The Legend Begins: The Texas Rangers 1823-1845, by Frederick Wilkins, State House Press, Austin, Texas, 1996, $24.95 hardback, $16.95 paper.

John Coffee Hays epitomized the Texas Rangers during the years before the Mexican War. Appointed captain in 1840 at only 23, he was a famous Indian fighter and helped introduce the Colt revolver in the Rangers’ campaigns. Many of his fights have gone down in Texas lore, and one scout remarked of his daring, “Hays was bravo too much.”

Frederick Wilkins, however, brings the legend down to earth in this nicely written, well-documented but controversial history, the first of four books chronicling the military unit turned police force. Wilkins states that Hays was not “the ranger of early Texas…but merely one of several prominent partisan commanders in the Texas Republic.” That statement might ruffle a few feathers among Hays aficionados, but Wilkins waits until his appendix, titled “Battles–or Legends?” to deliver a double-barreled blast. The celebrated battles at Enchanted Rock, in which Hays held off a large party of Comanches for hours before being rescued, and at Bandera Pass, where Hays rallied his men during an ambush, are pure fiction, Wilkins argues. Unlike Alamo historians discussing Davy Crockett’s death, Wilkins has no de la Peña diary to use as ammunition. Instead, he bases his verdict on the fact that there is no mention of the engagements in contemporary sources, “conflicting dates, or no dates, failure to find the names of the men who fought on any roster, and superhuman conduct….” The Hays controversy aside, The Legend Begins is an overdue history of the Rangers, worthy of comparison to Walter Prescott Webb’s The Texas Rangers: A Century of Frontier Defense, first published in 1935 and still in print. Although his deductions are debatable,Wilkins stands his ground. “Questioning some of these sainted fables is not a sure road to popularity,” he writes, “but this is the tale as I see it.”

Johnny D. Boggs