The contested legacy of the Texas Rangers

A new podcast from Texas Monthly magazine, "White Hats," explores the history and ongoing legacy of the Texas Rangers. It airs on November 15, 2022.

Immortalized in movies and TV shows, from post-WWII westerns to Walker, Texas Ranger, "On the eve of the Rangers' 200th anniversary, "White Hats" explores the Rangers' true place in Texas history." The phrase "true place" makes me nervous. The myth of the Texas Rangers upholding law and order in the U.S-Mexico border region and the greater Southwestern United States is not simple.

"For many Texans, the white hats became synonymous with justice and protection. But many other Texans grew up hearing haunting memories of "los Rinches," and the violence they visited upon Mexicans and Mexican Americans a century ago."

As the host Jack Herrera, explains in the podcast trailer, "When you grow up in Texas you're raised on the symbols that defined this place: the heroes of the Alamo, wildcatters in the old fields, and the Texas rangers. No, not the baseball team. Instead, picture this: A stoic steely-eyed man with a silver star pinned onto his shirt. And he is wearing a white Stetson hat. The Rangers… offer a vision of righteous, self-reliant, principled, and powerful Texans. This is a search for what defines Texas, or who gets to be Texan, or American, for that matter."

I grew up hearing these stories of organized state-sanctioned and extra-legal violence against Mexican and Indigenous populations. Yet more than stories, these mythological tales had a pedagogical function of reinforcing the idea of European and USian superiority. Because the Rangers are the reference for male protagonists in Hollywood westerns and frontier patriarchal masculinity, as well as movies about battling "aliens," the meanings given to their actions resonate in the present "heart of darkness" of this USian gunfighter nation.

Consider this quote from Ranger Napolean Agustus Jennings, "We paid visits to Matamoros [across the border from Brownsville, Texas] after nightfall. We went there for two reasons: to have fun, and to carry out a set policy of terrorizing the Mexicans at every opportunity…Each Ranger was a little standing army in himself." A 1922 New York Times article stated, "The killing of Mexicans without provocation is so common as to pass almost unnoticed."

The Ranger was the nation, a one-person standing army. Impunity and violence as diversion and fun. Empire as an experiment. The Ranger was a land speculator. The Ranger was a judge. As historian Roxanne Dubar-Ortiz explains in her book,Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment, the first armed slave-owning Indian-killing ranger/land speculator was George Washington.

This story of the Texas Rangers as a heroic band of law-abiding citizens is a historical myth. The Texas Rangers were criminals and murderers, enacting justice through violence and reinforcing the power and infrastructure of Anglo-American economic and political interests.

As Dunbar-Ortiz writes, "Having perfected their art in counterinsurgency operations against Comanches and other Native communities, the Texas Rangers went on to play a significant role in the U.S. invasion of Mexico. As seasoned counterinsurgents, they guided U.S. Army forces deep into Mexico, engaging in the Battle of Monterrey. Rangers also accompanied General Winfield Scott's army and the Marines by sea, landing in Vera Cruz and mounting a siege of Mexico's main commercial port city. They then marched on, leaving a path of civilian corpses and destruction, to occupy Mexico City, where the citizens called them Texas Devils. In defeat and under military occupation, Mexico ceded the northern half of its territory to the United States, and Texas became a state in 1845. Soon after, in 1860, Texas seceded, contributing its Rangers to the Confederate cause. After the Civil War, the Texas Rangers picked up where they had left off, pursuing counterinsurgency against both remaining Native communities and resistant Mexicans."

These stories about the Texas Rangers are like statues honoring the Confederate South. We must reckon with their ongoing presence and influence on the current political moment, given the return to Territorial Law in some states and the practices and logic of Jim Crow America that is becoming more commonplace and increasingly accepted.

The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas, by McArthur "Genius" award winner Monica Muñoz Martinez, explores how "Between 1910 and 1920, vigilantes and law enforcement—including the renowned Texas Rangers—killed Mexican residents with impunity. The full extent of the violence was known only to the relatives of the victims. Operating in remote rural areas enabled the perpetrators to do their worst: hanging, shooting, burning, and beating victims to death without scrutiny. Families scoured the brush to retrieve the bodies of loved ones. Survivors suffered segregation and fierce intimidation, and yet fought back. They confronted assailants in court, worked with Mexican diplomats to investigate the crimes, pressured local police to arrest the perpetrators, spoke to journalists, and petitioned politicians for change."

As Melissa del Bosque recently wrote in The Border Chronicle, "In September [2022], a group of unarmed Mexican migrants came under attack as they crossed through Hudspeth County, Texas. One of them was shot to death, and another was seriously wounded. Covering this incident in an October 17 article, The New York Times called Hudspeth County "a new focal point in the nation's increasingly contentious immigration debate."

The Texas Rangers are on the case.

"According to a Texas Ranger affidavit, 60-year-old twin brothers Michael and Mark Sheppard parked their truck at a watering hole for cattle near the county seat of Sierra Blanca, where a group of Mexican migrants had stopped for water. As the men approached, the group hid behind some bushes, and the brothers allegedly taunted them, yelling, "Come out, you sons of bitches, little asses!"

As you anxiously wait for the podcast, check out the educational web project Refusing to Forget.