Waco is the place to go for Ranger memorabilia.
Texas and Rangers go together like Waco and Dr. Pepper or, if that’s not your drink, Waco and Big Red. This year the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum in Waco marks four decades of showcasing, interpreting and promoting the legendary Western law-enforcement agency. The museum, a joint project of the Rangers, the city of Waco and the state of Texas, presents more than 14,000 artifacts and exhibits. Its galleries—which include the Hall of Fame and one devoted to pop culture—cover the history of the Rangers since the early 1820s and include items dating to their Spanish and Mexican origins. The museum also serves as the official historical repository and state library for the agency, as well as headquarters for the Texas Department of Public Safety and Company F, the largest Ranger contingent.
In 1821 Stephen Fuller Austin continued to bring American settlers to the Mexican territory of Tejas, as agreed upon in a contract between his late father, Moses, and Mexico. In 1823 Mexico allowed Austin to call for “10 men…to act as rangers for the common defense….The wages I [Austin] will give said 10 men is $15 dollars a month payable in property.” In 1835, as the movement for Texas independence approached the boiling point, colonial Texas representatives created a Corps of Rangers, ostensibly to protect the frontier from hostile Indians. They provided for three companies of Rangers; privates were to enlist for one year at $1.25 per day for “pay, rations, clothing and horse service.”
The Garrison Gallery recounts this early history and chronicles the transformation of the Ranger badge down through the years. It also highlights various Colts. Prior to statehood, the Republic of Texas was among the first customers for New England gunsmith Samuel Colt’s .36- caliber five-shot Paterson, which became the Rangers’ weapon of choice. When Ranger Samuel H. Walker suggested improvements to the revolver, Colt was all ears, and the Walker Colt—history’s most powerful black powder repeating handgun—was born. “It would take a Texan to shoot it,” Walker once exclaimed.
The Morris Gallery trails the service up to 1935. In the early years, Rangers primarily fought bandits and raiding Indians, but they readily took on Mexicans in the late 1840s and then Yankees in the early 1860s. From 1865 to 1873, the state-regimented agency enforced unpopular carpetbagger laws. In 1874 the Texas legislature created two Ranger forces—the Frontier Battalion, led by Major John B. Jones, and the Special Forces, under Captain Leander McNelly. With these new units, the Rangers were able to better track and capture such infamous outlaws as Texas tough John Wesley Hardin. Ranger John B. Armstrong nabbed the hardened killer in Pensacola, Fla., in 1877, and Hardin served a lengthy prison sentence. The Rangers caught up to and gravely wounded train robber Sam Bass at Round Rock, Texas, in 1878. A minted gold coin from one of Bass’ prior robberies is on display at the museum, among other outlaws’ loot and hardware.
While combating rustlers, robbers, feudists, lynch mobs and outright killers, the Rangers continually improved their techniques and incorporated the latest anticrime technology. By the turn of the 20th century, they boasted a solid national reputation. “The Rangers reinvented themselves time and again,” says Byron A. Johnson, executive director of the museum.
The Frontier Battalion disbanded in 1901, and the new Ranger force, comprising four companies, evolved into an agency with the right to perform all duties of any peace officer. Frank Hamer, who became a Ranger in 1906, made the transition from riding down frontier badmen to capturing Depression-era badmen. Hamer resigned in 1933 but was called back the following year to track down Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. On May 23, 1934, Hamer and fellow lawmen killed the infamous duo in a blaze of gunfire near Gibsland, La. The museum holds one of Parker’s handguns, while Hamer graces the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame, dedicated to those who served with distinction or gave their lives in the line of duty.
In 1935 the Texas Rangers and Texas Highway Patrol were incorporated into the newly created Texas Department of Public Safety, and today Rangers still patrol the Lone Star State. The Pop Culture Gallery reflects their longstanding mass appeal, featuring the likes of the Lone Ranger and Chuck Norris (Walker, Texas Ranger). For more information, visit www .texasranger.org or call 254-750-8631.
Originally published in the October 2009 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.