Yours to Command: The Life and Legend of Texas Ranger Captain Bill McDonald

Yours to Command: The Life and Legend of Texas Ranger Captain Bill McDonald

by Harold J. Weiss Jr.

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ISBN-13: 9781574413694
Publisher: University of North Texas Press
Publication date: 06/15/2009
Series: Frances B. Vick Series
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Sales rank: 1,095,591
File size: 13 MB
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Yours to Command

The Life and Legend of Texas Ranger Captain Bill McDonald

By Harold J. Weiss Jr.

University of North Texas Press

Copyright © 2009 Harold J. Weiss
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-57441-369-4



A lone rider, sitting easily in the saddle of his dusty horse, travels across the plains toward a small, new town with muddy streets and lively saloons. He wears a tattered, wide-brimmed hat, a loose-hanging vest [with a tin star], a bandanna around his neck, and one gun rests naturally at his side in a smooth, well-worn holster. Behind him, the empty plains roll gently until they end abruptly in the rocks and forests that punctuate the sudden rise of towering mountain peaks.

The life and times of Texas Ranger Captain William Jesse "Bill" McDonald, better known as "Captain Bill," can be viewed from several vantage points: first, the ins and outs of crime and violence in the trans-Mississippi West in the late 1800s; second, the operations of the Texas Rangers in theory and practice inside and outside the Lone Star State; third, the ambiguous nature of McDonald as a lawman in thought and deed; and fourth, the never-ending folk tales built around the exploits of the fabled Captain Bill.

One difficulty with the historical literature about the life and times of Bill McDonald is the reliance by writers on the information provided by Albert Bigelow Paine, McDonald's official biographer. Although Paine interviewed the Ranger captain, he failed to search for and use effectively official records. He also erred in not verifying his data and in downplaying the activities of those who served under McDonald in Company B. The result was a romantic story with flowery language that contained factual inaccuracies and misleading statements.

Captain Bill (1852–1918) lived at a time when the United States was undergoing vast changes during the Gilded Age. The settlement of western lands by people of all creeds and colors led to warfare with Indian tribes, brought new states into the union, and made terms like "cowboy" and "gunfighter" popular expressions. In addition, agricultural machinery and railroad lines transformed the rural landscape and allowed for the production and transportation of crops and cattle to feed a growing population. Equally important, industrial firms discovered the processes needed to make steel and refine oil, which helped to create modern urban centers complete with skyscrapers, cars, telephone lines, and big-city police departments. The populace also found new ways to enjoy leisure time, from reading comic strips to enjoying spectator sports to watching silent films, like the Great Train Robbery. As events would show, such changes in lifestyles created a more complex network of police forces to combat a mobile underworld in Texas and the nation.


Violent criminal acts in the trans-Mississippi West varied in number and kind in time and space. Many settlers in the western lands, especially in farming, family- oriented communities, with their church steeples and bells summoning the faithful, cared more about building a new life for themselves in a hostile physical environment than about robbing or killing their neighbors or the strangers who happened to pass their way. Peace officers in Texas and other western areas had to spend much time and effort handling minor criminal offenses: rounding up drunks, stopping fistfights, investigating petty thievery, and arresting those charged with disorderly conduct. These undramatic violations of the rules of society made some westerners afraid; others, though, still believed that they lived in law-abiding communities with the bad element under control. Westerners did try to structure society to function in an orderly way.

One historian noted that "frontier violence has infinitely greater appeal to the reader than frontier calm." In the pecking order of western crime and violence, the bank-and-train robber and the gunfighter gained the most notoriety. Many individuals have seen the actions of Old West bandits and gunmen as something more than criminal in nature. Such misdeeds were just boyish pranks; done to defend one's honor; carried out to attack the oppressors of the common folk; executed to help foment a revolution. In western America a violent frontier heritage has meant glorifying the holdups and gun battles of such desperadoes as Sam Bass, the Texas Robin Hood, and John Wesley Hardin, a feared gunman in the Lone Star State. Many times lawmen carved an appropriate epitaph on the tombstones of these shootists: hold an inquest and bury the body.

Crime and violence in the trans-Mississippi West by the turn of the twentieth century, in the view of some, was more than dramatic—it was pervasive. One expert examined lethal violence in three counties located in three different areas, Arizona, Colorado, and Nebraska. In these places, 977 homicides occurred in the four decades after 1880. Multiple factors, particularly transient males, alcohol, guns, and ethnic and racial tensions, brought about high levels of violent actions. Other writers have also tried to make sense out of the endless number of killings found here and there in the western lands. One attempt—called the Western Civil War of Incorporation—tied together the isolated incidents of mayhem into a grand theory. The move by the monied interests to form a market economy in the late 1800s was opposed by small farmers, ranchers, and unionized workers. Both sides used gunmen. Forty-two violent showdowns took place between the opposing forces in the seventy years after 1850. From this violent era came the popular images of the "conservative mythical hero" (like Wyatt Earp) and the "dissident social bandit" (a la Jesse James).

In the wake of the desperado, came the western lawman. To some, the peace officer with a badge and a six-shooter just "mopped up the outlaw." In reality, his jurisdiction covered vast stretches of land, and he was a law officer who handled outbreaks of disorder in the towns and countryside, arrested those who committed crimes, and carried out judicial orders. While doing this, his badge of authority might read marshal or ranger or sheriff or special agent or another apt designation. As one authority perceptively noted, "Some modern nations have been police states; all, however, are policed societies."

Old West policing jurisdictions appeared in many forms. Some of these lawmen and their posses became effective members of governmental police agencies, from town constables to county sheriffs to United States marshals. Others with a bent for corralling badmen entered the field of private law enforcers, as, for example, private detective agencies, the security forces of the railroads, and Wells Fargo shotgun riders and special agents. In addition, military forces, state and federal, assisted civil authorities in preserving law and order until otherwise instructed. The state police movement in the early West, whether legendary Texas Rangers or their counterparts in Arizona, New Mexico, and elsewhere, played a minor-but- vital role in this complex machinery of law enforcement. The spread of western police agencies was a major achievement for a democratic citizenry.


In the mechanism of western law enforcement the Texas Ranger, singly or in groups, played a memorable role. Through revolution, statehood, and the rise of an urban Texas, the operations of the Rangers can be divided into three different periods: 1823–1874, 1874–1935, and 1935 onward. In the first stage ranging companies sporadically took the field to fight for family and community against Indian tribes and Mexican nationals. These citizen-soldier Rangers were organized in the closing months of 1835 in the midst of the Texas Revolution and had developed traditions and procedures that were well entrenched by the time McDonald became a captain. Although the word "ranger" was first used by Stephen Austin in his colony as early as 1823, the expression "Texas Rangers" gained more credence in informal sayings than formal statutes in the nineteenth century. After 1874 the state of Texas established a permanent Ranger organization and authorized the officers and the rank and file to act as peace officers. Their existence as law officers under the control of the governor and the adjutant general lasted until the Great Depression of the 1930s when they were combined with other crime fighting units and made a part of a Department of Public Safety.

Established in 1874, the mounted Frontier Battalion, in which Bill McDonald would one day serve, consisted of six companies of seventy-five men each under the control of the adjutant general and the governor. Each Ranger officer, an important term in future legal disputes, had "all the powers of a peace officer" and had the "duty to execute all criminal process directed to him, and make arrests under capias [writ] properly issued, of any and all parties charged with offense against the laws of this State." Men joining the Frontier Battalion supplied some of their own equipment, like horses and an "improved breech-loading cavalry gun" bought from the state by each Ranger at cost. In turn, the state government furnished some supplies, such as ammunition. Pay for officers and privates in the various companies ranged from $125 per month for major to $100 each for captains, $50 for sergeants, and $40 for privates.

As a Ranger officer (1891–1907), McDonald understood the law-and- order mandate to patrol the frontier lands and the settled regions within the borders of Texas. Unlike county sheriffs and town marshals, the Rangers quelled public disturbances and investigated those who committed felonies and misdemeanors throughout the state. On some of McDonald's stationery the heading read: "Texas State Rangers."

The dividing line between such statewide authority and undesirable interference in local affairs by the Rangers in McDonald's era was difficult to ascertain. At one point Private Carl T. Ryan informed Captain Bill from Sanderson in southeastern Texas that upon the request of the local sheriff he had closed the saloons on Sunday as the law required. Ryan did not like this job—"some are kicking and some wants us to close them"—and thought this duty belonged to local peace officers. McDonald responded by telling Ryan to "let the local authorities attend to such matters, that our duties were to look after criminals and larger game." In this reaction the adjutant general concurred: "Our force has no business interfering with anything local," he noted, "such interference might cause us considerable annoyance."

By McDonald's day the "mounted constables" of the Frontier Battalion had the authority, weapons, organizational knowhow, and charismatic leaders to be effective in the field. Walter Prescott Webb once wrote that a Ranger leader "must have courage equal to any, judgment better than most, and physical strength to outlast his men on the longest march or the hardest ride." Yet few captains in the Ranger service approached this ideal picture, as many officers sometimes misjudged their adversaries, sometimes faltered in the face of the enemy, and sometimes pulled back from the violent side of human nature, even within themselves. More likely, as one historian noted, a person in charge of a ranging company in the field "made his own rules based on the immediate situation, educated guesses, and simple instinct." Some Ranger officers, however, did have charisma and became famous through self-reliance and persistence in times of crises. By the opening of the twentieth century Captain McDonald's fight for law and order resulted in public acclaim for himself and the Rangers under his command.

From the laws of Texas and court decisions, state and national, came the authority of the Texas Rangers to make arrests, hold prisoners, and use deadly force. As peace officers, the Rangers could legally arrest Texans with or without warrants, and, equally important, could use "all reasonable means" in taking lawbreakers into custody. Furthermore, peace officers also had the right to commit justifiable homicides in preventing a series of crimes from taking place on Texas soil: arson, burglary, castration, disfiguring, maiming, murder, rape, robbery, or theft at night. In addition, in Texas and other states in the 1900s, judges forged a new doctrine of self-defense. They "changed the English common-law tradition, which required one to retreat before defending oneself, to the American legal doctrine of self-defense, by which one could stand one's ground and fight. Thus, Texans and their police forces in McDonald's day had ample legal authority to use violent means."

By the late 1800s another controversial part of the operations of the Frontier Battalion was its use of weapons in chasing outlaws and controlling feudists and mobs. Through experimentation with various small arms the Rangers found the guns that fitted their needs. Of the different types of Colt six-shooters, they preferred the "version known as the Classic Peacemaker in .45 caliber with a seven-and-a-half-inch barrel." In addition, although some members of the Frontier Battalion used the Sharps long gun, Rangers ultimately switched to the popular 1873 Winchester rifle that used .44 caliber ammunition. McDonald himself carried a Colt revolver, a Winchester rifle, and a shotgun for crowd control. The heavily armed peace officers of Texas had sufficient firepower to carry out a running fight with outlaws.

Yet the Texas Rangers were not exceptional shootists in Old West gunfighting lore. Only one Ranger of note—Captain John R. Hughes—appeared in the list of the premier gunmen of that violence-prone era. At the other end of the spectrum stood Captain Samuel A. McMurry. He had the embarrassment to report to his superiors that his holstered pistol went off and the bullet struck him in the leg. The Ranger officer thought that someone must have hit the hammer while a crowd of people gathered around him.

The individuality of a Texas Ranger can not be separated from the organization within which he operates. In the command structure, orders and the power to carry them out flowed downward: from the governor's office to the adjutant general and his staff, including the battalion quartermaster, to the field captains and those in charge of subcompanies located here and there. At the top of this pyramid stood the governor who had the final word in executing the laws of the state. Captain Bill served as a company commander in four different gubernatorial administrations. No governor since the early days of statehood approached the status of James S. Hogg in Texan politics. Hogg, capable and heavy-set, served as governor for two terms in the early 1890s. He was followed in the governor's mansion by three state leaders known for conservatism: Charles A. Culberson (1895–1899), Joseph D. Sayers (1899–1903), and Samuel W. T. Lanham (1903–1907).

At the apex of the pyramid structure the adjutant general's office kept track of budgetary expenses, investigations of criminal cases, and the movement of the Rangers throughout the state. In two decades of service McDonald and the rank and file of Company B served under four adjutant generals: Woodford H. Mabry (1891–1898), Alfred P. Wozencraft (1898–1899), Thomas Scurry (1899–1903), and John A. Hulen (1903–1907). During his captaincy McDonald followed directives from central headquarters and acknowledged his instructions by ending some of his letters with the phrase, "Yours to command." Too often Texan writers have underplayed an important point about captains in the Frontier Battalion: they took orders from their superiors.


Excerpted from Yours to Command by Harold J. Weiss Jr.. Copyright © 2009 Harold J. Weiss. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. Bill McDonald, the Historical Record, and the Popular Mind,
2. The Making of a Texas Lawman,
3. Captain Bill and Company B in the Panhandle,
4. A Gunfight Between Two Guardians of the Law,
5. Proceed to El Paso: The Rangers and Prizefighting,
6. A Bank Robbery in Wichita Falls,
7. San Saba Mob: A Murder Society,
8. Reese-Townsend Feud at Columbus,
9. Humphries Case: An East Texas Lynching,
10. Finale of the Frontier Battalion,
11. Forming a New Ranger Force,
12. Conditt Murder Case: A Study in Detection,
13. Brownsville Affair: A Muddled Incident,
14. Rio Grande City: The Last Stand,
15. The End Comes: State Revenue Agent and Other Roles,

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