As a young boy born in the 1950s, I came of age just as American families acquired their first television sets. The screens were small, and the limited programming was grainy and black and white. That was good enough for Hollywood studios to begin fortifying some of the country’s most enduring myths, notably how the West was won, how savage “Indians” preying on innocent white settlers were pacified, and how rugged, sharp-shooting men armed with six-shooters and saddle rifles delivered frontier justice, subduing mustached Mexicans, scheming carpetbaggers, and other bad guys in black hats.
No figure embodied this mythical noble protector more than the Lone Ranger, the masked man with the Indian sidekick named Tonto. The show ran from 1949-1957. Only as I learned Spanish as a young man living on the Texas-Mexico border did I realize the scout’s name meant “stupid,” and come to understand why the Lone Ranger wore a mask to conceal his identity. Living on the border and absorbing its culture and history, I was introduced to a very different narrative: The dreaded los rinches of the 19th and early 20th century could more accurately be described as roving death squads free to act with violence and impunity.
I am of the same generation as fellow journalist Doug J. Swanson, author of the newly published Cult of Glory: The Bold and Brutal History of the Texas Rangers (Viking, New York, 2020). We arrived as young reporters at the Corpus Christi Caller–Times in 1978, and from there landed work at bigger daily newspapers in Dallas, where he spent most of his reporting career. While there he authored a fictional series tracking the life of luckless prosecutor Jack Flippo. He later wrote the nonfiction work Blood Aces: The Wild Ride of Benny Binion, the Texas Gangster Who Created Vegas Poker.
He’s a gifted writer. Swanson’s latest work is a must-read for serious students of Texas history. Cult of Glory is sweeping in its premise, research, and epic storytelling. As a restatement of Texas history it deserves to be ranked alongside Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History, S.C. Gwynne’s 2010 nonfiction work, and Stephen Harrigan’s epic novel, The Gates of the Alamo, published in 2001. All three works represent highly readable, critically important corrections of Texas history that challenge deeply nurtured myths and lies.
My own distorted view of the Texas Rangers came principally from reading Walter Prescott Webb’s 1935 classic The Texas Rangers, which featured a foreword written by Lyndon Baines Johnson in later editions. Webb was a distinguished historian in his day, and a celebrated author who actually rode with Ranger patrols. His account, sadly, is an idealized glorification of the legendary law enforcement agency.
After moving back to Texas and to San Antonio in 1989, we took our young sons to the Texas Ranger Museum located adjacent to the Witte Museum. It, too, presented the Rangers as mythic, larger-than-life heroes unafraid to risk their lives in meting out justice. That collection can be found at the Buckhorn Museum on East Houston Street, suitably housed in an establishment that caters to tourists and more closely resembles a 19th-century traveling carnival.
The official Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum is in Waco, where the myths and lies live on. Some of the Ranger’s glorious exploits deserve to be memorialized, but the missing pages of Ranger history should be acknowledged.
Stephen F. Austin, who led the 1820s colonization of Texas and is lionized in state textbooks, set the tone for the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans in the state shortly after his arrival in 1821. He approved cleared the formation of roving bands of rangers under his watch.
Writing of his early encounters with the coastal-dwelling Karankawa, Austin wrote, “These Indians … may be called universal enemies to man. … There will be no way of subduing them but extermination.”
Years later, Texas President Sam Houston would work to honor a treaty with Cherokee tribe members who had relocated to East Texas after losing ancestral lands in the southeast United States. Houston’s pledge was broken by his successor, Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar, who openly violated the treaty and allowed new settlers to seize Cherokee lands as homesteads. He gave the tribe an ultimatum: vacate Texas or face war. The outnumbered, outgunned Cherokee stayed and were slaughtered, man, women, and child, by Texas soldiers and Rangers.
The elimination of these Native American tribes presaged the eventual war against the Comanche and Mexicans who had lived in the borderlands for generations but would soon forfeit their lands and many of their lives.
Many Texans undoubtedly will reject Swanson’s work without reading a single page, preferring the false comfort of Hollywood’s telling of the tale. Cult of Glory represents a challenge to popular history. Like it or not, changing demographics a new generational voices signal an intensifying challenge to white exceptionalism.
Racial injustice and police violence against Black Americans is finally undergoing a serious reckoning, thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement. Sooner or later, the country will have to undergo the same self-examination of European settlement in the New World at the expense of people who had dwelled here for thousands of years. Most Native Americans lost their lives to white encroachment, disease, and violence. Those who survived saw ancestral lands compressed into so-called reservations. These are the chapters in U.S. history, like slavery, that an entire nation must revisit.
Cult of Glory is a page-turning, eye-opening testimonial to what really happened when Rangers on horseback swept through Texas’ lawless lands, answering to no law but their own.