A Brief History
On November 24, 1835, the Texas Provincial Government (Permanent Council) authorized the creation of a mounted para-military police force to enforce laws throughout The Republic of Texas and protect its borders.
Stephen Austin had first formed the unit under the command of Captain Morris as an unofficial call for volunteers in 1823, while Texas was still the property of Mexico. Texas became an independent republic in 1836, and was admitted as a state in the United States in 1845. Although Mexico had welcomed American settlers to Texas, the Americans insisted on violating Mexican law by keeping slaves. Fed up with the flaunting of Mexican law, Mexico decided to end immigration of Americans to Texas in 1830, triggering a war for independence from Mexico from 1832 to 1836 when Texas became an independent country.
Meanwhile, the Texas Rangers developed a reputation for courage and skill, and became known as an elite law enforcement force, fighting criminals, Indians, and anyone that threatened the settlers. Disbanded briefly during reconstruction after the Civil War, Texas quickly reconstituted the force, and today it exists as The Texas Ranger Division of The Texas Department of Safety, not to be confused with the entirely separate Texas State Police.
With as many as 300 Rangers during the War for Independence, the Rangers maintained a small number of men afterwards, around 56 to 150 Rangers at a time. Today, there are only about 150 Rangers, along with 66 support personnel. Such is the reputation for toughness and effective law enforcement that the saying, “One riot, one Ranger.” (stemming from an 1896 Dallas illegal prize fight where only 1 ranger was sent to enforce the law when many seemed more appropriate) has come to symbolize the Spartan like reputation of this agency.
Part of the cachet of the Rangers can be traced to the arming of the Rangers with the Walker Colt revolver (1847), a massive .44 caliber handgun that outclassed all black powder repeating handguns in history. In fact, the Walker Colt was the most powerful revolver produced until the introduction of the .44 Smith & Wesson Magnum in 1955! Designed especially for the Texas Rangers by Ranger Captain Samuel Walker and Samuel Colt, the Walker Colt was made to stop an enemy decisively with one shot. Only super gunslingers could wield such a super pistol, and that was the Texas Rangers.
Throughout their history the Rangers have performed numerous law enforcement and paramilitary roles, including investigating murder and other crimes, fighting hostile Native Americans, protecting the Governor, putting down riots, and investigating political corruption. Their reputation was enhanced by putting down notorious criminals such as Sam Bass and John Wesley Hardin. A former Ranger was instrumental in killing Bonnie and Clyde. During the height of range wars and Indian wars, the Rangers were accused of ruthless tactics such as summary execution and torture, but that only added to their mystique. The Rangers protected the meeting between US President Taft and Mexican President Diaz in 1909, preventing assassination attempts on both statesmen.
During the period of upheaval in Mexico in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries the Rangers combated Mexican raiders along the border, killing as many as 3000 Mexicans from 1910 to 1919! The brutality of the Rangers at this time was not ignored, and some of the Special Ranger units were disbanded, and the number of Rangers was reduced, reaching only about 45 Rangers during the Depression. In fact, all serving Rangers were dismissed in 1933 by a reform minded state governor, and in 1935 the Rangers were placed in the Department of Safety where they remain today, maintaining all the reputation for toughness and effectiveness with a sterling reputation for professionalism.
The Texas Rangers have achieved almost mythical status as the epitome of rugged Western law enforcement and individualism. A small, elite force, popular culture such as movies, books, and television has added to the legend. Even the Texas Rangers baseball team has latched onto the reputation by taking their name. You can visit the Texas Rangers Hall of Fame and Museum in Waco, Texas, established in 1968.
Question for students: What other law enforcement agencies can you think of that rival the reputation of the Texas Rangers?
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For more information, please see…
Moore, Stephen L. Savage Frontier, 1835-1837: Rangers, Riflemen, and Indian Wars in Texas (Volume 1). University of North Texas Press, 2007.
Moore, Stephen L. Texas Rising: The Epic True Story of the Lone Star Republic and the Rise of the Texas Rangers, 1836-1846. William Morrow, 2015)
The featured image in this article, an anonymous early depiction of a group of Texas Rangers, c. 1845, from The Culver Pictures Collection (Source:Texas History), is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less.