’s title carefully.
“Bold” is potent.
For almost 200 years, the Rangers have lived up to the newspaper headline that called them “The Fightingest Men on Earth.”
“The early Rangers fought Indians, Mexicans and many unfortunate others,” Swanson writes. “Later they chased rustlers, smugglers and roving gangs of marauders. As Texas changed in the mid-20th century, so did Rangers, who were transformed into a force of professional state police, pursuing gangsters, kidnappers and lawbreakers of all types.”
The “glory” in the title is usually considered a positive word.
In this case, however, a good deal of the glory was manufactured. From the beginning, the Rangers were like catnip for reporters, novelists and mythmakers. Later, they were the subjects of countless movies, radio programs and television shows, not the least of which is “The Lone Ranger.”
“The presentation of the quintessential Ranger owes much to fictional rendering, but a good portion of it came from the Rangers themselves,” Swanson writes. From the earliest days, Rangers wrote about their exploits or told them to reporters and later acted as script advisers to Hollywood interpreters of their legends.
The word “cult” does not usually come with favorable associations.
Always a small group, the Rangers, up until the late 20th century, consisted of white men only. Fiercely loyal to one another — for the most part — they brooked no contradiction or disrespect from the public. During the 19th century and even later, their assured self-regard could result in bloodshed for anyone who crossed them. Yet even as recently as the 1960s, according to Swanson’s book, Rangers threatened, slapped or pistol-whipped some of those who did not adequately respect the badge.
“Brutal” is the most explosive word in Swanson’s title. To tremendous effect, Swanson pulls the Rangers’ record of brutality together, factually and without polemics.
“They were violent instruments of repression,” Swanson writes. “They burned peasant villages and slaughtered innocents. They committed war crimes. Their murders of Mexicans and Mexican Americans made them as feared on the border as the Ku Klux Klan in the Deep South. They hunted runaway slaves for bounty. They violated international law with impunity. They sometimes moved through Texas towns like rampaging gangs. They conspired to quash the civil rights of black citizens. They busted unions and broke strikes. They enforced racial segregation of public schools. They botched important criminal investigations. They served the interests of the moneyed and powerful while oppressing the poor and disenfranchised. They have been the army of Texas’ ruling class.”
Swanson does not turn a blind eye to the vicious practices — torture, rape, murder, kidnapping — of the Rangers’ revolving cast of opponents. Yet those horrors have been retold thousands of times by Ranger apologists such as historians Walter Prescott Webb and T.R. Fehrenbach, as well as every sort of printed, filmed or broadcast form of storytelling about Texas.
The Rangers have burnished their status through systematic whitewashing, and “here the Rangers have set themselves apart,” Swanson writes. “Not only have they covered up their wrongdoing, they and their willing accomplices have perfected the art of mythic rehabilitation. For decades, the Rangers operated a fable factory through which many of their greatest defeats, worst embarrassments and darkest moments were recast as grand triumphs. They didn’t merely whitewash the truth. They destroyed it.”
Swanson’s is not a dry legal case.
“‘Cult of Glory’ is a masterpiece of American history. Period,” writes S.C. Gwynne, author of the bestseller “Empire of the Summer Moon,” which shares some of Swanson’s broad-canvas storytelling techniques. “Swanson has taken on the Texas Ranger legend in all of its terrifying magnificence, disassembled it, and created in its place a real, true and shockingly new history.”
The short list
While Swanson tells his speedy story, he stacks up a list of memorable misdeeds and misrepresentations. The power of the book lies in the cumulative evidence, including:
• In 1825, colonist and empresario Stephen F. Austin wrote to a Mexican official that the Karankawas had broken a peace agreement. “I have been compelled in view of the security of our people,” Austin wrote, “to give positive orders to the lieutenant of the militia … to pursue and kill all those Indians wherever they are found.” By 1830, the Rangers had effectively exterminated the Karankawas. In a climactic battle near the mouth of the Colorado River, they killed about 50 Karankawa men, women and children, many of whom were fleeing.
• There is no contemporary evidence that Ranger Jack Hays held off a Comanche party from atop Enchanted Rock, an oft-told tall tale that strains credulity, in part because it does not take into account the actual geography. “That dozens of these wily and experienced warriors would attack only a few times, let their prey fire and reload for hours, seems absurd,” Swanson writes. “So does the notion that Hays could, with only a few rocks, hastily assemble an impregnable fortress.”
• The Rangers feared the Indians, but they hated the Mexicans. One Ranger, Sam Walker, repeatedly sought vengeance for the mistreatment he was dealt at Mexican hands. His “take no prisoners” stance is illustrated by the time he captured a group along the border accused of crimes. Walker executed them on the spot. “I of course took summary measures,” he told his brother in a letter. Apparently, President James Polk signed off on such acts. Walker wrote: “I have been left here for the purpose (of) freeing this part of the country from the bands of marauders that infest it.”
• Young Lt. U.S. Grant witnessed the Rangers rampaging through Mexican towns during the Mexican American War (1846-1848). “About all of the Texans seem to think it is perfectly right to impose on the people of a conquered city to any extent, and even to murder them where the act can be covered by the dark. And how much they seem to enjoy acts of violence too!”
• Rangers crossed the border to retrieve runaway enslaved people who were “owned by men living in Texas.” In doing so, sometimes they seized Mexican towns. Many of the Rangers belonged to the Knights of the Golden Circle, which was dedicated to forming a slave-owning empire based in Cuba. Others who at least called themselves Rangers participated in an attempt to set up a slave-owning colony in Nicaragua.
• Not well managed by civilians until the 1930s, some Rangers degenerated into a sort of vigilante squad as the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) spilled across the border. The number of lynchings, casual murders and massacres — the one at Porvenir has been documented abundantly — are hard to count. Oftentimes, victims were labeled “bandits,” but the Mexican and Mexican American families remember their lost relatives differently, as Muñoz Martinez has carefully documented.
• The Sherman Courthouse Riot of 1930 was a particularly gruesome lynching of a Black man accused of assaulting a white woman in North Texas and an example of the Ranger mythmaking making a hero out of someone who failed to protect a citizen. There, famed Captain Frank Hamer — who had prevented other lynchings — and three other Rangers held off a mob that was trying to take the accused man from the courtroom, but then failed to prevent them from burning down the courthouse while the prisoner was the only person locked inside. The riot moved into Sherman’s Black neighborhood where, among other atrocities, the dead victim’s body was desecrated. The Rangers did nothing to stop them.
• History buffs are familiar with ugly stories about mob scenes that took place in the 1950s as African Americans sought to integrate public schools in the South. In 1956, an angry white crowd refused to let Black students attend school in Mansfield, south of Arlington. The Ranger in charge of policing the situation did not aid the students but rather sided with the whites in a report to his superiors. This kind of thing happened time and again in Texas. As columnist and author J. Frank Dobie put it, “This was probably the first time in the history of the state that the chief executive dispatched armed forces not to quell a mob but to uphold it.”
• Although they professed neutrality, the Rangers acted frequently on the side of farm and business owners when called in to prevent possible violence during strikes. At no time was this more obvious than during a key farmworkers strike in South Texas in 1966. The famous force that Mexican Americans called Los Rinches was sent to the Valley precisely to intimidate — and they did. The Rangers “are the Mexican Americans’ Ku Klux Klan,” state Sen. Joe Bernal from San Antonio said. “All they need is a white hood with ‘Rinches’ written across it.” As one border joke put it, “All Rangers have Mexican blood — on their boots.”
• Two of Swanson’s last chapters have to do with spectacular examples of Ranger incompetence, both cases centering on notorious liars.
One Ranger went out of his way to investigate and promote an elaborate conspiracy theory that involved President Lyndon Johnson ordering hits on three people, including his sister, Josefa Johnson, all based on the word of famed conman Billie Sol Estes.
A whole squad of Rangers later promoted the reckless theory that an incompetent and perhaps schizophrenic drifter, Henry Lee Lucas, murdered more than 100 people — maybe more than 200 — over the course of several years. They pampered Lucas and paraded him around to any site around the country where authorities could not solve a murder, left him alone with evidence — Rangers contradict that point — and then declared each crime solved.
Yet thanks to the work of Dallas reporters and a Waco district attorney, the whole fiction collapsed. Lucas, a known liar, went to a maximum-security prison based on a few convictions, and Gov. George W. Bush stopped his execution when a Williamson County murder case known as “Orange Socks” fell apart. Lucas died in prison in 2001.
Not only did the Rangers’ actions mean that the real killers often got away with murder, but they should have known all along that they were wrong. They claimed that they could not possibly track all of Lucas’ movements, but their logbooks, preserved at the Texas State Library and Archives, show that they repeatedly recorded evidence of his presence hundreds of miles away from a crime site.
As Swanson writes, “They knew.”
“The Texas Department of Public Safety is aware of Mr. Swanson’s book and defers judgment on the veracity of its content to Texas historians,” DPS said in a statement. “The modern day Texas Rangers are comprised of principled men and women of great skill and integrity who are fully committed to the rule of law.”
Meanwhile, Major League Baseball’s Texas Rangers have no plans to change their name after columnists, some citing Swanson’s book, took them to task.
“While we may have originally taken our name from the law enforcement agency, since 1971 the Texas Rangers Baseball Club has forged its own, independent identity,” the team said in a statement. “The Texas Rangers Baseball Club stands for equality. We condemn racism, bigotry and discrimination in all forms.”
They won’t be the last public entity, however, to confront such a situation.
At the same time, those who want to hold the original Texas Rangers historically accountable for their recorded acts must deal with almost 200 years of powerful mythmaking in the force’s favor.
Ranger Jim Adams warned the Waco district attorney who had promised to probe the force’s botched handling of the Lucas case, “If you are attacking the Rangers, you are attacking America.”
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