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Captain J. A. Brooks, Texas Ranger

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James Abijah Brooks (1855-1944) was one of the four Great Captains in Texas Ranger history, others including Bill McDonald, John Hughes, and John Rogers. Over the years historians have referred to the captain as "John" Brooks, because he tended to sign with his initials, but also because W. W. Sterling's classic Trails and Trials of a Texas Ranger mistakenly named him as Captain John Brooks. Born and raised in Civil War-torn Kentucky, a reckless adventurer on the American and Texas frontier, and a quick-draw Texas Ranger captain who later turned in his six-shooter to serve as a county judge, Brooks's life reflects the raucous era of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century American West. As a Texas Ranger, Brooks participated in the high profile events of his day, from the fence-cutting wars to the El Paso prizefight, from the Conner Fight--where he lost three fingers from his left hand--to the Temple rail strike, all with a resolute demeanor and a fast gun. A shoot-out in Indian Territory nearly cost him his life and then jeopardized his career, and a lifelong bout with old Kentucky bourbon did the same. With three other distinguished Ranger captains, Brooks witnessed and helped promote the transformation of the elite Frontier Battalion into the Ranger Force. As a state legislator, he brokered the creation of a South Texas county that bears his name today, and where he served for twenty-eight years as county judge. He was the quintessential enforcer of frontier justice, scars and all.

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1. Old Kentucky Home

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OLD KENTUCKY HOME

My father having gone to his final rest, my mother was left in the midst of that great struggle with six daughters and two little boys.

John Strode Brooks stood at the corner post of his new property, surveying a portion of the 247 acres of Kentucky bluegrass he had recently purchased. A tributary of Houston Creek flowed easily along its rocky bed through the eastern acreage. A stand of maple trees promised maple syrup the next season, a rolling field just past the grove looked favorable for summer corn, and an apple orchard would complete the annual harvest.

The pike road that connected tiny Paris to the growing town of

Lexington drew one line for his land, a small road that wound northward along the Fayette-Bourbon county border marked another. New neighbors included Aaron and Mary Smedley, John Giltner just across the pike road, Frank and Nancy Willmott, Joshua and Rachel Corbin to the north, and the James Baggs family on the southern boundary. The main house would go there, he pointed up the pike, and the slave quarters in the hollow not far from the corral and barns.

 

2. A Texas Ranger

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A TEXAS RANGER

Capt. Scott encouraged me to be a real worthwhile Texas Ranger under all circumstances.

San Antonio was a bustling town in 1880, filled with every opportunity imaginable, and every temptation, for an impressionable twenty-four-year-old cowboy just stepping off the train.

Whatever Jim Brooks hoped would happen for him there, however, never materialized. His later memoirs pointedly omit nearly all of the events of the next three years of his life, except the confessions of an old man that the most famous distilled product from his Bourbon

County home now became his lifelong partner. In one recollection

Brooks simply wrote: “I located in San Antonio, [and] after a number of trips looking over South Texas, and a few business adventures most of which failed, one took me to Cotulla, La Salle County, several times.”

But another memoir, scribbled on a desk calendar when Brooks was in his eighties, gives more insight into one of those “failed ventures.” After spending a few days in San Antonio, first at the old

 

3. The Shoot-Outs

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THE SHOOT-OUTS

Judge Parker remarked, “If there were more like them in this land of blood, it would be a better country.”

On May 26, 1886, Obediah Y. Love wrote the following letter to Montgomery A. Sandels, the district attorney for the federal court located in Ft. Smith, Arkansas: “Dear Sir, I as a personal friend of

Albert St. John, who was murdered at Alex, Chickasaw Nation, Ind.

Ty., under direction of Dept. U.S. Marshal Menohan ask that writs be issued for the murderers and they be arrested and carried to Ft. Smith for trial. Albert St. John was murdered at Alex on the 19th of this month by T. R. Knight, J. A. Brooks and two [sic] unknown men. The murder was cold blooded as the eye witnesses below will attest.” Stanford, Burke, Long, and Fulton’s names were scribbled across the bottom of the letter.1

Five days later the federal court brought charges of murder against Knight, Putz, and Brooks, who “feloniously, willfully, premeditatedly and of their malice aforethought killed and murdered Albert St.

 

4. The Garza War

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THE GARZA WAR

We entered the room, covered the robbers with our six guns and arrested them.

Guilty!

Based on the affidavits, memoirs, and trial testimony of the three defendants it is clear they believed themselves to be innocent of this crime: each in his own way had presumed he was doing his duty, following the law, and assisting in the lawful arrest of Albert St. John.

What a shock it must surely have been when they heard the foreman read the verdict.

Judge Parker may have been just as shocked as the three defendants. On July 28 Parker issued the sentence and had the three men locked up in the Ft. Smith jail, although they spent the next three weeks essentially under house arrest. Late in August the federal judge called the men back into his court and announced his suspension of their sentences effective immediately.1 Lt. Knight returned to his Ft. Sill assignment, Henry Putz returned home to Dallas, and James Brooks headed back to Company F. Everyone believed the incident was now over and done. But not so.

 

5. Prizefight in El Paso

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PRIZEFIGHT IN EL PASO

We’re here to protect life and property. We are not taking sides in this dispute.

On March 22, 1892, Ranger Pvt. E. E. Doaty of Company E was gunned down by fleeing Garcista rebels, renewing with full force the hunt for the last of these border ruffians. Captain Brooks joined

McNeel’s force as they combed the Valley. On the twenty-sixth, Private

Musgrave happened onto a camp and found himself quickly outnumbered. He managed to escape and return to his company; the bandits had vanished when Company F moved in the next day.1

Two brothers, José and Pancho Ramirez, had been accused of the killing of Army Corporal Edstrom the previous December, and Brooks and Rogers came upon their trail late in March in Encinal County. Separating to cover more territory, Rogers and a volunteer named Lee Hall surprised the two brothers in their camp; in the shoot-out that followed, José was killed. Two days later, Brooks tracked and arrested

Pancho Ramirez, returning him to the Starr County jail where the warrant had been issued.2

 

6. Deadly Streets of Cotulla

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DEADLY STREETS OF

COTULLA

On account of old troubles, too much talk, and reported threats the two factions came very near having serious trouble here.

“Which accounts for a trainload of extremely disgusted gentlemen in an uproar of fancy vests and neckwear being spilled from their Pullmans in the early morning following the fight,” concluded O.

Henry in his short story Hygeia at the Solito.1 But not everyone who disembarked exhibited gloomy dispositions. The Rangers had not stopped the fight, but what had transpired hardly counted for much of a success for the redoubtable Dan Stuart and his pugilists. Wrote the adjutant general in his official report: “I desire to express my approbation for the intelligent and efficient manner in which Captains Brooks, McDonald,

Hughes and Rogers executed every order and performed every duty.

The Rangers conducted themselves in such manner as to reflect additional credit upon the name of a ranger—already a synonym for courage and duty well performed.

“They were active in the performance of every duty,” wrote Mabry,

 

7. Trouble in Colorado County

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TROUBLE IN COLORADO

COUNTY

Everyone had a pistol and guns were hidden all over the train.

Ben Stafford stepped out of the barbershop onto the main street of Columbus. It was a cold, blustery December morning.

Sumner Townsend was waiting for him in the street. The hot words that had been exchanged for months between the two cattlemen were suddenly replaced by gunfire. Ben drew his pistol faster and his first shot pierced Townsend’s arm. Sumner’s pistol jerked downward at the impact of the bullet, and his wayward shot imbedded in Stafford’s ankle. Ben fired three more times, wounding Townsend in the shoulder, before both men slumped to the ground in pain.1

The shoot-out between these two men of Colorado County took place in 1871, and trouble simmered another two decades before boiling over once more, although later stories of an ongoing “feud” were greatly exaggerated. Still, there were plenty of Townsends and Staffords to go around, and everyone kept an eye on the other. Light Townsend was sheriff in 1890, and his nephew Larkin Hope city marshal. Capt.

 

8. The Ranger Force

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THE RANGER FORCE

5’10” tall, 170 pounds, blue eyes, joined the Rangers on January 15,

1882, in Cotulla

As the Twenty-seventh Texas Legislature convened for its 1901 session, Governor Sayers entered his “Message to Congress” into the records on January 10. Under the title of “The Adjutant General’s Department,” Sayers wrote this about the Rangers: “This body of men cannot be too highly commended for the manner in which they have discharged the many dangerous and delicate duties incident to their employment. They have been used only where necessary to repress lawlessness, to detect crime, and to arrest and bring to trial the more serious classes of offenders. Their services in this respect have been invaluable, and may be regarded as an absolute necessity to the State.”

Clearly, the exigency of the argument to disband or reorganize the Rangers was on the governor’s mind as he penned his report to the legislature. “Failure to provide properly for the continuance of this force,” Sayers continued, “would involve the assumption of a responsibility which no one at all acquainted with prevailing conditions should care to assume. It is earnestly recommended that the men be invested with such powers of arrest and detention as are conferred upon the officers.”1

 

9. The Baker/De La Cerda Incident

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THE BAKER/DE LA CERDA

INCIDENT

My men are crack shots and I am not afraid of them getting the worst of anything.

Three years before the four captains assumed their duties for the Ranger Force, an outbreak of smallpox in Laredo caused a minor panic in the mostly Mexican town that turned into a full fledged riot by March 1899. Dr. Walter F. Blunt, the state’s chief health officer, called for a quarantine across the city and ordered fumigation for most of the homes.

The townspeople, misunderstanding the health officer’s intentions, reacted as if they were being permanently evicted. The local constabulary called for help, and the Rangers of Company E moved in to assist Blunt and his staff. On March 18 a fight broke out in the streets of Laredo, with snipers firing from rooftops and the Rangers returning fire. Capt. John Rogers was gravely wounded and rushed to a San Antonio surgeon to save his shattered arm. Agapito Herrera, a former deputy sheriff who led the insurgency, was shot and killed. The riot was quelled and the quarantine instigated without further incidents, except for the growing resentment in that community towards the Texas Rangers.1

 

10. Batson Prairie Oil

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BATSON PRAIRIE OIL

There is no way of holding a prisoner here except to chain him to a tree with chain and lock

The assignment given Captain Brooks on March 18, 1903, must surely have opened a festering old wound in his soul. Even as he was making preparations to complete the move of Company A out to

Laredo, Brooks was ordered to Yoakum to assist Atascosa County

Sheriff Matthew Avant and two Rangers from Captain Hughes’s company in escorting Gregorio Cortez Lira to his trial in Pleasanton. Gregorio, the man who had killed Brooks’s friend Brack Morris two years earlier, had been in a San Antonio jail most of that time awaiting this next turn in the judiciary system. His stay in a Yoakum jail resulted from one of many changes of venue. Brooks reports only that he met the Rangers and Avant at the depot in Floresville where they headed to Yoakum, and that Cortez was safely brought to Pleasanton.1

The story of Gregorio Cortez’s many trials and acquittals stretched on into the next decade. In a personal letter, Capt. John

 

11. Keeping the Peace in the Valley

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KEEPING THE PEACE IN

THE VALLEY

My private business being such that I could not do justice both to myself and the state, I tendered my resignation.

It must have been an interesting assignment for Captain

Brooks in the middle of the summer of 1904, ordered to Minera to halt a violent railroad strike. Twenty-two years earlier as a too-often drunken laborer, the Kentucky wanderer had spent the miserable part of a year working in those same coal mines, loading rail cars and helping with the transport to Cotulla and San Antonio. Perhaps the bourbon-induced fog of those early days prevented the Ranger captain from remembering any of those moments now; perhaps a sense of pride welled up within him for the successful career he had managed since.

Either way it made for interesting serendipity that Brooks would purchase “retirement property” the same month that he would return to the scene of the sordid days that propelled him into the Texas Rangers.

In between his many treks to Batson Prairie that summer, then,

 

12. Texas Legislator and County Judge

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TEXAS LEGISLATOR AND

COUNTY JUDGE

When you come to your senses, I’ll send you your gun.

“Nov. 14, 1906

“General Hulen, Austin:

“I desire to tender my resignation as captain of Company A of the

Texas Rangers, said resignation to take effect on Nov. 15, 1906, which action on my part is due to pressing private business which demands my personal attention and which renders my further service in such position detrimental to my best interests. Trusting this will meet with your kind attention and acceptance, I beg to remain, Yours very truly,

J. A. Brooks”1

The abrupt nature of this letter belies the long months of meditation on Brooks’s decision, and the mysterious and vague pronouncement that his “best interests” would be jeopardized is curious if nothing more. He could have been making reference to a family issue, his own personal health, or a politically motivated objective: his move to Falfurrias had an impact on all of these.

The most likely scenario was the last of these, with the others as complements to his decision. Brooks’s age was largely irrelevant and his wanting to be with his family more unlikely and at best hypocritical. His drinking problems were no less severe than ever and he still managed to keep them under some control in relation to his professional business.

 

13. Falfurrias, Brooks County

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FALFURRIAS, BROOKS

COUNTY

For some reason kind Providence has been good to me for which I am truly thankful.

Judge James A. Brooks, who preferred to be called “Captain” for the rest of his life despite three decades on the bench, worked diligently to make the county named after him a viable entity. He presided by virtue of his office over the county commissioner’s court and as exofficio superintendent of the public school system that he helped create. He oversaw the initial laying out of the county roads and the bridges, and in 1912 steered the county citizens through a deadly smallpox epidemic. On a monthly salary of $150 plus $600 annually as school superintendent, Brooks led the groundwork that established the new county.

A courthouse was built in 1914 on the Falfurrias town square and the captain was honored at the festivities for his efforts to bring that project to fruition. The original plans for a courthouse had been shelved when most of voting Precinct Four was carved away into the new Jim Hogg County, and a construction bond issue of $68,000 did not pass until February 1914. Construction began in the spring and was completed on October 29, when two cornerstones were laid under the watchful eye of the county judge; meanwhile, court sat in session in the

 

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