Separating Fact From Fiction in the Texas Rangers’ Bloody History

Traveling exhibit reexamines border killings

Originally on display in 2016 at the Bullock Texas State History Museum, "Life and Death on the Border 1910–1920" will travel throughout the state from 2023-2025 (courtesy of Bullock Museum)

Two hundred years after the founding of the Texas Rangers, educational nonprofit Refusing to Forget has shed light on the dirt tainting the Rangers’ famous white hats.

They’re doing it by transforming an exhibit previously at the Bullock Texas State History Museum into a traveling exhibit.

During a period from 1910 to 1920 known as “La Matanza,” Anglo settlers, including local law enforcement and Texas Rangers, killed hundreds (maybe thousands) of Mexicans and Mexican Americans along the Texas-Mexico border. In 2014, a group of history and literature professors largely from Texas founded Refusing to Forget to educate the public about these atrocities and highlight the border community’s strength.

Refusing to Forget members spoke with descendants of the Rangers’ victims about meaningful ways to remember the past. Above all, descendants said they wanted the truth about these little-known events to be told, said Sonia Hernández, Refusing to Forget co-founder and associate professor of history at Texas A&M. “We wanted to share the dark moments because we felt that it was necessary,” Hernández says. “Not to dwell on these horrific events, but we wanted people to know what had taken place. We also wanted the public to know that these families and community residents and some officials stood up and they spoke up against these atrocities.”

In 2022, Refusing to Forget got funding from the American Historical Association in partnership with the National Endowment for the Humanities to convert their “Life and Death on the Border 1910-1920” exhibit. It will hit the road during the bicentennial of the Texas Rangers’ founding and extend into 2024, making stops in McAllen, Houston, and Dallas. John Morán González, a Refusing to Forget co-founder and English professor at UT-Austin, says they chose to mark this occasion because of the continued glorification of the Rangers.

“The mythology of the Rangers is still very much present in Texas and it’s uncritically defended,” Morán González said. “Tell the history of the Rangers, but tell all of it. Not just the mythology, not just the good guys in white hats version, but rather the messiness of racialized policing and state violence that is also equally their legacy.”

The pared-down, digitized version of the exhibit paints a picture of life on the border through huge images of artifacts that were on display in the original exhibit (wedding dresses, quilts, saddles). It also displays transcripts from Texas Rangers legislative hearings, says Kathryn Siefker, a senior curator at the Bullock. With these artifacts telling a story, Siefker says Refusing to Forget hoped host institutions would include local artifacts to personalize the exhibit while sharing the same story.

Meanwhile, Refusing to Forget launched an “On This Day” social media campaign in January. Throughout the year, the nonprofit will share historical vignettes on their website and on Twitter, not only of racialized violence but also “of resistance and reform, of accountability, of seeking justice, of seeking restitution, of seeking reconciliation,” Morán González said. Although there’s plenty to love about the Lone Star State, Hernández says, “It won’t make us less Texan if we talk about and reflect upon dark moments in our state.”

“Life and Death on the Border 1910-1920” will make its first stop at the South Texas College Pecan Campus in McAllen, opening on Feb. 9.
 See more on the project at refusingtoforget.org.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

Texas Rangers, Refusing to Forget, La Matanza, Bullock Texas State History Museum, Sonia Hernandez, John Moran Gonzalez, Kathryn Siefker

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