Though Often Mythologized, the Texas Rangers Have an Ugly History of BrutalityRoundup
tags: racism, Texas, Texas Rangers, Law Enforcement
Jonathan S. Jones is a historian of the US Civil War Era. A native Texan and former Texas public school teacher, Jones is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Penn State’s Richards Civil War Era Center.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott recently called for the firing of an eighth-grade social studies teacher amid renewed controversy over police brutality. The Wylie, Tex., middle school teacher assigned a political cartoon to illustrate historical links between slavery and KKK violence and the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Abbott took to Twitter, calling for the teacher’s dismissal and outright denying any historical connections between slavery, Jim Crow and modern-day police brutality. The governor added this connection was “the opposite of what must be taught” in Texas history classrooms.
Abbott is wrong. In reality, Texas has a long history of white supremacist violence and police brutality toward Black and Brown people. Bringing this history to Texas classrooms would go a long way toward reckoning with the white supremacy deeply embedded in the state’s history.
The link between racial violence and Texas law enforcement goes all the way back to the state’s original police force, the Texas Rangers — the most celebrated state law enforcement agency in U.S. history. Established in 1835, popular mythology has long cast the Texas Rangers as the law-and-order good guys of the Old West, dealing out tough, but much-needed frontier justice. For decades, television shows like “The Lone Ranger” and “Walker, Texas Ranger” and novels like “Lonesome Dove” reinforced the Rangers’ heroic brand, masking the agency’s troubling and notoriously violent history.
During the 19th century, the Republic of Texas and, later, the Texas state legislature tasked the Rangers with the suppression of Indigenous peoples like the Comanche, the recapture of enslaved Black people and the raiding of Mexican communities in Texas’ border region. The Rangers carried out their duties with overwhelming force, earning them a reputation as ruthless fighters whose methods blurred the line between law and lawlessness. A tribute to the Rangers’ violent tactics, the arms manufacturer Colt named one of the world’s first six-shooters after Samuel H. Walker, a veteran Ranger captain killed during the U.S. invasion of Mexico from 1846 to ‘48.
At the inception of the Republic of Texas in 1836, the Rangers embarked on a decades-long campaign of “ethnic cleansing” to depopulate the nation of Indigenous peoples who controlled much of what is now West Texas. In March 1840, the Rangers and affiliated Anglo soldiers double-crossed and murdered 35 Comanche diplomats, women and children attempting to negotiate for peace. The event ignited a brutal war between Anglo Texans and the Comanche that dragged on for decades after Texas entered the United States in 1845.
The Texas Rangers were equally violent toward enslaved Black Texans. As the slave state’s main police agency, the Rangers were tasked with upholding slavery by hunting down “runaway” enslaved people — a job that represents the seed of modern American policing. In 1838, a band of Rangers cornered an armed group of Black men who had escaped from slavery. The Rangers captured one of the men, and, after slashing him several times with a Bowie Knife, sold him back into slavery for $800, splitting the profit among themselves. In 1855, Rangers crossed the Rio Grande seeking Black fugitives who had escaped to a Mexican border town, where slavery was illegal. The Rangers burned the town to the ground for harboring freedom seekers. Although the U.S. government had to pay reparations for the violence, Texas honored the Ranger captain and enslaver who was responsible for incident, James Hughes Callahan, with a grave in Texas’s State Cemetery.