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A Texas Scholar Digs into The Dark Truths About the Role of the Texas Rangers in Early-20th-Century Border Wars

Roundup: Talking About History




Whether he gallops across TV screens on a steed named Silver or kickboxes drug dealers and other contemporary miscreants, the Texas Ranger is an iconic figure in American culture. But it has fallen to a Texas-based scholar named Benjamin H. Johnson, a 33-year-old assistant professor of history at Southern Methodist University, to help turn the popular images of the Lone Ranger and of Walker, Texas Ranger, upside down.

Mr. Johnson's 2003 book, Revolution in Texas: How a Forgotten Rebellion and Its Bloody Suppression Turned Mexicans Into Americans (Yale University Press), portrays the Texas Rangers as bad guys who terrorized and murdered hundreds -- and perhaps thousands -- of Mexican-born Texans living along the border nearly a century ago.

The book -- and a 2004 documentary based on an incident in the same period -- has now led a Texas lawmaker to introduce legislation this year honoring the Tejano rebels who died at the hands of the Rangers and vigilante groups in the failed uprising in 1915.

"Ben's book was a confirmation of what we've been talking about around barbecue pits and campfires for years," says Texas Sen. Aaron Peña, a Democrat from the border city of Edinburgh, Tex., who ordered a stack of the books and has handed them out to his colleagues and constituents.

Specifically, the author examines a 1915 rebellion in South Texas called the Plan de San Diego, in which Tejanos, or Texans of Mexican descent, sought to forcibly reclaim the American Southwest for Mexico in a plot that included killing all Anglo males over age 16. The unsuccessful uprising, which included a series of raids on ranches and railroads, provoked a bloody counterinsurgency in which Texas Rangers, federal soldiers, and vigilante groups indiscriminately killed anywhere between 300 and 3,000 Tejanos, depending on whose estimates you believe.

Hispanic scholars have written about the bloody border wars for decades, but it has taken a work written by a young Anglo historian writing for Yale University Press to bring the matter to mainstream audiences. Mr. Johnson has given standing-room-only talks in South Texas, and received dozens of calls and e-mail messages from Mexican-Americans who say his book confirmed accounts they had heard from their parents and grandparents, but never read about in their textbooks.

Mr. Johnson says he did not set out to write a book about, much less trash, the image of the Texas Rangers, now an elite unit of 118 officers, along with nearly two-dozen crime analysts and other personnel, in the Texas Department of Public Safety. He was more interested in the effect that the violence that started in 1915 had on race relations along the border and on the development of a Mexican-American identity. But in a state whose unofficial motto is "Don't Mess With Texas," the book stirred up conflicting emotions.

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