By Emerson Hough, 1907
A review of the story of the American desperado will show that he has always been most numerous at the edge of things, where there was a frontier, a debatable ground between civilization and lawlessness, or a border between opposing nations or sections. He does not wholly pass away with the coming of the law, but his home is essentially in a new and undeveloped condition of society. The edge between East and West, between North and South, made the territory of the bad man of the American interior.
The far Southwest was the oldest of all American frontiers and the stubbornest. We have never, as a nation, been at war with any other nation whose territory has adjoined our own except in the case of Mexico; and long before we went to war as a people against Mexico, Texas had been at war with her as a state, or rather as a population and a race against another race.
The frontier of the Rio Grande is one of the bloodiest of the world and was such long before Texas was finally admitted to the union. There was never any new territory settled by so vigorous and belligerent a population as that which first found and defended the great empire of the Lone Star. Her early men were, without exception, fighters, and she has bred fighters ever since.
The allurement which the unsettled lands of the Southwest had for the young men of the early part of the last century lay largely in the appeal of excitement and adventure, with a large possibility of worldly gain as well. The men of the South who drifted down the old River Road across Mississippi and Louisiana were shrewd in their day and generation. They knew that eventually Texas would be taken away from Mexico, and taken by force. Her vast riches would belong to those who had earned them. Men of the South were even then hunting for another West, and here was a mighty one. The call came back that the fighting was good all along the line; and the fighting men of all the South, from Virginia to Louisiana, fathers and sons of the boldest and bravest of Southern families, pressed on and out to take a hand. They were scattered and far from numerous when they united and demanded a government of their own, independent of the far-off and inefficient head of the Mexican law. They did not want Coahuila as their country, but Texas, and asked a government of their own. Lawless as they were, they wanted a real law, a law of Saxon right and justice.
Men like Crockett, Fannin, Travis, and Bowie were influenced half by political ambition and half by love of adventure when they moved across the plains of eastern Texas and took up their abode on the firing line of the Mexican border. If you seek a historic band of bad men, fighting men of the bitterest Baresark type, look at the immortal defenders of the Alamo. Some of them were, in the light of calm analysis, little better than guerrillas; but every man was a hero. They all had a chance to escape, to go out and join Sam Houston farther to the east; but they refused to a man, and, plying the border weapons as none but such as themselves might, they died, full of the glory of battle; not in ranks and shoulder to shoulder, with banners and music to cheer them, but each for himself and hand to hand with his enemy, a desperate fighting man.
The early men of Texas for generations fought Mexicans and Indians in turn. The country was too vast for any system of law. Each man had learned to depend upon himself. Each cabin kept a rifle and pistol for each male old enough to bear them, and each boy, as he grew up, was skilled in weapons and used to the thought that the only arbitrament among men was that of weapons.
Part of the population, appreciating the exemptions here to be found, was, without doubt, criminal; made up of men who had fled, for reasons of their own, from older regions. These in time, required the attention of the law; and the armed bodies of hard-riding Texas Rangers, a remedy born of necessity, appeared as the executives of the law.
The cattle days saw the wild times of the border prolonged. The buffalo range caught its quota of hard riders and hard shooters. And always the apparently exhaustless empires of new and unsettled lands — an enormous, untracked empire of the wild — beckoned on and on; so that men in the most densely settled sections were very far apart, and so that the law as a guardian could not be depended upon.
It was not to be wondered at that the name of Texas became the synonym for savagery. That was for a long time, the wildest region within our national confines. Many men who attained fame as fighters along the Pecos, Rio Grande, Gila, and Colorado Rivers came across the borders from Texas. Others slipped north into the Indian Nations, and left their mark there. Some went to the mines of the Rockies, or the cattle ranges from Montana to Arizona. Many stayed at home and finished their eventful lives there in the usual fashion — killing now and again, then oftener, until at length they killed once too often and got hanged; or not often enough once, and so got shot.
To undertake to give even the most superficial study to a field so vast as this would require a dozen times the space we may afford and would lead us far into matters of history other than those intended. We can only point out that the men of the Lone Star State left their stamp as horsemen and weapon-bearers clear on to the north, and as far as the foot of the Arctic Circle. Their language and their methods mark the entire cattle business of the plains from the Rio Grande to the Selkirks. Theirs was a great school for frontiersmen, and its graduates gave a full account of themselves wherever they went. Among them were bad men, as bad as the worst of any land, and in numbers not capable of compass even in a broad estimate.
Some citizens of Montgomery County, Texas, were not long ago sitting in a store of an evening, and they fell to counting up the homicides which had fallen under their notice in that county within recent memory. They counted up 75 authenticated cases, and could not claim comprehensiveness for their tally. Many a county of Texas could do as well or better, and there are many counties. It takes you two days to ride across Texas by railway. A review of the bad man field of Texas pauses for obvious reasons!
So many bad men of Texas attained a reputation far wider than their state that it became a proverb upon the frontier that any man born on Texas soil would shoot, just as any horse born there would “buck.” There is truth back of most proverbs, although today both horses and men of Texas are losing something of their erstwhile bronco character. That out of such conditions, out of this hardy and indomitable population, the great state could bring order and quiet so soon and so permanently over vast unsettled regions, is proof alike of the fundamental sternness and justness of the American character and the value of the American fighting man.
Yet, though peace hath her victories not less than war, it is to be doubted whether in her own heart Texas is more proud of her statesmen and commercial kings than of her stalwart fighting men, bred to the use of arms. The beautiful city of San Antonio is today busy and prosperous, yet today you tread there ground which has been stained red over and over again. The names of Crockett, Milam, Travis, Bowie, endure where those of captains of industry are forgotten. Out of history such as this, covering a half-century of border fighting, of frontier travel and merchandising, of cattle trade and railroad building, it is impossible — in view of the many competitors of equal claims — to select an example of bad eminence fit to bear the title of the leading bad man of Texas.
There was one somewhat noted Texas character, however, whose life comes down to modern times, and hence is susceptible of fairly accurate review — a thing always desirable, though not often practical, for no history is more distorted, not to say more garbled, than that dealing with the somewhat mythical exploits of noted gunfighters. Ben Thompson, of Austin, killer of more than twenty men, and a very perfect exemplar of the creed of the six-shooter, will serve as instance good enough for a generic application. Thompson was not a hero. He did no deeds of war. He led no forlorn hope into the imminent deadly breach. His name is preserved in no history of this great commonwealth. He was in the opinion of certain peace officers, all that a citizen should not be. Yet in his way he reached distinction; and so striking was his life that even today he does not lack apologists, even as he never lacked friends. Ben Thompson was of English descent and was born near Lockhart, Texas, according to general belief, though it is stated that he was born in Yorkshire, England. Later his home was in Austin, where he spent the greater part of his life, though roaming from place to place.