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Heroes of Old"
THE RANGER FORCE, 1900—1910
Sitting in a smoky meeting room of the opulent Oriental Hotel, the former Texas Ranger listened as the mayor’s representative welcomed him and his fellow "Heroes of Old" to the thriving city of Dallas.
Four decades earlier, then only twenty years old, British-born Joseph Greaves Booth had helped protect the state from hostile Indians. Now, in the fall of 1900, Booth served as president of the Texas Rangers Association. Standing to address a hundred other men who had ridden for the Lone Star, the successful traveling salesman from Austin—also a veteran of the Confederate Army’s Eighth Texas Cavalry regiment—looked out at an assemblage of graybeards who had spent many a night on the ground with only a sweaty saddle for a pillow. Many of them stove up and hard of hearing, on this day the old Rangers crowded a six-story hotel touted as "the most elegant . . . west of the Mississippi," a half-million-dollar redbrick building at Commerce and Akard streets finished with Italian marble and mahogany and capped with an arabesque dome. If they were of a mind to, men who had washed their dusty faces in creeks muddied by the hooves of thirsty horses could soak their aching bones in a Turkish bath, afterward enjoying a good cigar and a jigger or two of whiskey in one of the Oriental’s several bars and dining rooms. But their greatest plea sure came in remembering their days as Rangers.
"Comrades, ladies and gentlemen," Booth began, looking toward the official greeter, "in behalf of the Texas Rangers, present and absent, living and dead, I desire to thank you for the welcome accorded us on this occasion. Of the old Texas Rangers but few are left. Time has done for them what the frontier savages failed to do through many years of bloody strife."
Seeing a young man from the Morning News scribbling away in the audience, Booth realized he spoke for posterity. He wanted a later generation to better understand the Rangers and what they did for Texas. His fellow old-timers already knew.
"The old Texas Rangers were not marauders or ruffians," he continued. "They were civilized, and in many cases highly educated, pioneers who were engaged in carving out the magnificent state of which we are all so proud, wresting her princely domain from bloodthirsty savages. Many of them were graduates of the best universities, and in intellect and integrity . . . not inferior to the best men left in the states from whence they came."
The Rangers of Booth’s youth may not have been ruffians, but their enemies had known them as tenacious fighters. "They were always ready at any hour," Booth went on, "day or night, when warned by a courier to mount and ride to the place of rendezvous, in rain or shine, in the face of the blue norther, or under a blazing sun, and their motto was, ‘No sleep until we catch the rascally redskins.’ "
When Rangers took up a trail, he said, they armed themselves with "the best weapons the times afforded." For sustenance, they carried a bag of parched meal mixed with brown sugar and spice, strips of jerked meat, and a bottle-gourd of water tied on the horn of their saddle. Once they caught up with Indians, "there was no fighting at long range. Hostilities began whenever the white of the enemy’s eye could be seen, and much of it was hand to hand."
Booth listed "a few of the historic names of old Texas Rangers," starting with his old lieutenant Ed Burleson Jr. All these years later, Booth lamented, only a few survived.
Then he said something that must have stuck in the craw of many of the former Rangers, not to mention those still in service to the state: "The necessity that gave birth to these heroic bands has disappeared with the men who composed them. The Texas Rangers of today have different duties to perform, which we believe can be more acceptably performed by the peace officers elected by the people."
Booth did allow that "along the upper Rio Grande a special police force may be required to protect the frontier against Mexican outlaws, but not elsewhere in the state."
No matter what seemed heresy to many, the members of the three-year-old association—an organization first envisioned by the late Ranger captain John Salmon "Rip" Ford—went on to reelect Booth as their leader, accept their historian’s resignation, rename themselves the Texas Rangers’ Battalion, and set Fort Worth as their next meeting place. Booth adjourned the proceedings and the old Rangers dispersed to mingle in the Oriental’s lobbies for the rest of the morning, telling stories of "their adventure during their services on the border." That afternoon, they took the streetcars to the State Fair grounds, "saw the sights and attended the races."1
" ‘RANGERS’ HAVE NO AUTHORITY . . ."
At the beginning of the twentieth century, many other Texans also questioned a continuing need for the Rangers. Even the force’s legal standing had come under attack.
The Rangers’ latest problem centered on one of their own—A. L. (Lou) Saxon, a private in Captain William J. McDonald’s company. After arresting some fence cutters during a stockman–farmer feud in Hall County the year before, Saxon had been charged with false imprisonment. Further, local citizens petitioned Governor Joseph D. Sayers to withdraw the Rangers from their county, which he did.
Company B moved from the Panhandle to a trouble spot at Athens in East Texas and then on to Orange, a rough lumber town on the Sabine River in the southeast corner of the state. Local officials, unable to cope with a wave of violence fostered by an ugly combination of partisan politics, labor issues, and racism, had petitioned the state for Rangers. In September 1899, the company made twenty-one arrests in Orange and would have effected one more if an offender had not pulled a knife on Private T. L. Fuller. In self-defense the Ranger shot and killed Oscar Poole, son of the Orange County judge. Fuller faced no charge in connection with the clearly justified homicide, but a grand jury indicted him along with Ranger Saxon for false imprisonment. Saxon had been accused of using the barrel of his six-shooter on the heads of two drunks he took into custody. A local prosecutor based his case on his interpretation that the 1874 statute creating the Frontier Battalion, with which Fuller and Saxon served, only gave officers the power of arrest. Because Fuller and Saxon ranked as privates, the prosecutor contended that the arrests made by the Rangers had been illegal. McDonald and his Rangers moved on to their next assignment, the misdemeanor cases against two of his men languishing on the docket in Orange. But state officials found the argument that Ranger privates could not make lawful arrests troubling.
Responding to a request for a formal opinion on the matter, Attorney General Thomas S. Smith ruled on May 26, 1900, that only the battalion’s commissioned officers had full police powers: "Non-commissioned officers and privates . . . referred to as ‘Rangers’ have no authority . . . to execute criminal process or make arrests."2 At the time, the battalion consisted of four companies. Suddenly, only four men—the company captains—had the power to make arrests or serve court papers.
Quickly reacting to the attorney general’s letter-of-the-law-versus-spirit-of-the-law opinion, which in effect put the Rangers out of action, Adjutant General Thomas Scurry on June 1 reorganized the Rangers into six companies. Four companies would be made up of a captain, a first lieutenant, a second lieutenant, and three privates. The other two companies would consist of one first lieutenant, one second lieutenant, and two privates. Each company would have to honorably discharge one private. Arrests had to be made by a commissioned officer, but privates could assist.
In addition, Scurry issued honorable discharges to all special Rangers, ordering them to return their warrants of authority to his office. "The governor is much pleased with the efficient service heretofore rendered by the special rangers, and regrets the necessity of this order," he said.3 Within a month, Texas had a hundred fewer men it could call on for law enforcement assistance.
In an attempt to further improve the force’s image, Scurry also stressed the importance of good conduct on the part of Rangers:
Company commanders will instruct their men to keep within the bounds of discretion and the law under all circumstances, and should there be any men now in the service who make unreasonable display of authority or use abusive language to or unnecessarily harsh treatment of those with whom they come in contact in the line of duty, or who are not courageous, discreet, honest or of temperate habits, they will be promptly discharged.
Next, with a stroke of Scurry’s pen, six privates appeared on the muster rolls as first lieutenants, with five men upgraded to second lieutenants. The promotions came with one catch: The first lieutenants had to sign an agreement that they were willing to be paid the same as sergeants, $50 a month, and the second lieutenants had to settle for $30 a month, the pay they had drawn as privates. One of the men honored with a new title but no raise was Second Lieutenant (nee Private) Fuller.4
Annoying as the Rangers found the circumstances behind the reorganization, the Adjutant General’s Department and the rest of the state’s government soon faced a much greater problem. On September 8, a powerful hurricane swept over Galveston, the state’s largest city. The resulting tidal surge claimed as many as eight thousand lives, the worst natural disaster in the nation’s history. Scurry sent most of the state’s militia to the devastated island city, but with the Rangers so thinly stretched he assigned only two men to prevent looting.5
Captain McDonald, Lieutenant Fuller, and Private Saxon returned to Orange on October 15 for Fuller’s trial on the false imprisonment charge. McDonald had argued against going back to Orange, and his concern proved well founded. About 5:30 that afternoon, Saxon sat in a chair at Adams’ Barbershop, getting a shave. Fuller stood in the center of the room, washing his face in a basin. As the barber glided his straight razor over Saxon’s lathered face, someone appeared at the door of the shop, raised a Winchester rife, and pulled the trigger. The bullet hit Fuller in the temple and he fell to the floor, his legs kicking involuntarily only a few seconds before he lay still in a spreading pool of blood. Still holding the rife, the shooter ran to a butcher’s shop next door. When local officers arrived a short time later, they arrested Tom Poole, the brother of the man Fuller had killed the year before.6
Fuller, with prior experience as a deputy sheriff, had enlisted in the Rangers "with the hope of saving sufficient money to finish his education in the University of Texas, having at that time just completed his freshman year. He was a young man of temperate habits, quiet in his manner and a fearless ranger."7 Despite a number of witnesses, Poole avoided conviction in the slaying of the Ranger. As Albert Bigelow Paine later explained in his biography of McDonald, "The assassin was made chief deputy sheriff, as a reward, and in due time was himself killed by the city marshal, who, in turn, was killed by the dead man’s
In the South Texas town of Cotulla on October 24, another of Scurry’s new lieutenants, Company E’s Will L. Wright, tried to arrest James R. Davenport—an outlaw who had spent five years in prison on a murder conviction—for being drunk and firing a pistol in town. Davenport had been arrested for the same thing several times previously, but this time he resisted, drawing his pistol and shooting at the mild-mannered, bespectacled Ranger. The slug passed harmlessly through Wright’s coat. The drunk outlaw did not get a second shot, crumpling to the ground with a .45 round in his chest. A little fire burned on his vest, sparked by the muzzle blast of Wright’s six-shooter. This was not the first time Davenport had been shot by a Ranger—he had been wounded when arrested for murder in the 1880s in the Big Bend—but it would be the last time.9
Though Lieutenant Wright’s attempted arrest of Davenport had been perfectly legal, the law creating the Frontier Battalion clearly needed fixing. At the conclusion of his 1899–1900 report, the adjutant general recommended that the next session of the legislature amend the existing statute so that all Rangers would have clear authority to make arrests. Given that "a number of criminal suits have been brought against privates in the ranger force for false imprisonment," he also requested that lawmakers legalize all arrests made prior to the date of Attorney General Smith’s opinion.
"AN OIL GEYSER"
As Austin hotel, eatery, and saloon owners looked forward to the convening of the twenty-seventh legislature in January 1901, a new era began on a clear, cold morning fourteen miles south of Beaumont, a city of nine thousand near the Texas-Louisiana border. At 10:30 a.m. on the tenth day of the new year the earth shook as a stream of black oil shot into the sky from a drilling rig at a place called Spindletop. It took workers nine days to cap the spewing well, its flow estimated at one hundred thousand barrels a day. "An Oil Geyser" the Beaumont Enterprise proclaimed the next morning in large print for the times, adding: "Lubricating Fluid Spurts over 100 Feet into the Air." As with many epochal events, no one yet realized the full significance of what had happened. The "lubricating fluid" blowing out of the well would drive automobiles, airplanes, and a new economy. A second industrial revolution had begun with Texas as the fuel supplier.
As California had discovered during the 1849 gold rush, the prospect of quick riches draws people intent on cashing in, one way or another. Some pursue their fortunes honestly, while others prefer to make their money through illegal means. Texas suddenly had a new law enforcement problem along with a new industry. "In the twinkling of an eye," one observer later wrote, "Beaumont, the slow-moving, sawmill town . . . was converted into a seething, fighting, shouting mob of 15,000 money-mad adventurers." The chief of police, his department overwhelmed, advised citizens to walk in the middle of the streets after dark and "tote your guns . . . in your hands, so everybody can see you’re loaded."10
While the upper Texas coast boomed on a discovery presaging the state’s future, one of the issues facing lawmakers at the beginning of a new legislative session in Austin had to do with an institution rooted in the past, the Rangers.
"This body of men cannot be too highly commended for the manner in which they have discharged the many dangerous and delicate issues incident to their employment," Governor Sayers wrote in his January 10 message to the legislature. "Their services . . . have been invaluable, and may be regarded as an absolute necessity to the State." He urged members to invest rank-and-file Rangers "with such powers of arrest and detention as are conferred upon the officers [in the Frontier Battalion]." The governor warned that failure to "provide properly for the continuance of this force would involve the assumption of a responsibility which no one at all acquainted with prevailing conditions should care to assume."11
Four days later, Representative Ferguson Kyle of Hays County fled House Bill 52: "An Act to provide for the organization of a ‘ranger force’. . . ." The same day, January 14, Senator William Ward Turney of El Paso introduced a companion bill in the upper chamber. After considerable wrangling over whether Rangers should be required to post $1,000 bonds as a condition of service, the House approved by voice vote a new Ranger law minus the bonding provision on March 27, 1901. The Senate quickly passed the measure 23–3 and the governor signed the bill on March 29.12
The public and the press had long since stopped referring to the Frontier Battalion by its official name. Texans knew the organization as Rangers or often State Rangers. The new act took effect July 9, 1901, and the Frontier Battalion formally became the Ranger Force. The force’s slightly amended responsibility now included "suppressing lawlessness and crime throughout the state" as well as its more traditional role of "protecting the frontier against marauding and thieving parties." The law still included the word frontier, but for the first time since the early 1870s, the enabling legislation designated the state lawmen as Rangers.13 However, the language in the "Oath of Service" a new officer had to take before receiving his commission had not changed. It required, among the more traditional items, that Rangers "solemnly swear" that they had "not fought a duel with deadly weapons, nor . . . acted as second in carrying a challenge, or aided, advised, or assisted any person thus offending."
In addition, the new legislation authorized the Rangers four companies of up to twenty men each. The governor had authority to appoint the captains, who in turn selected their own men. As had been the case with the Frontier Battalion, an Austin-based quartermaster with the rank of captain would handle procurement of supplies and other administrative functions. Captains would earn $100 a month, sergeants $50, and privates $40.
Directly addressing the question of Ranger arrest authority, the statute left no ambiguity: "The officers, non-commissioned offers and privates of this force shall be clothed with all the powers of peace officers, and shall aid the regular civil authorities in the execution of the laws. They shall have authority to make arrests, and to execute process in criminal cases. . . ."14 Not quite a month before the new Ranger law went on the books, in South Texas the Rangers participated in a sensational case demonstrating their continuing relevance.
"AH, HOW MANY MOUNTED RANGERS . . ."
On the afternoon of June 12, 1901, Karnes County sheriff (and former Ranger) W. T. "Brack" Morris, one of his deputies and a county resident who spoke Spanish, rode in a surrey to the farm of twenty-five-year-old Gregorio Cortez. For several weeks the sheriff had been looking for some men—including Gregorio—suspected of stealing horses in Frio and Atascosa counties. A posse led by the sheriff of that county had followed a set of suspicious wagon and horse tracks into Karnes County, losing their quarry in the vicinity of Cortez’s farm, about twelve miles west of Kenedy. Since then, the three stolen horses had been located at a ranch not far from Cortez’s place.
Through his interpreter, Morris began questioning Cortez and his older brother Romaldo. Not satisfied with their answers, the sheriff told the translator to inform Gregorio he was under arrest. He asked why.
"For stealing horses," Morris said, the interpreter quickly repeating the sheriff’s response in Spanish.
"No one can arrest me," Gregorio blurted in his native tongue.
At that, Romaldo lunged toward the sheriff. Dropping back, Morris pulled his pistol as Gregorio yanked a handgun from under his shirt. Shooting the charging Romaldo in the mouth, the sheriff swung his pistol toward Gregorio and fired again. The lawman missed, but Gregorio snapped off two rounds that hit Morris in his right arm and left shoulder. Enraged, Cortez ran to the downed sheriff and fired a third shot into his gut.
Leaving the sheriff and Romaldo moaning on the ground, Gregorio soon fed eastward on foot. Cornered by a large posse three days later on a ranch in Gonzales County, he shot and killed Sheriff Robert M. Glover, an old friend of Morris’s. The landowner, Henry Schnabel, also died in the shoot-out, most likely from a stray shot fired by one of the posse members. Now mounted on a stolen horse, Cortez cut through the brush country to the southwest, heading for the Rio Grande. The manhunt continued another week, the last great horse back pursuit involving the Rangers. In traveling one hundred miles as the crow flies from Karnes County to Webb County, Cortez rode three times that far on a series of stolen horses, his trail winding like a rattlesnake’s through the prickly pear, mesquite, cut barbed-wire fences, dry arroyos, and hills. Two sheriffs joining the Rangers and other posse members in the pursuit rode six horses to death in trailing the outlaw.15
Officers found Cortez asleep in a vacant ranch house near the border on June 22 and Captain John H. Rogers arrested him without incident. A modest, deeply religious man, the Laredo-based captain dismissed his role in the capture as minor and refused to claim any share of the reward money. "No especial credit is due to me for the capture," the captain told the San Antonio Express. "Somebody else would have got him if I hadn’t." Convicted of murder, Cortez received a life sentence and a lasting place in South Texas folklore, the story of his long pursuit by the Rangers and other lawmen living on in border country corridos.
The balladeers sang:
"Then said Gregorio Cortez / With his pistol in his hand / ‘Ah, how many mounted rangers / Against one lone Mexican!’ "16
The October 1901 issue of Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, a widely read national magazine, further enhanced the Rangers’ image with its story by Earl Mayo, "The Texas Rangers: The Most Efficient Police Force in the World." The Rangers, Mayo wrote, had succeeded in driving the Indian, the rustler, and the bad man from Texas. "The success of the Frontier Battalion," he continued,
and the respect in which it is held from the Sabine to the Rio Grande is due partly to the method of its organization, but more to the calibre of its members, to their reckless courage, to their marvelous marksmanship and to the fact that they are not afraid to shoot. Keen of eye, inflexible in the pursuit of duty, and of unfailing nerve, the Ranger’s shots seldom fail to find their goal. The laconic entry "killed while resisting arrest" or "killed while attempting to escape" appears often in the records of the Frontier Battalion.
"It is safe to say," Mayo concluded, "that nowhere else in the world can be found a body of men to equal the Rangers for sheer devotion to duty and fighting ability."17
Excerpted from Time of the Rangers by Mike Cox.
Copyright 2009 by Mike Cox.
Published in August 2009 by Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.