Cult Of Glory: The Bold And Brutal History Of The Texas Rangers

Author: Doug J. Swanson
Publisher: New York: Viking Press. 2020. 480p.
Reviewer: Paul N. Spellman | February 2021

An iconic historical brand like “Texas Rangers,” not unlike its legendary cousin “the Alamo,” can be stretched unmercifully beyond the facts and so oversimplified as to make the real story not much more than a reference point to the myth and legend that has supplanted it. The Alamo, for example, has stood in repose and disrepair for almost all of its 312 years, with the exception of sixteen days: the thirteen-day siege in February and March, 1836; and the almost totally ignored three-day battle fought on the same grounds but with positions switched 75 days earlier. The tragic heroics of the American defenders who died in a five-hour battle on March 6 have become legendary and literally world-renown, an enduring symbol of resolute defiance and courageous sacrifice. Likewise, a significant battle had ended earlier on December 10 with the surrender of a Mexican army to a similarly motley force of Texans. The March 6 story lives on embellished by each generation who tells it. The December engagement is a footnote in a seventh grade Texas history class.

The Texas Rangers’ brand shares much of the same fate as its San Antonio kin. To wrap up 197 years of law enforcement in a relatively brief definition does an injustice to the actual history. Regardless of one’s perspective on the character of the near-mythic Texas law enforcement agency, burning a singular brand on to its multi-faceted history is, simply put, unfair. Doug J. Swanson’s offering, Cult of Glory: The Bold and Brutal History of the Texas Rangers, plows a little-used field but still falls prey to the ignominies of oversimplified hyperbole, to wit: “The story of the Rangers is the story of Texas, and of the American West: majestic in its sweep, unmatched in its violence, luminous in its glory, and monumental in its deceptions” [5].

The famed law enforcement agency of the Southwest has gone through so many stages of evolution that one is hard-pressed to come to a singular conclusion as to its historical efficacy in the pursuit of criminal justice. First organized in 1823 as a small but nimble protective squad for Stephen F. Austin’s emerging colony of American settlers in the Upper Brazos Valley, the Rangers were re-organized in 1836 for the newly-independent Republic of Texas, once more in 1845 for the reconstituted State of Texas, a year later as a military troop marching wildly headlong into a war with Mexico, and again in 1861 as a Confederate Army brigade to be reckoned with in the Civil War. Disbanded during Reconstruction in favor of a miserable State Police Force, the Ranger name reappeared in 1874 as one prong of a two-section law enforcement agency, was nearly deactivated altogether in 1900 as being antiquated, and barely regained its footing between 1901 and 1920, only to be torn asunder internally by the introduction of politically-appointed riffraff into its diminished ranks. Reorganized in 1920 after both state and national investigations, and again in 1935 into its present state as an elite criminal investigation division, the “Texas Rangers” remain an elusive target for any one description.

For much of their storied history, in fact, the Ranger’s role was rather drab and monotonous: a handful of nineteen-year-old privates presiding over a too-large frontier with little action and even less pay, chasing down the occasional fugitive from a county jail, breaking up family feuds and barroom brawls in which they were often participants, and their captains filling out reams of paperwork for the Adjutant General to file away. Today, the criminal investigation division labors in its offices over forensic evidence much more often than working out in the field.

Swanson, with two telling oxymorons in his book title, has chosen to demythologize the legend surrounding the unique Texas agency, and in doing so has managed a very nice read that is as often eloquent as it is profoundly disturbing. Taking obvious umbrage at Texas exceptionalism in general, which is apparently not a mortal sin outside the state’s borders, he has opted to tell the grimy side of the tale as opposed to the glamorous; unbalanced but not without plenty of evidence. With body parts strewn across the chapters, and blood sensationally spattered on nearly every page, Cult of Glory paints the Texas Rangers as a racist, serial killer organization that by the end of the book favorably compares to the Huns and the Visigoths of old or, more recently, Carnegie’s Pinkertons or the Klan. One might wonder why such a bloodthirsty lot would be allowed to subsist for two centuries, and eventually be celebrated with not one but two honorary museums as it nears its bicentennial bash.

Swanson has delved deeply into the annals of Ranger records and Ranger lore, as demonstrated by an impressive bibliography and index complementing a notably exhaustive set of over a thousand, somewhat oddly constructed, endnotes; the latter may be the publisher’s preference. But even within the framework of the notes there are tells as to the bias of his theme. For example, in the period from the 1880s into the early 1900s, three Ranger captains – John Harris Rogers, John R. Hughes, and J. A. Brooks – embodied the very characteristics of responsible leadership and physical courage under fire that any enforcer of the law would want to emulate, inheriting similar capabilities of former Rangers such as Leander McNelly and John B. Jones, promulgating the bright aura of what it meant to be a Ranger and thereby extending the prototype another generation forward. These three men variously went on to distinguished service as U. S. Marshals or as a county judge; Rogers’ eulogies in 1930 included testimonies of several dozen Presbyterian congregations he helped organize while riding the West Texas range. Swanson mentions them offhandedly on one page. In contrast, Ranger officers J. Monroe Fox, W. M. Hanson, and John W. Sansom, scurrilous gunslingers-with-a-badge whose trails of gruesome murders left them vilified by their contemporaries and by Ranger historians since, are afforded nearly twenty pages of detailed atrocities scattered throughout the book. The several dozen “Special Rangers,” as they were distinguished from the regular force, were generally hired by ranchers to rid their land of “marauding” Mexican bandidos, and given a badge by a governor’s appointment, a license to kill. To this day, Hispanic residents in the Valley still whisper a long-abiding disgust for the “rinche pinche.” The Special Rangers shamed the Ranger badge and distorted the Ranger image, but do they accurately represent two centuries of law enforcement as Swanson seems to suggest?

During the second decade of the twentieth century, as a Mexican Revolution boiled over on to the Texas borderlands and as German intrigue added to the suspicions while the Great War neared, the fears of the Anglo families of the Rio Grande Valley propelled the Texas Rangers into the darkest period of their history. With a constant alarm sounding from Brownsville to Laredo between 1912 and 1918, law enforcement responded too many times with a proverbial “shoot first” attitude. Not even the most ardent Ranger historian of the last fifty years has glossed over the horrors of that era, where as many as 500 Mexicans – on both sides of the border and mostly innocents – died in a barrage of gunfire or were hanged from a tree. The subsequent state-led Canales investigation, mentioned by Swanson, and then a national investigation, resulted in well-deserved opprobrium and a slimmed-down reorganization of the Ranger force.

Probably the most heinous of the atrocities during this dark epoch, although there are many from which to choose, was the attack on Brite’s Ranch in Presidio County on Christmas Day, 1917; and, the subsequent massacre of more than a dozen suspected but likely innocent Mexican farmers dragged from their nearby village of Porvenir. After three people were killed on the ranch by a band of Mexican marauders, Captain Fox and his Company B men brought their form of justice to the setting a month later, leaving the innocents dead in the brush, a bullet hole above the eye, and the town ablaze. Swanson makes the Porvenir tragedy something of a centerpiece for his story, generalizing, I think incorrectly, that the Texas Rangers as a rogue law enforcement agency should be branded by such events.

In the compendious Texas Rangers; Lives, Legends, and Legacy, [UNT Press, 2017] exhaustively researched by archivist Donaly E. Brice, and written by the effusive historian Bob Alexander, and contemporaneous with and referenced in Swanson’s tome, the story of Porvenir is told frankly and honestly as “an unpardonable massacre” [360], but without the gory details of which Swanson seems more fond. The two 21st century books stand as a fascinating contrast to the approaches that can be made to the legend of the Texas Rangers: one more sympathetic, the other pejorative, and both looking at many of the identical reports, newspaper accounts, and official records.

Doug Swanson is nothing if not relentless, from skull-smashing start to inglorious finish, in his criticism of the Rangers. In its nascent days guarding Austin’s new colony from dangerous Karankawa or Comanche raids, the Rangers, according to Swanson, followed the counsel of their employer that extermination was the only recourse for dealing with the neighborhood savages. Those early Rangers certainly had their hands full dealing with the indigenous Indians, and blood was spilled on both sides to be sure, but most of those early accounts indicate that eradication of a race was not the determining factor that energized these lawmen. And the largest battle fought between the two sides was the 1839 attack against the relatively peaceful Cherokee of East Texas by a legislature-organized brigade that had almost no connection whatsoever to the Rangers of that era.

At the other end of the historical spectrum stands the modern-day Ranger, a criminal investigator by trade and legislative regulation, held to the fire by Swanson’s stinging criticism of botched investigations under their inadequate oversight, as well as rightly condemned racial prejudice in the 1950s. Swanson’s book influenced the city of Dallas to remove a typically larger than life Texas Ranger statue from Love Field airport that had stood since 1963. That being said, the gratuitous mocking of the modern-day Ranger in his – or her – starched white shirt and white Stetson hat doesn’t seem the most appropriate way to close the book.

If one wants the perhaps too-starched version of Texas Rangers with “guts,” there are plenty of volumes out there. If one prefers the unstarched and sensational “blood and guts,” Doug Swanson’s crimson-laced version is an engaging alternative.

Paul N. Spellman PhD, Professor of History, Wharton County Junior College, Richmond, Texas

[Spellman is author of “Captain John H. Rogers, Texas Ranger” (2003), “Captain J. A. Brooks, Texas Ranger” (2007), and “Old 300: Gone to Texas” (2014).]

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