1. John Coffee Hays
Born in Tennessee, Hays arrived in San Antonio in 1837, shortly after Texas won its independence from Mexico. By 1841, at the tender age of 23, he was a Ranger captain. A fearless fighter and skilled leader, Hays won his fame defending Texans from raids and attacks by both Native American (Comanche) groups and Mexican bandits. More than any other man, he would come to symbolize the Rangers of the Texas Republic era.
During the Mexican War (1846-48), Hays’ Rangers scouted, and defended U.S. supply and communication lines from attacks by Mexican guerrillas and fought alongside regular U.S. army troops, earning a national reputation for their bravery. After the war, Hays went further west to California, where he made his name in politics, real estate and ranching and helped found the city of Oakland.
2. Samuel H. Walker
Hays and his men were usually outnumbered in their skirmishes with Comanche and Mexican forces but managed to hold their own thanks to their highly effective use of a more modern weapon: the revolver. Soon after Samuel Walker joined Hays’ Ranger company in 1844, they and 14 other Rangers took on some 80 Comanches in the battle of Walker’s Creek. Armed with the first practical revolver, designed by Samuel Colt, the Rangers came out on top in the fierce clash. Walker was seriously wounded, but recovered to become a celebrated Ranger captain during the Mexican War.
In late 1846, he made some simple suggestions to improve Colt’s revolver design, and the upgraded “Walker Colt” became the deadliest weapon of the war. Walker was killed in a clash with Mexican forces at Huamantla in October 1847.
3. Ben McCulloch
McCulloch followed his neighbor and family friend Davy Crockett from Tennessee out to Texas in 1835. He came down with measles and didn’t make it to the Alamo before its fall, but joined Sam Houston’s army for the Battle of San Jacinto. After joining the Rangers, he fought courageously against Comanches at the Battle of Plum Creek and other engagements and was named Hays’ first lieutenant. During the Mexican War, McCulloch earned the distinction of chief scout for General Zachary Taylor’s army.
In 1849, McCulloch joined many other fortune-seekers who headed to California during the Gold Rush. By the time the Civil War broke out, he was back in Texas, and in May 1861 became a brigadier general in the Confederate Army. Assigned to defend Indian Territory in Texas, he contributed greatly to the Confederate victory at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek in August 1861. In March 1862, McCulloch was killed in the Battle of Pea Ridge in northwestern Arkansas.
4. William “Bigfoot” Wallace
The 19-year-old Wallace (whose more-than-six-feet, 240-pound stature earned him the nickname “Bigfoot”) was at home in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1836 when he learned that his brother had been killed by the Mexican army in the massacre at Goliad. He headed to Texas looking for payback, but the war was over by the time he arrived. Wallace decided to stay on in the new Texas Republic and eventually moved to San Antonio. After joining the Texan Army to repulse a Mexican invasion in 1842, he was captured and spent two years in a notoriously brutal prison at Vera Cruz.
Upon his return to Texas, Wallace joined the Rangers, and would serve under Captain Jack Hays; in the 1850s, he led a Ranger company of his own. An opponent of secession, Wallace stayed in Texas during the Civil War, continuing his defense of the frontier against attacks by Comanches, Union soldiers and deserters. In his later years (he died in 1899), Wallace regaled friends and neighbors in South Texas with tales of his wild frontier life, earning a reputation as a Texan folk hero.
5. John B. Armstrong
Yet another Tennessee native, Armstrong clashed with Reconstruction-era authorities at home and ended up moving to Texas in 1872 at the age of 22. He joined the Austin militia unit known as the Travis Rifles before moving on to a company of Texas Rangers led by Captain Leander McNelly. Armstrong’s most famous exploit as a Ranger by far was his capture of John Wesley Hardin in the spring of 1877. Hardin, Texas’ most infamous gunfighter, was said to have killed at least 20 men in the decade following the Civil War; some said the total reached as high as 40).
By 1877, Armstrong was on the run, wanted by the Rangers for the killing of Comanche County Deputy Sheriff Charles Webb. Though he was recuperating from a gunshot wound, Armstrong sought and won permission to work the Hardin case. He and his team tracked Hardin to Pensacola, Florida, and confronted the gunfighter and his gang in a train car. Though various versions exist as to what happened next, the most commonly told story is that Hardin’s gun snagged on his suspenders and Armstrong was able to hit him over the head, knocking him out. Armstrong then sent Hardin back to Texas to stand trial for Webb’s murder.
6. John B. Jones
In 1874, Jones—a distinguished veteran of Texas forces in the Civil War—was chosen to head the Frontier Battalion, a newly created organization composed of six large Ranger companies and tasked with protecting the Texas frontier. Under his firm hand, the Rangers reached new levels as a state police force, helping preserve law and order in the chaotic period following Civil War and Reconstruction.
Train robber Sam Bass, one of the most notorious outlaws of the time, eluded capture until July 1878, when one of the members of his gang turned informer, writing to Jones of Bass’ plans to rob a small bank in Round Rock. Jones’ Rangers met the robbers there, and in the ensuing gunfight, Bass was fatally wounded. In 1879, Jones was given even greater responsibility as adjutant general of the state of Texas; he died in service in 1881.
7. Captain Bill McDonald
If Bass’ death marked the passing of the traditional Texas frontier villain, Jones’ death marked a transition for the Texas Rangers, who were forced to modernize in order to confront the changing world around them. Bill McDonald was one of the most visible Rangers to emerge in this new era. As a Ranger captain from 1891 to 1907, McDonald took on numerous high-profile criminal cases, including illegal prizefights, bank robberies, murders and riots. He earned a reputation for his marksmanship, as well as for being the source of one of the most famous Ranger sayings: “One riot—one Ranger.”
Though McDonald probably never said exactly that, it’s a pretty good statement of his attitude. As one story goes, McDonald arrived in Dallas to stop a prize fight, and when community leaders asked when his fellow Rangers were arriving, he said “Hell! ain’t I enough? There’s only one prize-fight!”
8. Frank Hamer
After Frank Hamer helped capture a horse thief on the ranch where he worked, the local sheriff recommended him to the Texas Rangers. Hamer joined the Rangers in 1906 and became part of a company that patrolled the South Texas border. He left the Rangers periodically over the years to take different law enforcement jobs, but by 1922 he had become a senior Ranger captain in Austin.
In the 1920s, Hamer was a key figure in preserving law and order in Texas’ oil boom towns. But it was in 1934, after he retired as a Texas Ranger, that Hamer scored his biggest triumph: Hired as a special investigator for the state prison system, he spent 102 days tracking the infamous outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, finally ending their multi-state crime spree in a police ambush in Bienville Parish, Louisiana.