An early depiction of a group of Texas Rangers, c. 1845
The rangers were founded in 1823 when Stephen F. Austin, known as the Father of Texas, employed ten men to act as rangers to protect 600 to 700 newly settled families who arrived in Texas following the Mexican War of Independence. While there is some discussion as to when Austin actually employed men as "rangers", Texas Ranger lore dates the year of their organization to this event. The Texas Rangers were formally constituted in 1835 and, in November, Robert McAlpin Williamson was chosen to be the first Major of the Texas Rangers. Within two years the Rangers comprised more than 300 men.
Following the Texas Revolution and the creation of the Republic of Texas, newly elected president Mirabeau B. Lamar, (the second elected president of the Republic of Texas), raised a force of 56 Rangers to fight the Cherokee and the Comanche, partly in retaliation for the support they had given the Mexicans at the Cordova Rebellion against the Republic. Ten rangers were killed in the Battle of Stone Houses in 1837. The size of the Ranger force was increased from 56 to 150 men by Sam Houston, as President of the Republic, in 1841, (the 2nd time he was elected president of the Republic.)
The Rangers continued to participate in skirmishes with Native Americans through 1846, when the annexation of Texas to the United States and the Mexican–American War saw several companies of Rangers mustered into federal service. They played important roles at various battles, acting as guides and participating in Counter-guerrilla warfare, soon establishing a fearsome reputation among both Mexicans and Americans. At the Battle of Monterrey in September 1846, famous Texas Rangers such as John Coffee "Jack" Hays, Ben McCulloch, , and Samuel Hamilton Walker played important roles in the battle, to include advising General William Jenkins Worth on the tactics required to fight inside a Mexican city. Richard Addison Gillespie, a famed Texas Ranger, died at Monterrey, and General Worth renamed a hill "Mount Gillespie" after him. Colonel Hays organized a second regiment of Texas Rangers, including Rip Ford, who fought with General Winfield Scott in his Mexico City Campaign and the Anti-guerrilla campaign along his line of communications to Vera Cruz.:60
John Jackson Tumlinson Sr., the first alcalde of the Colorado district, is considered by many Texas Ranger historians to be the first Texas Ranger killed in the line of duty. One of his most urgent issues was protection of settlers from theft and murder by marauders. On his way to San Antonio, in 1823, to discuss the issue with the governor, Tumlinson was killed by Native Americans. His traveling companion, a Mr. Newman, escaped. Tumlinson's body was never found.
Following the end of the war in 1848, the Rangers were largely disbanded, but the election of Hardin Richard Runnels as governor in 1857 meant $70,000 was allocated to fund the Rangers under John Salmon "Rip" Ford,:223 a veteran of the Mexican war. The now 100-strong Rangers participated in campaigns against the Comanche and other tribes, whose raids against the settlers and their properties had become common. Ford and his Rangers fought the Comanche in the Battle of Little Robe Creek in 1858 and then Juan Cortina in the Battle of Rio Grande City the following year.:236,275
The success of a series of campaigns in the 1860s marked a turning point in Rangers' history. The U.S. Army could provide only limited and thinly-stretched protection in the enormous territory of Texas. By contrast, the Rangers' effectiveness when dealing with these threats convinced both the people of the state and the political leaders that a well-funded and organized state Ranger force was essential. Such a force could use the deep familiarity with the territory and the proximity with the theater of operations as major advantages in its favor. This option was not pursued, in view of the emerging national political problems (prelude to the American Civil War), and the Rangers were again dissolved.
Texas Historical Marker for Texas Ranger Camp Roberts
in Blanco Canyon
Many Rangers enlisted to fight for the Confederacy following the secession of Texas from the United States in 1861 during the Civil War. In 1870, during Reconstruction, the Rangers were briefly replaced by a Union-controlled version called the Texas State Police, disbanded only three years later. The state election of 1873 saw newly elected Governor Richard Coke and the state legislature recommission the Rangers. During these times, many of the Rangers' myths were born, such as their success in capturing or killing notorious criminals and desperados (including bank robber Sam Bass and gunfighter John Wesley Hardin), their involvement in the Mason County War, the Horrell-Higgins Feud, and their decisive role in the defeat of the Comanche, Kiowa and Apache peoples. The Apache "dreaded the Texas Rangers...whose guns were always loaded and whose aim was unerring; they slept in the saddle and ate while they rode, or done without...when they took up our trail they followed it determinedly and doggedly day and night." Also during these years, the Rangers suffered the only defeat in their history when they surrendered at the Salinero Revolt in 1877.
Despite the fame of their deeds, the conduct of the Rangers during this period was illegally excessive. In particular, Leander H. McNelly and his men used ruthless methods that often rivaled the brutality of their opponents, such as taking part in summary executions and confessions induced by torture and intimidation.
Capt. Monroe Fox and two other Rangers on horseback with their lariats around the bodies of dead Mexican bandits, after the Norias Ranch Raid August 8, 1915
The Rangers next saw serious action at the summit of William Howard Taft and President Porfirio Díaz in 1909, preventing an assassination of both presidents, and during the subsequent Mexican Revolution. The breakdown of law and order on the Mexican side of the border, coupled with the lack of federal military forces, meant the Rangers were once again called upon to restore and maintain law and order, by any necessary means, which again lead to excesses. However, the situation necessitated the appointment of hundreds of new special Rangers by the state, which neglected to carefully screen aspiring members. The Rangers were responsible for several incidents, ending in the January 28, 1918, massacre of the male population (15 Mexican men and boys ranging in age from 16 to 72 years) of the tiny community of
Porvenir, Texas, on the Mexican border in western Presidio County. Before the decade was over, thousands of lives were lost, Texans and Mexicans alike. In January 1919, an investigation launched by Texas lawmaker JT Canales found that from 300 to 5,000 people, mostly of Hispanic descent, had been killed by Rangers from 1910 to 1919, and that members of the Rangers had been involved in many acts of brutality and injustice. The Rangers were reformed by a resolution of the Legislature in 1919, which saw the special Ranger groups disbanded and a complaints system instituted.
The Great Depression forced both the federal and state governments to cut down on personnel and funding of their organizations, and the number of commissioned officers was reduced to 45, with the only means of transportation afforded to Rangers being free railroad passes or using their personal horses. The agency was again damaged after supporting Governor Ross Sterling in his re-election campaign — but after his opponent Miriam Amanda "Ma" Ferguson won, she proceeded to discharge all serving Rangers in 1933.
The ensuing disorganization of law enforcement in the state caused the Legislature to engage a firm of consultants to reorganize the state security agencies. The consultants recommended merging the Rangers with the Texas Highway Patrol under a new agency called the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS). This change took place in 1935, with an initial budget of $450,000. With minor rearrangements over the years, the 1935 reforms have ruled the Texas Rangers' organization until present day. Hiring new members, which had been largely a political decision, was achieved through a series of examinations and merit evaluations. Promotion relied on seniority and performance in the line of duty. Today, the historical importance and symbolism of the Texas Rangers is such that they are protected by statute from being disbanded.