Texas Rangers Re-Evaluated





Ralph Blumenthal, The New York Times, 31 Oct. 2004

Back east, for social cachet there is nothing like an ancestor on the Mayflower. In Texas, it is a Texas Ranger in the family tree.

Here at the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum, a shrine to the frontier lawmen who set Lone Star hearts aflutter, some of the most avid visitors come in search of connections to the men who won the West and, it was said, would charge hell with a bucket of water and quell riots single-handedly (''one riot, one Ranger'') .

But Southern Methodist University in Dallas says new historical accounts are casting the long-revered outlaw and Indian fighters in a decidedly darker light.

The scholarship -- being gingerly acknowledged at the Hall of Fame -- involves investigations into massacres committed in an obscure border war against Mexican bandits and insurrectionists in 1915, a quagmire of its time. ''Not a bright period in the history of the Rangers,'' concedes the museum's director, Byron Johnson, in a film seen by many of its 80,000 visitors a year.

A recent book by an assistant history professor at Southern Methodist and other accounts exploiting archives on both sides of the border, including a damning but little-known Texas legislative investigation of 1919, link the Rangers to the ''evaporations'' of up to 5,000 Mexican insurgents and Tejanos -- Texans of Mexican origin -- whose lands in the Rio Grande Valley were coveted by Anglo settlers.

''People are still coming across skeletons,'' said the professor, Benjamin Heber Johnson, 32, whose book, ''Revolution in Texas: How a Forgotten Rebellion and its Bloody Suppression Turned Mexicans Into Americans,'' published late last year by Yale University Press, offers one of the fullest accounts to date of the violence. In the end, he said, the repression led the Mexican-Americans to secure their rights with organizations like the League of United Latin American Citizens.

The university's communications director, Meredith Dickenson, in material promoting the book as a ''bullet in the back'' to conventional, laudatory accounts of the Texas Rangers, wrote: ''Here's an episode unlikely to ever be on 'Walker, Texas Ranger.'''

In addition, a new documentary, ''Border Bandits,'' based on the memoirs of a Texas rancher, offers a firsthand account of the killings of two unarmed Tejanos by a carload of Texas Rangers driven by a legendary Ranger, William Warren Sterling, who later led the force as adjutant general and mythologized his exploits (but not his shootings) in a popular 1959 memoir, ''Trails and Trials of a Texas Ranger.''

''I thought the killings were an isolated incident,'' said the director of the documentary, Kirby F. Warnock, a Dallas writer whose grandfather, Ronald A. Warnock, had tape-recorded his recollections of coming upon the victims and burying the bodies. After recounting the tale in a 1992 memoir, ''Texas Cowboy,'' Kirby Warnock said, ''I got lots of calls saying, 'The Rangers killed my granddad.'''

Another book just published, ''The Texas Rangers and the Mexican Revolution: The Bloodiest Decade 1910-1920,'' by Charles H. Harris III and Louis R. Sadler, history professors emeritus at New Mexico State University, also recounts the cruelty of both sides.

The disclosures have bruised some feelings at the museum, which has a half-million items of Ranger memorabilia. ''You can't put current values on past times,'' said Mr. Johnson, the director, who is an anthropologist.

In recent weeks, showings of ''Border Bandits'' and forums on Benjamin Johnson's book have reopened wounds nearly a century old in the heavily Hispanic borderland, where the graves of the two Tejanos can still be found. ''I think the real bandits were the Texas Rangers,'' said Jon Bazan, a grandson of one of the victims, who spoke at a screening in Harlingen in early October. ''They were just like James Bond -- a license to kill.''

comments powered by Disqus