Mike Cox, author
New York: A Forge Book (2008)
Getting to know author Mike Cox has proven to be a dynamic experience. Cox, a fifth-generation Texan and third-generation writer, grew up in the Lone Star State and, like most such twentieth-century males, he was weaned on Ranger lore. His lengthy resume, rounded off by the authorship of thirteen books and his election to the Texas Institute of Letters as well as a having been a staff writer for various newspapers such as the Austin-American Statesman, makes Cox seem an almost household guest.
In 1985 Mike became public information officer for the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), a post he would hold for fifteen years. He later went to work for the Texas Department of Transportation as communications manager, retiring in the fall of 2007. His years of contact with DPS officers turned into friendships with many of the men, and later the women, who wore replicas of the Mexican silver five-peso as an emblem, that being the five-pointed asterisk of a Texas Ranger. Across the years his work opened not only doors, yet filing cabinets across Austin and at the Texas Ranger Museum in Waco. Cox’s years as an investigative reporter also proved their worth as various other archives unearthed their treasures before a trusted name, and an honest face.
In 1999 Cox was given “the go-ahead to write this book for Forge Books.” The Texas Rangers: Wearing the Cinco Peso, 1821-1900, is the result.
Nonetheless, upon hearing of yet another Texas Ranger history in the works I thought, Egads! Isn’t the market flooded already? But that was before I met Mike Cox at the West Texas Historical Association Conference in Canyon last spring. Being a firm believer in the concept that no governmental agency or entity can be bright and shiny all over, a manner in which the Texas Rangers and their parental bureaucracy, the DPS, have often been portrayed -- I have played devil’s advocate in my writings. For that role I make no apology. There is no democracy without a viable opposition.
At any rate, the affable Cox, over dinner at an Amarillo steak house, first mentioned his book and a review. His most convincing line was, “I know people will think [Cinco Peso] is a puff job because of my past connection with the DPS.” Cox then went on to assure me that he was taking great pains to avoid any validation of that untoward presumption. At that point I agreed to both the read and to the review, and am glad of it.
Cox, in the Preface to Cinco Peso says: “[T]he reality and mythology of the Rangers in our popular culture are as closely interwoven as a fine horse-hair quirt. It is hard to separate the two strands, though I have tried with as much objectivity as possible to document both. . . . [T]here is no question that men riding in the name of frontier protection or law and order killed some people who probably did not ‘need killin’[.]”
Granted, that is a praiseworthy admission. Cox, however, then adds one of the few questionable remarks found in the essay: “[T]hose instances [of murder] were rare and often exaggerated.” Now wait a sec, Mike. The bodies of hundreds of Mexican-American and/or Mexican-origin individuals killed by Rangers in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas during the nineteen-teens, evidence supported by a Texas Legislature-sponsored investigation and often by photographs, do not lie. Furthermore, the long-festering story of the “Porvenir Massacre” along the Rio Grande in Presidio County, only recently proven true beyond a reasonable doubt by historian Glenn Justice and an aged eyewitness, did take place shortly after frigid midnight on January 24, 1918. Fifteen defenseless men and boys were mercilessly shot down by a group of ranchmen and a US Army soldier led by five Texas Rangers under the command of Ranger Captain J. M. Fox (who was stationed at Marfa, Texas). These two examples are indicative of other probable abuses of murderous power and, hopefully, cannot simply be written off as “rare and often exaggerated.” Due to Porvenir and other outrages dating to the “Cortinas War” in the lower Rio Grande Valley during the 1850s, border Mexicans began referring to Rangers as los rinches, a rather less than complimentary by-name. Nevertheless. . . .
Wearing the Cinco Peso, 1821-1900, true to its title, begins with the birth of a Negro slaveholding culture; that is, the Anglo-American colonization of a province in northern Mexico called Tejas. Organized by Moses Austin and led by his son, the empresario Stephen F. Austin, success soon opened the floodgates to land-hungry Whites and their dreams. In almost no time other Southerners, and even Germans led by various empresarios, joined the game. Indians soon became a real problem for the settlers. Karankawa peoples of the Gulf Coast, reputed to be cannibals, proved especially intimidating. The occidental frontier, which ambit was then marked by San Antonio de Bexar and environs, also fell under attack by Plains tribesmen. “All” was not “Quiet on the Western Front.” Therefore, it wasn’t long before “Ten men [were enlisted] to act as rangers.” While Tejanos did not invent “rangering” the appointment of such a body during the epoch while Texas remained part of Mexico began a lasting tradition.
Cox’s Cinco Peso is a chronology of facts running threadlike through almost eighty years of Texas history. From the Anglo-American/Negro-slave settlement colonies through the Texas Revolution (1835-6) and subsequent Independence, followed a mere decade later by the “War of Intervention” between the United States and Mexico, Texas Rangers played a hand. Their primary role throughout most of the nineteenth century was the protection of the western frontier. Boiled down, that meant preventing Indian depredations.
The Karankawas, probably due more to pandemics of European-originated diseases than any concerted military action by “raingers,” or anyone else for that matter, soon faded from the stage. Those natives who remained, and became predominate, had adopted a horse-centered culture by about 1660. They hailed from the Western High Plains region of the present-day Texas Panhandle, notably a higher, drier, cooler, and therefore more salubrious climate. “Hostile” is too kind a word for those bands of Kiowas, Wichitas, and other predominately Shoshone-speaking peoples who came to be known collectively as Comanches. These raiders were the causative factor for the later Republic-cum-State of Texas having raised a ranging militia for protection. Men and officers so appointed were soldiers, not peace officers. The efficiency of those early-day Comanche-fighting rangers has never been adequately detailed, although Cox takes aim at so doing.
No doubt, with the invention of the “Paterson” Colt .34 caliber revolver and its 1844 acceptance by Captain John C. “Jack” Hays as the ranger weapon of choice, the Comanches came to respect, even fear, contact with the Texas militia. Savages they were; stupid they were not. The frontier extended hundreds of miles north and south; los Comanches soon learned to avoid the far-flung rangers; they continued to raid, pillage, and plunder so far east as San Antonio (Texas) and Nuevo Leon (Mexico) while thrusting ever deeper into the Mexican Central Plateau.
The American Civil War (1861-5), fought mainly in the eastern states, bled the Texas frontier of manpower and resulted in renewed Comanches incursions. The frontier line was pushed back 100 miles in places with some counties losing one-half to two-thirds their population due to out-migration. Cox, keeping his word in Cinco Peso, bursts open several long-standing Texas Ranger myths. Concerning the Comanches the author concedes: “the Army [under Gen. Ranald Mackenzie] dealt with the last of the hostile Plains Indians in Texas.” Rangers had provided merely a buffer to Comanche incursions east of the frontier line; contrary to legend, neither they nor any “cowboys” had anything to do with the Plains Indians removal from the state.
Another overblown Ranger story concerns the 1877 capture of Texas outlaw John Wesley Hardin in Florida, an effort supposedly accomplished by Ranger Lieutenant John B. Armstrong. Mike Cox, an ardent researcher, found that Hardin was actually arrested by “twenty-seven-year-old [Florida] Sheriff William H. Hutchinson” and “one of his deputies.” Armstrong, who had failed and been humiliated in previous attempts at capturing the outlaw watched from an adjoining express car while his informer, an undercover Dallas deputy city marshal named Duncan, remained outside. As the Floridians wrestled Hardin, whose sidekick Jim Mann had just been shot and killed by a Florida deputy sheriff, Armstrong reportedly joined in the affray “hammer[ing] Hardin’s head with the barrel of his Colt.” It was undoubtedly Armstrong’s wire to Austin that engendered this particular “one riot, one ranger” folktale: “Arrested John Wesley Hardin, Pensacola, Florida this P.M.” the telegraphed message related. “[S]ome lively shooting. One of their number killed. . . . Hardin fought desperately. Closed in and took him by main strength.”
Our precise author summarizes: “In the strictest legal sense, the rangers and other officers had kidnapped Hardin. A Florida grand jury later indicted the sheriff [Hutchinson] for that offense, but the case never went anywhere.” Hardin, the prototype for many a pulp novel’s “gunslinger” role, was tried for murder in Texas. He went to Huntsville prison to serve a fourteen-year sentence, did so, and was released after which time the gunman removed to El Paso. He was later shot and killed by “old” John Selman, an elected constable.
Cox, having proven himself not just another Texas Ranger apologist, refuses to dwell at length on these vagaries of Ranger lore. That is as it should be. The fact that he, despite his connection to the DPS, mentions these questionable tales at all mark the author as a reputable, and far more than just regional historian.
With the final removal of the Comanches and, by the mid-1880s, the Apaches from Texas soil Ranger work slowed down. Counties had been formed and, in the best tradition of Anglo-Saxon-American democratic ideals, elected local law enforcement began filling the needs of constituents. Ever budget-wary, the Texas Legislature had reservations about extending funding for a militia no longer needful. All that changed in the Lower Rio Grande Valley when, in a trial by fire that had been presaged by the Cortinas War, all hell broke out near Brownsville. The resultant death and destruction took place in the early twentieth century and, as assistant editors love to chide, are “outside the subject area” of Cox’s volume one. Be that as it may, the author will hold forth in volume two, I’m sure. Regardless, the factors leading up to the tragic events had begun to take place in the last decade of the nineteenth century when a railroad from up the coast laid tracks to Brownsville and the Anglo invasion of an isolated pastoral Spanish culture, situated within a more dominant milieu, started taking place. The process of acculturation had begun in the “Magic Valley,” and the first stage of the process, that time when two cultures clash, would provide a new impetus for maintaining a state paramilitary force. Culture shock hit the Hispanic community situated at the mouth of the Rio Grande like a brick to the face. A decade later violence coincidental to the Mexican Revolution ensued. And the results would insure that state Rangers kept their jobs.
The Texas Rangers: Wearing the Cinco Peso, 1821-1900 has been as pleasurable a read within the genre as ever I’ve experienced. Almost regrettably, the 375-page narrative concluded in only three long sittings. Like many historians, I begin reading a book near the end, which is to say I first took a look at the bibliography. Must say, Cox’s end leaves are first class, taking up twenty-five pages. Those include government documents (38 entries); unpublished material (16); books (16 pages); articles (7 pages), as well as theses and dissertations. He includes an index and uses unobtrusive, chapter-by-chapter endnotes for references. The author says he is an “independent historian, not an academic.” However, one wouldn’t guess that by examining the 114-pages of end material.
Counterpoint: the narrative evades any hint of la academe. In like tradition of Texas authors T. R. Fehrenbach (Comanches: The Destruction of a People) and Thad Sitton (The Texas Sheriff: Lord of the County Line), Cox molds images with words and phrases, and with sentences and paragraphs and chapters that draw the reader “in” the way an early riser focuses the front-page banner of his daily. A master at quality prose, his transitions glide like fresh-churned butter slathered over sourdough while the oft-utilized similes execute fulfilling images, as of one’s apron-strung mother, kitchen grinning, her long finger a-shake with “I-told-you-so.”
A clear advantage for the independent historian is freedom. Cox’s lack of concern for the chains that bind others, the academician particularly, come across as refreshing as a cold-beaded bottle of root beer in August. Cox is unafraid to call an Indian an “Indian,” a gore-drenched Comanche a “hostile,” or a Mexican a “Mexican” (which is, by the way, what they wish to be called). Huzzah and hurrah! Politically inspired censorship, with Cox, is out the window. It’s about time.
An over-the-shoulder glance: Walter Prescott Webb, dean of Texas historians, published The Texas Rangers: A Century of Frontier Defense in 1935. According to Dr. Gerald G. Raun, Webb lamented having “written [the Ranger book] the way that he did and [indicated] that it desperately needed to be re-done.” Raun, a graduate student at the University of Texas from 1956 to 1961, was present in Webb’s home and heard the declaration. Raun adds: “And I think he was planning to do that when he was killed [in a 1963 automobile accident].” If Webb were able to reach out from the grave today and hand us a message I’ll bet it would say, “Hail the responsible revisionist historian. May facts and logic rule the day.”
It is past the day when a modern, “definitive” history of the Texas Rangers should have been made available. Two historians I’m aware of are attempting to do just that. Mike Cox is one. The Texas Rangers: Wearing the Cinco Peso comes in two volumes; as I have yet to see the second, I can only suggest that his offering may rank high on the list of candidates. Mr. Robert M. Utley’s Ranger tome has yet to cross my desk. I hear good things. A fine historian is Utley. His offering may be the other nominee. Only time will tell.
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