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Yours to Command

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Captain Bill McDonald (1852-1918) is the most prominent of the "Four Great Captains" of Texas Ranger history. His career straddled the changing scene from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries. In 1891 McDonald became captain of Company B of the Frontier Battalion of the Texas Rangers. "Captain Bill" and the Rangers under his command took part in a number of incidents from the Panhandle region to South Texas: the Fitzsimmons-Maher prizefight in El Paso, the Wichita Falls bank robbery, the murders by the San Saba Mob, the Reese-Townsend feud at Columbus, the lynching of the Humphries clan, the Conditt family murders near Edna, the Brownsville Raid of 1906, and the shootout with Mexican Americans near Rio Grande City. In all these endeavors, only one Ranger lost his life under McDonald's command. McDonald's reputation as a gunman rested upon his easily demonstrated markmanship, a flair for using his weapons to intimidate opponents, and the publicity given his numerous exploits. His ability to handle mobs resulted in a classic tale told around campfires: one riot, one Ranger. His admirers rank him as one of the great captains of Texas Ranger history. His detractors see him as an irresponsible lawman who accepted questionable information, precipitated violence, hungered for publicity, and related tall tales that cast himself in the hero's role. Harold J. Weiss, Jr., seeks to find the true Bill McDonald and sort fact from myth. McDonald's motto says it all: "No man in the wrong can stand up against a fellow that's in the right and keeps on a-comin'."

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Part 1: Emergence of a Ranger Captian

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PART ONE

EMERGENCE OF A RANGER CAPTAIN

But one thing seems clear to everyone who returns from field work: other people are other. They do not think the way we do. And if we want to understand their way of thinking, we should set out with the idea of capturing otherness.

—Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in

French Cultural History.

In this role, “Captain Bill” . . . mixed the gun-toting image of a frontier lawman with the savvy of a modern police investigator.

—Harold J. Weiss, Jr., “Organized Constabularies: The Texas

Rangers and the Early State Police Movement in the American

Southwest.”

More than any other captain, he was a showman, a colorful character, a selfpromoter who reveled in notoriety.

—Robert Utley, Lone Star Justice: The First Century of the Texas Rangers.

Ever threatened, often shot, his gray eyes never lost their steadfast courage, and one by one he “nailed” the “bad men,” discouraged lawlessness, put a stop to killing and stealing, and generally “cleaned up” until “wild and woolly” Texas came to be as uninterestingly peaceful as a Connecticut community on Sunday.

 

Chapter 1: Bill McDonald, the Historical Record, and the Popular Mind

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Chapter 1

BILL MCDONALD, THE HISTORICAL

RECORD, AND THE POPULAR MIND

A lone rider, sitting easily in the saddle of his dusty horse, travels across the plains toward a small, new town with muddy streets and lively saloons. He wears a tattered, wide-brimmed hat, a loose-hanging vest [with a tin star], a bandanna around his neck, and one gun rests naturally at his side in a smooth, well-worn holster. Behind him, the empty plains roll gently until they end abruptly in the rocks and forests that punctuate the sudden rise of towering mountain peaks.1

The life and times of Texas Ranger Captain William Jesse “Bill”

McDonald, better known as “Captain Bill,” can be viewed from several vantage points: first, the ins and outs of crime and violence in the trans-Mississippi West in the late 1800s; second, the operations of the Texas Rangers in theory and practice inside and outside the

Lone Star State; third, the ambiguous nature of McDonald as a lawman in thought and deed; and fourth, the never-ending folk tales built around the exploits of the fabled Captain Bill.

 

Romanticizing McDonald and the Rangers: A Pictorial Essay

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ROMANTICIZING McDONALD AND THE RANGERS

A Pictorial Essay

We fought [the Indians] for full nine hours before the fight wis o’er;

The sight of dead and woundit I nivir saw before;

Five thousan’ gallant rangers that ivir left the West

Lay buriet by their comrades, and peace shall be their rest.

—Kenneth S. Goldstein, “‘The Texas Rangers’ in

Aberdeenshire.”

His is a tale unended. Still riding down the years

Come the hoofbeats of the Ranger and his stalwart form appears . . .

Though dark may be the danger, he has no care for that,

Riding on into the future in his tall—white— hat.

—“The Ranger” in William B. Ruggles, Trails of Texas.

Captain Bill McDonald is a wild and wily Ranger,

Kind enough to folks at home but stern to any stranger.

Down upon the pampas plains of wide and woozy Texas,

Captain Bill kerswats the azure in its solar plexus.

Nary such another man from Galveston to Dallas;

Wears a bent Damascus blade where most men wear a gallus;

Wears a bucket on his head—for thats his chief kerswatter;

Bill would charge all hell, they say, with a single pail o’ water!

 

Chapter 2: The Making of a Texas Lawman

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Chapter 2

THE MAKING OF A TEXAS LAWMAN

. . . a Texas Ranger could ride like a Mexican, trail like an Indian, shoot like a Tennessean, and fight like a devil.1

To grasp the inner workings of the world of Texas Ranger Captain

Bill McDonald, one must move in a westerly direction across the

Atlantic Ocean to the New World and a place called Texas. Since ancient times humans have sailed westward and marched inland to

find fame and fortune and build an orderly society under God.2 This restless force in the cultures of Europe and America—that migrating impulse that has been called the “M-Factor” in American history— was captured in those haunting lines by Stephen Vincent Benet:

Americans are always moving on.

It’s an old Spanish custom gone astray,

A sort of English fever, I believe,

Or just a mere desire to take French leave,

I couldn’t say. I couldn’t really say.3

This restless temper brought McDonald’s Scottish ancestors from Europe to America. The methods of fighting crime used by

Captain Bill resulted from his contacts with people and cultures in the Old South and the Lone Star State. As a youth he grew up in

 

Chapter 3: Captian Bill and Company B in the Panhandle

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Chapter 3

CAPTAIN BILL AND COMPANY B

IN THE PANHANDLE

Suppose you saw in yesterdays news of my escapade with the pickpockets at

Ft Worth. I am awful sore yet from running. They both made fight but I

finally made them submissive [after they robbed an “old man.”]1

Bill McDonald led an active personal as well as professional life. As a rancher and a victim of crime, he showed resiliency and a dogged determination. At one point a newspaper reported, “Captain W. J.

McDonald, farmer, Capt. State Rangers, was touched by a pickpocket, who obtained $50 cash and $300 diamond pin.”2 In addition, like many ranchers, he could do little about his cattle being stolen from his ranch near Quanah. While McDonald was away on police business, which often happened, his wife and a few hired hands were at times defenseless against rustlers who sought plunder and revenge by swooping down on his herds, making off with his cattle, and causing “Bill Jess” to “cuss a blue streak.”3 McDonald tried hard to achieve economic success at ranching. He even attempted to raise goats, but they became a nuisance and were

 

Chapter 4: A Gunfight Between Two Guardians of the Law

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Chapter 4

A GUNFIGHT BETWEEN TWO

GUARDIANS OF THE LAW

It was strange, indeed, that McDonald did not “happen to get killed” in those busy days of the early nineties. One of the favorite vows of tough

“pan-handlers” was to shoot Bill McDonald on sight.1

In his investigation of criminal activities in the first half of the 1890s in the Texas Panhandle, Captain McDonald took part in a bloody gun battle. No outlaw ambushed him in cowardly fashion. No desperado had the nerve to face him in a fast-draw gunfight. Instead,

McDonald found himself in the streets of Quanah in December

1893 shooting it out with a county sheriff. When the gunfire ended,

Captain Bill had near-fatal wounds and the other lawman was headed for his grave.

Through the years the reasons for such clashes in the American West have been varied and complex. In the hurried atmosphere involving split-second gunplay, accidents did occur. In addition, gun-wielding peace officers held grudges, became mean, and showed violent natures, especially after drinking and carousing in saloons and houses of prostitution. The police in western

 

Chapter 5: Proceed to El Paso: The Rangers and Prizefighting

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Chapter 5

PROCEED TO EL PASO: THE RANGERS

AND PRIZEFIGHTING

There was trouble in Dallas.

A prize fight had been scheduled, and since there was a state law making ring encounters illegal, the town was divided against itself over whether the affair should come off as planned. Fearing serious disturbances on fight night, some of those among the citizenry had asked the governor to send

Texas Rangers.

And so, on the day of the event Captain Bill McDonald, lanky, whitemustached state trooper, who spoke with a slow drawl in his voice, dropped off the train in Dallas. He was met by the mayor. His Honor was glad to see the

Captain, but he appeared worried as he looked up and down the platform.

“Where,” he asked, “are your Rangers?”

“Hell!” exclaimed Captain McDonald, “you’ve only got one prize

fight, haven’t you?”1

Unlike the legendary “one-Ranger-one-riot” story, Captain

McDonald did not come alone to El Paso to stop a prizefight in

February 1896. The Rangers came en masse. The chief executive of the state of Texas gave the order. In the midst of the dispute about holding the prizefight, Governor Culberson summed up his feelings of opposition to such an event in a succinct message to Adjutant General Mabry: “I will see it through.”2

 

Chapter 6: A Bank Robbery in Wichita Falls

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Chapter 6

A BANK ROBBERY IN WICHITA FALLS

. . . I told the Judge I thought he was asking a good deal of me to let my small force go and stay there alone, all crippled up any way and nearly sick and tackle a mob of several hundred, probably have to kill some of them and get killed myself, and besides I had nothing to do with [the] prisoners after turning them over to the local authorities, which I had done, and was doubly assured they could hold them and did not need us.1

This self-analysis of his conduct shows that Captain Bill wrestled with his conscience in explaining his actions as a peace officer.

McDonald’s soul-searching experience occurred after a manhunt following a bank robbery in Wichita Falls at the start of 1896. This criminal act suited more the talents of the Ranger captain than his involvement in the controversial prizefight in El Paso. Yet his extraordinary effort as a manhunter was offset by his singular failure as a keeper of the jail. At the same time, though, other futile efforts to guard the prisoners and stop a lynch mob came from the sheriff’s office, except for one deputy sheriff, and a citizen’s guard of law-abiding residents.

 

The Rangers, Company B, and Captain McDonald in the Field: A Pictorial Essay

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Standing from left: James A. Brooks, John H. Rogers, _____ Waite (or Thurlow A. Weed); seated from left: Lamartine P. “Lam” Sieker, John B. Armstrong, and William J. “Bill” McDonald. The classic photograph of the different types of Rangers by the late 1800s: the organizational Ranger, like Sieker; the intrepid Ranger in the citizen-soldier tradition, such as “Little McNelly” Armstrong; and the hard-bitten peace officers and dauntless crime fighters, including Brooks, McDonald, and

Rogers.

Armstrong (1850–1913): Born in Tennessee, he came to Texas and joined the ranging company under the command of McNelly in the 1870s. He rose to the rank of lieutenant and became known as “McNelly’s Bulldog.” After his Ranger service, Armstrong served as a US marshal and owned a ranch.

Brooks (1855–1944): Born in Kentucky, he joined the Rangers in the early 1880s and rose through the ranks to be a celebrated captain until his retirement in the first decade of the twentieth century.

In his later life Brooks became the faithful public servant by serving as a state legislator and as a county judge of Brooks County (named in his honor).

 

Part Two: Waning Days of the Frontier Battalion

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PART TWO

WANING DAYS OF THE

FRONTIER BATTALION

His dogged persistence and stealthy tactics are the real secret of his success, not his feisty marksmanship or braggadocio. McDonald enjoys shooting at game from horseback. His proficiency at picking off prairie dogs and birds is notable.

—John Miller Morris, ed., A Private in the Texas Rangers: A. T.

Miller of Company B, Frontier Battalion.

McDonald was an intrepid and resolute figure, of undoubted courage. There were, and are, those who doubt that he was the combination of Sir Galahad,

David Crockett, Frank Merriwell and J. Edgar Hoover . . . .

—Column by John Gould in Wichita Daily Times, June 17, 1951.

“Well,” said Captain Bill, sorrowfully, “I seem to be in a mighty bad fix. If I stay,

I’ll be filled with bullets, and if I go, I’ll lose my wife. I s’pose I’ll have to stay.”

—Albert B. Paine, Captain Bill McDonald, Texas Ranger: A Story of Frontier Reform.

Capt. [McDonald] stood by me & the boys in all we had done [at San Saba].

—Sullivan to W. H. Owen, May 27, 1897, Quartermaster

 

Chapter 7: San Saba Mob: A Murder Society

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Chapter 7

SAN SABA MOB: A MURDER SOCIETY

There are men still alive, however, who think the whole campaign against the Mob was unnecessary. “We didn’t need the Rangers,” they will tell you.

“The Mob was made up of the best people and they were only trying to make the county fit for decent folks to live in. If they had let us alone we would have handled everything without outside help. We were doing all right.”

Then they will caution you: “If you tell anybody I said this I’ll say you are a liar.”

So you don’t tell anybody.1

As the decade of the 1890s came to a close, McDonald and Company B became involved in more complex criminal cases than in previous years. His attention was directed to the age-old phenomenon of feuding in Texas. He also strove to solve heinous murders by secretive mobs and unsuspecting parties who preyed upon their fellow Texans. Increasingly Captain Bill and the Panhandle Rangers were ordered to investigate acts of crime and violence in the central and eastern portions of the state. By the turn of the century, the need for the services of the Frontier Battalion had not diminished.

 

Chapter 8: Reese–Townsend Feud at Columbus

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Chapter 8

REESE-TOWNSEND FEUD AT COLUMBUS

During the month of March, 1899, Capt. McDonald, with two men, were ordered to Columbus, Colorado county, for the purpose of preventing trouble there between the Townsend and Reece [sic] factions. Capt. McDonald went alone, his men not being able to reach him in time, and his courage and cool behavior prevented a conflict between the two factions. The district judge and district attorney both informed him that it was impossible to handle the situation, but he told them that he could make the effort, and he gave the members of each faction a limited time in which to get rid of their weapons, stating that he would put those in jail who refused to comply. His order had the desired effect.1

This report by the adjutant general added to McDonald’s growing reputation as a two-gun crusading knight. Yet Captain Bill was only one of a number of Rangers who became involved in the affair over a period of time.

Columbus is situated in the south central part of the state in

 

Chapter 9: Humphries Case: An East Texas Lyching

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Chapter 9

HUMPHRIES CASE: AN EAST

TEXAS LYNCHING

You will remember that at the request of the sheriff, county attorney and other local authorities of that county, Capt. McDonald and Private Old were sent there to assist them and myself in the investigation of that horrible murder which was then enshrouded in a mystery that it seemed almost impossible to uncover. Before the rangers reached us the people in the neighborhood of the murder seemed afraid to talk. They said they would be murdered, too, if they took any hand in working up the case. About the first thing Capt. McDonald did was to assure the people that he and his associates had come there to stay until every murderer was arrested and convicted, and that he would see that all those who assisted him would be protected. They believed him, and in consequence thereof they soon began to talk and feel that the law would be vindicated, and I am glad to say that it was. The work of the rangers in this one case is worth more to the State, in my opinion, than your department will cost during your administration. In fact, such service cannot be valued in dollars and cents.1

 

Chapter 10: Finale of the Frontier Battalion

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Chapter 10

FINALE OF THE FRONTIER BATTALION

On the killing of T. L. Fuller of Company B in the line of duty: shot

“without warning.”1

The troubles at Orange, Texas, where Fuller went down, led to the demise of the Frontier Battalion at the turn of the twentieth century.

During the last half of the 1890s, the lifestyles of the members of the Frontier Battalion remained similar to the existence of those who served in the early Rangers. They still wore nondescript clothes, rode horses, carried revolvers, rifles, and shotguns, and lived under harsh conditions imposed by nature and distances traveled. In addition, the men in the four companies in the field continued under the command of Brooks, Hughes, McDonald, and

Rogers. These captains tried to maximize the use of their time and energies in combating crime and maintaining order.

At the start of the twentieth century, the Lone Star State faced a growing population and an increasing number of farms, ranches, towns, and larger urban centers. For some time the Rangers of Texas tried to change their operations to meet these new conditions.

 

Map: East Texas

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Map: Panhandle

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Map: Counties of the Panhandle

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Map: Central Texas

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