With its colorful and sometimes embellished past, the Texas Rangers are the oldest statewide law enforcement organization on the North American continent. To honor its past and celebrate its future, Fredericksburg, Texas, will be the home to the Texas Rangers Heritage Center slated for a grand opening in June.
The precursor of the Heritage Center is the Texas Ranger Museum which had its beginnings in 1936 during the Texas Centennial. It was initially housed in the Buckhorn Museum in San Antonio and supported by the Former Texas Rangers Association.
The museum, and soon the Heritage Center in Fredericksburg, chronicle the Texas Rangers’ exciting and colorful history with many artifacts, revolvers, automatic weapons, sawed off shotguns, and photos. This exciting collection includes Bonnie and Clyde Barrow’s infamous 1934 Ford V8 Deluxe which, thanks in no small part to Ranger Frank Hamer, is riddled with 130 bullet holes.
The Texas Ranger organization has existed almost continuously since 1821, when Stephen F. Austin, “the Father of Texas,” invited some 300 families from every corner of the United States to help colonize this desolate area in the Mexican state of Coahuila y Texas.
These early settlers had no regular army for protection from marauding Indian parties and outlaws, so in 1823 Austin called his intrepid settlers together and organized groups of men who would “range” throughout the territory to provide security and order. They would come to be called “Rangers.”
The organization was formalized in 1830 when Austin was released from a Mexican prison and returned back to Texas to help form the first rudimentary form of government known as the “Permanent Council” (which, ironically, proved to be only temporary). The council passed a resolution creating a corps that would carry the official name “Texas Rangers.” They were charged with the daunting responsibility of providing security from the Brazos to the Trinity Rivers. If you know a little bit about this “whole ‘nuther country” called Texas, you know that this covers a considerable chunk of geography.
The 1830’s were a very formative period for the Texas Rangers. Three companies of fifty-six men each comprised the initial organization. These paramilitary units often included a captain and/or a first lieutenant. Enlisted men were paid $1.25 a day plus room and board. In 1836, when Sam Houston marched his army off to defeat Santa Anna, the Rangers alone would be responsible for protecting the homeland against bands of Indians.
As Texas developed through the Republic stage of their history and then as one of the United States, the Rangers were so successful and proved to be so vital to the security of Texas, they were expanded to include some 280 mounted riflemen. Their fierce reputation soon spread beyond the Texas borders to other American states as well as Mexico.
The 1860’s proved to be a turning point in Ranger history. The U.S. Army, with its ponderous organizational bulk, bureaucratic command structure, and limited maneuverability could only provide self-imposed curtailed protection to the vast Texas frontier. The Rangers, with their consolidated ranks, streamlined agility, and familiarity within their theaters of operation, proved to be much more adept at thwarting outside threats.
However, the Civil War was heating up, and the Rangers disbanded when several of them signed up to fight with the Confederate forces. A small contingent, known as Terry’s Rangers, enjoyed great success which helped to secure the Rangers’ reputation.
After the war, when Reconstruction ended and Federal administrators and carpetbaggers retreated back North, the Texas Rangers once again recomposed into the organization they once were. During this period the Rangers pursued various bands of Apache renegades. One of them noted, “We dreaded the Texas Rangers . . . whose guns were always loaded and whose aim was unerring; they slept in their saddle and ate while they rode, or done without . . . when they took up our trail and followed it determinedly and doggedly day or night.”
In 1935 the Texas Rangers were rescued from the political arena following Miriam Amanda “Ma” Ferguson’s gubernatorial victory. The Texas State legislature rode to their rescue, putting a stop to her systematic discharging of Rangers; and reorganized the Rangers under the jurisdiction of the Texas Department of Public Safety, protecting them from capricious political winds.
One of the most colorful accounts from the old west era of Ranger history is offered by Ranger Captain John “Rip” Ford. He said, “A large portion . . . were unmarried. A few of them drank intoxicating liquors. Still, it was a company of sober and brave men. They knew their duty and they did it. While in a town they made no braggadocio demonstration. They did not gallop through the streets, shoot, and yell. They had a specie of moral discipline which developed moral courage. They did right because it was right.”
Today, the Texas Rangers have 213 fulltime employees, 150 of which are commissioned Rangers. They are charged with various responsibilities which include: unsolved crime investigations, public corruption investigations, protection of public officials, and border patrol.
Phase One of the Texas Ranger Heritage Center is scheduled to open in Fredericksburg June 2015. This phase will include the Ranger Ring of Honor, the Open-Air Pavilion, the Amphitheater, and the Campanili Bell Tower. Plans are being made to also offer chuck wagon dinners once a month. Groundbreaking on Phase Two is scheduled for fall 2015 and will include the Legacy Theater. Don’t miss this must-see attraction when you visit Fredericksburg.
My wife and I had the privilege of sharing a campsite with a vacationing Texas Ranger and his wife. They set up their tent next to us in a campground along the Rio Grande River in Starr County when we were visiting there several years ago. We sat around a campfire that night talking about his exciting life as a Texas Ranger, fascinated as we listened to his unembellished accounts of various adventures and, I dare say, brushes with death. As our fire died while we sat under the Texas stars, we decided to call it a night and crawled into our tents.
Less than an hour later, shots rang out from a passing car. He ran from this tent, pulling on his pants and waving his pistol as he jumped into his car and gave pursuit.
The next morning, over coffee, my inquiries were greeted with “no braggadocio demonstration” and an enigmatic smile. His humble reply said it all: “Just part of the job.”
“Rip” Ford had it about right.