In 1835 Daniel Parker introduced a bill into the Texas Congress calling for 600 men to patrol Texas’ frontiers. The Republic of Texas comprised 15,000 people, the Comanche nation had 20,000, and Mexico held millions. Parker’s troops were to “range out” and confront Mexican and Comanche raiding parties that had been setting upon white settlers. A year later Parker’s niece, Cynthia Parker, was kidnapped during a Comanche raid; her aunts were assaulted and their men killed. Over the next decade, Daniel Parker’s brother James made solo forays into Comanche territory to rescue Cynthia (his story was the basis for John Ford’s The Searchers, the 1956 film starring John Wayne). But James failed in his quest, and in time Cynthia and Comanche chief Peta Nocona had a son, who would become the Comanche war chief Quanah Parker.
In 1840 Comanche warriors under Buffalo Hump burned their way through the populous heart of Texas to the beaches of the Gulf of Mexico, where people took shelter on boats. The early Rangers sent to confront them had to provide all of their own supplies except ammunition, which was supplied by the Texas government. They were not paid, but instead lived on handouts from grateful families. The Rangers essentially were saddle bums looking for adventure, though some were driven by their desire to seize and maintain Texas territory. Life expectancy was short: Among 140 recruits in San Antonio in 1839, only 40 were alive a year later.
In battle, Americans were used to dismounting from their horses to better use their accurate but ungainly Kentucky rifles. They were also used to Indians dismounting from their mules and plow horses to fight. They had never previ-ously encountered anything like the Comanches, who fought and hunted on horseback, riding swift mustangs. In the time it took Texas frontiersmen to reload their Kentucky rifles, Comanche fighters could release up to 10 arrows.
The Comanches killed thousands of Texans, and not just in the defense of their homeland. They were conquerors. Riding out of Wyoming, they had once taken Texas away from the Apaches. The tide turned with Ranger Jack Hays, who taught his men how to fight on horseback. They carried two pistols and a rifle providing each rider three shots. With 13 Rangers in 1841, Hays defeated a 42-man Mexican Army unit caught inside Texas. The same year, with 40 Rangers, he fought a four-hour battle against 300 Comanches near San Antonio.
But it would not be until two years later, in 1843, before Hays received the weapon he needed to match the Comanches’ firepower: the Colt revolver. The Comanches found themselves attacked deep in their own territory, while the Mexican government literally placed a reward on Hays’ head.
When the Mexican-American War erupted in 1846, Hays, his lieutenant Samuel Walker, and the Rangers were sent into Mexico to assist the U.S. Army. Their savage take-no-prisoners tactics shocked Army officers. The Mexicans called the Rangers los diablos Tejanos, “the Texas devils.”
Before a sniper killed him, Walker assisted Samuel Colt in designing a new revolver, the six-shot Walker Colt. After the war Hays went off to the California Gold Rush and the Rangers were disbanded. The U.S. Army now guarded the frontier with unmounted infantry.
Special Ranger expeditions were authorized by the state between 1850 and 1858 with mixed results. One unit of Rangers even marched south attempting to overthrow the Mexican government.
The 1858 Rangers under Rip Ford, a Hays man, were an amazing success. Crossing the Red River, Ford marched hundreds of miles north into Oklahoma Territory’s Antelope Hills and, without any legal authority, engaged Comanches led by Iron Jacket. Ford’s men killed Iron Jacket, but just as the battle closed, hundreds more Comanches arrived under Peta Nocona, Cynthia Parker’s husband. Ford’s Rangers drove Nocona’s warriors back.
In 1874 Texas created two special units of Rangers: the Frontier Battalion made up of six companies of 75 men each, and a Special Force to control the Mexican border. The Frontier Battalion fought 15 Indian battles in one year and assisted the Army in administering a final defeat of the Comanches. They then turned to law enforcement, killing or capturing 3,000 outlaws, including the legendary robber Sam Bass. They tracked gunman John Wesley Hardin across several states before capturing him on a moving train in Florida. The Special Forces unit was sent to the Rio Grande to fight Juan Cortina’s men for eight months; they stacked 12 dead rustlers in the town square of Brownsville as if they were “cordwood” to send a message (Cortina had “captured” Brownsville in 1859). The Rangers then invaded Mexico and attacked Mexican citizens and retrieved stolen cattle.
Over time, the Native American populations were decimated and relegated to reservations, and for a period of time the border with Mexico became less of a flashpoint. In 1901 Texas cut their numbers down to only four companies of 20 men each. As World War I broke out, radical Mexican-Americans pushed to drive Anglos from the Southwest. Two Mexican-American armies raided ranches and attacked railroads. The Rangers were called in with murderous results: From 1914 to 1919, the Rangers killed 5,000 Hispanics. Texas State Rep. Jose Canales began an in-depth investigation into the killings, and death threats from Rangers forced him to hire a body guard. A quarter of the Rangers were eventually dismissed but others were held accountable for the violence.
In the 1920s the Rangers worked to halt liquor smuggling and cattle rustling on the Rio Grande, and they intervened in oil field labor disputes and kept order during Ku Klux Klan rallies. But in 1933 the force was reduced to only 32 Rangers for the entire state. Quickly George “Machine Gun” Kelly and Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker among others made Texas their home. In 1935 new Gov. James Allred returned the Rangers to five companies, but placed them under the new Public Safety Commission.
Eventually, the Texas Rangers evolved into an elite detective force based primarily in small and medium sized communities and today number a little more than 100 agents.
Mike Coppock is a freelance writer from Castle Rock, Colo.