McNelly’s Rangers: Establishing the Rule of Law on the Border

Taming the Nueces Strip: The Story of McNelly’s Rangers
by George Durham, as told to Clyde Wantland
University of Texas Press, Austin, 1962

Review by Jeffrey Morseburg

There is an old proverb which states that “no man is a hero to his valet,” and, if memory serves, I believe it was the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb who added the rejoinder that “history is now written by the valets.”  In her book On Looking Into the Abyss she aimed her pen at professors who are incapable of recognizing greatness and thus deprive their students and readers of both tradition and heroes.  This is a long way of addressing the fact that many contemporary historians of the American West see their role as attacking the “great men theory of history” by tearing down the mythic figures of the past.  Now, with the multiplicity of archival sources available to today’s historian, it is vital to take a fresh look at the historical record and to use modern tools to separate truth from myth.  However, what many historians seem to have forgotten is that the men and women who explored, pacified and settled the land west of the Mississippi were often larger than life figures who only developed mythic historical reputations because they were extraordinary and stood apart in their own day.

This is a long roundabout way of getting to the subject of Taming the Nueces Strip, a personal account of life on the trail with the legendary Texas Ranger Captain Leander M. McNelly (1844-1877).   The Texas Rangers took on near-mythic status early in Texas History, and that august body of lawmen still trades on the reputation earned by its 19th-century members.  The exploits of Captain McNelly and his Special Force Ranger Company loom large in the story of the Texas Rangers and in the history of the border region of South Texas.

The Lawless Nueces Strip

Texas gained its independence from Mexico in 1836 and was annexed by the United States in the waning days of the Tyler administration in February of 1845, just before the expansionist President Polk took office.  The new nation of Texas, which became the state of Texas, was a vast, arid land. Its southernmost region, which was south of San Antonio and therefore civilization, sat below the Nueces River and was known as the “Nueces Strip.” The Strip was a largely a lawless land where brute force reigned supreme.  For decades, it had proved difficult if not impossible for the state, under the early Texas Rangers or federal government and its military, to pacify the Nueces Strip and bring the rule of law to the disputed region.  Then, as now, the mighty Rio Grande River divided the United States from Mexico. And then, as now, there were many on the south side of the river who were not happy with Mexico’s defeat by the United States in the Mexican-American War and the handover of the Southwest to the United States in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildalgo.  Even though Mexico had surrendered the vast territory to the United States only after the American Army captured Mexico City and a then compensated Mexico with fifteen million dollars, many Mexicans still saw the north bank of the Rio Grande and the land of the Southwest as theirs, thus justifying the pillage and robbery of the Americans in South Texas.

As pioneers developed large spreads like the huge McAllen, King and Armstrong ranches and settlements and towns like Brownsville, Harlingen and Raymondville sprang up in the Nueces Strip, there were real spoils to be found in the grasslands and deserts north of the lazy Rio Grande.  Gangs of bandits, a sort of rainbow coalition of deviltry, became the scourge of the Nueces country. They raided the ranches and settlements, rustling, stealing and killing with impunity and then taking the fruit of their spoils south of the border where they could be divided up.

Unfortunately, it the years after the Civil War (1861-1865), things only got worse in the Nueces Strip.  Despite the opposition of founding father Sam Houston, Texas joined the Confederacy and was on the losing side of the titanic struggle that freed the slaves, strengthened the hand of the federal government and left much of the agrarian south impoverished and without the social structure necessary for the rule of law to prevail.  This left Texas as an occupied territory during the Reconstruction Era, and few martial occupations work out well – either for the occupied or their occupiers.  The United States government made a short, half-hearted attempt at pacifying the Nueces Strip by forming a police force to patrol the territory, but the force was not given enough authority to do what was needed to finish the job, and because they were seen as “carpetbaggers” when they were from the north or turncoats if they were from the south, they received little cooperation.  One of the men who had served in the short-lived State Police was a young Civil War veteran named Leander McNelly.

Leander McNelly

Leander McNelly

Few true heroes are pulled from the John Wayne mold, and Captain McNelly was probably one of the least imposing physical specimens to ever wear a military uniform or to pin on the badge of a lawman.  Leander McNelly was a Virginian by birth whose family brought him to Texas as a child in the hopes that his “galloping consumption” – as the communicable disease of tuberculosis was then known – would be improved by the more arid climate of Texas.  The sickly child grew up into a sickly though “tallish” young man, but McNelly didn’t allow his physical limitations to hold him back from herding sheep for a neighbor and learning to ride and hunt.  He was clearly a serious young man and perhaps it was his illness that gave him a sobriety and maturity that was beyond his years as well as an abiding religious faith.  The McNelly flame was to burn out quickly, but it would shine brightly on waters of the Rio Grande.

When war broke out between the north and south, the lure of adventure and martial service proved irresistible and the sickly young man joined Fifth Texas Cavalry as a private on the ill-fated New Mexico Campaign, where the grandiose General Sibley raised troops in San Antonio and attempted the invasion of New Mexico with the ultimate goal of capturing California.  McNelly survived Sibley’s debacle and then fought in the Battle of Galveston in 1863.

After he distinguished himself in Louisiana on the staff of General Green, he was promoted to Captain of Scouts and given a commission – all this when he was only nineteen. McNelly proved himself to be a master of small-unit tactics and a leader who led by example, and he played a key role in the Battles of Brashear City and Lafourche Crossing before being wounded at the Battle of Mansfield in April of 1864.  In the late stages of the war, McNelly excelled at guerilla war, fighting the hated Yankees in the bayous and canebrakes of Southern Louisiana.  The young Captain’s most famous exploit was the capture, through audacity and trickery, of the entire Union Army garrison of 380 at Brashear City with his small force of fewer than twenty scouts By the end of the war, the small band of men who had served under Captain McNelly were proud to say they were “McNelly Men.”

Despite periods of weakness brought on by his tuberculosis, McNelly attempted farming for a time in the years following the war and married Carey Cheek (1848-1938), with whom he had two children.  In 1870, when the hated Yankees formed a State Police force to arrest lawbreakers and rescue Texas from post-war chaos, he was one of the four captains selected, and during almost three years of service, he worked to apply the law fairly. He was also wounded by a criminal’s kin after he arrested three white men for the murder of a former slave.

Reformation of the Texas Rangers

In 1874, with Reconstruction over and the Democratic Party back in power in Austin, the Texas Rangers were reformed and McNelly was initially chosen to command one of the companies of the Frontier Battalion.  After working for a number of months to quell the bloody Sutton-Taylor feud in DeWitt County, southeast of San Antonio, he was asked to assemble a new company, the so-called “Special Force,” which was charged with pacifying the Nueces Strip. The new Democrat who had been elected in Austin, Governor Coke, saw that it would take more than a few officers to bring law to the strip; it would take a disciplined paramilitary force, the Texas Rangers. This is where our story Taming the Nueces Strip begins, with a strapping but still-wet-behind-the-ears young man named George Durham joining the new unit, which never numbered more than forty men and usually far fewer when mortal danger loomed.

George Durham was a Georgia farm boy whose father had served under McNelly during the Civil War. He moved to Texas and sought out the Ranger, beginning one of the longest careers in the history of Texas law enforcement.  Late in life, fifty years after the events in question, he narrated his recollections and shared his notes with Clyde Wantland, a young freelance writer, who turned the material into Taming the Nueces Strip.  Unlike Napoleon Augustus Jenkins’ newspaper stories and book A Texas Ranger, Durham’s account is modest and straightforward and the narrator never tries to exaggerate his own importance or centrality in the stories of the Special Force. An examination of contemporary accounts is testimony to the accuracy of Durham’s memory and scribbled notes.  In his writing, Durham focuses on the months of hardship and boredom that the Rangers experienced in their two years in the field, and explains the major skirmishes from the view of one of McNelly’s men, who were proud to call themselves “Little McNellies” the rest of their days.

For anyone who enjoys reading about the history of the million-acre King Ranch, connections to that epic property abound, for Captain King lost large numbers of cattle to the raiders from Mexico and he personally equipped McNelly’s command with quality mounts so that they could pursue the outlaws.  In fact, the stockmen and store owners were largely responsible for equipping the Special Force and probably received little or no reimbursement from the government larder in Austin.

The Long Horn Banditos

While the cross-border raids had been going on for many years and had already cost hundreds (and some estimates are even higher) of Texans their lives, the raids became even more profitable for the banditos in the years after the Civil War.  The shortage of beef in the North and East and the presence of railroads and steamships that could be used to ship them to slaughterhouses hundreds of miles away made cattle valuable for more than just for their hides and tallow, the only products possible in the age before transportation and refrigeration.  The same profit incentive that led ranchers in South Texas to drive their cattle up the Chisholm, Goodnight-Loving or other cow trail to railheads in Kansas, encouraged rustlers to steal herds of cattle and drive them south of the border where they could be butchered or shipped by boat across the gulf to market.

So, the situation that confronted Captain McNelly was dire.  Raiders from Mexico were becoming increasingly bold and were stealing cattle and goods from Texans with impunity. Just before his arrival, raiders from Mexico had laid waste to a 120-mile stretch of Texas from Brownsville on the Gulf of Mexico to Rio Grande City. The official report stated that “there was not an American nor any property belonging to an American that was not destroyed in this large tract of county.”  Even when a posse large enough to confront the outlaws was organized, the criminal’s intelligence network helped them to elude any efforts to intercept them.  When the rustlers were caught red-handed, they were soon released on bail, only to slip over the border and return to their life of crime.  To further inflame the situation, for vengeful posses that could not catch the real culprits, any Mexican would often do and many innocent ones were killed in retaliatory strikes on the American side of the Rio Grande.  Because many bandits slipped back into the general population between raids, every Mexican along the porous border became suspect.  Once in charge, McNelly fell back onto the techniques that he used to confound the Union Army in the Civil War, working to set up his own intelligence network.  It was his aim to catch the raiders on the American side of the Rio Grande with their stolen herds and their backs to the wall in a situation where his more disciplined force could cut them down.

McNelly’s tenure with the Rangers is controversial to this day because he rarely took prisoners. Once in action, he knew he could expect no quarter on the part of the rabble that opposed him, and so he gave none.  He had no illusions that anyone he arrested would do anything but return to raiding once freed, so in order to eliminate his adversaries and intimidate the rest of the large criminal gangs, he ordered that they be shot out of the saddle. We must keep in mind that McNelly had a state-issued book with the names and records of thousands of criminals who were known to be in the criminal paradise of the Nueces Stip. And, if captured, his scout, Jesus Sandoval, known to the troopers as “Old Casoose,” tortured the brigands until they provided intelligence that could be acted upon. Then he hung them.  Raiders from across the river had raped the Tejano’s wife and daughter and stole his herd, his only means of making a living.  So Old Casoose burned for revenge on those who made their living as rustlers, thieves and killers.  There is no way to make Sandoval’s part in this horse epic anything but distasteful, but then it was the same way the British Crown handled pirates for centuries.

Captain McNelly’s first action in taking responsibility for the Nueces Strip was to disband all posses in the large region.  He felt that posses were indiscriminate in their duties and often used the color of the law to settle old scores or to act on their personal prejudices.  McNelly posted notices that he would arrest any “bands of men acting without the authority of law” and turn them over to the civil authorities. When any region of any land slips into chaos, the rule of men replaces the rule of law. Despite the deficiencies of the legal process, however, properly adjudicated case law remains superior to depending on the fairness of an individual.  McNelly’s role was then to use his quasi-military force to solve a problem that was too large and nasty for law enforcement and a court system.

Soon after McNelly assembled and trained his small troop, he met a larger posse on the trail and in a test of his will, faced them down and forced them to go home to their wives and homes.  There are many lessons in Taming the Nueces Strip for those who are in law enforcement or who command small groups of men in harm’s way.  McNelly was a frail, sickly man when he served on the Texas border with what was described as a “preacher’s voice,” and yet he was able to command absolute authority from the time he first led men as a teenager in the Civil War until his untimely death, which occurred soon after the episodes recounted here.  This is what is called “command presence” and some men simply have it or are able to learn it and others never do.  McNelly did not drink or gamble and he kept his own consul, sharing information with only his most trusted subordinates.  This meant that he seldom had to worry about his plans being revealed to the enemy because loose-lipped young troopers were not privy to them.

The Battle of Palo Alto

Before major engagements, McNelly fortified his men with a pep talk, assuring them that he would lead them from the front.  His tactics were those of classic small-unit infantry skirmishers.  McNelly’s men were taught to form a skirmish line and then close with the enemy, making sure they had their target well sighted before firing.  He emphasized that men should only target men directly ahead of them and when each of his skirmishers did the same, the enemy could be dispatched with no wasted rounds.  When McNelly equipped his men from the stock of the frontier merchant Sol Lichtenstein in Corpus Christi, he chose single shot .50 Sharps Carbines for his men rather than Henry or Winchester repeating rifles.  He wanted his men to aim carefully and to be sure of their shots rather than to fire indiscriminately.  McNelly also realized that – when necessary – the big Sharps outranged the early repeaters, which could only chamber underpowered pistol cartridges in their tubular magazines. Each of the men had his own revolver, which was to be used for close-quarter work.  The tactics McNelly employed were second nature to the older men, most of whom had survived the Civil War, but they were the first lessons that the narrator, George Durham, learned in martial arms and they helped him go on to safely make more than nine hundred arrests in is fifty-year career as a peace officer.

After weeks of training and intelligence gathering, McNelly finally caught a group of raiders with a herd on the American side of the watery border on June 16, 1875.  With their backs to the sandy banks of the river, the battle of Palo Alto commenced, and though the banditos fought with tenacity, the more disciplined Rangers cut many of them down in the initial fusillade and then killed the rest in a series of mano-a-manoengagements.  Fifteen of the raiders were killed. Only one escaped to tell his compadres that there was a new Ranger on the border.  McNelly recovered more than two hundred head of cattle and a cache of stolen goods, which were turned over to the authorities to return to their rightful owners.  Like a scene from a Clint Eastwood film, the bodies of the dead were piled up like cordwood in the plaza in the center of Brownsville, a move that caused resentment in the rough border town, where more than a few of the residents worked both sides of the law.  Young Berry Smith, the single Texas Ranger who was killed, was given an elaborate funeral, which like the plaza incident was clearly thought out by Captain McNelly as a signal that there was a new wind blowing along the Rio Grande.

McNelly’s telegram…”Had a fight with raiders, killed twelve and captured two hundred sixty-five beeves. Wish you were here.” –L. McNelly, Capt., Commanding

Las Cuevas and McNelly’s Invasion of Mexico

Taming the Nueces Strip also spends a considerable amount of its length on McNelly’s famous – or infamous if you can justify cattle rustling and robbery or are a modern dayreconquista activist – “Invasion of Mexico.”  The porous border between Mexico and Texas was the Rio Grande River, and once the cattle thieves managed to get their stolen herd across it they were home free.  South of the border, in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, the Mexican General Juan Cortina (1824-1894) lived like a feudal overlord, accepting tribute on the stolen herds of cattle that crossed from the United States into Mexico. Born Juan Nepomuceno Cortina Goseacocheawas, Cortina inherited a vast tract of ranchland in Mexico, which ended up bisected by the border at the conclusion of the Mexican-American War.  In Texas and in California, Anglo lawyers and speculators managed to buy, trade or swindle many of the Mexican landowners out of their land.  Texans of Mexican descent, who were called Tejanos, were often ill-treated by the newer Anglo residents of the border region and they often turned to Cortina, who was able to muster his own private army of armed vaqueros on their behalf.  In the years before the Civil War, things escalated to the point that Cortina fought two minor wars – in 1859 and 1861, soon after the Civil War began – first with the American soldiers, Texas Rangers and posses of Anglo ranchers and then with the Confederate Army.

By the time Reconstruction was over, General Cortina was known by the colorful sobriquet “the Red Robber of the Rio Grande.”  While his opportunistic support for the Union side during the Civil War and defense of legitimate Tejano claims had earned him some American friends, his participation in rustling won him the lasting enmity of powerful ranching interests and so he retreated to Mexico to rule over the south bank of the river as a sort of grand jefe.  While he had once been active in Democratic Party politics on the American side of the border, he now lived the life of an outlaw from American justice and a thorn in the side of Mexican-American relations.  Cortina changed sides in internal Mexican politics faster than he changed his finely silvered sombrerosand it was his “Cortina first, foremost and always” policy that eventually caught up with the old general.  However, in the months after McNelly’s unit was formed, Cortina commanded a large force of riders, who rode in support of the rustlers and collected taxes for each head of beef that managed to swim the wide, muddy Rio Grande.

In the weeks before his fateful crossing of the river into Mexico, Captain McNelly made no secret of the fact that he intended to pursue bandits across the river, and some of the less enthusiastic Rangers quit rather than join the incursion.  Tensions on the border were running high and the United States Army had been tempted to cross the river itself, so high was their frustration with not being able to stop the stolen cattle herds and the constant violations of American sovereignty.  On November 18, 1875, McNelly crossed the river on foot with the intention of liberating a herd of about 250 stolen cattle and killing whoever got in his way.   In a soupy mist his men invaded a settlement that they said was Las Cuevas. When a guard opened fire on them, the skirmish line opened up on a number of armed men, killing several of them – four in his official reports, but other accounts were higher.  With the alarm sounded, the Texas Rangers were soon confronted with a large force of hundreds of angry vaqueros and outlaws, but McNelly’s outnumbered men gave a good account of themselves with their Sharps rifles and the Mexican commander General Juan Flores Salinas was among the Mexican casualties.

The American forces on the Texas bank of the river gave some support to McNelly’s command, apparently with a Gattling Gun, and an uneasy standoff ensued with the Americans demanding the return of the stolen herd before they would agree to stay on their side of the river.  By telegraph, American authorities demanded that McNelly cease his invasion, which had blown up into an international incident.  It is part of Ranger lore than McNelly replied that “I shall remain in Mexico with my rangers…and will cross back at my own discretion.  Give my compliments to the Secretary of War and tell him and the United States soldiers to go to hell. “ No official record of such a telegram exists, but within a few days, a herd of stolen cattle were returned to American authorities.

Amazingly, Captain McNelly did not lose a single man in his crossing of the Rio Grande, but the incursion was a major turning point in the battle to control the Nueces Strip.  Cortina’s men learned that they were no longer safe on their side of the river and that the large-scale raids would not be tolerated by Texas or American authorities.  When McNelly’s patrols found men with rustled cattle or purloined goods, they were dispatched without trial.  It was harsh justice, but then the law had proved itself incapable of prosecuting rustlers who were able to intimidate witnesses. In a few short months, the lawless men who had made the region unsafe were jailed, killed or had fled to places where the price of being caught was less severe, and gradually the rule of law replaced that of men and the gun.

King Fisher (upper left)


King Fisher: Outlaw and Lawman

The last section of Taming the Nueces Strip is an account of McNelly’s frustrated pursuit of the outlaw chief King Fisher.  John King Fisher (1854-1884) was one of the colorful larger-than-life characters who populate the history of the American West.  He had a few brushes with justice and chose the life of an outlaw on the Nueces Strip, but in contrast to most of his criminal brethren, he had a keen mind and was a natural leader who was able to command not just fear, but some measure of respect.  Fisher dressed colorfully, wearing the short black jacket of a Vaquero, but decorated with gold.  He wore a crimson sash at his waist and his gunbelt was filled with two ivory-handled Colts.  Fisher’s ensemble was topped with a large ornamented sombrero.

King Fisher ruled a large territory from his ranch, which was a haven for outlaws – its corrals were full of stolen beef from both sides of the border. When McNelly and his Texas Rangers first came to the region, they found a sign that stated “This is King Fisher’s Road, Take Another.”  Because he was able to marshal a large force of outlaws and had intimidated the local population, the young outlaw boss was able to rule his roost with impunity for a number of years. And because he raided in Mexico, his actions created even more tension in the remote border region.  Captain McNelly was able to surprise Fisher at his ranch and arrested him, only to see the rustler released due of a lack of evidence.  What set Fisher apart from other outlaws was his use of the law rather than the gun.  He depended on clever, well-paid lawyers rather than choosing to shoot it out with McNelly and his eventual replacement, Captain Jesse Lee Hall, and their men.

While McNelly and his comrades were never able to get the goods on King Fisher and convict him of horse theft, murder or cattle rustling, the trails took a toll on the young man and he decided to get married to his sweetheart and go straight.  He ran a large ranch near the old Army outpost of Eagle Pass, Texas and eventually became a popular Deputy Sheriff of Uvalde County.  Although he was not a drinker and carouser, in March of 1881 Fisher accompanied his friend Ben Thompson, the famous gunman, on a night on the town in San Antonio, where Thompson had killed a man and had enemies.  The two men were ambushed at the Vaudeville Variety Theatre. Thomson was killed immediately, but Fisher managed to draw leather and get off a shot in spite of being hit some thirteen times.  The outlaw prince died of his wounds and was taken back to his ranch for burial.

McNelly’s last months in the field were spent in assisting Judge Pleasants of De Witt County in the prosecution of defendants in cases that grew out of the legendary Sutton-Taylor feud that had cost many young Texans their lives.  By the end of his career, Captain McNelly’s form of justice and the ensuing controversies soon outlived their usefulness to Governor Coke and the other authorities in Austin and he was replaced by Captain Hall.  The frail, tubercular lawman was in a state of rapidly failing health anyway and in his last months in the field he was accompanied by a wagon, which he used to rest in. His wife was often along as well to nurse him.  After moving from hotel to hotel in his last months, Leander McNelly returned to his ranch in Burton, Texas, where he died at the age of 33 on September 4, 1877.

George Durham, the young lawman who narrated the story of McNelly’s Rangers, returned to the famous King Ranch, where he had noticed Caroline, the niece of King’s wife, on his first visit.  He was hired by Captain King, initially as a ranch hand and guard. Eventually, though, be became a noted stockman and foreman of the famous El Sauz division of the King Ranch.  George and Caroline Durham were married and spent the rest of their days in the ranch house Captain King built them when they married.  He spent his spare time enforcing the law and eventually his sons succeeded him as foremen at El Sauz.  When recounting the epic of McNelly’s Rangers, George Durham said that “when I go, I’ll go as a McNelly. He swore me into his outfit, and he never swore me out.”  The story of a man who could inspire such life-long loyalty from a man who served under him has many lessons for anyone interested in the history of the Old West, leadership or law enforcement.

Rating: 5 Stars

Jeffrey Morseburg

This entry was posted in Border region, King Ranch, Law enforcement, Mexican-American history, Texas history, Texas Rangers, Western ranching and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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