The Enduring Myth of the Texas Rangers

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Workers removing Texas Ranger statue at Love Field, credit: City of Dallas

While the Washington football team and the Cleveland baseball team were both undergoing public struggles about the appropriateness of their nicknames, my own favorite baseball team, the Texas Rangers,was called out by several national columnistsfor a similar soul-searching. Theodore Roosevelt, (yes, THAT Teddy Roosevelt) made the case for both sides back before there was even a team by that name when he described the character of Texans:

The conquest of Texas should be properly classed with conquests like those of the Norse sea-rovers. The virtues and faults alike of the Texans were those of a barbaric age. They were restless, brave, and eager for adventure, excitement and plunder; they were warlike, resolute, and enterprising; they had all the marks of a young and hardy race, flushed with the pride of strength and self-confidence. On the other hand they showed again and again the barbaric vices of boastfulness, ignorance and cruelty; and they were utterly careless of the rights of others, looking upon the possessions of all weaker races as simply their natural prey.

As Doug J. Swanson tells it in his new book, The Cult of Glory: The Bold and Brutal History of the Texas Rangers, Roosevelt pretty much got it right when it comes to the state’s legendary law enforcement agency. Swanson doesn’t go anywhere other books haven’t been before. S.C. Gwynne’s 2016 book Empire of the Summer Moon has told the tale of the Rangers and their vicious encounters with the Comanche nation. Philipp Meyer’s 2014 novel, The Son, covers the whole sweep of Texas history, including the Rangers’ complicity in South Texas campaigns against the Latino population in epic detail. But Swanson draws it all together and puts the focus on the Rangers. And like most writers who fall under the sway when writing Texana, he can’t decide whether the excess he uncovers is fantastic or horrific.

Swanson would probably tell you that the history falls more to the dark sider of the balance. He says as much in interviews and in the prologue to the book: “For decades, the Rangers operated a fable factory through which many of their greatest defeats, worst embarrassments, and darkest moments were recast as grand triumphs. They didn’t merely whitewash the truth. They destroyed it.” He also thinks he’s wrestling honestly with the mythos, and I believe that he is. But he’s not above selling the myth either, as when he concludes the prologue by saying, “The story of the Rangers is the story of Texas, and of the American West: majestic in its sweep, unmatched in its violence, luminous in its glory, and monumental in its deceptions.”

I have no room to talk. I’m a sucker for the romance, too. And you won’t be able to turn away from the well-told tales of Ranger legends like Sam Walker, Jack Hays, and Leander McNelly, despite the fact that at every turn they are at the scene and instigators of acts that no modern police review board should condone. Operating with a purposefully hazy relationship to other law enforcement bodies, the Rangers are as often coopted into defenders of rapacious capital and white supremacy as they are to the upholding of law and order.

In fact, too often the Rangers are the cause of chaos. As in 1916 when a small mission town near El Paso, Ysleta, “asked ‘for a detachment of Rangers for our protection against Horse and Cattle Thieves.’ Several Rangers were sent in response. Nine months later another letter from Ysleta hit the governor’s desk. ‘Please,’ wrote Mrs. A. Alderete, the proprietor of an ice cream parlor, ‘have the Ranger camp entirely removed.’”

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Doug J. Swanson

Swanson details how the Rangers attained their legendary status through dime store novel accounts and Hollywood movies and the ceaseless self-promotion of Rangers themselves. Up until June 4 of this year you would find yourself welcomed at Love Field in Dallas by a larger-than-life Texas Ranger statue with a plaque stating, “One Riot—One Ranger,” the unofficial slogan of the Rangers, one of whom once showed up alone to a mob scene and explained his absence of companions by saying, “You only have one riot, don’t you?”

The statue was removed, partly as a response to the protests concerning race and policing and partly as a result of Swanson’s book. The baseball team still sports the name but they otherwise have no visible reminders of the law enforcement Rangers. But it wasn’t that long ago that the state code was reformed to add subsection 411.015 (b), which in a single sentence makes clear, “Abolishing the Rangers is against the law.”

It’s quite a journey for a group that got its start in colonial Texas as an Indian-fighting unit. And Swanson’s book is quite an eye-opener for those who want an entertaining but otherwise clear-eyed look at the compromises we are prepared to make to have heroic law officers. A little less myth might help us all.

I received a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

2 Comments

  1. My dad always projected himself as a rugged individualist, someone who would have done well as a fur trapper/mountain man/ranger. Now that he is 85, and more well-read than when he was 35, he is glad that he did not live on the Texas frontier. That was a very hard and brutal life. It is easy for us to sit in comfortable homes and judge right or wrong on people who lived a hundred and fifty years ago. I am not saying don’t do it at all but I am saying do not paint with a broad brush. Be careful when you talk all-inclusively of the Texas Rangers or any other group. Otherwise we will be guilty of doing what some of the Rangers did.

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    1. Point taken, Mike. And I think the book does a good job of portraying the dangers and perils of the frontier, particularly in the Comanche battles. The Rangers were undeniably tough and certainly had limited options at times.

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