Texas Rangers

At first a raggedy bunch, they've polished up right nicely.

"They were one of the most colorful, efficient, and deadly band of irregular partisans on the side of law and order the world has seen." 

-T.H. Fehrenbach  author of  Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans

Hi-Yo Silver, Away!

The image is burned into our collective memories. Picture it – a white rearing stallion with a masked man balanced in the saddle, shouting for the steed to Hi Yo! Cue the William Tell Overture and there you have it. An icon of the American West: the Lone Ranger.

The adventures of the masked Texas Ranger began in the 1915 book by Zane Grey, The Lone Star Ranger. The writers of the 1950s radio and TV series gave the character a well-developed backstory involving an ambush, a near-death escape, an American Indian partner, a wounded white horse, and an incognito quest to right wrongs across the American plains. This Ranger’s stories were made-up, but they sure made for some memorable TV.

The Real Texas Rangers

The literary and on-air adventures of the Lone Ranger pale in comparison, however, to the true stories of a rag-tag, undisciplined, and not always honorable bunch of men who formed the real and original Texas Rangers. Like their fictional masked counterpart, this group of law enforcement officers has now achieved near-mythic status around the world. And rightly so.

You might not recognize the original Texas Rangers from 1823. They had no shiny silver badges, no six shooters, and no white Stetsons. They were farmers and ranchers who wore their own clothes, rode their own horses, and used whatever guns they could shoot well. They came together when there was a threat to early Texas colonists and went back to their work when it was over. But they were the beginning.

The history of the Texas Rangers is rife with legendary men who kept on a-comin’ and at least one woman who had something to say to them all.

Episode 1: John “Jack” Coffee Hays

January 28, 1817. In Little Cedar Lick, Tennessee, a baby cries at the shock of being born. Years pass. Jack (as he’s called) grows up, quieter than when he came into the world, and skinny. His pale skin burns quickly in the hot sun. The boy is as fast as lightning on foot and as amazing as an acrobat on a horse. At 15, he packs off to family in Mississippi when the dread yellow fever takes both his parents. He’s smart and learns to survey land. In 1836, he decides it’s time to move on. Texas has some big ground that needs mapping.

Episode 2: That's Captain Jack To You

Jack stops a while on his journey to help bury the dead at Goliad. Sam Houston notices young Jack’s courage and directs him to join up with Deaf Smith and his rangers in south Texas. Right away, Jack catches the bandit Juan Sanchez. Then he wins some fearsome battles with the Comanches. “Devil Yack” Jack rises right up to the rank of captain quick as a wink. And from then on, the upstart Texas Rangers have their first fierce and fearless leader.

Episode 3: Ready, Aim, Ranger

Captain Jack continues to rise. He’s Colonel Hays now. From 1840 to about 1846, Jack leads his Texas Ranger regiment to victory in some of the most well-known wars in the state’s history: the Battle of Plum Creek, Cañon de Ugalde, Bandera Pass, and Walker Creek. The Rangers fight so ferociously that they earn the nickname los diablos Tejanos. Texas devils. At Plum Creek, those diablos use new firepower that changes the very nature of battle– the .44 Colt revolver. And wouldn’t you know it, Jack helps design that gun that comes to win the wild West.

Episode 4: Gone, But Living On

So, what happens to the now-famous Jack Hays after his Ranger days are over? In 1849, Jack hears the siren song of gold in California and lights out for a different set of hills. But he sure doesn’t leave his winning ways back in Texas. Jack is elected sheriff of San Francisco in 1850, appointed California U.S. Surveyor General in 1853, and serves as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1876. He dies in California on April 21, 1883 – forty-seven years to the day of the Texas Battle of San Jacinto. Seems fitting, somehow.

Many folks say John “Jack” Coffee Hays himself built the legend of the Texas Rangers. The wild young man with the wild hair certainly did train up his motley men so that one day, further down the dusty road of history, the Texas Rangers would become the new icons of the American West, with their silver badges and Stetson hats, but not a mask in sight.

Episode 5: Tarnishing The Silver Star

For the next 50 years or so, the Texas Rangers are like an accordion. They come together and pull apart according to how much funding they get or don’t get. With six shooters blazing, they ride into the war with Mexico, the Civil War, and any other frontier skirmishes they can find. Just like Jack Hays taught them, they fight hard and fierce. They are still legendary. But the legend is beginning to tarnish. Rumors abound of their brutal mistreatment of Mexicans and Tejanos. A legislative investigation discovers that not all of the rumors are just rumors.  If Captain Jack were around, he would not be happy with his Rangers. By 1932, neither is Ma Ferguson.


Episode 6: If Ma Ain't Happy, Ain't Nobody Happy

That year, the Rangers get caught in some crossfire of the political kind. They publically support Governor Ross Sterling in his bid for re-election against his opponent, former Texas governor Miriam "Ma" Ferguson. They soon learn that there is nothing like a woman scorned. Ma wins the election and moves triumphantly back into the mansion in 1933. Then she triumphantly fires every single Texas Ranger.

Fortunately for Texas and the rest of the world, the Rangers are reorganized under the newly created Department of Public Safety in 1935. This is the beginning of a new era in law enforcement.

And this is very bad news for the era of Bonnie and Clyde.

Episode 7: Still Legendary

In 1823, Stephen F. Austin, the Father of Texas, decided that he  would employ ten men to act as rangers for the common defense of the fledgling Texas colonies. Today, the men and women of the Texas Rangers still provide for the common defense and make up one of the most elite and successful law enforcement agencies in the world. Fast horses and hot guns are still involved, but so are advanced criminal investigation techniques and forensic technologies. And of course, the iconic silver stars, six shooters, and Stetsons.

Texas Rangers on the Bullock Terrazzo

Launch Master Timeline

Texas Rangers Timeline


The Mexican territory of Tejas was opened to settlers on the conditions that they become Mexican citizens, learn Spanish and adopt the Catholic faith. Moses Austin, a founder of America's lead industry, obtained government permission to bring colonists to the territory. He died before the "Texas Venture" begins and his son, Stephen, led 300 families on the journey to establish new colonies along the Brazos, Colorado and San Bernard Rivers.

August 4, 1823
182310 to Range

The Mexican government advised Stephen F. Austin that it would not provide resources to administer or defend the fledgling Tejas colonies. Austin hired ten men to "act as rangers for the common defense" against Indian raids. With that, the legend of the Texas Rangers began.

November 24, 1835
1835Official Rangers

The provisional Texas government passed a resolution officially creating a corps of over 50 rangers. These Rangers engaged in many skirmishes with American Indians and often joined with the Texian Army in fighting against Mexican troops in what became the opening battles of the Texas Revolution.

March 6, 1836
1836Immortal 32

The Gonzales Ranging Company answered William B. Travis' impassioned letter asking for reinforcements to defend the Alamo. Thirty-two Rangers reached the fort on March 1. On March 6, all 32 Rangers died. This single troop loss accounted for 20% of all Alamo battle losses. These Rangers are now known in history as the "Immortal 32."

June 12, 1837
1837Friendly Help

The Texas Legislature passed an act authorizing Rangers to employ the services of "friendly" American Indian tribes as scouts and spies. Flacco, a Lipan Apache chief, served under Ranger John (Jack) Coffee Hays in 1841 and 1842. Hays later credited Flacco with saving his life in more than one battle with the Comanches.

July 16, 1839
1839Cherokee War

Republic of Texas President Mirabeau B. Lamar ordered the expulsion or extermination of all American Indian tribes. In the Battle of the Neches, near present-day Tyler, Cherokees were defeated in their attempt to retain land granted to them by a previous state treaty. Cherokee Chief Bowles died clutching a sword given to him by his close friend, Sam Houston.

Image courtesy of Texas State Library and Archives Commission

March 19, 1840
1840Council House Fight

President Lamar ordered the Rangers to attack Comanche villages in his campaign to drive Americans Indians out of Texas. War chiefs agreed to peace negotiations with the Rangers at Council House in San Antonio. At the talks, the Comanches entered with an injured hostage and demanded more money for the remaining hostages. Soon bullets and arrows flew. Six Texans and many Comanche war chiefs, women, and children died. The stage was set for the Battle of Plum Creek.

August 12, 1840
1840Battle of Plum Creek

John (Jack) Coffee Hays led a company of Rangers toward Plum Creek. Word had spread of raiding Comanches seeking retribution for the Council House massacre. The Comanches reached Kelly Springs where their war chief, wearing a stovepipe hat and carrying a lady's parasol taken from a Linnville warehouse, was killed immediately. Fierce fighting continued along the San Marcos River with 150 Comanches killed.

painting by Lee Herring

December 29, 1845
1845Republic of Texas Annexed

In 1836, the Republic of Texas voted in favor of annexation by the United States, but the U.S. wasn't interested because of concerns over the Republic's pro-slavery stance and an impending war with Mexico. By 1843, with the threat of British involvement in the Texas issue, U.S. President John Tyler proposed annexation. Texas drew up a state constitution in October 1845 and was admitted as the 28th U.S. state by the end of the year.

November 16, 1848
1848Making the News

"Four newly raised ranging companies, have all been organized, and taken their several stations on our frontier. We know they are true men; and they know exactly what they are about. With many of them, Indian and Mexican fighting has been their trade for years. That they may be permanently retained in the service on our frontier is extremely desirable."

- Victoria Advocate newspaper

January 27, 1858
1858100 Strong

As the number of settlers to Texas increased, so did the number of attacks as the Americans Indians were driven off their tribal lands. Texas Governor Hardin Runnels appropriated $70,000 to fund a force of 100 Rangers led by the legendary Senior Captain John "RIP" Ford. The Rangers spent the next several years fighting pitched battles with American Indian tribes as well as Mexican soldiers.

February 1, 1861
1861Texas Secedes

By a vote of 166 to 8, the Secession Convention of Texas voted to withdraw from the Union. Independence was declared on March 2, and on March 5, Texas joined the Confederate States of America. Governor Sam Houston refused to take an oath of loyalty to the Confederacy. When the Convention removed him from office on March 16, Houston's political career was over. The statesman retired to Huntsville where he died two years later.

December 21, 1861
1861Ranger Frontier Regiment

All able-bodied men were required to report for service to the Confederate Army. This left many Texas colonies and forts with no defense from continual Comanche and Kiowa raids. The Texas Legislature passed an act authorizing the formation of the Frontier Regiment. These Rangers patrolled 18 forts located along a 500-mile line from the Red River to the Rio Grande. By 1863, all Frontier Regiment Rangers were drafted into the Confederate Army.

March 30, 1870
1870Texas Readmitted

During Reconstruction, southern states were required to nullify acts of secession, abolish slavery, and ratify the 13th Amendment in order to be readmitted to the Union. Texas balked on the slavery issue, which prompted Congress to require that the Texas Legislature also pass the 14th and 15th Amendments before being considered for readmission. When Texas finally met all conditions, President Ulysses S. Grant readmitted Texas to the United States.

May 1, 1874
1874Suppressing Lawlessness

Alex Sweet, editor of the nationally-circulated humor magazine Texas Siftings, wrote in 1882: "The Rangers have done more to suppress lawlessness, to capture criminals, and to prevent Mexican and Indian raids on the frontier, than any other agency employed by either the State or national government."

September 1, 1883
1883Night Nippers

Cattlemen and ranchers went to war over the practice of stringing barbed wire around plots of land. Bands of armed "nippers" worked at night cutting the barbed wire, causing an estimated $20 million in damage. The Texas Rangers were called in on patrol. Ranger Ira Aten proposed arming the fences with bombs triggered to explode when the fence wire was cut. The idea was nixed.

February 21, 1896
1896One Riot, One Ranger

On October 3, the Texas Legislature declared "prizefighting" (boxing) illegal in the state. All Rangers were called in to stop the much-anticipated Fitzsimmons-Maher fight. When Ranger Captain Bill McDonald arrived alone in Langtry, the city's mayor asked where the rest of the Rangers were. McDonald allegedly replied, "Hell, ain't I enough? There's only one prizefight!" The One Riot, One Ranger slogan was born.

January 23, 1915
1915Rangers Run Wild

Raids by Mexican outlaws intent on reclaiming Texas land (as outlined in the Plan de San Diego) escalated into guerrilla warfare. The Texas Legislature authorized mass inductions of men to serve as Ranger forces. Reports of vigilante-like brutality inflicted on both Mexicans and Tejanos by these less disciplined and under-supervised Rangers increased.

March 31, 1919
1919Under Investigation

Some estimates place the number of Hispanic citizen deaths by Texas Rangers during the 1915-1918 wars with Mexico as high as 3,000. Representative Josė T. Canales of Brownsville insisted on a legislative investigation. As a result of the findings, the Texas Legislature reduced the number of Ranger companies as well as the number of men in each company. More stringent Ranger selection criteria and a citizen complaint process were also put in place.

December 19, 1920
1920Liquor and Liquid Gold

Prohibition passed in 1918. The Texas oil boom exploded two years later. Rangers spent a lot of time smashing stills, intercepting bootleg liquor from Mexico, and handcuffing criminals to telephone poles when the jails were too full. It was during this time that Ranger Captain Manuel "Lone Wolf" Gonzaullas cemented his legend as a one-man law enforcement agency along the Texas border. In the 1950s, he became an advisor for the TV show, Tales of the Texas Rangers.

January 18, 1933
1933Ma Cleans House

The day after her inauguration, Governor Miriam "Ma" Ferguson disbanded the entire Texas Ranger force as payback for their support of her gubernatorial opponent. She personally appointed 39 men as replacements. Ferguson's men formed an ineffective and often sleazy "Special Ranger" force and crime rose steadily. Gangsters such as Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd and Machine Gun Kelly found Texas a good place to hide out.

August 10, 1935
1935A New Era

Governor James V. Allred took office in January and fired every Special Ranger appointed by Ma Ferguson. Allred overhauled the Ranger force by placing them under the newly-created Department of Public Safety (DPS). Rangers retained law enforcement responsibilities but were now also required to keep careful records of criminal investigations. A scientific crime lab was built that rivaled the FBI's lab. A new era of Ranger history had begun.

September 1, 1935
1935Chief Ranger Garrison

Colonel Homer T. Garrison, Jr., was appointed as the Director of the DPS and the Chief of the Texas Rangers. Under his 34-year leadership, the Rangers developed into a world-renowned criminal investigation unit.

September 16, 1939
1939The Rangers Are Coming!

Retired Ranger Captain Frank Hamer (who brought down Bonnie and Clyde) wrote a letter to King George V of England offering the services of 49 retired Rangers to help defend England against German invasion. Although F.D.R. vetoed the idea, Germany got wind of the offer and panicked. In a radio address, Third Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels assured the German nation that the mighty Texas Rangers were not invading.

August 18, 1950
1950Tales of the Texas Rangers

This Western show starring Joel McCrea aired on NBC Radio from 1950 to 1952. The main character, Texas Ranger Jayce Pearson, was fictitious, but the stories were reenactments of actual Ranger cases.

1968Ranger Museum Opens

The Homer Garrison Texas Ranger Museum opened in Waco at Fort Fisher, an original 1837 Ranger site.

1976Ranger Museum Expands

The original Garrison Ranger Museum in Waco was renamed and expanded to include a memorial library and a research center.The new center was dedicated as the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum. Since its opening, more than two million people have visited.

1987Rangers Forever

The 70th Legislature of Texas enacts Government Code Section 411.024 which states: "The division relating to the Texas Rangers may not be abolished."

1987Rangers Revealed

Narrated by David Keith, this video explores the history of the legendary Texas Rangers.

2003Space Rangers

Colonel Paul Lockhart, pilot of Space Shuttle Mission STS-111, took a 1962 Texas Ranger badge into orbit in honor of the 180th anniversary of the Texas Rangers.

2014Texas Ranger Division

The Texas Rangers Division is comprised of 150 Rangers who oversee border security operations and specialize in major crime and corruption investigations. The Texas Ranger Special Operations Group includes the Special Weapons and Tactics Team (SWAT) and the Ranger Reconnaissance Team.

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