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Stephen Fuller Austin and his fellow riders broke camp in the short-lived cool of the late-summer morning and continued their trek to the southeast along a lake formed on the Colorado River by a large driftwood raft.
The twenty-seven-year-old Missourian, a slim, noble-featured man with wavy brown hair and eyes the color of pecan shells, had crossed the Sabine River westward into Texas in July 1821. Folded in his saddlebag rested an agreement his late father, Moses, had negotiated with officials of the Spanish Crown to settle three hundred American families in this distant frontier province. Stephen Austin had vowed to follow through on his father’s dream of bringing settlers to this new country, but Mexico’s successful overthrow of Spain had placed the matter in doubt.
After meeting with the new republic’s provincial governor in San Antonio de Bexar to assure that his empresario contract remained in force, Austin set out to see firsthand the territory he had permission to populate with men and women from the United States. A couple of times he had encountered friendly Tonkawas, but he knew that not all of Texas’s Indian tribes had cordial feelings for those of European descent. Along the coast lived the Karankawas, tall Indians said to practice cannibalism.
From Bexar, Austin and his party traveled down the San Antonio River to Goliad, a small town near an old Spanish presidio and mission called La Bahia. With one of the town’s councilmen as an escort and three Aranama Indians as guides, Austin’s entourage rode southeast. When it became apparent after a few days that the locals did not know the country well enough to be of use, Austin talked them into going back to Goliad and pressed on with his own men.
Safely home back in Bexar, Manuel Becerra reported troubling news. Even though Austin’s agreement stipulated that American colonists would have to practice Roman Catholicism, he had never seen Austin or any of his men perform any “religious act.” Too, they spoke only English. Becerra found Austin’s unabashed admiration of real estate clearly not a part of his grant even more disturbing. Assessing the coming Anglo immigration, the local official predicted, “They will be more harmful than beneficial.”
The land clearly spoke to Austin. The grassy prairies and timbered river bottoms influenced him every bit as strongly as his father’s dying wish that he continue with his colonization plans. “The country is the most beautiful & desirable to live in I ever saw,” Austin wrote in his diary.
Now, on the second day of his journey along the Colorado, he heard a loud Indian war whoop. Startled back to reality, Austin reined his horse. A tall Indian, followed by fourteen warriors, emerged from the high, thick Arundinaria (bamboo cane) along the river and walked slowly toward the American horsemen.
“These Indians were well formed and apparently very active and athletic men,” Austin later noted. Each warrior, his body smeared with alligator grease to ward off mosquitoes, carried a cedar bow nearly as long as he stood tall. Austin saw that the deerskin quivers hanging from the Indians’ muscled shoulders bristled with arrows. Signing friendship, the Indian in the lead moved toward Austin and his party.
Telling his men to get ready to fight, Austin nudged his horse with his boots and rode about twenty yards ahead to meet the Indians. He had never fought Indians hand to hand, but as an officer in the Missouri militia during the War of 1812, Austin had learned something of military strategy and tactics. A show of determination, he knew, could be as effective as resorting to arms. Talk would come before gunfire.
In Spanish, the chief asked Austin where he was from and where he was going. Austin explained that he was an American with permission from Spain to bring families to settle between the Colorado and Brazos rivers. Accepting that, the chief identified himself as a Coco, which Austin knew to be a branch of the feared Karankawas. Wary of the chief’s invitation to follow the Indians to their camp, Austin refused. Holding his flintlock rifle across his chest, the young American warned the Indians not to come closer.
Hoping to counter Austin’s distrust, the chief made a show of laying down his bow and arrows. When five women and a boy walked into view, Austin’s gaze shifted from the fierce-looking warriors and their weapons to the women. They wore painted animal hides that hung just below their knees, but, as Austin later recorded, “above the waist . . . they were naked. . . . Their breasts . . . marked or tattooed in circles of black beginning with a small circle at the nipple and enlarging as the breast swelled.” All of the women, Austin continued, “were handsome & one of them quite pretty.”
Not fully convinced by the Indians’ demonstration of friendliness, Austin assumed their apparent conviviality came from a realization that they stood little chance against the mounted white men and their firearms. Finally deciding they posed no immediate danger, he gave the chief some tobacco and “a frying pan that we did not want” as tokens of friendship.
The chief told Austin that he and his followers were on their way to trade with “Spaniards and Americans” along the long road that stretched from Louisiana via Nacogdoches to San Antonio and then to Mexico, the Camino Real, or King’s Highway. The Coco also said the downstream canebreak, which Austin later learned covered an area forty miles wide by seventy-five miles long and rose to thirty feet, grew too thick for Austin’s party to reach the river’s mouth. Besides that, the chief added, a large party of Karankawas had their camp nearby. Leaving the Cocos to their trading, Austin prudently gave up on seeing where the river emptied into the Gulf of Mexico and rode east toward the Brazos.1
This encounter, on September 17, 1821, marked the first significant contact between the man considered the Father of Anglo Texas and the Indians who lived in the area he intended to colonize. Austin’s journal entry for that day not only summarized his views and the attitude of most of his countrymen, it presaged the next sixty years of Texas history:
These Indians and the Karanquas [sic] may be called universal enemies to man—they killed of all nations that came into their power, and frequently feast on the bodies of their victims—the [approach of] an American population will be the signal of their extermination for there will be no way of subduing them but extermination.2
Raungers, Raingers, Rangers
The cultural collision that followed, the continuation of two centuries of European conquest of North America, constituted the problem for which the Texas Rangers evolved as a partial solution. In time, the necessity of statewide law enforcement grew to be more important than protection from Indians, but Indian fighting stood as the first order of business for rangers in Texas. That conflict began an enduring tradition, giving rise to an earned reputation for effectiveness eventually enhanced by myth. Like a finely braided horsehair quirt, the story of the Rangers has many strands, an interweaving of reality and legend. Texans did not invent rangering, but they made the word usable as a verb and added to its meaning as a noun, over time forging Texas and Ranger—when used together—into a Lone Star icon recognized worldwide.
The word ranger dates to fourteenth-century England, when royal officers called raungers guarded the deforested areas on the edge of timber. These men used dogs to keep game in the forest, ever available for royal hunts, to apprehend trespassers hunting illegally, and to take anyone they caught to court. Essentially, these representatives of the Crown amounted to game wardens. They patrolled the land—ranged it—and they had a semblance of law enforcement authority.3
When the first English colonists arrived on the east coast of North America, they brought the ranging tradition with them. By the first half of the 1600s, the common spelling of the word had become rainger, an i having replaced the u. By 1634, when one Edward Beckler served as a rainger on a Virginian island in Chesapeake Bay, the word had come to mean one of a body of men who afforded a community protection by scouting for enemies and engaging them when found. In 1647–48, the Maryland Assembly weighed a plan to use “raingers or scouts” in the protection of the colony. Georgia colony records from 1733 reflect that “Rangers . . . protected the new Settlers.” Nine years later, it was noted that “rangers who can ride the woods” were needed “for the defense of the colony.”4
The early history of the American colonies is largely the story of a struggle for control of the land. The English and French vied for continental dominance, but both had to contend with the original inhabitants, the Indians. During the French and Indian War, a nine-year conflict beginning in 1754 between the British and the French and their Indian allies, the value of rangers as an irregular military force became firmly established.5 “Our friends at Ft. Prince-George are in deplorable circumstances, the fort being blockaded Night & Day by the Cherokees,” the Boston News-Letter reported. “Seven companies of Rangers are to be compleated forthwith to succour Ft. Prince-George, the garrison being greatly distressed for Provisions.”6
Robert Rogers became the first American ranger to achieve lasting fame. His men, who assisted British regular soldiers by providing reconnaissance and serving both as advance guards and guerrilla raiders, came to be called Rogers’ Rangers. In 1759, Rogers put pen to parchment and set down twenty standing orders for his men, a list of commonsense principles ranging from “Don’t forget nothing” (No. 1) to “Don’t never take a chance you don’t have to” (No. 5) to “Don’t use your musket if you can kill ’em with your hatchet” (No. 20.)7
Rangers later played a role in the Revolutionary War, and the ranger concept continued southward along the eastern seaboard before turning west. “Ranger-frontiersmen,” a law enforcement historian later wrote, “had a distinctive role as soldiers: unmilitary dress with the firepower of a special weapon in irregular warfare. Citizen soldiers were an age-old instrument of British military policy that became embedded in American culture.”8
England and France were not the only European powers with significant toeholds in North America in the 1700s. The land that would become Texas was part of the widespread Spanish empire. While the word ranger came of Anglo-Saxon heritage, the concept of an irregular fighting force of armed riders, available as needed, was not unique. If anything, the mounted tradition held stronger in the vastness of New Spain than the wooded lands along the Eastern seaboard, where snowshoe men served as an early synonym for rangers.
With brigands roaming the frontier provinces of New Spain as freely as the war-loving Comanches, a special court of justice promulgated a doctrine known as La Acordada. Agreed to by the Crown in 1719, the courts of Spain approved it three years later:
Whereby the present courts of justice are insufficient to give protection to the country whose cities and villages are infested with thieves and bandits and, since Don Miguel Velasquez de Lorreo in Queretaro, Mexico, a member of the Holy Brothers, duly authorized, initiated summary trials without revision of the sentence has proven so effective, it has been accorded to extend the same procedure throughout the country.
In other words royal decree suspected criminals could be tried and summarily executed. An unpaid mounted law enforcement organization that ranged the frontier of New Spain, looking for trouble and troublemakers, carried out La Acordada. Those men, under the command of a captain based in Mexico City, were called lieutenants or deputies. They furnished their own arms, provisions, and horses. The riders wore no uniforms. The honor of serving the Crown and protecting life and property provided motivation enough.
By the time Mexico revolted against Spain in 1810, La Acordada—a one-stop criminal justice system—had resulted in the summary execution of more than eight hundred criminals. “It then became possible to travel throughout the country and to carry silver or money provided one had a small escort,” one scholar later wrote.9
In addition to the men who enforced La Acordada, Spanish landowners had been ordered by the viceroy to organize “flying companies” of volunteer militia at the presidios of the northern frontier. The men of those companies could ride after Indians at a moment’s notice, a tradition that would also take root in Texas. San Antonio–based companies under Salvador Flores and Juan Seguin (whose father served as alcalde, or civil judge, of Bexar), the Tlascalan Compañía Volante San Carlos de Parras, the Guardia Victoriana under Carlos de la Garza, the San Fernando Rangers under Mariano Rodriquez, and the Nacogdoches company of Vicente Cordova all amounted to rangerlike forces.
As a legal institution, La Acordada died with Spain’s dreams of empire in the New World. But in Texas, the concept survived as an attitude. After Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, the spirit if not the letter of La Acordada continued in Texas with the emergence of the Juez de Campo, rural policemen vested with judicial authority. An officer’s duties included the registration of cattle brands, regulating cattle sales, and arbitrating disputes among ranchers. He also ranged the countryside in pursuit of cattle thieves.
The Anglo ranging tradition mixed with a similar Hispanic tradition like straw in adobe. Texans would take a concept that came from two very different cultures and make it their own. That process began with a handful of Austin’s colonists who arrived from New Orleans at the mouth of the Colorado on June 4, 1822, aboard the Lively, a chartered schooner.
Copyright © 2008 by Mike Cox. All rights reserved.