- Policing the Great Plains: Rangers, Mounties, and the North American Frontier, 1875-1910
This is a deeply researched comparison of two world-renowned constabularies, the North-West Mounted Police (later the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) and the Texas Rangers. Despite the title, it addresses only the Canadian Plains and the Texas Plains, although interior Texas, east of the Balcones Escarpment, is black-soil farmland that does not qualify as plains. Graybill examines the roles of the Rangers and the Mounties in four major themes: Indians, ethnic minorities (such as Canada's Métis and Texas's Hispanics), cattlemen, and labor unions.
Graybill's treatment of the Mounties in all four themes is judicious and well interpreted. By contrast, the Ranger role in all four is open to criticism. One is that the Rangers never mustered the strength implied, reflecting the wide gulf between legislative authorization and legislative appropriation. Funding, not authorization, determined strength, which severely handicapped the force. At one point in the 1890s the number of Rangers fell to twelve to cover the entire state of Texas. Moreover, during the period under study, the Rangers were not the brutish thugs portrayed. That came with a vengeance in the decade following the end date of this work.
The most conspicuous and flawed example of thematic misunderstanding is the section on Indians. By 1875, the opening date of the book, the only resident Indians were in interior Texas and long since subjugated. The Indians who had ravaged the frontier for decades were Kiowas and Comanches. Except for a few bands in the Panhandle, they did not live in Texas but raided south from the Indian Territory along the frontier of settlement and into Mexico. The Indians that disrupted the West Texas transportation routes, largely Mescalero Apaches, came from homes in New Mexico. Thus, as West Texas harbored no Indians to be displaced, neither did it contain white settlers to be protected. They began moving west only after the Indian threats had receded.
As Graybill notes, before 1875 volunteer Ranger units of citizen soldiers were called up to contend with Kiowas and Comanches. They had no more effect in curtailing the raids than the Regular Army, which played much the larger role and which, curiously, Graybill neglects almost entirely. Ironically, only a year after the legislature institutionalized the Rangers in 1874, the U.S. Army conquered the southern Plains tribes in the Red River War. The threat to the Texas frontier vanished at the very time the state had an administratively-named "Frontier Battalion" of Rangers raised mainly to fight Indians. It fought only one major [End Page 581] engagement before the war ended. Occasionally Kiowas and Comanches, now confined to reservations in the Indian Territory, strayed across the line in hunting parties, often with passes issued by their agents because the rations promised by treaty had not arrived. Rangers intercepted some, but rarely with any exchange of gunfire.
The Rangers then transformed themselves into Old West lawmen, their principal function throughout the period covered by the book. Graybill narrates in considerable detail a Ranger surprise of Apaches in the Sierra Diablo in 1880, but they were a small group of less than twenty who had escaped the slaughter of Chief Victorio's people by Mexican troops. That was scarcely a footnote to the much larger story of the Regular Army's operations in the Victorio War of 1879-80.
The misinterpretation of the Ranger role in the other three themes is less distorted but nonetheless of consequence. Space limitations prevent exploration of significant examples. Despite the Texas flaws, the book correctly demonstrates the similarities between the two constabularies, including their respective missions of consistently supporting state and corporate interests in contending with the challenges in the Canadian plains and the West Texas plains.
Even so, the book promises more than it delivers.