By Greg Bates
When something monumental occurs inTexas that requires a law enforcement presence, there’s a good chance the Texas Rangers are on the scene. As they have been for centuries.
Texas Rangers - Legendary Law Enforcement
The Rangers – no, not the baseball team – is a fascinating group with a storied history. It’s amazing to think the Rangers have been in existence since 1823, giving it the honor of the oldest surviving state law enforcement agency in the United States. It’s also the only agency to have served under five flags. The Rangers served the Republic of Mexico until 1836 when it became the Republic of
Texas following its war of independence. In 1945, Texas became the 28th state. Texas seceded from the Union in 1861 and fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. The state formally came back into the Union in 1870.
There are many aspects that have made the Rangers stand out and stand the test of time.
Adapting to Situations
“One of them is their method of morphing to adapt to what Texas needed at the time,” said Byron Johnson, who is the director of the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame Museum, which is the official state historical center for the Rangers, in Waco, Texas. “They started out in 1823 as essentially a frontier militia, very similar to our National Guard. They were multi-cultural in that you actually had a Ranger company with Anglo-Europeans that had recently immigrated. People from the old south, predominantly Tennessee, that moved to Texas. You had American Indians, including Apaches, who were fighting the Comanches on the side of the Republic of Texas that were in some of the Ranger companies. And, of course, you had Spanish Hispanics that were called Tejanos.”
The Rangers have always been the eyes and ears of the citizens, said Joe Davis, who served as a Ranger from 1969-93, and is now the president of the Former Texas Rangers Association.
“The role of the Texas Rangers and the mystique of the Rangers and the job they’ve done from the beginning to present, they just stand (for) what Texas is all about,” Davis said. “They say the Alamo is the enduring symbol of the state of Texas, and the Rangers is the enduring symbol of its people. It stands for what’s right and wrong. Some people say without the Rangers there might not have ever been a Texas.”
Legacy of Service
During its nearly 200-year existence, the Rangers have weathered several unique eras. The first
began in 1823 when the militia company were participating in fighting off Indian raids, predominantly by the Comanches, on Texas settlements. During the Texas Revolution, the Rangers fought a rearguard action while the settlers made their retreat east away from Santa Anna’s army. The Rangers were also one of the last groups into the Alamo as a relief service before the famous building fell. Every Ranger inside lost his life.
When Texas fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War, the Rangers were put into frontier protective mode. There were many units during the war that were referred to as “Rangers,” a common nickname.
“Everyone wanted to borrow the name Ranger,” Johnson said.
Enforcement During The Wild West
The next era for the Rangers ran from 1874-1901. During the height of the Wild West period, the Rangers were an important element in the fight against gangs and gunfighters. Ranger companies were placed all around the state as frontier law enforcement figures. The group was also sent to the southern border to prevent cattle theft and raids.
The east Texas oil boom in 1901 began the next era. After oil struck in small towns and populations spiked overnight, there were plenty of gamblers, burglars and prostitutes that moved in where there were no laws. The state governor received calls from mayors in the oil boom towns to send Rangers to the area quickly to create some semblance of order.
During the Mexican Revolution, the Rangers were sent down to the border to stop raiding and provide peace and lawfulness. When Prohibition began, the Rangers helped crack down on the running of booze from Mexico and the making of alcohol in stills in the piney woods of East Texas. Later that era produced the Great Depression, which started the rise of motorize bandits and crime sprees with such criminals as Texas’ own Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker.
“The Ranger has always been prepared and he’s always fought against most of the odds against him, but he’s always come out,” Davis said. “They’re the guys that always wore the white hats.”
In 1935, the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) was established and the Rangers were morphed into a much larger law enforcement agency. They acted as the police and the state’s lead investigative agency, which is the same role they serve today.
“The Rangers are a great organization that mean a lot to Texas,” Davis said. “As long as there’s a Texas, there will be a Texas Ranger.”
Recently, the Rangers were key members with recovery efforts when Hurricane Harvey hit the Houston area. According to Johnson, nearly every Ranger company in the state was sent to Houston to help with search and rescue. The group also helped supplement local law enforcement with the possibility of looting and other crimes, which is common during natural disasters.
Pop Culture Presence
The Rangers’ lore and popularity worldwide stems from its amazing history and subsequent existence in pop culture. The Rangers have been the stars of television shows, movies and books.
“Walker Texas Ranger, the Lone Ranger, all sorts of things going back in pop culture, literally to the 1840s,” Johnson said. “There have been by our count, we try to keep a running list of this, over 200 movies made since 1910 where a major character in a movie was a Texas Ranger, half a dozen or so television shows and all sorts of other things.”
When Davis was growing up in the early 1950s, he recalls the radio program
“Tales of the Texas Rangers” with Joel McCrea. All the media exposure magnified a bright light on the Rangers.
Enjoy an episode of "Tales of the Texas Ranger" from 1952...
“They always stood for what’s right, and that’s what we’re trying to do with our facility that we’re building now. To reach these young kids to let them know what’s right and what’s wrong,” Davis said. “They only get one chance to live, so don’t mess it up.”
Badges and Firearms Fraud
With so much history and fame, collectors swoon over artifacts and memorabilia relating to the Rangers.
According to Johnson, badges and firearms are the most collected items. The Rangers have the most sought-after badges in the world, he added.
However, there are not a lot of items out there for the public to purchase. When a Ranger retires, it’s most common for their Ranger gear to be handed down in the family from generation to generation. That means possessions in circulation within the general public is limited. That opens the doors for plenty of fake badgers on the market.
“There’s a ton of fake badges out there and there aren’t that many real Ranger badges,” Davis said. “You have to be careful.”
“The materials that are out there, unfortunately like sports memorabilia, they have estimated that somewhere between about 60 and 90 percent of sports memorabilia out there is probably fake. We see the same thing with Texas Ranger materials,” Johnson said.
“I went on eBay out of curiosity this morning and there were 250 Texas Ranger badges being offered for sale. And 99 percent of them are either replicas, what we call fantasy badges – badges that never were – or they’re items that are claimed to have a Ranger provenance, but it cannot be substantiated at all.
Ninety-nine percent of the stuff we see or get emails about or are brought through the door, or that sort of thing in terms of artifacts, are either outright fakes or extremely questionable.”
The Rangers were not furnished official badges until the group came under the direction of the Texas DPS in 1935. If a Ranger had a badge prior to that, he either had one made for himself or he got it from a company called Texas Rangers Badge Company, noted Davis.
But given the choice, very few Rangers wore badges when it wasn’t uniform.
“The problem with these is they could be anything the Ranger wanted to wear, they did not have to be inventoried or registered,” Johnson said. “They could be literally anything the Ranger wanted. This opens a huge door for people that are trying to perpetrate fraud by selling what are alleged to be 19th century Ranger badges.
Invest In Research
“The two issues you have are a lot of the collectors don’t take their time to do the research and look at the background. It will show up on something like eBay with a clock on it that says, ‘Sale ends in one day, two hours.’ And then they’ll say, ‘How do I research this? What do I do?’ They’ll call us and say, ‘Should I bid on this?’ Well, we’re a nonprofit educational institution. We’re not an antique sales depot.”
Johnson and his staff will tell collectors what they need to be conscious of, and if something’s an obvious fake, they’ll tell them if they show them the item.
“We tell people that there were very, very few Texas Ranger badges and that they have to be very, very careful about researching any information or provenance associated with a badge,” Johnson said.
Ranger badges are made from Mexican coins, noted Johnson. The modern badges are comprised of 5-peso coins, while some of the older badges are made of 8-peso coins.
One common example of fake badges Johnson sees quite often are collectors looking to buy what they believe is an authentic 1880s or 1890s badge that is made from a 1947 coin.
Avoiding Fakes and Forgeries
“People will show us those and we’ll say, ‘It’s very clear what you have here. You’ve either got a forgery or evidence of time travel is actually true,’” Johnson joked. ‘You have an 1880 badge made out of a 1947 coin.’”
One of Johnson’s favorite stories relating to a fake badge happened a few years ago. A collector purchased a badge for $4,000, and brought it into the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum. The collector had a letter of authenticity from the Ranger who supposedly wore the badge and the letter was signed by the Ranger four years after he died.
Most badges on display at the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum come from an unbroken chain directly from the originally owner Ranger. That is often the only way to ensure an authentic badge.
“Most badges that you see, to make it legit, you almost have to have a signed, notarized letter from me saying that I wore that badge and a picture of it and me maybe handing it to him,” Davis said.
Over the years, Johnson recalls seeing people buy bogus badges that are kids’ badges thinking they are legit. The child's badges are available at the Hall of Fame and Museum’s gift shop.
Johnson said what leads most collectors to mistakes when buying badges is they don’t take their time and research or consult available references. The Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum has resources on its website to help collectors avoid buying fraudulent items.
“Our bottom line is if you’re thinking about buying a Texas Ranger badge our recommendation is don’t, because better than 90 percent of them are fakes,” said Johnson, who noted it is illegal in Texas to buy, sell or trade a Ranger badge that is the current design of the official badge.
Davis recently sold one of his personal badges, putting it up for auction in a fundraiser to help build the new Texas Rangers Heritage Center’s museum. The badge sold for $60,000.
“But an actual badge can bring you anywhere from probably $3,000 to $5,000,” Davis said. “It just depends on who wore it.”
Frequency of Fake Firearms
As for firearms, they, too, are popular fakes.
“Firearms are as bad as badges,” Johnson said. “We have seen very valuable firearms that are what
we call composed. Say you wanted to build yourself a first-year 1964 1/2 Ford Mustang. You can go to the dealer and order every part in that Ford Mustang and wrench it together yourself and guess what, you’ve got a brand-new 1964 1/2 Mustang. Well, it’s common with pistols like Walker Colt revolvers, which are extremely rare and sell for more than $1 million. It’s very common for someone to collect every part for the Walker revolver and build one for themselves. They do that and then try to claim it belonged to a specific Texas Ranger. When you start running the pistol serial numbers down and everything else, it becomes obvious what someone’s done.
“The other thing you have to watch out for are fake inscriptions, which are rampant. I can’t tell you how many pieces I’ve seen that have had ‘Texas Rangers’ inscribed on them.”
Provenance is Paramount
Firearms are another category where chain of possession and documentation of the gun is very important. According to Johnson, it’s feasible to buy a decent Colt revolver from the 1880s for $3,000 to $7,000. If authentication shows use by a Ranger, the pistol can be worth several times that.
When Davis was a Ranger, his carried a Sig Sauer .45. It’s a firearm he’s held onto for the last 24 years since he retired.
“Most Rangers have more than one pistol and more than one badge,” Davis said. “I have three sons and I’ve got some grandsons and granddaughters. I’m going to make sure they have something.”
As the years have gone by, the Texas Rangers have increased its size. Beginning with 10 agents coming together to fight off Indian raids, there are now 166 Rangers. That’s not a big force considering there are around 28 million Texans.
It’s a small group, but certainly a dignified one.
“They’re so successful, they’ve always had some of the best people in the organization make it fine even though it’s small,” Davis said. “They’re a unique group and they’re dedicated to the job, to keep up that history.”
Best of the Best
“I know at least three Rangers that have doctorate degrees,” Johnson said. “They have to be very proficient in what they are doing, they have to be experienced. They have to, like astronauts, think under a lot of pressure in a dangerous situation.”
Johnson noted in the old days, a Ranger could get on the force by simply knowing someone. Today the bar is higher. Most have either past military experience or have worked for a police department. According to Johnson, a Ranger must have at least eight years of highway patrol service.
“It is an extremely difficult service to qualify for,” Johnson said. “While I’ve been here, they’ve had pools of as many as 120 qualified applicants for one position.”
It was an honor for Davis to serve 24 years as a Ranger.
“If I had a chance to do it, I’d do it again, because wearing that particular badge and what goes with it and the history, it’s a big responsibility first to put it on,” Davis said. “What you’re wearing is what people died for and fought for in this state.”