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Sunday, October 31, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

A bloody past surfaces for early Texas Rangers

By Ralph Blumenthal
The New York Times

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WACO, Texas — Back east, there is nothing for social cachet like an ancestor on the Mayflower. In Texas, it is a Texas Ranger in the family tree.

At the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum, a shrine to the frontier lawmen who set Lone Star hearts aflutter, some of the most avid visitors come in search of connections to the men who won the West and, it was said, would charge hell with a bucket of water and quell riots single-handedly ("one riot, one Ranger").

But Southern Methodist University in Dallas says new historical accounts are casting the long-revered outlaw and Indian fighters in a decidedly darker light.

The scholarship — being gingerly acknowledged at the Hall of Fame — involves investigations into massacres committed in an obscure border war against Mexican bandits and insurrectionists in 1915, a quagmire of its time. "Not a bright period in the history of the Rangers," the museum's director, Byron Johnson, conceded in a film seen by many of its 80,000 visitors a year.

Mass "evaporations"

A recent book by an assistant history professor at Southern Methodist and other accounts exploiting archives on both sides of the border, including a damning but little-known Texas legislative investigation of 1919, link the Rangers to the "evaporations" of as many as 5,000 Mexican insurgents and Tejanos — Texans of Mexican origin — whose lands in the Rio Grande Valley were coveted by white settlers.

"People are still coming across skeletons," said the professor, Benjamin Heber Johnson, 32, whose book, "Revolution in Texas: How a Forgotten Rebellion and its Bloody Suppression Turned Mexicans Into Americans," published late last year by Yale University Press, offers one of the fullest accounts to date of the violence. In the end, he said, the repression led Mexican Americans to secure their rights with organizations such as the League of United Latin American Citizens.

The university's communications director, Meredith Dickenson, in material promoting the book as a "bullet in the back" to conventional, laudatory accounts of the Texas Rangers, wrote: "Here's an episode unlikely to ever be on 'Walker, Texas Ranger.' "

In addition, a new documentary, "Border Bandits," based on the memoirs of a Texas rancher, offers a firsthand account of the killings of two unarmed Tejanos by a carload of Texas Rangers driven by a legendary Ranger, William Warren Sterling, who later led the force as adjutant general and mythologized his exploits (but not his shootings) in a popular 1959 memoir, "Trails and Trials of a Texas Ranger."
"I thought the killings were an isolated incident," said the director of the documentary, Kirby Warnock, a Dallas writer whose grandfather, Ronald Warnock, had tape-recorded his recollections of coming upon victims and burying the bodies. After recounting the tale in a 1992 memoir, "Texas Cowboy," Kirby Warnock said, "I got lots of calls saying, 'The Rangers killed my granddad.' "

Cruelty on both sides

Another book just published, "The Texas Rangers and the Mexican Revolution: The Bloodiest Decade 1910-1920," by Charles Harris III and Louis Sadler, history professors emeritus at New Mexico State University, also recounts the cruelty of both sides.

The disclosures have bruised some feelings at the museum, which has 500,000 items of Ranger memorabilia. "You can't put current values on past times," said Johnson, the director, who is an anthropologist.

Showings of "Border Bandits" and forums on Benjamin Johnson's book in recent weeks have reopened wounds nearly a century old in the heavily Hispanic borderland, where the graves of the two Tejanos still can be found. "I think the real bandits were the Texas Rangers," said Jon Bazan, a grandson of one of the victims. "They were just like James Bond — a license to kill."

Yet critics such as Warnock say they have no wish to malign today's Rangers, an elite force of 116 law-enforcement professionals, including two women, 14 Hispanics and an American Indian, led by an African-American chief, Earl Pearson, within the Texas Department of Public Safety.

A spokeswoman for the department in Austin, Tela Mange, said that the events occurred before the Rangers became part of the agency, and that she was not familiar with the books.

The museum cites Ranger "aggressions" against Mexicans but treats with reverence icons such as Frank Hamer, who tracked down Bonnie and Clyde years after accumulating a fearsome reputation — not acknowledged in the exhibits — for terrorizing Mexicans.

Uprising to reclaim lands

A focus of the recent scholarship is an enigmatic plot that served as the backdrop to the violence. In January 1915, with Mexico in a revolutionary uproar and world war raging in Europe, a Mexican rebel named Basilio Ramos was stopped in McAllen, Texas, with a manifesto calling for an armed uprising to reclaim Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and California for Mexico, and other lands for Indians and blacks. Prisoners and Anglo men age 16 and older were to be executed.

Confusion continues to surround the origins and seriousness of the scheme, called the Plan de San Diego, for the small Texas town where it supposedly was hatched, but its exposure at a time of bandit raids from Mexico panicked the settlers. In one attack, Mexican raiders captured and beheaded a U.S. soldier.

Texas Rangers, first recruited in the 1820s by Stephen Austin to control the Indians, responded with a wave of shootings and lynchings — what one local newspaper called a "war of extermination." The Johnson book quotes witness accounts of mass hangings of prisoners and innocent Mexicans and Tejanos, some of the bodies desecrated "with empty beer bottles stuck in their mouths."

After an attack on the giant King Ranch, three of the dead raiders were dragged by Rangers, who proudly posed for a photograph later made into postcards. Elsewhere, bodies, dead and alive, were set afire or left to rot, with relatives too terrorized to bury the remains. A Brownsville lawyer, J.C. George, said, "There have been lots who have evaporated."

Estimates of the dead range from the hundreds to 5,000, historians say.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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