There are the Redskins, Chiefs, Indians, and Braves—sports teams named after the victims of the settler-colonial genocide that made the United States. Then there’s the professional baseball team named after another true American tradition, a paramilitary death squad.
The Texas Rangers (né Washington Senators) was established in Arlington, Texas, in 1971, right around the time Richard Nixon was ratcheting up the funding of Latin American death squads, and was named after one of America’s most celebrated security forces.
From its inception, the Rangers (the law-enforcement unit, not the baseball team) conformed to the classic definition of a death squad. Until it was formalized as an official state agency, the unit was comprised of “irregulars,” rough men with close but informal links to officially sanctioned public-security and intelligence forces. And, like other death squads throughout the Americas, it played an indispensable role, first, in dispossessing a massive amount of property from its region’s subordinated peoples, and, then, policing the property-rights regime that emerged from that dispossession.
“Rangers” go way back in American colonial history, to the early 1600s, when British settlers set up militias. These militias didn’t just protect what was then the border from hostile Native Americas but expanded its parameter, allowing settlers to push north up to Maine and Canada, south into Spanish Florida and down the Mississippi and, eventually, west to Texas and beyond. The first mention of a “ranger” is as early as 1622, during the 1622 Powhatan rebellion, a near-successful effort to drive the British out of what is now Virginia. “Grim-faced men” calling themselves “Rangers” and seeking vengeance repressed the revolt, and in the years to come the words “range, ranging and Ranger were frequently used.… The American Ranger had been born.”
At issue when professional sports teams take the name of Native Americans is the problem of mimicry: having appropriated the land and wealth of America’s vanquished peoples, settler culture then appropriates the supposed values and spirit of the vanquished as well. The idea is that Native Americans possessed exceptional valor, endurance, and strength, qualities that are today embodied by professional sports players on the field. In the case of the Texas Rangers, the appropriation is doubled, mimicries of mimicries.
In the decades before the American Revolution, rangers relied on their Native-American allies to learn small-unit, mobile-warfare tactics, how to move through the landscape stealthily, how to fire accurately with a long gun and conduct quick raids. Whatever brutality Native Americans were accused of, Rangers matched it tenfold, as massacres and village-burning became synonymous with ranger-raiding.
Ranger mimicry wasn’t just tactical. It was symbolic and emotionally sustaining, conveying not just material superiority but something more intangible, yet no less essential, to Manifest Destiny: the passion of colonial genocide. In 1759, for example, a detachment from Rogers Rangers (a unit then as romanticized in Boston and London as the Texas Rangers are today) British militia, “dress and live like the Indians,” complete with tomahawks and scalping knives. During one such masquerade, Rogers Rangers burned down an Abenaki village near the Saint Lawrence River, killing mostly women and children. One ranger described it as the “bloodiest scene in all America.” “Those who the flames did not devour were either shot or tomohawk’ed.” After, as the Abenaki regrouped and chased the rangers down the Connecticut River valley, a number of the colonial militia resorted to cannibalism to survive: killing and eating young Indian boys and girls for food. Cannibalism was a central feature in stories Puritans told of Native Americans, though Anglos often drew nourishment from that practice when necessary. “Cannibalism is the hunter’s or warrior’s expression of the marriage between the human spirit and the spirit of place,” Richard Slotkin wrote in his indispensable Regeneration Through Violence. “We then broiled and eat most of her,” wrote one ranger in his diary of butchering and consuming a young Abeknaki girl, believed to have been the daughter of a chief, “and receive great strength thereby.” Ultimately, Rogers Rangers are credited with pacifying the indigenous population of the Connecticut Valley.
Rangers were the vessel that carried forth that resentment unique to white American supremacy: the idea that the federal government wasn’t doing enough to protect settlers, and that settlers had to take matters into their own hand (on full display today in the militia standoff in Oregon’s Malheur Wildlife Reserve). During Pontiac’s Rebellion in 1763, rangers “believed that Philadelphia officials,” writes Gary Clayton Anderson, “had failed to assist them against Indians during the war.” As a result, “Rangers…hacked to death six peaceful Conestoga Indians” and then slaughtered 14 more, who were being held prisoners, before threatening to lay siege to Philadelphia itself. The anti–federal government rage that is currently engulfing contemporary American politics really is but America’s genocidal spirit turned back upon itself, “like,” as Melville put it, “a plethoric burning martyr, or a self–consuming misanthrope.”
As Anglos moved west, so too did the “ranger” moniker. Throughout the 1700s, ranger irregulars terrorized Native Americans throughout the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys, from South Carolina to Kentucky. Technically not sanctioned by colonial or federal authority and often fighting for plunder rather than public salary, they presided over a massive land grab (very similar to what paramilitaries in Colombia have done over the last two decades), which led to a fast-ballooning speculative real-estate market (in turn setting the conditions for the extension of chattel slavery into the New South, as the historians Edward Baptist, Ned and Constance Sublette and Walter Johnson recently documented). The removal of the British after the American Revolution opened the floodgates of paramilitary ranger power. For instance, in 1786, ranger units, including one that included Daniel Boone, attacked a number of friendly Shawnee towns along the Mad River. “Spare white blood” was the battle cry, as rangers massacred the inhabitants and burned villages. One Shawnee captive was burned at the stake, and the rangers “enjoyed the pleasure of watching him die when a bag of gunpowder exploded that had been tied around his waist.” A ranger sunk a hatchet into the skull of one Shawnee leader, Molunthy, who considered himself an ally of the new federal government, scalping him. In 1832, Illinois “rangers” fired the first shots in what became the Blackhawk War.
In Texas, the rangers were established on an ad-hoc basis in the 1820s, to protect the settlers making inroads into Spanish borderlands. Soon, Mexicans and Mexican Americans replaced Native Americans as the prime target of ranger repression. For a century—from Mexico’s War for Independence from Spain in the 1820s, the Texas Rebellion, the Mexican-American War, and the upheaval caused by the Mexican Revolution, which began in 1910 and lasted years—the borderlands witnessed all the elements that make, for a certain class, death squads necessary: concentration of wealth, military occupation, racial domination, ethnic cleansing, property dispossession, and resource extraction (the Texas legislature officially authorized the formation of four ranger divisions in 1901, the year the Spindletop oil field was discovered, setting off the Texas oil boom).
In response, the Texas Rangers: not America’s only death squad but its most celebrated, complete with its own reliquary, the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum.
All of this is a long wind-up to draw attention to a stunning counter-memory project titled “Refusing to Forget,” established by a number of professors who over the recent years have done heroic work documenting the extent to which the United States presided over borderland ethnic cleansing and property dispossession, including Trinidad O. Gonzales of South Texas College, John Morán González of the University of Texas at Austin, Sonia Hernández of Texas A&M at College Station, Benjamin Johnson of Loyola University in Chicago, and Monica Muñoz Martinez of Brown University.
The repression of Chicanos and Latin-American migrants is longstanding. William Carrigan and Clive Webb write, in Forgotten Dead: Mob Violence Against Mexicans in the United States, that white vigilantes in the Southwest lynched an unknown number of Mexicans between 1848 and 1928, with conservative estimates putting the tally in the thousands. Today, the violence continues with a deportation regime that is immoral in conception and barbaric in consequence.
“Refusing to Forget,” however, focuses on a specific reign of terror which occurred along the Mexico-Texas border from 1910 to 1920, a period which corresponded to the Mexican Revolution. Here’s from the project’s webpage:
The dead included women and men, the aged and the young, long-time residents and recent arrivals. They were killed by strangers, sometimes by neighbors, some by vigilantes and other times at the hands of local law enforcement officers or Texas Rangers. Some were summarily executed after being taken captive, or shot under the flimsy pretext of trying to escape. Some were left in the open to rot, others desecrated by being burnt, being decapitated, or revealing evidence of other forms of torture and violation such as having beer bottles rammed into their mouths. Extralegal executions became so common that a San Antonio reporter observed that “finding of dead bodies of Mexicans, suspected for various reasons of being connected with the troubles, has reached a point where it creates little or no interest. It is only when a raid is reported or an American is killed that the ire of the people is aroused.”
Terror spread far beyond the ranks of those killed. “One or more of us may have incurred the displeasure of some one, and it seems only necessary for that some one to whisper our names to an officer, to have us imprisoned and killed without an opportunity to prove in a fair trial, the falsity of the charges against us,” pleaded residents of Kingsville in a telegram to President Woodrow Wilson in 1916. “[S]ome of us who sign this petition, may be killed without even knowing the name of him who accuses. Our privileged denunciators may continue their infamous proceedings—answerable to no one.”
Far from being surreptitious, the violence was welcomed, celebrated, and even instigated at the highest levels of society and government. As decapitated bodies floated down the Rio Grande and thousands fled to Mexico, one Texas paper spoke of “a serious surplus population that needs eliminating.” Prominent politicians proposed putting all those of Mexican descent into “concentration camps”—and killing any who refused. For a decade, people would come across skeletons in the south Texas brush, marked with execution-style bullet holes in the backs of their skulls.
The true toll will never be known, though scholars from the 1930s to the present have given estimates of from several hundred to five thousand killed.
And here’s what the authors of the project have to say about the Texas Rangers:
Texas Rangers played a key role in these atrocities. On September 28, 1915, for example, after a clash with about forty raiders near Ebenoza, Hidalgo County, the victorious Rangers took about a dozen raiders prisoner and promptly hung them, leaving their bodies in the open for months. Several weeks later, on October 19, after a dramatic attack derailed a passenger train heading north from Brownsville, Rangers detained ten ethnic Mexicans nearby, quickly hanging four and shooting four others. Cameron County sheriff W.T. Vann blamed Ranger Captain Henry Ransom for the killings. Vann took two suspected men from Ransom and placed them into his custody and likely saved their lives. Both proved to be innocent of any involvement.
This was not Ransom’s first such action: a month before, on September 24, he casually shot Jesús Bazan and Antonio Longoria as they rode by the site where a raid had occurred. Ransom left the bodies exposed, shocking Rancher Sam Lane (himself a former Ranger) and young Anglo ranch hand Roland Warnock, who helped to bury Bazán and Longoria several days later. That fall, Ransom made a habit of running ethnic Mexicans out of their homes as he patrolled the countryside. At one point he casually reported to Ranger headquarters in Austin that “I drove all the Mexicans from three ranches.”
Former Rangers were also among the worst perpetrators of violence. A.Y. Baker, a Ranger involved in disputed shootings of Mexican suspects during the previous decade, had left the Ranger Force to become Hidalgo County’s sheriff by 1915. He also developed a similar reputation for casual racial violence. Many sources named him as the instigator of the September 1915 mass hanging. Decades later, a soldier deployed by the National Guard in 1915 who stayed in the Valley recalled he witnessed Baker “killing three guys, three Mexican fellows in cold blood . . . that’s the kind of man A.Y. Baker was. He was killing Mexicans on sight.”
A large portion of the United States military was mobilized and deployed on the Texas-Mexico border because of the violence unleashed by the Plan de San Diego. Military officers became increasingly alarmed at the conduct of the Rangers and other law enforcement officers. As mass executions began, the Secretary of State telegraphed Texas governor James Ferguson to enlist his support in “quieting border conditions in the district of Brownsville” by “restraining indiscreet conduct.” This oblique reference to lynchings was soon replaced by more pointed and adamant condemnations of state officials, such as General Frederick Funston’s threat to put South Texas under martial law so as to restrain vigilantes, Rangers, and local law enforcement personnel.
After a brief resumption of a few raids in the spring of 1916, the uprising associated with the Plan de San Diego ended. But the Rangers’ involvement in subordinating ethnic Mexicans continued. In May of 1916, José Morin and Victoriano Ponce were arrested in Kingsville on suspicion of plotting a raid, and disappeared after Ranger Captain J. J. Saunders took custody of them. Thomas Hook, a local Anglo attorney, helped residents prepare a telegram to President Woodrow Wilson asking for federal intervention to safeguard their rights. Soon thereafter, Saunders pistol-whipped Hook in a courthouse hallway.
The entry of the United States into World War I brought changes to the Ranger force that heightened this kind of retaliation against the exercise of political rights by Mexican Americans. The State expanded the Ranger force, increasing the number of Rangers from seventy-three to more than one hundred and thirty. Moreover, legislation empowered the governor to appoint three “Loyalty Rangers” in each county in order to monitor anti-war activity. In South Texas, these loyalty Rangers participated in an unprecedented assault on Mexican-American voting rights. In the 1918 election, for example, Rangers reduced the number of votes cast in Alice, Texas from some three hundred in an earlier primary to only sixty-five in the general election. “The former large number of Mexicans who have voted in previous elections was conspicuous by their absence,” noted one observer. “They did not congregate at the polls, but up town they gathered in small groups and discussed among themselves this new thing of being watched by the Rangers.” Voting across south Texas plummeted when Rangers were deployed. Rangers also harassed, disarmed, and humiliated Mexican American office holders such as Cameron County Deputy Sheriff Pedro Lerma. Rangers entered Lerma’s home while he was absent, “frightened his wife and daughters to death.” Other Mexican Americans in similar positions were forcibly disarmed; one was hung by the neck twice.
A new, more brutal white supremacy had come to the border.
A number of events related to the project are planned, including an exhibit, “Life and Death on the Border 1910-1920,” at the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin, opening January 21 (though it is difficult to find the exhibit on the museum’s webpage, which opens to a big banner advertising IMAX Star Wars and an display on “Gridiron Glory”).
Latin America has had its death squads. But in the years after the Cold War, with the rise of a human-rights consensus and a return of a social-democratic left to power, they are widely discredited. Only perhaps in Colombia might it be said that paramilitaries, apart from having succeeded operationally, have achieved a degree of social legitimacy, among some sectors of society. After all, in 2013, a major private TV network in Colombia ran a soap opera about the Castaño family, Los Tres Caínes, founders of the country’s most powerful and brutal death squad, Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia. And the comparison with the Texas Rangers is especially apt, when one considers that groups such as the Autodefensas Unidas served the same function as did the Rangers: Tthey presided over and policed a remarkably successful land grab, transferring millions of acres from smallholders to militarized elites (see Benjamin Johnson’s magisterial Revolution in Texas for an account of the role the Texas Rangers played in dispossessing Mexican landowners who found themselves on the wrong side of the border following the 1846-48 Mexican-American War).
Still, not even Colombia, I don’t think, would name a soccer team after the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia.