The Origin of the Texas Rangers: A Review of Robert M. Utley’s “Lone Star Justice”

Robert M. Utley’s Lone Star Justice: The First Century of the Texas Rangers is a thorough yet readably non-didactic history of the early Texas Rangers. Beginning with their inception shortly after Mexican Independence and spanning to 1910 and the reorganization of the Rangers into the unit of state lawmen recognizable today, Utley, in this first of two volumes on the subject, presents both a story of a vast and tumultuous frontier desperate for order, as well as a close study of the nature of the men that brought it. It confronts the two dichotomized perceptions of these men – one mythically heroic the other disdainfully condemning – and then presents an engaging narrative that gives credence to both.

Coahuila y Tejas flag

In the few years following Independence, Mexico’s northern province of Coahuila y Tejas was a sparse land largely uninhabited save for raiding bands of Comanches, Apaches, Cherokees, Kiowas, and Kickapoos. Envisioning a buffer between these marauders as well as added economic revenue, Mexico granted Stephen F. Austin and three hundred-some Anglo-American migrants large tracts of land to settle. For this buffer to work (and it never really did) Mexico granted Austin civil and military powers over his fellow settlers. With the memory of a temporary and short-lived mounted militia that preceded it, plus what would appear to be inspiration from the English colonial units that “ranged” the eastern wilderness before America’s own revolution, Austin implemented a system of citizen soldiery in which landowners served for a time based on acreage owned. It marked the beginning of the Ranger tradition, and its primary purpose of protecting Anglo settlers from Indians became a hard-fought struggle that would last for more than sixty years. It was not until July of 1835 however that the Ranger corps would finally sanction by law its first Ranger captain, Captain Robert M. Coleman, and, in effect, officially “fix the origins of the Texas Rangers to a time and a person” (Utley, 19).

Jack Hayes

With Texan Independence came tension with the country it broke from. Even after Santa Anna’s defeat and Texas’ declaration of sovereignty, Mexico was rue to recognize Texas as independent, let alone its boundary claims to the Rio Grande, and in the years leading up to the Mexican-American War the Rangers found yet another steady foe in their neighbors to the south. The character of the unit evolved, and under the notable leaderships of men like Jack Hayes, who introduced to his Rangers the now-synonymous Colt revolver, the Rangers became a roaming force of predominately young, healthy, bold, adventurous, and short-fused marksmen. They scrapped opposing Mexicans with the same vehement non-discretion that they did hostile Indians, and even after annexing themselves to the U.S. and joining forces in the War, the Rangers maintained a style of fighting all their own.

Over the next sixty-two years the Texas Rangers were ever-changing and oftentimes struggled to secure an identity. As the state budget webbed and waxed so fluctuated the number of Rangers employed. Following the Mexican-American War the unit gained national notoriety and at the turn of the century was finding itself widely romanticized through comic books, ballads, dime novels, and even feature films. By 1881 the Indians were nearly whipped and Mexico had let go its lost daughter, focusing increasingly inward on domestic problems. These respites in violence gradually allowed the Rangers to become less a militia and transform into the well-oiled, model division of state lawmen they are today. But despite these numerous successes, the Rangers simultaneously suffered many embarrassing incidents that would over time accumulate and tarnish its legend. Various accounts emerged of unprovoked, racially-charged attacks on Indian tribes. Mexican prisoners, under the dubious pretext of trying to escape, were killed or brutalized. Atrocious lapses in judgments, such as the killing of Sam Bass or the political skirmish that, with the help of the Rangers, escalated into the El Paso Salt War, were widely printed. These incidents and others became fodder for a strong anti-Ranger sentiment referred to by Utley as “revisionist.”

Utley’s objective then – to recount a heavily-researched and accurate first history of the Texas Rangers – is also his thesis; that the Rangers were not always men of “sterling character” and neither were they uniformly deplorable. Rather, “the historical reality lies somewhere between the extremes” (Utley, xiii).

In writing Lone Star Justice, Utley drew upon nearly four-hundred books, articles, and government documents from institutions across the West. This exhaustive research amounts to a history meticulously supported (as evidenced by the thorough chapter notes) and objective since Utley does not hesitate to include the Rangers’ less proud moments along with those admirable. Thus, by the end of his book Utley has both dispelled the mythically-impeccable image of the Texas Ranger as well as challenged the blanketing defamations posed by revisionists. It is tempting to search Utley’s words for hints of bias, he being an Anglo Texan and well-written author of Texas history, but the effort turns up fruitless. There are too many acknowledgements of the things regrettable in the Rangers’ past to call Utley subjective or romantic, too many allowances that yes, the revisionists have some ground to stand on.

Still, Lone Star Justice does not reduce the legend of the Texas Rangers. Conversely, the book bolsters it. Through well-supported facts working into a well-presented narrative, Utley explains how what began as a small-yet-resilient band of citizen soldiers matured into an agency of law enforcement that would inspire the justice systems of nearly every state in the Union. We discover that the history of the Rangers is in many ways the history of Texas – even, to some extent, America. They contained real-life heroes in their ranks as well as a few villains. Ultimately, the Rangers brought law and order to an enormous stretch of land where such things once seemed impossible. And perhaps that is what’s so remarkable; that they did it despite being only human.

Utley, Robert. Lone Star Justice: The First Century of the Texas Rangers. New York: Berkley Publishing Group, 2003.

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About adamjamesjones

A historian of the American West, Adam James Jones is the author of "The Vendetta of Felipe Espinosa." He lives in New Mexico with his wife, the actress Catharine Pilafas.
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