The Texas Rangers the Oldest and Finest Law Enforcement Agency

Can you ride? Can you shoot? Can you cook? If so, you could have qualified to be a Texas Ranger 19 decades ago. It’s not that easy today in the modern version of Texas’ most time-honored law enforcement institution, which happens to be the oldest state law enforcement agency in the United States.

In 1823, when Texas was hardly a well-defined territory, the Texas Rangers were born. The first twenty men, 10 hand-picked by the fledgling government and 10 hired and paid for by Stephen F. Austin, had the task of protecting the newly acquired Mexican land grant and the original 300 Anglo colonists from marauding Indians. Enlistees were offered $15 per month, plus flour, coffee, beans and other foodstuffs.  Each man was responsible for his own mount, tack and weapons, usually a rifle, two pistols and a knife.  By 1826, the enlistments swelled to thirty men, each able to utter a “yes” to the three most important questions: “Can you ride, shoot and cook?” Enlistment varied from as short as three months to several years.

Many remarkable tales have been told about these men and their exploits. John Coffee Hays was one of the most popular, and was probably the bravest of all the Rangers. At the age of 23, he was captain of a Ranger group in charge of protecting San Antonio. During the battle of Llano, against about 100 Comanches, Hay’s horse bolted and ran off, with Jack grappling for the reins, straight toward the enemy lines. Flacco, a Lipan Indian chief and 10 of his warrior scouts followed Hays, thinking he was charging the Comanche warriors. They cut a path straight through enemy lines and Hays didn’t regain control of his horse until they were well on the other side of the totally bewildered band of Indians. Hays and his small band had to go around one of the enemy flanks in order to return to their original position and continue the fight. About this incident Flacco later said, “Me and Red Wing not afraid to go to Hell together. Captain Jack heap brave, not afraid to go to Hell by himself.”

The Native Americans, friend and foe, admired these brave men. Quanah Parker, the last great Comanche chief, said about them, “Rangers don’t fight like white folks.”  Indeed, no one fought like those stubborn, rawboned lawmen, whose unwritten motto was, “Ride like a Mexican, track like an Indian, shoot like a mountain man and fight like the Devil.”  It is said that the Indians of the region often followed Rangers around the territory, not to fight them, but to watch them in action.

In 1835, after the outbreak of the Texas revolution, the governing council voted to give this band of brave men official status.  On October 17, 1835, these early guardians of the frontier became known as the “Texas Rangers.”  From this group came the institution that is so highly regarded today. Sam Houston declared, “You may withdraw every regular soldier… from the border of Texas… if you will give her but a single regiment of Texas Rangers.”

After the Civil War, the role of the Texas Ranger changed. In addition to the marauding Indians were the bandits from Mexico, gunfighters, desperadoes, carpetbaggers and highwaymen. By the late 1800’s the Rangers were involved in full time law enforcement.  The development of the Colt Paterson revolver did much to give the Rangers a distinct advantage over their adversaries.  Prior to the development of this weapon, men had to load single shot weapons.  Captain Sam Walker, a Ranger who was with Jack Hays, encouraged Colt to develop a new revolver.  Colt had gone bankrupt shortly after issuing the first revolver and the Paterson, New Jersey plant had closed down. Taking up the plea from Walker, Colt went to Eli Whitney, Jr., the son of the inventor of the cotton gin, who had a government contract to manufacture rifles.  Colt talked Whitney into manufacturing a new revolver designed by Walker, the “Walker Colt.”  Samuel Walker received the first two issued, but was killed before he could see the weapon that bore his name go into service as a Texas Ranger service piece.

By 1900, the Texas rangers were involved in criminal investigation in a big way.  Crime had also changed from the Saturday night shootout to more sophisticated crimes riding on the crest of new technology, such as the automobile and the telephone.

Until 1935, the Texas Rangers were under the direction of the adjutant general.  The Texas Legislature decided to pull together its resources to create a policing agency that would regulate traffic.  By this time, increased trucking caused a big problem throughout the state.  There was at the time a motor patrol under the auspices of the Highway Department, but no true Highway Patrol.  Department of Public Safety replaced this motor patrol and served as the statewide traffic-regulating agency.  The Texas Rangers became the investigative arm of this new agency. There are currently 3500 commissioned officers in the Texas Department of Public Safety, which consists of four major divisions: (1) Traffic Law Enforcement; (2) Administration, which includes non-commissioned personnel; (3) Criminal Law Enforcement, which currently oversees betting in the state; and (4) The Texas Rangers.  As an independent division, The Texas Rangers report directly to the Director of the Department of Public Safety.  Their total strength, which is determined by the State Legislature, is 103 Rangers.  There are 89 sergeants, 8 captains and 6 lieutenants. In addition to the eight captains and six lieutenants, there is a Senior Captain in Austin, who is assisted by an Assistant Senior Captain.  This Senior Captain is directly responsible to the Director of the Department of Public Safety.

Rangers don’t normally respond to citizen’s requests; that is the function of the local law enforcement agencies.  They will, however, respond to the call from any local law enforcement agency, District Judge, Justice of the Peace or District Attorney in the State.  Rangers of today are highly skilled, highly trained criminal investigators.  While they have no primary jurisdiction, they can support any law enforcement agency in the State by providing their investigative skills or manpower.  Because this is such a close-knit group, Rangers know their fellow officers on a first-name basis and know that they can call on any one of them and get support, whether it is to lend investigative support or serve a warrant.

The official Ranger badge is made from a Mexican five Peso coin minted either in 1947 or 1948.  These are the last years the coins were minted of pure silver.  The insignia, star and official lettering is stamped into the coin.  Captain’s badges are either of gold-plated five Peso coins, furnished by the State or solid gold 50 Peso coins, usually bought by the officer himself.  If an officer wishes to keep the badge, he or she must replace it with a coin so the supply of coins is not depleted.

It’s not as easy becoming a Texas Ranger today as it was in the early days.  Since 1980, new Rangers must come up from the ranks of the Department of Public Safety.  The job requires at least eight years of experience as a uniformed officer just to take the exam, which is given annually. The top five scoring candidates from 225 to 250 tested are invited to interview before the board, consisting of three Rangers and three officers from other divisions.  The highest scoring candidates fill any vacant positions and the others wait for new openings for the rest of the year.  At the end of the year, anyone on the waiting list must start over next year, with no guarantee of reaching that level again.

By 1994, female officers joined the ranks of the Rangers. How do their counterparts feel about their presence among this historically male dominated agency? According to a recently retired Lieutenant from Company A in Houston, “These women had to qualify by length of service, their knowledge and skill, the same as the rest of us. They truly deserve to take their place among their fellow officers in this State’s most honorable law enforcement institution.”