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Yours to Command

The Life and Legend of Texas Ranger Captain Bill McDonald

Harold J. Weiss Jr.

Publication Year: 2009

Captain Bill McDonald (1852-1918) is the most prominent of the “Four Great Captains” of Texas Ranger history. His career straddled the changing scene from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries. In 1891 McDonald became captain of Company B of the Frontier Battalion of the Texas Rangers. “Captain Bill” and the Rangers under his command took part in a number of incidents from the Panhandle region to South Texas: the Fitzsimmons-Maher prizefight in El Paso, the Wichita Falls bank robbery, the murders by the San Saba Mob, the Reese-Townsend feud at Columbus, the lynching of the Humphries clan, the Conditt family murders near Edna, the Brownsville Raid of 1906, and the shootout with Mexican Americans near Rio Grande City. In all these endeavors, only one Ranger lost his life under McDonald’s command. McDonald’s reputation as a gunman rested upon his easily demonstrated markmanship, a flair for using his weapons to intimidate opponents, and the publicity given his numerous exploits. His ability to handle mobs resulted in a classic tale told around campfires: one riot, one Ranger. His admirers rank him as one of the great captains of Texas Ranger history. His detractors see him as an irresponsible lawman who accepted questionable information, precipitated violence, hungered for publicity, and related tall tales that cast himself in the hero’s role. Harold J. Weiss, Jr., seeks to find the true Bill McDonald and sort fact from myth. McDonald’s motto says it all: “No man in the wrong can stand up against a fellow that’s in the right and keeps on a-comin’.”

Published by: University of North Texas Press

Series: Frances B. Vick Series

Title Page

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Illustration and Maps

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

The historiographical map of the operations of the Texas Rangers is covered with accounts that either chronicle dates and events or narrate the adventures of intrepid Rangers. A dominating theme in these works has been the image and reality of a Ranger as a citizen Ranger and military careers of John S. “Rip” Ford, John C. “Jack”...

Part 1. Emergence of a Ranger Captain

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pp. 1-2

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Chapter 1. Bill McDonald, the Historical Record, and the Popular Mind

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pp. 3-22

The life and times of Texas Ranger Captain William Jesse “Bill” McDonald, better known as “Captain Bill,” can be viewed from several vantage points: first, the ins and outs of crime and violence in the trans-Mississippi West in the late 1800s; second, the operations of the Texas Rangers in theory and practice inside and outside the Lone Star State; third, the ambiguous nature of McDonald as a lawman...

Romanticizing McDonald and the Rangers: A Pictorial Essay

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pp. 36-41

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Chapter 2. The Making of a Texas Lawman

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pp. 23-51

To grasp the inner workings of the world of Texas Ranger Captain Bill McDonald, one must move in a westerly direction across the Atlantic Ocean to the New World and a place called Texas. Since ancient times humans have sailed westward and marched inland to find fame and fortune and build an orderly society under God.2 This restless force in the cultures of Europe and America—that migrating ...

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Chapter 3. Captain Bill and Company B in the Panhandle

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pp. 52-86

Bill McDonald led an active personal as well as professional life. As a rancher and a victim of crime, he showed resiliency and a dogged determination. At one point a newspaper reported, “Captain W. J.McDonald, farmer, Capt. State Rangers, was touched by a pick-pocket, who obtained $50 cash and $300 diamond pin.”2 In addition, like many ranchers, he could do little about his cattle being ...

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Chapter 4. A Gunfight Between Two Guardians of the Law

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pp. 87-100

In his investigation of criminal activities in the first half of the 1890s in the Texas Panhandle, Captain McDonald took part in a bloody gun battle. No outlaw ambushed him in cowardly fashion. No desperado had the nerve to face him in a fast-draw gunfight. Instead, McDonald found himself in the streets of Quanah in December1893 shooting it out with a county sheriff. When the gunfire ended, ...

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Chapter 5. Proceed to El Paso: The Rangers and Prizefighting

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pp. 101-118

Unlike the legendary “one-Ranger-one-riot” story, Captain McDonald did not come alone to El Paso to stop a prizefight in February 1896. The Rangers came en masse. The chief executive o fthe state of Texas gave the order. In the midst of the dispute about holding the prizefight, Governor Culberson summed up his feelings of opposition to such an event in a succinct message to Adjutant General Mabry: “I will see it through.” 2 ...

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Chapter 6. A Bank Robbery in Wichita Falls

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pp. 119-130

This self-analysis of his conduct shows that Captain Bill wrestled with his conscience in explaining his actions as a peace officer. McDonald’s soul-searching experience occurred after a manhunt following a bank robbery in Wichita Falls at the start of 1896. This criminal act suited more the talents of the Ranger captain than his involvement in the controversial prizefight in El Paso. Yet his ...

The Rangers, Company B, and Captain McDonald in the Field: A Pictorial Essay

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pp. 150-157

Part Two. Waning Days of the Frontier Battalion

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pp. 131-132

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Chapter 7. San Saba Mob: A Murder Society

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pp. 133-151

As the decade of the 1890s came to a close, McDonald and Company B became involved in more complex criminal cases than in previous years. His attention was directed to the age-old phenomenon of feuding in Texas. He also strove to solve heinous murders by secretive mobs and unsuspecting parties who preyed upon their fellow Texans. Increasingly Captain Bill and the Panhandle Rangers ...

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Chapter 8. Reese–Townsend Feud at Columbus

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pp. 152-170

This report by the adjutant general added to McDonald’s growing reputation as a two-gun crusading knight. Yet Captain Bill was only one of a number of Rangers who became involved in the affair over a period of time. Columbus is situated in the south central part of the state in Colorado County. Settled by pioneers from Stephen Austin’s colony in the 1820s, the town began as a ferry site, took part in the Texas ...

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Chapter 9. Humphries Case: An East Texas Lynching

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pp. 171-185

While the Reese-Townsend feud went through its violent stages, a tragedy occurred in May 1899 in East Texas. Here, in a timbered bottom between two bodies of water known as the Trans-Cedar country in Henderson County, a lynching took place. This murder case became noteworthy for three reasons: (l) the unprecedented gathering of a large number of local and state law officers; (2) the involvement ...

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Chapter 10. Finale of the Frontier Battalion

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pp. 213-233

The troubles at Orange, Texas, where Fuller went down, led to the demise of the Frontier Battalion at the turn of the twentieth century. During the last half of the 1890s, the lifestyles of the members of the Frontier Battalion remained similar to the existence of those who served in the early Rangers. They still wore nondescript clothes, rode horses, carried revolvers, rifles, and shotguns, and ...

Map. East Texas

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p. 234-234

Map. Panhandle

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p. 235-235

Map. Counties of the Panhandle

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p. 236-236

Map. Central Texas

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p. 237-237

Map. Southeast Texas

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p. 238-238

Map. Far East Texas

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p. 239-239

Map. Texas Border

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pp. 240-241

Part Three. An Aging Lawman: Highs and Lows

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pp. 207-208

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Chapter 11. Forming a New Ranger Force

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pp. 209-228

In many respects the new Ranger service that emerged in 1901 was similar to the organization, manpower, and duties of the Frontier Battalion. The “Four Great Captains” continued to lead the small companies in the field. McDonald, in addition to his investigative work, still managed Company B, wrote reports, informed his superiors about company personnel, and was away from his wife and ...

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Chapter 12. Conditt Murder Case: A Study in Detection

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pp. 229-242

Near the end of his sixteen-year career as a Ranger captain, McDonald faced a multiple murder case that would test his investigative skills. A white man, Joseph Fagan Conditt, his wife, Lora, and their five children, rented a farm in a mixed neighborhood of whites and blacks near Edna in Jackson County. In the morning hours on September 28, 1905, while the father was working land a ...

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Chapter 13. Brownsville Affair: A Muddled Incident

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pp. 278-307

This newspaper headline summarized the trouble between Bill McDonald and the United States Army, during the aftermath of the raid on Brownsville, Texas, by “unknown parties” in the middle of the night on August 13, 1906.2 In the “Brownsville Affray,” so-called in official documents, the raiders within a few minutes riddled buildings with bullets, killed one individual, and wounded two others. Soon after the raid ...

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Chapter 14. Rio Grande City: The Last Stand

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pp. 273-282

Such sentiments, coming from people in southern Texas in the aftermath of the raid on Brownsville, revived McDonald’s spirits.“The mere presence of a Ranger in a vicinity,” one person noted in his message to the adjutant general, “causes quiet among the law breakers.” 2...

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Chapter 15. The End Comes: State Revenue Agent and Other Roles

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pp. 283-306

Age, ill-health, weariness, and grief induced Captain Bill to leave the Ranger service early in 1907 and accept another position in state government. He became an energetic and controversial state revenue agent. In time, his desire to be a lawman would again be fulfilled, when he served as a bodyguard to Woodrow Wilson in the presidential election of 1912 and as a federal marshal in the Southwest for a ...

The Rangers, Company B, and Captain Bill: Major Figures and Cases

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pp. 342-351


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pp. 307-386


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pp. 387-414


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pp. 414-436

E-ISBN-13: 9781574413694
Print-ISBN-13: 9781574412604

Page Count: 480
Illustrations: 34 b&w illus., 7 maps
Publication Year: 2009

Series Title: Frances B. Vick Series

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Subject Headings

  • McDonald, William Jesse, 1852-1918.
  • Texas Rangers -- Biography.
  • Peace officers -- Texas -- Biography.
  • Texas -- History -- 1846-1950.
  • Frontier and pioneer life -- Texas.
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