Recap of the Texas History Forum, “Rangers and Rogues”
This past Saturday, the DRT Library held its twenty-second Texas History Forum. Entitled “Rangers and Rogues,” the program featured three speakers who explored Texans who enforced the law and those who broke it.
Mike Cox, an author and former spokesperson for the Texas Department of Public Safety, got things underway by presenting ten arguments about the history of the Texas Rangers, taken in part from his most recent book, The Texas Rangers: Wearing the Cinco Peso, 1821-1900 (2008). For example, Mr. Cox noted that “in something of an irony, since Rangers sometimes were pitted against Mexicans, part of their tradition traces to Spanish Colonial law enforcement in Texas” (14). He also asserted that, even though “men riding in the name of frontier protection or law and order” killed some innocent people, some historians’ portrayal of Rangers as “racist practitioners of genocide, gun-toting tools of a greedy, land-grabbing Anglo establishment…is not accurate and certainly not fair” (15). Forum attendees also enjoyed Mr. Cox’s stories about his grandfather, a Fort Worth newspaper man who encountered interesting characters throughout his career. Among these were some famous old-time Texas Rangers: John R. Hughes, for example, enjoyed many a Sunday supper at the home of Mr. Cox’s grandparents.
Dr. Paul Spellman, a professor of history at Wharton County Junior College, focused on his work Spindletop Boom Days (2001), which contains reminiscences of east Texas oil pioneers. Collected in the 1950s to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the 1901 discovery of the Spindletop oilfield, these oral histories document the development of the state’s oil industry from the turn of the century to 1950. (The written manuscripts now form the Texas Pioneers of Oil Collection, the Center for American History, the University of Texas at Austin.) Dr. Spellman read some of the accounts included in the book, specifically stories of mayhem and lawlessness as well as stories of rangers trying to impose law and order. For example, Dr. Spellman quoted Plummer Barfield, who recalled that he would “go out in the event of an accident and haul the wounded, the crippled or the dead to the livery stable – it became an undertaker’s parlor in those days.” One wintry night, a group of men stopped Barfield as he was bringing a body to the livery and ordered him to pick up the bodies of a woman, her baby, and two men. Eventually, Barfield “found out what happened”:
The woman and the baby had been sick and were in the tent, and some rattlebrained drunks had seen the lamp in the tent and had shot at it. They killed the woman and her baby, shot right through the baby’s head and the woman’s breast. Then the roughnecks and the rigrunners nearby caught the two drunks and hung ’em from a sweet gum tree!…Five bodies. One night.
Finally, Dr. Stephen L. Hardin, a professor of history at The Victoria College in Victoria, Texas, gave the final presentation of the day, focusing on his recent work Texian Macabre: The Melancholy Tale of a Hanging in Early Houston (2007). The book tells the story of David James Jones, a hero of the Texas Revolution who, along with John Christopher Columbus Quick, was hung for killing a man. They were among a group of young American men who had volunteered for the Texian army and had been indefinitely furloughed by President Sam Houston. While some of these former soldiers returned to the United States, many went to Houston, at that time the capital of Texas, where they were unemployed, bored, and broke. Respectable Houston residents called these troublesome men “rowdy loafers.” Dr. Hardin urged attendees to remember these men, who, like their more well-known compatriots at the Alamo or Goliad, made sacrifices for Texas. Throughout his talk, Dr. Hardin entertained the audience with quotes from eyewitness accounts of Houston that – with their vivid descriptions of mud, mosquitoes, and rats – confirmed its reputation in the 1830s as “an unpleasant place” and “the most miserable place in the world.”
Thank you to all of our speakers, who presented fascinating information about the history of “Rangers and Rogues” in Texas!