- A Crooked River: Rustlers, Rangers, and Regulars on the Lower Rio Grande, 1861-1877 by Michael L. Collins
In A Crooked River: Rustlers, Rangers, and Regulars on the Lower Rio Grande, 1861-1877, Michael L. Collins argues that "civilization . . . devolved into savagery" along the Rio Grande during the Civil War and Reconstruction and that the Texas Rangers were part of that savagery. His purpose is to tell "the story that Walter Prescott Webb never told" in The Texas Rangers: A Century of Frontier Defense (Austin, 1935), by exploring the Rangers from "the other side of the river" and from the bottom up rather than from the top down, a more balanced and honest account, "history as it happened, not history as it should have been" (pp. 12, 9). Collins continues the story of border racial and cultural conflict that he began in Texas Devils: Rangers and Regulars on the Lower Rio Grande, 1846-1861 (Norman, Okla., 2008). In so doing, he contributes to and expands on recent histories exploring border conflict more fully from the Mexican perspective, such as Benjamin H. Johnson's Revolution in Texas: How a Forgotten Rebellion and Its Bloody Suppression Turned Mexicans into Americans (New Haven, 2003), Arnoldo de Léon's War Along the Border: The Mexican Revolution and Tejano Communities (College Station, Tex., 2012), and Jerry Thompson's biographies of Juan Cortina and José de los Santos Benavides. Collins also provides some earlier context for Andrew R. Graybill's Policing the Great Plains: Rangers, Mounties, and the North American Frontier, 1875-1910 (Lincoln, Neb., 2007). Collins argues that, contrary to [End Page 449] some accounts, the Rangers did not disappear during the Civil War years; they simply "took on a different appearance, that of the gray cloth of the Confederate States of America" (p. 14).
The prologue hints at what is to come by recounting the "brutish behavior" of the Texas Rangers as they ruthlessly hanged a Union army captain so as to demonstrate to other prisoners what would happen if they did not reveal everything they knew about Union activity in the area (p. 21). These same Rangers had massacred thirty-six German Union sympathizers in the Texas Hill Country several months earlier. The ten ensuing chapters explore, generally in chronological order, violent conflicts that emerged from the U.S. and Mexican civil wars raging at the time as well as from struggles over stolen cattle. Collins paints a picture of the typical Texas Ranger as "a citizen soldier," rather than "a professional lawman," and often "on the 'wrong side' of the law" (p. 9). Leaders, such as Captain Leander H. McNelly, praised by Webb as heroes, employed cruel tactics and engaged in torture on the basis that '"their ends justified their means'" (p. 287). Collins does not shy away from exposing the violence perpetrated by people from a variety of racial and ethnic groups; the existence of this dark side of humanity seems to be one of his main themes. For example, in his exploration of the cattle wars, he portrays the brutality of the Comanche, Kickapoo, and Lipan Apache raiders as well as the vicious response by the Rangers, who burned homes and killed women and children. In another situation, the Rangers attacked peaceful Tejano farmers in retaliation for the actions of a few Mexican bandits.
Collins keeps the reader fascinated with his ability to tell intriguing stories using a clear and descriptive writing style. He has mined an array of previously understudied sources, including newspaper accounts, personal papers, government documents, and unpublished manuscript collections. An engaging and accessible book for a wide variety of audiences, A Crooked River is sure to be a definitive account of the Texas Rangers and border violence between 1861 and 1877 for many years to come.