"A Little Standing Army in Himself": N. A. Jennings Tells of the Texas Rangers, 1875
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“A Little Standing Army in Himself”: N. A. Jennings Tells of the Texas Rangers, 1875

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 brought an enormous chunk of Mexico to the United States. This added to the territory obtained by the annexation of Texas in 1845, but more than just territory was added. More than 75,000 Spanish-speaking residents became U.S. citizens, but the struggle to achieve that citizenship was long and often unsuccessful. Mexican-Americans lost political power and civil liberties quickly in Texas. Justice was hard to secure and the ranching country of South Texas became a landless borderland for Anglo and Hispano alike. Cattle thieves were rampant. Mexicans and Mexican-Americans also had to endure a terror campaign by the Texas Rangers, the state’s leading law enforcement officers. One of those Rangers, N. A. Jennys described a complex pattern of ethnic conflict along the border in 1875 in his A Texas Ranger. The Rangers were founded in 1835 to fight Indians, formed a special corps in the Mexican War, and were re-established after the Civil War.

We went by easy stages across the country to Corpus Christi, the pretty little old town on the Gulf of Mexico. We were ordered there because Mexican raiders had come across the Rio Grande and spread terror throughout that part of Texas.

We arrived at Corpus Christi on the morning of April 22, 1875, and found the country in the wildest state of excitement. We were told how large bands of raiders were coming from every direction to lay waste the countryside and burn the town. The most extravagant rumors found ready credence from the terrorized people. The civil authorities seemed helpless. Large parties of mounted and well-armed men, residents of Nueces County, were riding over the country, committing the most brutal outrages, murdering peaceable Mexican farmers and stockmen who had lived all their lives in Texas. These murderers called themselves vigilance committees and pretended that they were acting in the cause of law and order.

We remained encamped near the town for two days, to rest our jaded horses and to try to get a clear idea of the actual condition of affairs.

It seemed that the excitement had been first caused by a raid made by Mexicans (from Mexico) in the neighborhood of Corpus Christi. These raiders had stolen cattle and horses, burned ranch houses, murdered men and ravished women, and then escaped back to Mexico. The excitement which followed was seized upon by a number of white men living in Nueces County as a fitting time to settle up old scores with the Mexican residents of that and some of the adjoining counties. Many of these Mexicans, it must be admitted, had been making a livelihood by stealing and skinning cattle, and the sheriffs and constables had failed to make any efforts to detect and punish them.

On the evening of April 24th a report was brought in that a party of raiders from Mexico had been seen at La Para, about sixty miles from Corpus Christi. McNelly at once started with the troop to that place and arrived the following day. There we learned that the party reported to be Mexican raiders was really a posse of citizens from Cameron County, under a deputy sheriff, and that they “had come out to protect the people of La Para from further outrages from the citizens of Nueces County,” meaning certain lawless bands organized in Nueces County.

McNelly ordered the deputy sheriff to take his posse back and disband it. After some demurring on the part of the posse, this was done. We went into camp and McNelly sent scouting parties out in every direction to disband the various vigilance committees and “regulators” which were roaming through the country.

On April 26th two companies of white men, commanded by T. Hynes Clark and M. S. Culver, cattlemen, came to our camp and said they wanted to cooperate with the Rangers.

“We need no one to cooperate with us,” said the Captain. “I have heard that some of you men are the very ones accused of a number of outrages committed on Mexican citizens of this State, and you must disband at once and not reassemble, except at the call and under the command of an officer of the State. If you don’t do as I say, you will have us to fight.”

The Texans didn’t like this high-handed way of talking and were disposed at first to dispute McNelly’s authority, but the Captain showed them very quickly that he meant business and they disbanded.

We remained in camp, constantly scouting in various directions, until matters had quieted down. When everything was quiet, we went to Edinburgh, in Hidalgo County, and reached there on May 16th. On May 20th we moved down the Rio Grande.

We found the frontier in a state of great excitement. Reports of a dozen different raiding parties would be brought in daily and the scouting parties had no rest. I was in the saddle almost continually. At night we would either camp where we happened to be, or continue riding, in the attempt to head off some party of raiders of whom we had heard. Many of the reports of raiders brought to us were groundless, but the greater number were true. Through fear of the robbers, the law-abiding citizens withheld information which would have insured the capture of the marauders.

The people said that large droves of cattle and horses were stolen and driven across the Rio Grande into Mexico almost nightly. This, we found, had been going on for years. The United States military authorities had never made a determined effort to put a stop to the wholesale stealing, although the raiders at times would pass close to the frontier posts.

McNelly continued to keep out scouting parties of Rangers, and this course had the effect of lessening the number of raids, but not of wholly putting an end to them.

While we were encamped at a place called Las Eucias, which we reached on June 5th, a Mexican brought the information to Captain McNelly that a party of raiders was crossing into Texas, below Brownsville, and going in the direction of La Para. Our camp was about twenty-five miles from Brownsville. Many Rangers were out on scouts at the time we received the information and but seventeen of the boys were in camp. This was on June 11th. McNelly at once ordered us to saddle up, and within fifteen minutes we were trotting after him and a Mexican guide over the prairie. Lieutenant Wright was in the party. So was Lieutenant Robinson.

We camped that night by a little, half-dried-up creek, and early the next morning a Mexican scout came in and said he had discovered the trail of the raiders. We ate a hurried breakfast and started out after the Mexican. In a short time we captured an advance scout of the raiders—one Rafael Salinas—and, by threatening him with instant death if he did not divulge what he knew of the robbers, we obtained much valuable information from him.

A little later we managed to catch another of the raiders and his story agreed with the one the first man had told us. This second scout said that the raiders had turned the cattle loose, as the men had become frightened when the first scout failed to return.

It was three days after that before we managed to head off the raiders. They had fourteen men and we had eighteen, including Captain McNelly. We found them with the cattle on a little bit of wooded rising ground surrounded by a swamp called Laguna Madre. The water was eighteen or twenty inches deep in it.

They were drawn up in line and were evidently expecting us. When they saw us, they drew off behind the rising ground and fired at a range of about one hundred and fifty yards with carbines.

“Boys,” said Captain McNelly, “ the only way we can get at those thieves is to cross through the mud of the swamp and ride them down. I don’t think they can shoot well enough to hit any of us, but we’ll have to risk that. Don’t fire at them until you’re sure of killing every time.”

Following the Captain, we started across the swamp for the little hill, the Mexican marauders continually firing at us. When we got near the hill, the Captain put spurs to his horse and we followed him with a yell as we flew through the mud and up the hill. The Mexicans answered our yell with one of defiance and a volley. At first, we thought they had not done any execution, but we soon saw they had aimed only too well, for three of our horses went crashing to the ground, one after the other, throwing their riders over their heads. Lieutenant Robinson’s horse was one of those shot, but Robinson continued to fight on foot.

Then came a single shot from the Mexicans, and one of the Rangers—L. S. Smith, popularly known in the troop as “Sonny”—threw his arms above his head, reeled in his saddle for a moment and fell headlong to the ground. We all saw him fall and the sight roused a fury in our hearts that boded ill for the men in front of us.

The Mexicans fired at us again, but this time did no harm. The next instant we were upon them, shooting and yelling like demons. They stood their ground for a moment only; then turned and fled. As they went they leaned forward on their horses' necks and fired back at us, but they were demoralized by the fury of our onslaught and could hit nothing.

Crack! bang! bang! went our revolvers, and at nearly every shot one of the raiders went tumbling from his saddle. We had ridden hard to get to that place and our horses were played out, but we never thought of giving up the chase on that account. The remembrance of poor young Smith’s face, as he threw up his hands and reeled from his horse, was too fresh in our minds for us to think of anything but revenge.

Some of our enemies were well mounted, but even these we gradually overhauled. We flew over the prairie at a killing pace, intent only on avenging our comrade’s death. When we finally did halt, our horses were ready to drop from exhaustion; but the work had been done—every man of the raiders but one was dead. Some of them fought so desperately that even when dismounted and wounded four or five times they continued to shoot at us. Lieutenant Wright, during the running fight, killed two men with one shot from his revolver. The men were riding on one horse when he killed them and both were shooting back at him.

The leader of the raiders, Espinoso, was thrown from his horse early in the fight. McNelly was after him and as soon as he saw Espinoso fall he, too, sprang to the ground. Espinoso jumped into a “hog wallow” in the prairie and McNelly took shelter in another one. Then they fought a duel. At last McNelly played a trick on the Mexican. The Captain had a carbine and a six-shooter. He aimed his carbine carefully at the top of Espinoso’s hog wallow and then fired his pistol in the air. Espinoso raised his head, and the next instant a bullet from McNelly’s carbine had passed through it and the Mexican bandit was dead.

Espinoso was the most famous of the raiders on the Eio Grande and one of the head men under the Mexican guerilla chief, Cortina. Cortina was a Mexican general, and at the head of all the cattle raiding. He had a contract to deliver in Cuba six hundred head of Texas cattle every week. About three thousand robbers were under him, and he was virtually the ruler of the Mexican border.

When we rode back to the hill where we first met the raiders, we discovered that we had killed only thirteen of them. The fourteenth was terribly wounded. His name was Mario Olguine, nicknamed “Aboja.” He was known to the Mexicans as Aboja (the Needle) because he had such a quiet way of slipping into ranch houses, on raids, and murdering the inmates while they slept. Aboja was sent to jail, but died there, after lingering several weeks. We recovered 265 stolen cattle after the fight. We procured a wagon and took the body of young Smith to Brownsville. The next day the bodies of the thirteen dead Mexicans were brought to Brownsville and laid out in the plaza. Nearly the entire population of Matamoras, the Mexican town immediately across the Eio Grande from Brownsville, came over to see their dead countrymen. The Mexicans were very angry, and we heard many threats that Cortina would come across with his men and kill us all. McNelly sent back word to Cortina that he would wait for him and his men. Cortina’s bandits outnumbered the Rangers and the United States forces at Fort Brown about ten to one at that time.

We gave Smith a fine military funeral. The Mexican raiders were all buried in one trench. The Mexican inhabitants of the town stood in their doorways and scowled at us whenever we passed, but they were afraid to express their hatred openly. They contented themselves with predicting that Cortina would come over and kill us. Had they but known it, one of our men, Sergeant George Hall, a cousin of McNelly’s, was at that very time with Cortina, acting as a spy for us. Hall was on Cortina’s boat, waiting with him for the cattle to ship to Havana. In the records of the United States Government at Washington there is doubtless a most interesting report which Hall made to the Federal authorities, for General Grant, who was President at the time, sent for Hall and personally received his report.

Grant was greatly interested in Cortina’s movements, and it was said among those who knew how matters stood on the border and in Washington, that the President would have been glad to have a war break out between Mexico and the United States. Of that I will speak more fully in another place.

At the time of which I write, Matamoras was full of Mexican soldiers, and Cortina had put the place under martial rule. No person was allowed on the streets after sunset, except by special permit; that is, no Mexican was allowed on the streets. For some reason best known to Cortina, Americans were not included in the rule, and the Mexican sentries had orders to pass Americans. The Rangers were not slow to take advantage of this state of affairs, and we paid frequent visits to Matamoras after nightfall. We went there for two reasons: to have fun, and to carry out a set policy of terrorizing the Mexicans at every opportunity. Captain McNelly assumed that the more we were feared, the easier would be our work of subduing the Mexican raiders; so it was tacitly understood that we were to gain a reputation as fire-eating, quarrelsome dare-devils as quickly as possible, and to let no opportunity go unimproved to assert ourselves and override the “Greasers.” Perhaps everyone has more or less of the bully inherent in his make-up, for certain it is that we enjoyed this work hugely.

“Each Ranger was a little standing army in himself,” was the way Lieutenant Wright put it to me, speaking, long afterward, of those experiences. The Mexicans were afraid of us, collectively and individually, and added to the fear was a bitter hatred.

Half a dozen of the boys would leave camp after dark and make their way over the river to Matamoras by way of the ferry. If we could find a fandango, or Mexican dance, going on, we would enter the dancing-hall and break up the festivities by shooting out the lights. This would naturally result in much confusion and, added to the reports of our revolvers, would be the shrill screaming of women and the cursing of angry Mexicans. Soldiers would come running from all directions. We would then fire a few more shots in the air and make off for the ferry, as fast as we could go.

Usually, at such times, we would be followed—at a safe distance—by a company or two of soldiers. Sometimes we would fire back, over their heads, and sometimes they would shoot at us ; but we always got back safely to the Texas side. When we reached Brownsville, we would hunt up another fandangothere were always some of these dances going on every night—and proceed, as in Matamoras, to break it up.

The news of our big fight with the raiders reached everyone’s ears, and none was so bold as to attempt to resist our outrages upon the peace and dignity of the community, for such they undoubtedly were. But we accomplished our purpose. In a few weeks we were feared as men were never before feared on that border, and, had we given the opportunity, we should undoubtedly have been exterminated by the Mexicans, but there was “method in our madness,” and we never gave them the chance to get the better of us.

Source: N. A. Jennings, A Texas Ranger (New York: Scribners, 1899), 129–43.