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"A Glimpse of Texas Past"

The Texas Frontier Battalion

by Jeffery Robenalt
Jeffery Robenalt
As the era of Reconstruction drew to a close, Texas, unlike the majority of states that made up the former Confederacy, was beginning to show signs of economic recovery. Millions of longhorn cattle were being driven north to railheads in Kansas and thousands of settlers were flocking to the Lone Star state in search of a new start. Railroads were also beginning to fan out across the prairie in a network of commerce that would eventually bring new life and prosperity to the western frontier. However, the steady westward movement did not come without a heavy price in lives and property.

At the onset of the Civil War, the United States withdrew all of its troops from the South, including the soldiers responsible for manning the long line of forts that served to protect the northwestern frontier of Texas. Texas quickly replaced the unwanted Yankees with state troops, but unfortunately, most of them volunteered for the Confederate army or were conscripted into service. The frontier was left practically defenseless, and hostile Indian tribes like the fierce Comanche and their cousins the Kiowa quickly took advantage of the situation, igniting a firestorm that drove the Texas frontier back nearly 200 miles by the end of the war.

With no one except the poorly equipped state police to deal with the Indian situation, the frontier remained aflame throughout the period of Reconstruction. Fortunately, people living on the Texas frontier had a long history of defending against Indian attack or the loss of life would have been much worse. But the people's experience fighting Indians did little to defend them from the growing lawlessness among Texas citizens. Local law enforcement officials, especially along the frontier, were forced to deal with an escalating number of murders, robberies, horse thefts, cattle rustling and bloody feuds that remained far beyond their ability to control.

In 1874, Governor Richard Coke and the Texas legislature decided to deal with the growing threats of the Indians and the outlaws by organizing a battalion of Texas Rangers. The battalion, which became formally known as the Frontier Battalion, consisted of five, seventy-five man companies. The Frontier Battalion was the first permanent force of Texas Rangers to take the field and would serve the state for the next twenty-five years. Major John B. Jones, a former South Carolinian and noted civil war veteran, was selected to command the unit. Jones may well have been slight in stature at only five feet eight inches and 135 pounds, but under his strong hand and exceptional leadership, the battalion would eventually tame the northwestern frontier, eliminate the Indian threat and either incarcerate or hang many of the worst outlaws in the West.
John B. Jones
Major John B. Jones
Wikimedia Commons
Throughout the years of the Frontier Battalion's existence, three salient characteristics guided the actions of the Rangers who manned its ranks. First, their esprit de corps. Every member of the battalion, young or old, had been steeped in the lore of Ranger legends like Jack Hays, Ben McCulloch and Bigfoot Wallace. Second, their ruthlessness. A Ranger never issued an order twice, and with the nearest court usually miles away, prisoners were sometimes killed while attempting to escape. Finally, a Ranger held nothing but contempt for devious behavior; especially when the deviousness concerned local politicians and courts interfering with the battalion's business.

The first duty of the Frontier Battalion was to protect settlers from the far-ranging depredations of Comanche and Kiowa war parties. Jones went about this business in a highly professional manner, spreading out his five companies along the frontier in strategic sites that afforded maximum coverage. Unlike the U. S. Army, instead of bogging his men down with needless details and unnecessary barracks chores, Jones kept them in the saddle constantly, focusing on intercepting the small war bands that the army could not prevent from slipping through their line of forts. The Rangers fought fifteen separate Indian engagements and recovered a considerable amount of valuable livestock during their first six months of frontier duty.

On June 12, 1874, Major Jones and twenty-six Rangers fought a skirmish against more than fifty Kiowa warriors led by Lone Wolf. The engagement took place at Lost Valley, not far from the Young County line. Two days earlier, the Kiowa had attacked the ranch of Oliver Loving, killing one of his ranch hands. As the Rangers entered Lost Valley following the war party’s trail, they were spotted by a few Kiowa scouts sitting their ponies on nearby hills. The Rangers immediately gave chase, but the scouts decoyed the unwary lawmen into a trap. Being fairly new at the job, the Rangers fell for the ruse and galloped into the well-laid ambush. Thankfully, Major Jones remained calm during the ensuing chaos. Displaying a coolness under fire that braced the backbones of his men, Jones ordered his Rangers to blast their way through a weak part of the Kiowa encirclement. One Ranger was killed and another wounded in the breakout, but Jones then led the men to cover in a brushy gully, where they were able to fight off the initial Kiowa onslaught.
Lone Wolf
Lone Wolf
Wikimedia Commons
The Rangers and Kiowa spent the remainder of the day locked in a stalemate, exchanging long-range rifle fire. Thirst plagued the lawmen as they carried on the fight, but Jones refused to allow anyone to ride to nearby Cameron Creek until dusk. No Indians were in sight when the sun began to set over the valley and all appeared to be quiet. Two men volunteered to ride to the creek, each with a string of empty canteens. After securing the water, they too fell victim to an ambush and frantically spurred their horses back toward the gully. One man made it to safety, but Ranger David Bailey was unhorsed by a war lance. A single blow from a war club smashed in his skull and his body was brutally dismembered. As darkness fell, the Kiowa withdrew along with their dead and wounded. The fight at Lost Valley may well have been a minor affair, but it did turn the war party back and also did much to validate the worth of the battalion.

By 1875, the northwest frontier settlements of Texas were relatively safe from Comanche and Kiowa depredations; however, the Apaches still posed a problem. In order to meet the threat, a company of Texas Rangers from the Frontier Battalion commanded by Captain George Wythe Baylor joined forces with the United States army under the command of General B. H. Grierson, to patrol deep into the greasewood buttes and sagebrush that stretched far to the west and southwest of San Antonio. In spite of their efforts, throughout the years of 1876 and 1877, small bands of marauding Apaches continued to burn, pillage and murder their way across the Big Bend country, escaping into Mexico whenever the Rangers and Grierson’s Buffalo Soldiers closed in.
Victorio
Victorio
Wikimedia Commons
Eventually, the Mexican army under General Joaquin Terrazas joined the fight, and the allies waged a coordinated campaign that ranged from the Diablo Mountains in far west Texas, to New Mexico and deep into the Mexican state of Sonora. One of the last Apache atrocities committed in Texas occurred in October 1880, when a war party led by Chiricahua war chief Victorio killed the driver and passengers on a stagecoach bound for El Paso. The Rangers and Buffalo Soldiers hounded the war party relentlessly until the Apache crossed the Rio Grande. Terrazas caught up with them in the Tres Castillos Mountains south of El Paso, killing Victorio and several of his warriors. Twelve warriors and a few women and children managed to flee back into Texas, but the Rangers caught up with them in their Diablo Mountain camp early on the morning of January 29, 1881. When the shooting was over, four warriors, two squaws and two children were dead. Most of the others had been captured. The Apache, like their fierce enemies the Comanche, never again posed a serious threat to Texas.

The Frontier Battalion also dealt with some of the toughest outlaws in the west, including John Wesley Hardin and the notorious train robber Sam Bass. The long hunt for Sam Bass came to a conclusion, when a member of the Bass gang, Jim Murphy, turned informant and told Major Jones that the gang was planning to rob the Williamson County Bank in the small Central Texas town of Round Rock. Jones and three of his Rangers headed for Round Rock. In the shootout that followed, one member of the gang was killed, and Bass was shot twice, although he managed to escape. The following day two Rangers saw a man lying under a tree in a pasture not far from town. At first, the Rangers thought the man was one of the railroad workers constructing the new line to Georgetown, but he held up his hand and said, “I am Sam Bass, the man that has been wanted so long." The town doctor did his best to save the outlaw, but in spite of his efforts, Bass died the following day, July 21, 1878, his twenty-seventh birthday. Some said his final words were, “Life is but a bubble, trouble wherever you go.”
Sam Bass
Sam Bass
Wikimedia Commons
John Wesley Hardin developed his reputation as a gunfighter in Gonzales County during the infamous Sutton-Taylor feud, a bloody disagreement between two violent families and their friends. Before his infamous career was over, Hardin would be credited with killing twenty-seven men; some believed the count was even higher. On May 26, 1874, Hardin visited the small town of Comanche to help out his brother Joe, a respected attorney. Hardin and two of his friends, Jim Taylor and Bud Dixon, were drinking heavily in Jack Wright’s saloon, when they gunned down Deputy Sheriff Charles Webb. Some witnesses said Webb deliberately picked a fight with the Hardin. Others said Hardin was mean and nasty drunk and challenged Webb to draw. No matter who was at fault, Hardin and his two friends fired as one, and Webb fell dead, hit three times. Hardin and Taylor fled with a posse close on their heels but Dixon remained in town.
John Wesley Hardin
John Wesley Hardin
Wikimedia Commons
Emotions were running high against the shooters, and local law enforcement immediately put out a call for the Texas Rangers. When the Rangers arrived, they suggested that Dixon and Hardin’s brother Joe be placed in protective custody. John Wesley Hardin and Taylor had managed to escape from the posse, and the duo rode into Austin a few days later. That same morning, an ugly mob began to gather around the jail in Comanche, demanding that the sheriff turn over Dixon and Hardin’s brother. The sheriff refused to release the prisoners, but shortly after midnight, the mob stormed the jail and led Joe Hardin and Bud Dixon outside with ropes around their necks. Both men were hanged from a nearby live oak tree. In October, the Comanche County Grand Jury indicted John Wesley Hardin for the murder of Deputy Webb. A warrant was issued for Hardin’s arrest.

Responsibility for the search and arrest of Hardin was given to the Frontier Battalion, since the Texas Rangers were the only law enforcement agency with statewide authority. Setting to work immediately, the Rangers rounded up several of Hardin’s friends and associates for questioning, but Hardin was nowhere to be found in Texas. Realizing that if the Rangers did not catch up with him, a vengeful Texas lynch mob surely would, Hardin had fled to New Orleans with his wife and infant daughter. From there, the family took a steamboat to Florida, but even that did not prove to be far enough to avoid the long arm of the Texas Rangers.
Ranger John B. Armstrong
Wikimedia Commons
Hardin was apprehended on a train in Pensacola by Rangers John Armstrong and Jack Duncan as he was struggling with the local Sheriff. Armstrong demanded that the outlaw surrender and Hardin cursed, telling Armstrong, “I’d rather die than be arrested.” But Armstrong wanted Hardin alive to stand trial in Texas, so he thumped him on the head with the barrel of his big Colt, and Hardin fell unconscious to the floor of the railroad car. The career of notorious outlaw John Wesley Hardin had finally come to an end thanks to the dedicated Rangers of the Texas Frontier Battalion. Hardin was quickly brought back to Texas to stand trial. He was convicted and spent the next eighteen years behind bars, but it was not Hardin’s destiny to die of old age. After studying law in prison, he worked as an attorney in Gonzales and eventually moved to far West Texas, where in 1895, he was gunned down in an El Paso saloon.

With the explosive population growth after Reconstruction and the introduction of barbed wire, the big range country of West Texas quickly turned into the land of the big pastures, and the work of the Frontier Battalion was largely done. Not all aspects of Old West violence had been erased; the heritage of violence had too long been woven into the fabric of western society to be easily eliminated. The efforts of the Frontier Battalion had, however, transformed the tenor of the social climate on the frontier from one of near anarchy, where men lived strictly by a six-gun code of personal justice, to an organized society able to curb violence through effective law enforcement and a system of honest courts.


© Jeffery Robenalt
, February 1, 2014 Column
jeffrobenalt@yahoo.com
Sources for "The Texas Frontier Battalion." >

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Sources for "The Texas Frontier Battalion "

  • Cox, Mike, The Texas Rangers: Men of Action and Valor, (Austin: Eakin Press, 1991).
  • Fehrenbach, T. R., Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1968).
  • Havins, T. R., "Activities of Company E, Frontier Battalion, Texas Rangers 1874-1880," West Texas Historical Association Year Book 11, 1935.
  • Webb, Walter Prescott, The Texas Rangers: A Century of Frontier Defense, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Publishing, 1935; rep., Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989).
  • Wilkins, Frederick, The Law Comes to Texas: The Texas rangers 1870-1901, (Austin: State House Press, 1999).
  • "Frontier Battalion," Handbook of Texas Online, (http://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/qqf01), accessed January 7, 2014. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
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