Primary Source Adventures
Lone Stars and Gun Smoke
This Primary Source Adventure (PSA) explores the issue of bringing law and order to the frontier and the Texas-Mexican border.
This PSA follows the exploits of Dan W. Roberts, the Captain of Company ‘D.’ The learner will explore the achievements of this known Indian fighter and advocate of frontier justice as he attempted to bring law and order to the border area between Laredo and Nuevo Laredo.
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Lone Stars and Gun Smoke
by Vale Fitzpatrick
The Texas Rangers have long been part of the myth and lore of Texas History. In 1874, after the end of Reconstruction, Texas Governor Richard Coke organized the Texas Ranger Frontier Battalion consisting of six Ranger companies under the command of Major John B. Jones.
Captain Roberts listed two reasons for writing this memoir. First, he wanted to record the accomplishments of his command, Texas Ranger Company ‘D’ of the Frontier Battalion. Second, his friends in his company had pestered him to write a true account of their actions, illustrating the needs of the service, their performance of duty, and their part in ending the “Indian problem” plaguing Texas. He proudly stated that “our little part is richly treasured in the archives of our ‘native health’ –Texas. Our sorrows are there also, in many a grave not even marked by human hands.” Roberts’s pride in Texas and her people is evident by his comment that Texans are “great from birth.” Roberts’s account portrays the Rangers as heroic peace keepers along the frontier, a counterpoint to the limited service the U.S. Army provided in defending the populace against bandits and outlaw raids. His pride in the Texas Rangers is aptly illustrated by his belief that the “moral force” of the Rangers “will never die in Texas.”1 Memoirs rarely portray their authors in a negative light and could have incorrect facts. Despite such potential problems, memoirs are valued primary sources, which present the authors’ beliefs along with their recollections of events. Roberts’s memoir, however, is generally highly regarded by historians.
According to historian Frederick Wilkins, “Company D was fortunate in having an officer and his wife Captain and Mrs. Dan Roberts, as well as one of its enlisted men, James B. Gillett, write memoirs in latter years which would supplement the bare-bones descriptions in the official records.”2 Roberts began his career as Indian fighter in 1873 at the battle of Deer Creek, which brought him to the notice of the Rangers who would bring him into the frontier regiment. Roberts’s wife, Luvenia Conway, accompanied him when he assumed the captaincy of company ‘D’. Although not used in this PSA, Sergeant James B. Gillett’s memoir Six Years with The Texas Rangers offers further information of the actions of company ‘D.’
The Texas Rangers were formed on 17 October 1835 to guard the frontier, and functioned as a defense force through the antebellum years. To address the problems of lawlessness and continuing Indian depredations, (after Reconstruction) Governor Richard Coke organized the Texas Ranger Frontier Battalion consisting of six companies, under the command of Major John B. Jones. Officers, non-commissioned officers and privates of the Frontier Battalion had the authority to execute criminal process or make arrests. Later, in 1900, that authority was restricted to officers only, which, coupled with the end of the frontier, spelled the end of the Frontier Battalion.
Texas Historian Walter P. Webb listed several factors that contributed to Texas lawlessness. One was the frontier itself. The population along it was sparse so that “ordinary forces of social control do not operate and it is left up to the individual to protect his own rights.” Another reason was the Texas/Mexican border, where the lawlessness was so severe that a Special Force of Rangers was organized under Captain Leander H. McNelly to deal with it.3 Anglo and Mexican bandits were plying their ‘trade’ on both sides of the river. Law enforcement efforts were frustrated by bandits who could simply cross the Rio Grande to avoid punishment for crimes committed in one country.
During this period the Rangers functioned as Texas’s state militia, used in “self defense” to pacify the frontier and bring to heel the lawlessness along her borders. After the frontier was clear of Indians and bandits, it could be utilized by the citizens. Roberts proudly stated that the Frontier Battalion left the frontier in the “care of the sons of Texas.” Two issues illustrate Captain Roberts’s sense of frontier justice. One was an unofficial peacekeeping arrangement between himself and a Mexican army major to combat the “old conditions of bandit trouble,” which were rampant along the Texas-Mexico border in the Laredo and Nuevo Laredo area. By 1881 Laredo had become a major thoroughfare for trade between the United States and Mexico, augmented by a free trade zone (zona libre) established between Laredo and Nuevo Laredo. The second was a murder investigation. Captain Roberts investigated and discovered that a Mexican ranch hand who claimed he shot and killed a horse merchant who had sold him stolen horses was telling the truth, whereupon Roberts congratulated the man on a “good shot,” and ordered his men not to appear against the ranch hand at his trial.4 Captain Roberts was more interested in upholding his concept of justice than following the strict letter of the law. During this era, such behavior was not unknown among the Texas Rangers and other lawman, particularly along the frontier, where people wanted permanent solutions to bandits.
The Texas Ranger Frontier Battalion developed a reputation for individual daring and success in restoring order to lawless areas-a reputation which helped enshrine the legend of the Texas Rangers in popular imagination.5
Roberts’s memoir offers an in-depth look at Ranger efforts of law enforcement and his frontier view of justice. Although the account is unashamedly pro-ranger, it provides a valuable resource to understanding this period, which brought the Indian wars to a close and eliminated many of the bandits plaguing Texas, bringing order to the “Old West” and an end to the Texas Frontier.
1Dan W. Roberts. Rangers and Sovereignty, (San Antonio, Texas: Wood Printing & Engraving Co. 1914), 153, 11.
2Frederick Wilkins. The Law Comes to Texas: The Texas Rangers 1870-1901, (Austin, Texas: State House Press 1999), 65.
3Walter Prescott Webb. The Texas Rangers: A Century of Frontier Defense, (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1965), 320.
4Roberts, 107, 108.
5Randolph B. Campbell, Gone to Texas: A History of the Lone Star State, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 305.