Long Arm of the Law

Texas Rangers 2022 outside the Hotel Drover in the historic Fort Worth Stockyards. Photograph by Kathy Tran courtesy of Texas Ranger 2023

On the trail of the Texas Rangers Bicentennial at the annual Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo.

Written by Jenn Thornton

The sheriff’s back in town, folks. Actually, it’s the Rangers. The Texas Rangers. The nation’s oldest state law enforcement agency—one that actually predates the State of Texas by 13 years—has been laying down the law for two centuries. Tracing its roots to the Old West, this storied division of the Texas Department of Public Safety has some pretty big boots to fill, so they are kicking off their 200th bicentennial year at another Texas institution having a great ride, the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo.

FWSSR is the ideal arena for the Texas Rangers to start to mark a year’s worth of planned events that will pay tribute to their legacy as they travel Texas with a four-pronged plan focused on educating the public on everything Rangers; recruitment; raising funds for DPS memorials, Ranger relief efforts, a scholarship fund for Ranger children going to college; and a mobile museum trailer.

The educational component of the bicentennial is, like Texas Rangers history, wide-ranging. Founded in 1823 with 10 men by the “Father of Texas” Stephen F. Austin, the Texas Rangers now counts 166 women and men spread across 254 counties among their ranks and is a leader in border security, tactical operations, and crisis negotiations while providing direct support and intelligence for many smaller local agencies. “The Lone Star State’s story cannot be recounted with accuracy absent the history of this group,” Russell Molina, chairman of Texas Rangers 2023, wrote in an op-ed for the Dallas Morning News. “Rangers were here during the Texas Revolution, when they protected retreating citizens and soldiers from Mexican advances until they could make their stand at San Jacinto. Rangers were here for the capture of outlaws like John Wesley Hardin and King Fisher, and the demise of Sam Bass, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow.”

With 200 years to get a foothold in the public imagination, the legend surrounding the Texas Rangers has resulted in books, movies, music, and TV shows galore. “Hollywood has created a worldwide mystique for all things Texas, the Rangers most of all. . . there is an unending appetite for stories of these Texas lawmen,” Molina noted in his op-ed. Like, say, the fictional Capt. Jake Cutter, a Texas Ranger portrayed by John Wayne in 1961’s western “The Comancheros.”

John Wayne on set of The Comancheros. His costume from the film can be seen at John Wayne: An American Experience.

Texas Rangers’ innovations are a close second to their exploits, which include a number of remarkable firsts. They were the first to use forensics in Texas in 1891, for one, and the first to conduct a car chase in 1910, when Ranger Ed Avriett seized a hand-cranked automobile to run down some robbers who made off with a horse-drawn buggy. They added aerial surveillance to their crime-fighting repertoire in the 1920s and, in the next decade, undercover female operatives—known as the “Petticoat Rangers”—to help gather evidence on gambling establishments around Texas.

“It is my hope that the Ranger bicentennial will inspire Texans to learn more about the Rangers, their whole history, and who they are today,” says Molina.

A feature of FWSSR’s entire Jan. 13-Feb. 4, 2023 run, Texas Rangers Bicentennial commemorations will take place in in the exhibit hall, show barns, and every night in Dickies Arena. Two important detours: the John Wayne: An American Experience exhibit at the historic Fort Worth Stockyards and the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum in nearby Waco.