The Origin of the Texas Rangers: A Review of Robert M. Utley’s “Lone Star Justice”

Robert M. Utley’s Lone Star Justice: The First Century of the Texas Rangers is a thorough yet readably non-didactic history of the early Texas Rangers. Beginning with their inception shortly after Mexican Independence and spanning to 1910 and the reorganization of the Rangers into the unit of state lawmen recognizable today, Utley, in this first of two volumes on the subject, presents both a story of a vast and tumultuous frontier desperate for order, as well as a close study of the nature of the men that brought it. It confronts the two dichotomized perceptions of these men – one mythically heroic the other disdainfully condemning – and then presents an engaging narrative that gives credence to both.

Coahuila y Tejas flag

In the few years following Independence, Mexico’s northern province of Coahuila y Tejas was a sparse land largely uninhabited save for raiding bands of Comanches, Apaches, Cherokees, Kiowas, and Kickapoos. Envisioning a buffer between these marauders as well as added economic revenue, Mexico granted Stephen F. Austin and three hundred-some Anglo-American migrants large tracts of land to settle. For this buffer to work (and it never really did) Mexico granted Austin civil and military powers over his fellow settlers. With the memory of a temporary and short-lived mounted militia that preceded it, plus what would appear to be inspiration from the English colonial units that “ranged” the eastern wilderness before America’s own revolution, Austin implemented a system of citizen soldiery in which landowners served for a time based on acreage owned. It marked the beginning of the Ranger tradition, and its primary purpose of protecting Anglo settlers from Indians became a hard-fought struggle that would last for more than sixty years. It was not until July of 1835 however that the Ranger corps would finally sanction by law its first Ranger captain, Captain Robert M. Coleman, and, in effect, officially “fix the origins of the Texas Rangers to a time and a person” (Utley, 19).

Jack Hayes

With Texan Independence came tension with the country it broke from. Even after Santa Anna’s defeat and Texas’ declaration of sovereignty, Mexico was rue to recognize Texas as independent, let alone its boundary claims to the Rio Grande, and in the years leading up to the Mexican-American War the Rangers found yet another steady foe in their neighbors to the south. The character of the unit evolved, and under the notable leaderships of men like Jack Hayes, who introduced to his Rangers the now-synonymous Colt revolver, the Rangers became a roaming force of predominately young, healthy, bold, adventurous, and short-fused marksmen. They scrapped opposing Mexicans with the same vehement non-discretion that they did hostile Indians, and even after annexing themselves to the U.S. and joining forces in the War, the Rangers maintained a style of fighting all their own.

Over the next sixty-two years the Texas Rangers were ever-changing and oftentimes struggled to secure an identity. As the state budget webbed and waxed so fluctuated the number of Rangers employed. Following the Mexican-American War the unit gained national notoriety and at the turn of the century was finding itself widely romanticized through comic books, ballads, dime novels, and even feature films. By 1881 the Indians were nearly whipped and Mexico had let go its lost daughter, focusing increasingly inward on domestic problems. These respites in violence gradually allowed the Rangers to become less a militia and transform into the well-oiled, model division of state lawmen they are today. But despite these numerous successes, the Rangers simultaneously suffered many embarrassing incidents that would over time accumulate and tarnish its legend. Various accounts emerged of unprovoked, racially-charged attacks on Indian tribes. Mexican prisoners, under the dubious pretext of trying to escape, were killed or brutalized. Atrocious lapses in judgments, such as the killing of Sam Bass or the political skirmish that, with the help of the Rangers, escalated into the El Paso Salt War, were widely printed. These incidents and others became fodder for a strong anti-Ranger sentiment referred to by Utley as “revisionist.”

Utley’s objective then – to recount a heavily-researched and accurate first history of the Texas Rangers – is also his thesis; that the Rangers were not always men of “sterling character” and neither were they uniformly deplorable. Rather, “the historical reality lies somewhere between the extremes” (Utley, xiii).

In writing Lone Star Justice, Utley drew upon nearly four-hundred books, articles, and government documents from institutions across the West. This exhaustive research amounts to a history meticulously supported (as evidenced by the thorough chapter notes) and objective since Utley does not hesitate to include the Rangers’ less proud moments along with those admirable. Thus, by the end of his book Utley has both dispelled the mythically-impeccable image of the Texas Ranger as well as challenged the blanketing defamations posed by revisionists. It is tempting to search Utley’s words for hints of bias, he being an Anglo Texan and well-written author of Texas history, but the effort turns up fruitless. There are too many acknowledgements of the things regrettable in the Rangers’ past to call Utley subjective or romantic, too many allowances that yes, the revisionists have some ground to stand on.

Still, Lone Star Justice does not reduce the legend of the Texas Rangers. Conversely, the book bolsters it. Through well-supported facts working into a well-presented narrative, Utley explains how what began as a small-yet-resilient band of citizen soldiers matured into an agency of law enforcement that would inspire the justice systems of nearly every state in the Union. We discover that the history of the Rangers is in many ways the history of Texas – even, to some extent, America. They contained real-life heroes in their ranks as well as a few villains. Ultimately, the Rangers brought law and order to an enormous stretch of land where such things once seemed impossible. And perhaps that is what’s so remarkable; that they did it despite being only human.

Utley, Robert. Lone Star Justice: The First Century of the Texas Rangers. New York: Berkley Publishing Group, 2003.

The Pueblo Revolt of 1680: An American ‘Braveheart’

The Pueblo Revolt of 1680 was a rebellion more than a hundred years in the making. The persecution of the Puebloan Indians is traceable to 1541 and the misguided expedition of Francisco Coronado. En route to the fabled golden city of Cibola and ill-equipped for the stark New Mexico deserts, Coronado and his army promptly began requisitioning food and supplies from the native people – brutalizing all those that resisted.

Oñate

Fifty-seven years later Don Juan de Oñate and 200-some Spanish soldiers marched northward into New Mexico with orders to colonize the territory and Catholicize its inhabitants. A half-legal form of Spain’s barbarous encomienda system was introduced that forced natives to pay tributes from the crops they yielded and in some cases subjected them to slavery. During his tenure as New Mexico’s first governor Oñate would oversee numerous atrocities against the Puebloans, including the infamous 1599 massacre, dismemberment, and enslavement of the Acoma tribe as extreme retribution for their insurrection.

While the violence persisted, so too did Spain’s war on the native religion. Puebloans were imprisoned and oftentimes executed for their resistance to Catholic beliefs and for clinging to their own. In 1675, New Mexico Governor Juan Trevino arrested 47 such Puebloan “hold-outs,” and deemed them witches. Three of these prisoners were hanged and the others severely whipped before Trevino, under intense pressure by the natives, finally released them. Unfortunately for Trevino and the other Spanish settlers living in the territory, one of those recently-freed was the fearsome leader Popé.

Most of what is known of Popé (pronounced Po’pay) and his personality come from oral tradition or reports made by the Spaniards who encountered him. He has been described as “fierce,” “charismatic,” “scheming,” and “intelligent,” all of which must have been true for Popé to unite so many different tribes that spoke so many different languages and then lead them to a decisive victory over the militarily-superior Spaniards. It is also safe to say Popé held a well-rounded hatred for the Spanish and all their customs. This hatred was undoubtedly honed while Popé and his 46 fellow Puebloans endured the torment of their Spanish captors.

Prohibited by the Spanish from using guns or horses, in early August of 1680, Popé sent runners carrying deerskin strips tied with knots to the distant pueblos. At every sunrise each pueblo was to untie one knot until, with the untying of the last knot, the revolt could begin. The Spaniards learned of the plot, but the tribes preserved their element of surprise by attacking two days early. The Puebloans swarmed Santa Fe and, with their occupiers huddled inside the Palace of the Governors, Popé banished the Spanish back into Mexico.

Popé exhibited a staunch opposition to Christianity and European custom. After expelling the Spaniards to El Paso, he declared, “The God of the Christians is dead. He was made of rotten wood.” Unfortunately for him however, not all of his people had remained devout to the old ways, and after more than a century of interaction with the Franciscans many had converted to Christianity. It was Christian Puebloans such as these that, in the twelve years following the 1680 Revolt, came to yearn for the return of the Spanish and the Church.

Following their successful revolt of 1680, the Puebloan people of New Mexico found themselves suddenly in power of a vast and changed territory. Normally separated by language, religion, ideology, and geographic distance, never before had these tribes been so united as they were while fighting their mutual enemy the Spanish. More than that, never before had they known a more unifying and charismatic leader than that of Popé.

But with the Spanish vacated, abruptly the Puebloans lost their source of unity. Fierce infighting promptly ensued amongst the tribes as to who would remain in Santa Fe and rule New Mexico. On top of this, there occurred a surge in raids by nomadic bands like the Navajo. Then there were the frequent attempts made by those fuming Spaniards huddled in El Paso to exact revenge over their insurgents and regain the northern territory. On the nine-year anniversary of the Pueblo Revolt, Spaniards stalked up the Rio Grande and attacked the Zia Pueblo, killing some 600 Zias before retreating back to El Paso. Finally,                                                                              a severe drought fell over the southwest, and                                                                               did not leave for seven years.

The details of Popé’s life during this time vary. Some accounts claim he attempted to assert himself as something of a dictatorial leader of all the Puebloan people, striving to eradicate all Spanish influence from Pueblo society through sometimes severe punishment until finally the Puebloans rejected their former leader. Conversely, other oral traditions describe Popé retreating from politics and leading a quiet life incognito in Taos before dying anonymous. Whichever the case, without a common enemy and devoid of their once-leader, the Puebloan people soon enough divided, and despite thwarting a couple prior campaigns the Puebloans eventually relented to Spanish reclamation in 1692.

In 2005, a statue of Popé was placed inside the National Statuary Hall in Washington D.C. as one of two profiles picked to represent New Mexico (the other being the late senator Dennis Chavez). Sculpted by Cliff Fragua of the Jemez Pueblo, the seven and a half foot marble rendition depicts the Puebloan leader gripping the knotted strip of deerskin in one hand and a bear fetish in the other to symbolize Puebloan religion. Popé is the earliest American figure to be featured in the collection, and also the 100th and final one to be submitted.

“The Man and the Snake”

Indian Camp at NightThe camp consisted of a dozen teepees connected by footpaths of frozen mud set on a sunken meadow within the forested hills outside Guadalupita, New Mexico. It was night and a large fire illuminated the center of the camp. Two bands of men formed two crescents around the fire separated only by a few feet of empty space where the last man of one band met the first of the other like the opposing ends of two horseshoe magnets. On one side were the Jicarilla Apaches, the men adorned in ratty pelts of coyote, bear, and elk, while behind them a huddle of women used chipped stones to shave clinging flecks of meat from the upturned ribcage of a deer. On the other side were the rogue soldiers, dressed not in uniform but soggy boots, knee-holed trousers, duster overcoats, bandanas, soiled cavalry hats rimmed with snakeskin. One man from each party stood, he of the soldiers being the storyteller and he of the Apaches his translator.

The men quieted, the women stopped their work, and Garret Kelly — twenty-four, tall, trim, toothy, golden-haired, green-eyed, Confederate, polyglot, and self-proclaimed swordsmith, professional gambler, whisky distiller, riverboat engineer, author, and one-time paramour to the First Lady of Kentucky — began his story:

“There was a man who lived not far from here and not long ago. He had a home in a village that he shared with no wife and no children. Instead, the man lived with a profound collection of pets. They were not regular pets like cats and dogs but rather creatures of typically abhorrent species. Tarantulas, centipedes, scorpions, snakes, toads, lizards, mice, and rats crawled about sawdusted and soggy cages made of chicken wire or glass that cluttered and stunk the man’s home. Of this collection the man was boastful, proud the way such men are, as if their peculiarity was rather courage to live as others dared not to. Like boys who flip their eyelids and laugh at their friends’ repulsion.

“But there was one pet among them the man was especially fond of. Obscenely so. It was a snake, one whose breed was not known but could only be speculated upon mythologically. It measured thirteen feet. The midsection was muscly and thick as a man’s thigh, its eyes large black beads — round and unslitted. The man claimed to have acquired the animal when it was young from a traveling Mexican out of the Yucatan.

“The snake did not live like the other man’s pets, cooped in one of his many stacked cages. It was of course too big for that. Instead, the man allowed the creature free roam of his house. And so attached did he become to his prized animal that he openly admitted to sharing his bed with it, inviting the snake nightly to coil under the warmth of his sheets, to glean the heat off his own body. Behind the home the man raised rabbits and chickens, and from these pens both man and snake sufficed dietarily until, as inevitably the animal’s appetite paced its physical growth, the man was forced to begin raising goats. Of this stock the snake was fed one pre-killed goat every two weeks, each time unhinging its jaws to swallow and then slide the bulge deep into its length. Like this the two lived, contentedly sharing home, bed, and diet, for more than two years.

“But then the man grew worried, for suddenly the snake stopped eating. When he set the bi-weekly goat before his pet’s nose, the snake simply darted its tongue and then turned its head, uninterested. A month passed and the man decided the snake had grown tired of goats, so he tried a freshly shot fawn, still to no success. And when two whole months passed with the snake not eating a single thing, the man’s concern turned to panic; anguish even at the fear of his most beloved companion being sick and dying. More than this, the animal’s sleeping behavior had changed. No longer did it rest peacefully tight in its coil by the man’s legs. Instead the man would wake in the night to find it stretched out stiff and lengthwise against his body, its head near his own and its tail draping off the bed and into the doorway.

“Desperate now, the man sought out a farmer clever in the biologies of exotic things. The story of the snake, along with its symptoms, were related in great detail to the farmer, and as he spoke the man observed the face of the farmer become so disturbed by the time he finished he had already concluded the worst for his cherished pet. He asked if his snake was dying and was surprised when the farmer said no, the animal was not dying.

“The snake, the farmer solemnly informed him, was not dying and neither was it sick. It was instead, as members of their species do, hollowing its stomach and building up its appetite as it prepared for a very large meal. And the reason it lay outstretched in bed close against the man’s side was to confirm the meal would fit.”

When he finished, Garret surveyed the men around the fire. For a long moment no one spoke or moved. Then, finally, his face grave and understanding, the Apache chief nodded at Garret Kelly.

Later that night while making up his bedroll, Garret was interrupted by the runt of the group, Connor Rutledge. Of all the men in their party Connor was the youngest, the smallest, and also, in Garret’s estimation, the dimmest, which was all vexing as Garret had never understood what it was that had qualified Connor for this mission except that he, like Garret, spoke Spanish. Otherwise the young man was clumsy and unconfident and, consequently, dangerous. Adding to all this, Garret had somehow found himself after two nights of poker forty dollars in Connor’s debt.

Connor took a seat next to Garret’s bedroll. “Is that a true story?”

“Hell yes it’s a true story,” Garret said. “Happened in the town of Pine Bluff. Feller’s name was J.B. Wooten. He had that thing where one eye is a different color than the other. I forget what it’s called.”

“I never know when you’re lying.”

“I ain’t asking you to.” Garret lay down on his roll with his hands folded under his head, allowing Connor in the silence of the stalled conversation to feel like a prick.

“So you weren’t just yarn-spinning?”

“You think we wasted an afternoon of riding and gave away half our food just so I could spin a yarn?”

Connor was quiet.

“You watch, when this thing heats up Indians are going to end up our best and perhaps only ally. Because way out here who else is going to take our side? Not the Mexicans, that’s for sure. Sibley and them are all Texan for God’s sake, and anymore Texans fighting Mexicans is almost a virtue. The Indians on the other hand, they hate the bluecoats. Granted, they hate us too, along with anyone else who’s ever shot a rabbit or drank from one of their creeks, but at least their hate is negotiable, gullible even. We’re not trying to get them to stop hating us, just to keep hating the other side more. Them burning wagons and attacking forts is the reason so many federals are being kept here instead of going east.”

“I already know all that,” Connor said. “I’m asking about the story.”

“You’re too stuck on the drama of the tale and not my reason for telling it. See, Indians like to have their arguments made allegorically. Legends and yarns and such. They’ll tell you a dozen stories about some god slaying another just to explain why the sun sets red. Tonight’s story wasn’t really about a man and a snake. It was about a people that allowed an inherently evil being into their home, an entity that over time grew so large it required not just the space of the home but also its food. And it continued to grow until even that which had come to trust it eventually and inevitably became yet another thing for it to swallow.”

“You were instigating.”

“And how.”

“The snake was the Union.”

“Really I could have made it stand for just about anyone, Mexicans too I’d bet.” Garret could almost hear Connor’s mind whirring as it replayed the story, little mechanical arms picking up and connecting metaphors.

“Why did the chief call you aside afterward?” Connor asked. “What were you two talking about?”

“He wanted to know the end of the story.”

“That wasn’t the end?”

“He wanted to know what became of the snake.”

“What did?”

“Well, there are two versions.”

“You said the story was true!”

“It is, save for one of the endings.”

“So what are they?”

“In one version the man returned to his home after meeting with the farmer, picked up an ax, and hacked the snake to pieces. But in the other, the man, so trusting of his pet and unbelieving of the farmer, did nothing until one night as he slept the snake wound its coils about his body and squeezed the life out of him. And when the man was dead it devoured him just like one of its goats.”

“Jesus. So what version did you tell the chief?”

Still resting on his hands, Garret tilted his head backwards to look at where the young man sat behind him. “Since my mission was to instigate the chief, it doesn’t matter which version I told, does it?”