San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

April 1st, 2014
Bartee Haile: Texas Rangers’ closest call came at the capitol

COVER: Texas Rangers in 1915 during the “undeclared guerrilla war” along the U.S.-Mexico border. TEXAS STATE LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES COMMISSION PHOTO

This Week in Texas History: A column

At the end of a lengthy public probe into charges of corruption and criminal misdeeds, the question Lone Star legislators faced on Apr. 2, 1919 was whether to do away with the Texas Rangers altogether or give the legendary lawmen one more chance to clean up their act.

Even in their hard-fighting heyday, the fabled frontier guardians were never without their detractors. For years critics had questioned their shoot-first philosophy, and local peace officers resented the often uninvited intrusion of the governor’s gendarmes.

By energetically enforcing the Dean Law, the statewide prelude to prohibition, the Rangers stepped on a lot of tender toes, especially those of county sheriffs on the take. Neither the bought-off sheriffs nor their bootlegging buddies took kindly to the crackdown on such a cozy arrangement. A mixed bag of strange bedfellows looked forward to the day when the high and mighty Rangers were finally knocked off their pedestal.

A long line of state chief executives resisted the temptation to embroil the legendary lawmen in partisan politics. But soon after taking office in 1911, Gov. Oscar B. Colquitt broke with tradition by rewarding cronies with commissions, a practice continued by successors Ferguson and Hobby. As a result, the Rangers were dragged into the quagmire of the spoils system.

Overreacting to the border crisis created by World War I, the legislature approved the unlimited expansion of the force. In a matter of months, an indiscriminate influx of volunteers swelled the Ranger ranks to a thousand men. The usual screening and rigorous training were dispensed with as the miniature star was pinned on scores of unfit chests.

These “emergency” Rangers were assigned to the undeclared guerrilla war raging along the Rio Grande. Under normal circumstances, duty in The Valley demanded impeccable poise and a wagonload of experience. Confronted by the near-combat conditions of 1915-1918, the green recruits were in way over their heads.

Two highly publicized incidents in the fall of 1918 put the Rangers under the microscope. In September a suspected horse thief was handed over to a couple of vaqueros, Mexican cowboys from a nearby ranch. The prisoner was shot to death while supposedly trying to escape. The following month, a second Mexican was killed, this time by a Ranger sergeant who claimed he mistook him for an Army deserter.

State Rep. J.T. Canales of Brownsville launched a thorough investigation of the Rangers in January 1919. Two months of headline-grabbing hearings exposed widespread wrongdoing and violent crimes committed by Texas’ most renown law enforcement agency.

The highlight of the testimony, which filled 2,000 pages of transcript, was a shocking story told by the Cameron County sheriff. Back in October 1915, Mexican bandits wrecked and plundered a train a few miles north of Brownsville. After taking four prime suspects into custody, the sheriff and several Rangers debated what to do with them.

Concerned the charges might not stick in court, the state lawmen decided to settle the matter right then and there. Declaring he wanted no part of cold-blooded murder, the sheriff was told by one of the Rangers, “If you do not have the guts to do it, I will.” Marched at gunpoint into the brush, the quartet was quickly executed.

In the days following this chilling revelation, pressure mounted to abolish the tarnished unit. Reasoning the Rangers had not only outlived their usefulness but had become a genuine menace, many prominent Texans, including future Vice President John Nance Garner, supported this drastic solution.

But to his credit Rep. Canales remained true to his original purpose to reform rather than to disband the Rangers. When passions were permitted to cool, his constructive approach prevailed.

At the end of the inquiry, the Texas Rangers stood accused of three counts of homicide that cost 20 lives as well as numerous cases of flogging, torture, drunkenness and assault. The Ranger inspector, responsible for ferreting out bad apples, was castigated for systematically sweeping incriminating evidence under the rug, while the adjutant general was raked over the coals for using the force for his own political agenda.

The legislature passed a new law in early April 1919 that radically reduced the size of the Rangers. In the future there would be only four regular companies each composed of no more than 15 privates, a sergeant and a captain. A six-man headquarters company would be under the command of another captain, and a third Ranger with that same rank would serve as quartermaster. From a wartime peak of a thousand, the Rangers would have to make do with a roster of 76.

That was the bad news. The good news was that the Rangers got a second chance and the opportunity to clean house. Though temporarily disgraced, they still occupied a unique place in the future of Texas as well as the past.

Syndicated columnist BARTEE HAILE has written about Texas history for the San Marcos Mercury since 2011. Haile welcomes your comments or questions by mail at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.

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