Tuesday, August 03, 2010

The Texas Rangers

From a history professor who's a close personal associate of mine. Slightly redacted to take out some references that less relevant to a general audience. I know that the popular "Avatar myth" that I've referred to in several recent posts tells us that all natives are "noble savages" and that it is of course the colonial white man who is the problem. This little essay portrays an alternative hypothesis to that point of view. Coincidentally, I think this one works better for RPGs.

On a hot and dusty 6 August 1843, Jacob Snively disbanded his punitive expedition at Fort Bird on the Trinity River, northeast of present-day Fort Worth, Texas. With the cooperation and collusion of the Texas national government, Snively had formed his expedition to punish Mexico for a series of depredations including the debacle of the Mier Expedition, the Mexican sack of San Antonio (the Mexicans did this twice), and other raids. Snively’s 150 Texans roamed around the Santa Fe Trail looking for Mexican soldiers or traders upon whom they could reap retribution. You see, Texas had won its independence from Mexico, but Mexico did not recognize the new republic or its borders. In fact, Mexico belligerently refused to recognize them—hence the raids and a pernicious “shoot on sight” policy. Seven years had passed, and if anything, relations between Mexico and Texas had worsened. Mexican soldiers killed Texans on sight. Texans reciprocated. Snively’s expedition was part of the response.

The Snively Expedition was symptomatic of a series of problems that faced Texas, and ultimately the USA in the wake of the successful Texas Revolution of 1836. Sam Houston, Mirabeau Lamar, Stephen Austin and others all believed that once they had defeated the Mexicans, then “these United States” (as they were then called) would welcome Texas as the newest candidate to unite with the other states.


Unfortunately, political and military realities precluded the US from annexing Texas. Slavery snarled the political process. Since the Compromise of 1820, there was something of an uneasy truce between slave and free states, and Texas would have unquestioningly come into the Union as a slave state. Only the German immigrants, Sam Houston, and some scattered free thinkers were opposed to slavery, and they hardly constituted a majority or even a political force—Houston was drummed out of the governor’s office shortly after the revolution.

Militarily, the US was totally unprepared for war with Mexico or anyone else in the 1830s. While the US recognized Texas independence, and a majority of Americans favored Texas annexation, the government did not and would not recommend annexation—filibusters by John Quincy Adams and others effectively stalled the process. The inevitable result was that Texas’ time as an independent nation lasted over ten years. It remained a hot topic for more than a decade.

Of course, Mexico did not recognize Texas and nurtured hard feelings about the Texan’s victories. Bitterness prevailed, and lethal Mexican depredations resulted. Any Texans caught by Mexico were summarily executed, and there developed an animosity and fear all along the Texas frontier, roughly where I-35 runs today. Jacob Snively and his expedition were to punish Mexico for their “lawless murders,” unremitting raiding, and theft. Neither the Texans nor the Mexicans would submit nor would they surrender. There was no immediate solution to the bloodshed.

But that was not the only knife held against the throats of the Texans. On the north and the west was an even more implacable enemy, the Comanche. Warfare with the Comanche had always been one-sided in favor of the Comanche for the simple reason that they possessed all of the advantages: They rode the fastest horses. They were probably the best horsemen in history, or at least they tied the Mongols. They also possessed the only repeating weapon until the 1840s: Writing in 1834, Colonel Henry Dodge observed that while galloping, young Comanche warriors could drop down on either side of the horse and loose arrows under the horse’s neck, rapidly launching 5-6 arrows before the first arrow hit the ground. Anglo-Europeans had single-shot pistols and muskets. Try shooting a six-foot long musket from a galloping horse. Try reloading a musket or pistol from a galloping horse.

The Comanche owned no goods, built no towns or villages. Thus, hunters could not easily find them to engage or destroy them. Comanche wealth consisted of horses; a successful warrior could have over 1,500 horses and 8-10 wives. They fought to the death; there was no Comanche word for the concept of surrender. Nevertheless, they were not “stand and fight” warriors. They hit, destroyed, captured or killed, and rode away. But if you cornered one, watch out! Comanche leisure recreation consisted of torturing captives and they were very ingenious at inflicting maximum pain without inflicting death. Scalps were the means of keeping score. Captive women were gang-raped before being enslaved or murdered. Men were tortured on the way to being killed. Captive babies were routinely drug behind galloping horses until dead. Only small children were saved, usually to be brought up either as slaves or, rarely, as members of the tribe. These were not people you would invite to your house for dinner. The Comanche defeated the Apache, the Tonkawa, the Blackfoot, and every other surrounding Indian tribe—additionally, they also defeated the Spaniards. Alone among Native American tribes, they rolled back the advancing white frontier. One easily runs out of superlatives when describing their warrior prowess and their cruelty. The Ute word for Comanche meant: “those people who like to kill us.”

Between the Mexicans who killed them on sight and the Comanche who killed them on sight, there was no breathing space for diplomacy, no capability for alternatives--in fact, no alternatives, period. So what’s the upshot of all of this for the Texans? They had to fight. A Texan, who wasn’t instantly capable or willing to become lethal, did not survive. The legacy of these decades of strife finds reflection in Texas attitudes for generations. Texans like Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier of World War II, viewed themselves as loyal to whatever cause they were in. The Texas Brigade in the Civil War was one of the most tested and violent units of that sanguinary and violent conflict. The Texas National Guard, called up in World War II as the 36th Division, participated in Salerno, Anzio, Monte Lungo, San Pietro and the Rapido River campaigns. The division garnered 107 Medals of Honor, 2,354 Silver Stars, and 5,407 Bronze Stars—all at a truly horrendous loss: 3,131 KIA and 13, 191 WIA. In other words, the entire division succumbed to casualties. However, it did not shun the fight. They did not discourage. The Texans would die, but they would not surrender.


This decades-long series of confrontations created other effects, as well. The Goodnight-Loving cattle trail, which snaked from Texas to Colorado and Montana, detoured way south and west into New Mexico before traveling north—why? To avoid the Comanche. Lubbock and most of West Texas was not seriously settled until the Comanche defeat was complete and the Comanche was on the verge of extinction. There was no living with the Comanche.

This three-sided struggle, Mexicans and Comanche against Texans, went on for years and created, in part, some of the popular cultural themes we associate with Texas. Hard-fighting, quick to take offense, quick to make friends (you needed them on the frontier); Texans became what they had to become to survive. That way of life was forged in combat.

The Mexican threat largely went away with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ending the Mexican-American War in 1848. But the Comanche continued butchering settlers and soldiers well into the 1890s.

The beginnings of change in the struggle between Texan and Comanche occurred with the creation of a novel institution and the characters that populated the institution. The institution?—the Texas Rangers.

After the Texas Revolution, settlers from the east and south came to Texas. The land had to be surveyed before it could be sold. The Comanche, while utterly not understanding anything about surveying, knew that the surveyors were forerunners of more settlers. Therefore, the Comanche routinely hunted and killed all surveyors. In response, young ne’er-do-wells were hired by the Texas government to protect the surveyors. Most of them were also killed, but these men, the rangers” who tried to protect the surveyors became the beginnings of the Texas Rangers. The survivors, by a sort of natural selection, became as determined as their enemies. The initial average life-span of a Ranger was something on the order of six months--if that long, until one of their number, John Coffee Hays, realized that the Comanche could be beaten by using the Indians’ own relentless tactics.

“Jack” Hays, who had been in some hair-raising defensive battles with the Comanche, recognized that on defense against the Comanche, you had little if any choice but to die. He was one of the lucky ones—he did not. But he learned from the experience. He realized that only by attacking was there any chance at all. His small band of Rangers drilled repeatedly, charging, firing two pistols and a musket (3 shots) and then galloping away before anyone could give chase. It worked.

Hays came to Texas from Tennessee in 1838 and began surveying, then protecting surveyors. He made a name for himself because he could protect his men. Almost motherly to his own command (he dressed all of their wounds himself), he was ice-cold unflappable in combat. Unconcerned about what the enemy could do to him, he thought only of how to take the fight to his enemy—it was all about offense. By 1840, Hays was captain of the San Antonio station of the Rangers, which was now officially recognized by the Texas government (although there is no record that the government initially ever paying them). Regardless, Hays created a new kind of Ranger who was well-mounted, super aggressive and skilled at warfare of any kind. Utilizing Apache or Tonkawa scouts as trackers (both tribes hated the Comanche, as did the Blackfeet, Utes, Kiowas, etc.). Hays’ Rangers became the guerrilla fighting force that Special Forces and the Marines developed well over a century later. They never made fires but always cold-camped. They traveled light and during moonlight. They never bathed nor took off their clothes; they were always ready to fight. Hays’ elaborate drills took 3-4 months of daily practice in riding and shooting before his new recruits were ready—an unprecedented effort. However, the results were impressive. In the fall of 1840, Hays and 20 Rangers encountered over 200 Comanche. Hays led his Rangers in a furious charge; each discharged his 3 shots (two pistols and a rifle). Unnerved, the Comanche fled, its leader shot dead.

Summer of 1841, Hays pursued a band of Comanche that were raiding and killing near San Antonio. He tracked them for over 70 miles then attacked them. Near present-day Uvalde, about a dozen took cover near in a very dense thicket. Realizing that the thicket precluded bow and arrow fighting, Hays and two of his rangers entered the thicket with knives and pistols. One by one they killed the Indian warriors mostly hand-to-hand, while keeping the rest of the company outside to prevent Comanche escape. Only two Comanche did escape. Hays and his partner killed the other ten, mano a mano. The Mexicans put a huge price on Hays’ head; the Comanche feared him more than any enemy.

Always outnumbered and outgunned, but never outwitted or out fought, Hays, in his ten ears as a Ranger, lost men, but he never lost a fight. Although some were pretty close.

He and his Rangers joined with Zachary Taylor in the Mexican War. They made a huge impression on all and sundry—they wore no uniforms, equipped themselves (by this time the Texas Rangers had discovered bankrupt Samuel Colt’s revolver, the Anglo repeating weapon), and rode everywhere. They didn’t like taking orders from the Army. Rangers didn’t dismount and they didn’t walk. Seventy-five Rangers charged 1,500 Mexican cavalry and drove them from the field. The Texas Rangers became legends. The Colt revolver was discovered by the rest of the world after the Texans demonstrated its violent power.

After the Mexican War, Jack Hays left Texas for the gold fields of California where he became one of the first sheriffs of San Francisco County (hanging many a criminal), founded Oakland, California, ranched in San Mateo County for awhile, and died a ripe old age.

Well, enough of this. I wrote the above off the top of my head from some old lectures I used to give when I taught history.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That's frickin awesome.