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Captain John H. Rogers, Texas Ranger

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  John Harris Rogers (1863-1930) served in Texas law enforcement for more than four decades, as a Texas Ranger, Deputy and U.S. Marshal, city police chief, and in the private sector as a security agent. He is recognized in history as one of the legendary "Four Captains" of the Ranger force that helped make the transition from the Frontier Battalion days into the twentieth century, yet no one has fully researched and written about his life. Paul N. Spellman now presents the first full-length biography of this enigmatic man.  During his years as a Ranger, Rogers observed and participated in the civilizing of West Texas. As the railroads moved out in the 1880s, towns grew up too quickly, lawlessness was the rule, and the Rangers were soon called in to establish order. Rogers was nearly always there. Likewise he participated in some of the most dramatic and significant events during the closing years of the Frontier Battalion: the Brown County fence cutting wars; the East Texas Conner Fight; the El Paso/Langtry Prizefight; the riots during the Laredo Quarantine; and the hunts for Hill Loftis and Gregorio Cortez. Rogers was the lawman who captured Cortez to close out one of the most infamous chases in Texas history.  Unlike the more gregarious Bill McDonald, Captain Rogers had a quiet manner that kept him from the public limelight; nevertheless, he, John Brooks, and John Hughes shared the same experiences as McDonald during the almost two decades they led the Ranger companies. Unique to Rogers' career was his devout Christian faith that was on display on almost all occasions. Rogers was wont to use the Bible as often as his six-gun, both with dramatic effect. That and his constant devotion to his family set him apart from the usual lawmen of that era. He was a man of the law and a man of God, a rare combination at the turn of the century.

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One: The Guadalupe Homestead

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CHAPTER 1

The Guadalupe Homestead

Isaac Samuel Rogers stood straight and tall at the center of the small Bolivar Courthouse assembly room. He pulled at his tight starched collar, the twenty-one-year-old Tennessee farmer uncomfortable in suit and tie on this cold March evening. But the occasion of his wedding kept him resolute, somber, uncomplaining. To his left stood his brother William, like Isaac a farmer in the Hatchie River Valley of Hardeman County, Tennessee. Seated just behind him in the straight-backed hickory chairs were several members of the Elkins family—the elder William, his wife and a cousin or two sat ramrod straight at the edge of their seats. On Isaac’s right stood eighteen-year-old Mahala Elkins, soon to be his bride. Woodson Vader, justice of the peace for the Bolivar area and a neighbor and friend of the Rogers clan, intoned the civil ceremony then pronounced the couple husband and wife. Isaac was pleased to loosen his collar for the remaining festivities that Tuesday evening. It was March 18, 1834.1

 

Two: Colorado City Ranger

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CHAPTER 2

Colorado City Ranger

John Rogers stared down into the dark Guadalupe County soil, holding his hand where the rattler had just sunk its fangs. Working the field clearing rocks, he never saw the coiled snake until it struck. Now as it slunk away the teenager kicked a chunk of dirt in its general direction, turned and strode calmly but briskly back to the barn. As he walked he pulled the sweaty kerchief from around his neck and wrapped it around his wrist just above the two red marks, pulling it tight with the ends of the cloth in his good hand and clinched between his teeth.

When he reached the vicinity of the corral he made his way deliberately into the throng of chickens that pecked away at their morning feed scattered on the hard ground. His arm throbbed and a slight discoloration had already appeared on the back of his hand. The young man reached down and grabbed the nearest hen and deftly twisted its neck, killing it in one swift motion. John pulled the knife from his pocket and slit the dead chicken at its gullet. Blood spilled out onto the feathers as he untied the tourniquet and tossed it aside. He cut a similar slit across the back of his hand, wiped the knife on his pants and put it back in his pocket. Then he thrust his wounded hand deep inside the warm carcass.

 

Three: The Fence Cutter Wars

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CHAPTER 3

The Fence Cutter Wars

On a cold December morning in 1885, Private John Harris Rogers stood in the middle of Doan’s Store; not a building, but a town, of sorts, situated only several thousand yards west of where the Red River turned suddenly south on its wayward journey down from the high plains. Doan’s Springs were just to the north, as was Doan’s Crossing, a wide flat bank of the river that led Texans into Indian Territory. Not only Texans, but hundreds of thousands of cattle had been driven across the river there over the past seventeen years. For here the Chisholm Trail and a wide northeastern swing of the Western Trail converged. So too converged cowboys and soldiers, reservation Chickasaw and Apache, merchants and whiskey salesmen, rustlers and thieves, and prostitutes and the like. What a place, thought the young Ranger.1

Ranger companies B and C and now F had taken turns trying to tame this northern section of Wilbarger County, to no avail. Beyond the rowdy saloons—there were two - and the drunken brawls that spilled into the dusty streets, the proximity to the Texas border and Indian Territory made Doan’s Store a likely spot for crooks to escape the law. In August of 1883 alone there were arrests made of eight cattle thieves in five separate incidents, two whiskey merchants selling liquor to the Indians, a burglar, and two wanted men on the run—all as they headed to cross the border and disappear into the reservations.

 

Four: The Conner Fight

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CHAPTER 4

The Conner Fight

Captain Scott and company F arrived at the camp near Hemphill where they had been the previous autumn. It was the last week of March and a meeting with the local authorities convinced the Rangers that the Conners were on a rampage, intimidating the locals then recoiling back into the safety of the dense forest and bayou country like a deadly snake. Scott retained the “deputized” services of a small-time Sabine County crook who could communicate with the Conners and track them into their lair. Scott also deputized Judge James Polly from Hemphill, and Judge William Wallace Weatherred, a district judge from nearby Milam (and later a deputy marshal), came along as well. Henry Harris and John Toole, local merchants, and Milton Anthony rounded out the posse of deputized citizens.1 These men knew the country, knew the Conners, and were good with a gun.

With Scott on this manhunt was his sergeant John Brooks, and Privates Jim Carmichael, Jim Moore (just transferred from Company C), William “Billy” Treadwell, Bob Crowder, Ed Caldwell, Len Harvey, Bob Fenton, and John Rogers.2 On the morning of March 25 the posse rode south out of Hemphill four miles until they crossed the deep gulch of Housen Bayou. They continued south about ten miles, first along Walnut Creek and then to the county border along Brushy Creek and Big Sandy. Working their way back northward with the help of their guide (who may have been Redden Alford), the Ranger posse searched high and low for the elusive Conners. Five days went by, the men silently complaining about the elements but pressing on in their search of the rugged wilderness that enveloped them. On March 30 they picked up what they thought might be a trail which took them back to Walnut Creek and then east about one mile. They were less than ten miles south of Hemphill.

 

Five: Captain of the Rangers

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CHAPTER 5

Captain of the Rangers

On March 3, 1888, word came to the Ranger camp near San Angelo that horses had been stolen up the river and the thieves identified as Bill Neil and Bill Davis. Private Rogers took half the company and headed northwest, picking up the thieves’ trail between the Concho and Colorado valleys until they crossed into Mitchell County on March 6. Rogers met up with Mitchell County deputy sheriff Y. D. McMurry, and the two men went north while the other Rangers headed out along another trail.

The next day as Rogers and McMurry ambled along a dusty trail, two men on horseback crossed from the nearby woods onto the road—it was the horse thieves. Neil grabbed for his pistol and had it out of the holster when Rogers’ first shot rang true, striking the man in the arm and forcing the gun to the ground. McMurry nearly made a fatal blunder as he turned to watch the first man fall from his horse, leaving Bill Davis an instant to draw his own weapon. However, a steely look from Rogers, gun pointed at Davis’s heart, encouraged the thief to rethink his position and he raised his hands skyward. The two men ended up in the Tom Green County jail.

 

Six: The El Paso Prizefight

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CHAPTER 6

The El Paso Prizefight

Captain Rogers surveyed the ranger camp with a jaundiced eye at the pitiful supplies that lay in front of him. He made several notes that he would later record in his first monthly file as a Ranger commander. “Thirteen men,” he wrote in the upper right hand corner of the oversized page, “twelve horses, four mules, and seven worthless tents.” He wrote the same equipment notation every month for seven months until he at least had the small satisfaction of recording in August that “two of the tents were blown to pieces and gone.” In October he noted that grass was scarce and that he had been forced to procure hay and grain from local Alice merchants. By November he had been amply re-supplied, the adjutant general’s office finally acknowledging his appeal.1

Compared to the previous years, 1893 through 1895 were remarkably peaceful for Company E and its new captain. With Cotulla more or less “cleaned up,” the work out of Alice seemed as routine as that could be understood in the life of frontier law enforcement. With his work now increasingly administrative in nature, Rogers seldom found himself in the field. In 1893 he only recorded three arrests made by him personally: a horse thief in the county in May, another in July, and yet a third in November. The last of the trio, Mariano Benavides, had been wanted out of Bexar County and Rogers returned him there on November 9.2

 

Seven: Streets of Laredo

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CHAPTER 7

The Streets of Laredo

As Captain Rogers stared down at the infant boy, he marveled at the wonder of new birth and beamed as a proud father. It was January 5, the beginning of the new year 1898, a wonderful beginning at that. His and Hattie’s second son was healthy, even though born on this cold wintry day in the Rangers camp home outside of Alice. Four-year-old Lucile and two-and-a-half year old Pleas would enjoy their little brother. His name? Only weeks before the Presbyterian Church had taken up another special offering for Reverend Samuel N. Lapsley, a man of faith who had been called as the first Presbyterian missionary to Africa. The Rogers’ had made a significant contribution to his expenses. It was Providential, the captain decided. They would name their new son Lapsley. His middle name, Harris, extended the Rogers kin one more generation.

Yes, all in all a great start to the new year, a sign perhaps that it would be another relatively calm one as 1897 had been. That, however, was not to be.

 

Eight: Getting Gregorio

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CHAPTER 8

Getting Gregorio
Nearing his seventieth birthday, Alexander Gilmer stood with his hands on his hips, fists clenching, as he watched the fire consume his sawmill. The Irish born shipbuilder turned Texas lumber magnate stared in anger and disbelief at this, the fourth time his Orange County-based mill had gone up in flames. The other three times it had been accidental; this time it was deliberate. No more building here, he thought to himself. His next sawmill would be in Lemonville a few miles away.The Texas Rangers had arrived in Orange County a few days earlier when the race riots were determined to be beyond the control of the local authorities. In fact, it was roundly thought that local law enforcement was behind the violence. Roving gangs had controlled the countryside all summer, running off the Black families, beating up a number of them. In early August a mob had opened fire on a house, killing one of its residents and wounding several others.

 

Nine: Hill Loftis & the Sand Dunes Incident

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CHAPTER 9

Hill Loftis and the Sand Dunes Shootout

John Rogers sat in a stiff-backed wooden chair next to the hospital bed, his head buried in his hands as he prayed. Santa Rosa Hospital, where John had recovered from his Laredo wounds, was sweltering in the desert heat of this July day, and no breeze stirred outside. Hattie stood nearby leaning against the bare wall, wiping tears quietly from her cheeks. The man in the bed breathed unsteadily as if struggling to inhale. The breaths came unevenly and more shallow as the minutes dragged by. Two doctors stopped by intermittently and a nurse stayed in the room as helpless as the others to do anything.

Kid Rogers had become seriously ill while working at Tom Collins’ ranch outside of Alice. Having resigned from the Rangers in the fall of 1901 he had spent almost a year working for Collins. They had rushed him to the hospital on July 15 and removed his gall bladder in an operation that had at first seemed to go without complications. The captain and Hattie had been by his side since the day of his surgery, ten days now, hardly ever leaving the hospital. After several days of recovery Curren had taken a turn for the worse, internal bleeding perhaps, or an infection. Now he was at the end.

 

Ten: “The Lord Giveth; the Lord Taketh Away”

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CHAPTER 10

“The Lord Giveth; the Lord Taketh Away”

On an October afternoon in 1905 a young cowboy sat alone in the main house of the Carr Ranch out near Fort Stockton. His boss was away in El Paso on business and the trustworthy young man had been left nominally in charge while he was away. A telephone sat on the desk nearby and the young man picked up to listen casually, not maliciously, to a conversation on the party line. Sheriff Dud Barker was speaking to his former deputy Charlie Witcher about a horse thief who had been spotted near Fort Stockton. Witcher was declining to go on the trail at Baker’s request when the young cowboy interrupted the phone call. “I’ll go get him, sheriff!” he exclaimed with excitement in his voice.

“Who the hell are you?” asked the sheriff, obviously disturbed that his conversation had been eavesdropped upon.

“I’m Frank Hamer,” replied the cowboy.

Getting over his anger the sheriff agreed to let Hamer go on the trail. Within twenty-four hours the thief had been captured by Hamer and turned over to Sheriff Baker. “You did a mighty fine job of catchin’ this man, Frank,” said Barker, who then added, “How’d you like to be a Texas Ranger?”

 

Eleven: End of this Trail

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CHAPTER 11

End of This Trail

Not only have yourself and your men received the universal commendation of the citizenship of this county, but the entire Ranger service has been greatly raised in the estimation and good will of the public here by the examples furnished by the deportment of yourself and men.

District Judge James Perkins to Captain Rogers, Center, Texas, September 1, 1908 1

But it had not been easy. Company C found that it could hardly get out of east Texas for the trouble that continued to start up there, more and more of it racially motivated. Just a few weeks after the incident in Nacogdoches, Rogers reported that he and members of his company had tracked three men “who were hunting Negroes” after an incident near San Augustine in which a White man had been gunned down. The Rangers captured the three assailants and put them on trial, but a biased jury of their peers and several perjured witnesses ended the proceedings with a hung jury. The men were released.2

 

Twelve: Deputy U. S. Marshal

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CHAPTER 12

Deputy U. S. Marshal

Perform, in conjunction with the military forces stationed along the Mexican border, such patrol duty as may be necessary to prevent violations of the neutrality laws, and in proper cases to arrest persons caught in the act of violating such laws . . . It is proper for your deputies and the military forces to make appropriate inquiry in connection with the arrest of persons engaged in violating the law, or where it is believed that the law is being violated at or near the place where such deputies or military forces are operating.

This February 21, 1911, directive from the U. S. attorney general’s office instructed the marshals along the Texas-Mexican border to be pro-active in their watch over the escalating border troubles. It granted them broader powers than they had before, but still the protection of the 2,000-mile line was nearly impossible. Even with the addition of customs inspectors and armed forces, and deputies like former Ranger John H. Rogers who knew the territory so intimately, the challenge was formidable to keep the peace, stop the smuggling, and intervene in the coming revolution.1

 

Thirteen: U. S. Marshal, Western District

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CHAPTER 13

U. S. Marshal, Western District

After giving due credit to all loyal friends who stood by me so nobly and endorsed me so unqualifiedly, I nevertheless attribute my success to Almighty God, whose I am and whom I serve and to whom I solemnly pledged if He would favor me for said position, I would use the office for His glory, which pledge I now ratify, relying upon Him for His help and guidance. It is my desire that what additional influence I might have by reason of my office shall be used for Him.

This, the 3rd day of April, 1913, the day I assumed the responsibilities of the office.

J. H. Rogers, United States Marshal 1

In 1913 the Western District of Texas encompassed a massive amount of land—over 115,000 square miles in a narrow rectangle—and was divided into six subdistricts: Waco as the headquarters, Austin, San Antonio, El Paso, Del Rio, and the new Pecos office added on February 5. As one of his first duties in office Marshal John H. Rogers assigned Charley Burks as chief deputy, J. T. Thompson, J. D. Platt, and C. S. Rogers as his deputies, and added his former sergeant John Dibrell as well. Burks had a career in law enforcement but was plucked from the state House of Representatives in 1913 where he served as sergeant-at-arms. Fred Peck, James T. Johnson, Early Wilson, and Arley V. Knight would also serve under Rogers in the years that followed.2

 

Fourteen: The Canales Investigation

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CHAPTER 14

The Canales Investigation

Up to the time the Mexican revolution started there was never a more friendly people on earth than the Mexicans on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande and the Americans on the American side . . . But since the revolution against Diaz there have been turbulent conditions and complications from a political standpoint.—A Brownsville resident

I think it was German intrigue that they were hoping to keep up strife between the United States and Mexico, hoping to start the war right there. I think it was the Rangers who started it up.—Virginia Yeager, San Diego

It wasn’t the Rangers altogether; it was deputy sheriffs and sheriffs and border guards and the immigration agents and the Department of Justice. I don’t think the Rangers were any worse than the lawyers.—Kleberg County Sheriff J. B. Scarborough1

In 1917 Frank Cushman Pierce published a book entitled A History of the Lower Rio Grande Valley. In its closing chapter he catalogued fifty-two incidents of violence in the Valley in a forty-six week period in 1916. There were nearly the same number recorded again in 1917 and once more the following year. These incidents were far and above the ordinary crimes that authorities investigated in any region. The assaults were related to a growing restlessness brought on by a combination of factors, including a migration of Midwest Anglo farmers into the area, after effects of the Mexican revolution, and German intrigue related to World War I.2

 

Fifteen: Austin Chief of Police

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CHAPTER 15

Chief of Police

After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or thee xportation there of from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.

The Congress and the several States shall have concurrent power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

18th Amendment, U. S. Constitution (1919)

Anxious to activate the Constitutional amendment before its scheduled January, 1920 date, Congress passed the Volstead, or National Prohibition, Act on October 28, 1919, prohibiting the sale of intoxicating beverages over the 0.5 percent of alcohol level, and “regulat[ing] the manufacture, production, use and sale of high-proof spirits,” while at the same time “insur[ing] an ample supply of alcohol and promotion of its use in scientific research and in the development of fuel, dye, and other lawful industries.”1

 

Sixteen: End of the Trail

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CHAPTER 16

End of the Trail

Aa he approached the house walking along Twelfth Street, Captain Rogers bundled his heavy coat around him a bit tighter, his tall white hat pulled down over his brow. The north wind was blustery that day, whistling down the hill as he reached the intersection and crossed to the front steps of his house. But that was not entirely the reason he kept his coat wrapped around his chest.

Two of his grandchildren met him as he reached the steps with cries of “Grandaddy!” calling the others from inside as well. Soon they had gathered around the gray headed gentleman. A tiny smile grew beneath the white mustache as the captain patted each of the little ones on their head. He stepped back from the wiggling entourage and his eyes widened. The children froze in anticipation; Grandaddy always brought some prize when they visited. The old Ranger reached inside the heavy coat and retrieved the tiny puppy from under his vest. The children squealed in delight and ran inside to tell their parents what a wonderful gift had just arrived.

 

The Ranger’s Prayer

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The Ranger’s Prayer

O God, whose end is justice, Whose strength is all our stay,

Be near and bless my mission As I go forth today.

Let wisdom guide my actions, Let courage fill me heart

And help me, Lord, in every hour To do a Ranger’s part.

Protect when danger threatens, Sustain when trails are rough;

Help me to keep my standard high And smile at each rebuff.

When night comes down upon me, I pray thee, Lord, be nigh,

Whether on lonely scout, or camped, Under the Texas sky.

Keep me, O God, in life And when my days shall end,

Forgive my sins and take me in, For Jesus’ sake, Amen.

P. B. Hill, Ranger Chaplain

 

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