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Texas Rangers: Six Brave Men

Texas Rangershey were cruel protectors of their civilization on a cruel frontier. Against daunting odds, small companies of Texas Rangers defeated Comanche warriors, Mexican armies, cattle rustlers and bandits -- even Bonnie and Clyde.

Although touching on their rough side, The Texas Rangers primarily examines the lawmen's mythic proportions. Formed in the mid-19th century, the Texas Rangers guarded the country's largest international border and western frontier. Isolated, without the support of a law enforcement agency in a land dominated by the Comanche, new colonies established by Stephen F. Austin had to be self-sufficient in their defense. From this need arose the Rangers. Young, adventurous and at first unpaid, small Ranger companies formed during crises and disbanded as needs disappeared.

Texas Ranger illustration"The Texas Rangers were colorful," says historian and author T. R. Fehrenbach, who appears in the program. "They were not uniformed, they were long-haired, they carried tomahawks and every one had two pistols in his belt." Such romantic images attracted contemporary journalists, inspiring an American love affair with the revolver that continues today. An initial commercial failure, the six-shooter was adopted by the Rangers. In their hands it ended the dominance of the great Comanche warriors who, as of 1821, still comprised over 95 percent of the region's population. With changes suggested by the Rangers, the gun gained fame as the Colt .44.

Of the several Rangers described in the program, the most legendary is Jack Hays, who "fought more successful skirmishes against greater odds than has ever been surpassed in United States military history." Said to have won over 150 battles, with odds of up to 100 to 1, Hays' most famous battles were against Mexico. In an 1845 territorial dispute in South Texas, he offered Ranger troops to General Zachary Taylor. Taylor declined -- until his classroom-trained army was annihilated. Only with the assistance of the Rangers did Taylor later defeat the Mexican army. In 1847, Hays would lead Rangers to clear a path for a United States army trapped in central Mexico. General Winfield Scott had asked President Polk for 50,000 troops. All he got -- and all it took to free him -- were Hays and his men.

Other Rangers also developed reputations for fighting against great odds. During the 1870s, as cattle rustling competed with cattle ranching as South Texas' largest industry, Leander McNelly led Ranger troops to retrieve stolen cattle from Mexican bandits. Colonel Robert E. Lee recommended a 20,000-man army to protect the region. Instead, McNelly raised a 40-member company of Rangers. On foot and outnumbered 10 to one by mounted bandits, the Rangers successfully demanded return of the cattle -- without losing a man. In 1921, Texas Ranger Red Burton faced down 15,000 sheeted Ku Klux Klan members near Waco. Another Ranger, Frank Hamer, pursued and killed the outlaws Bonnie and Clyde, later giving his gun away, disgusted with having shot a woman.

Jack HaysAlthough The Texas Rangers mainly looks at the Rangers as heroes, it does suggest a more complicated profile. Mexicans strongly criticized the Rangers who, wary of those aiming to reclaim the region's land, adopted a strategy of imprisoning or lynching all suspects. Texas Rangers obeyed only their own rules. Even Zachary Taylor, whose success against Mexico depended on the Rangers, was relieved when they left his army.

Their behavior may seem cold-hearted today, but historian Fehrenbach stresses evaluating the Rangers within context. "On the Texas frontier," he says, "order had to come first. Law followed." Overwhelmed against merciless foes, the Rangers had to ask questions later.

Today about 100 active Texas Rangers in six companies serve as a state bureau of investigation. Their job is still dangerous; one Ranger was killed in 1987 while rescuing a child from a kidnapper and murderer.

The Texas Rangers, produced by HoustonPBS, is narrated by Sidney Berger and written, directed and produced by Allan Durand. University of Houston Professor of History Emilio Zamora also appears in the program.