At the beginning of the Civil War, the United States immediately withdrew all of their troops from Texas and the South to form the Union Army. This situation left the Texas frontier unprotected and defenseless against the raiding Comanche, Kiowa and Apache. As a result of these raids, the edge of the frontier was driven back nearly 200 miles.
After the close of the war, the Texas frontier remained lawless throughout the Reconstruction period from 1865 to 1873. In 1874, the escalating numbers of murders, robberies and feuds throughout the area between the Neuces, Guadalupe and the Rio Grande was so severe that Gov. Richard Coke and the Texas Legislature decided to organize a battalion of Texas Rangers consisting of five 75-man companies. This would be the first permanent ranger force and would provide organized law enforcement for Texas during the next 25 years.
Major John B. Jones was selected to command the battalion. During the 25 years the battalion operated, they eliminated the Indian threat and captured, killed in gun battles or hanged the worst outlaws in Texas.
To combat the lawlessness on the frontier, Jones placed his five companies in strategic locations and focused on intercepting or capturing gangs of rustlers and Indian raiders.
The battalion fought 15 separate Indian battles and recovered herds of rustled cattle during the first year of operation. In one major attack led by Kiowa Chief Lone Wolf on the ranch of Oliver Loving, the Rangers defeated the Kiowa raiders in the Battle of Lost Valley and seriously reduced the severity of their raids into Texas. (Oliver Loving along with Charles Goodnight developed the Goodnight-Loving Cattle Trail from Texas to Kansas and both were the subjects for the characters Woodrow Call and Gus McRae in the movie “Lonesome Dove,” covered in a previous Snapshot.)
The Rangers eventually were successful in making the northwest portion of the frontier safer from Comanche and Kiowa raids. However, the Mescalero Apaches led by Victorio still raided along the Rio Grande.
Capt. John R. Baylor’s company was assigned the area between the Guadalupe River valley, San Antonio and the eastern part of the Big Bend country to combat the Apache threat.
In a combined effort with the U.S. Army and the Mexican officials, Baylor pursued Victorio across the Rio Grande where the Mexican army joined the fight and trapped the Apaches in the Diablo Mountains. Victorio was killed along with many of his warriors.
In 1874, Capt. Leander McNelly was selected to command Company A and directed to set up his headquarters on the Nueces River. His area of operations ranged from the Guadalupe River to the Nueces and Rio Grande.
That year was the beginning of one of the longest running feuds in Texas, the Taylor-Sutton Feud, which took place in Seguin, Gonzales and DeWitt County.
McNelly and his Rangers arrived in Gonzales in August and spent four months suppressing the feud, but McNelly became sick from consumption and returned to his farm to recuperate. The feud would again flair up across the three counties and cost 35 lives. The feud involved people such as John Wesley Hardin, Texas Ranger Creed Taylor, William Sutton and Jack Helm, who was killed by Hardin. The feud was covered in a previous snapshot.
In April 1875, only days after McNelly moved his command from the Guadalupe valley, he received word that a gang of Mexican bandits had robbed a local mercantile and made off with 18 fancy saddles adorned with silver conchos. He and his Rangers immediately left to track down any man riding a fancy saddle. His orders were to kill any man riding a fancy saddle that couldn’t prove he owned it legally. They were to leave the body where it lay and bring the saddle back to the store.
To help McNelly and his Rangers, the merchants and ranchers in the area bought and furnished all with the single-shot .50 caliber Sharps rifle and all the ammunition they could carry. Most of the rustlers and Mexican bandits were armed with the new Henry repeating rifle, but the Sharps had a longer range and was more accurate.
The Rangers needed good horses to combat the well mounted outlaws so Richard King, owner of the King Ranch, provided excellent horses. He had been losing both horses and cattle to the rustlers and was very willing to help.
McNelly received word that a large gang of rustlers was herding more than 300 head of cattle along the coast toward Brownsville.
McNelly set a trap at sunrise as the rustlers approached the Rio Grande. When the bandits discovered the Rangers, they drew up into a line and started firing their carbines at a distance of 150 yards.
McNelly gave the order to advance and ride them down, yelling “I don’t think they can shoot well enough to hit any of us. Don’t fire until you’re sure of killing every time.”
The Rangers started toward the Mexican rustlers and into a volley of fire. Three of the Rangers’ horses went down and Ranger R.L. Smith fell dead. The Mexicans stood their ground for a minute then turned and fled, followed closely by the Rangers. Nearly every Ranger’s shot brought down one of the raiders. Thirteen of the 14 raiders were killed.
The leaders of the rustlers, Espinoso, was thrown from his horse and quickly jumped into a “hog wallow.” McNelly had seen him and took shelter in another one. Then they fought a duel. At last McNelly played a trick on the bandit. McNelly aimed his carbine at the top of Espinoso’s hog wallow and then fired his pistol into the air. Espinoso raised his head and in the next instant a bullet passed through it. Espinoso was a lieutenant in the army of Mexican General Cortina’s cattle rustling business.
McNelly ordered the bodies to be displayed in the town square as a warning to others who might think about rustling cattle or stealing horses.
Because of deteriorating health, McNelly retired and returned to his ranch north of Gonzales where he died from tuberculosis on Sept. 4, 1877.
Company A of the battalion operated near Eagle Pass and Laredo where they arrested more than 50 men under Gen. William Walker who was organizing an army to invade Mexico and overthrow President Parfirio Diaz. The Frontier Battalion continued to operate against rustlers and bandits until 1892.
Ranger James Gillett recorded that Company A of the Frontier Battalion ranged from the Guadalupe, Nueces, Llano and Devine rivers to the Rio Grande and had duty in Seguin and Gonzales, plus all of DeWitt and Guadalupe counties.
A member of Company A of the battalion was Antonio Magnon who saw duty in the Nueces River valley and Laredo. He is the ancestor of Dr. Robert Magnon, a Seguin dermatologist with an office located on East Walnut Street.
Another connection to Seguin’s history is the fact that Dr. Magnon’s wife, Karen Cole Magnon, is a descendent of the King family of Rangers who helped organize Walnut Springs and Seguin in 1838.