In the early 1900’s, South Texas was a world apart from the rest of Texas. Its southernmost city, Brownsville, was a remote corner of the state with closer ties to Mexico than to the United States. Unlike the other Texas cities, it was not connected to the Texas Railroad System and had little contact with cities above the Nueces River. Although they had Hispanic majorities, the counties below the Nueces, or “Nueces Strip,” were dominated by Anglo ranchers and powerful politicians referred to as “Bosses.” In return for cheap labor and unswerving loyalty, the ranchers provided care to Mexicans whenever they needed it. Large ranches, such as the King Ranch, were like feudal estates.
In 1904, things began to change with the arrival of the railroad. Mostly from the Midwest, hundreds of farmers arrived by train looking for opportunity and bearing a deep disdain of Mexicans and political bosses. Mexicans were viewed as lazy, ignorant wage slaves – inferior in every way like the livestock they tended. Local politics became volatile as bosses and farming communities vied for power, especially in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Into this turbulent mix, a force for radical change was inserted from south of the border.
The Mexican Revolution brought about an opportunity to turn the tables on local politics. In 1910, many South Texas Hispanics were influenced by the radical ideas “La Revolucion” planted. One such idea was the “Plan of San Diego.” The plan called for a massive uprising among Hispanics, Native Americans and all other disgruntled minorities. Texas and the other Southwest states were to be overthrown by force and later annexed by Mexico or converted into separate republics. Needless to say, such a plan did not sit well with white Texas politicians, businessmen and law enforcement officials. The plan was first brought to light with the arrest of revolutionist Basilio Ramos in McAllen. The plan was considered, by a judge, to be so fantastic in scope that he thought Ramos was a lunatic.
Inspired by the plan, a number of guerrilla raids broke out in the summer of 1915. Collectively, these raids became known as the “Bandit War.” During its six month course, ranches were attacked, businesses looted, railroad tracks sabotaged and innocent civilians shot out of hand. The war began in earnest with a raid conducted by forty Mexican irregulars or “Sediciosos” led by a red haired, freckle faced revolutionist named Luis de la Rosa. They killed two ranchers at Lyford and shot a boy while looting a store near Raymondville.
Texas Governor James E. Ferguson felt harsh measures were needed to quell the uprising. He couldn’t have picked a more brutal person to initiate them – a Texas Ranger captain with a itchy trigger finger. Forty-one year old Henry Lee Ransom was a former Houston police chief who was actually fired for being too violent. He learned his craft while serving in the army during the Philippine Insurrection (1899-1903), a dark chapter in U.S. History where many Filipinos were imprisoned, tortured and executed. Ransom’s approach to law enforcement was brutally simple: “Shoot first. Ask questions later!” Two weeks after De la Rosa’s raid, Captain Ransom arrived in Harlingen to begin operations. Governor Ferguson later recalled that he had given Ransom instructions “to go down there and clean up that nest, that thing had been going on long enough, and to clean it up if he had to kill every damned man connected with it.” Ransom would follow the Governor’s instructions to the letter.
De la Rosa’s guns had barely cooled before he struck again on August 6, 1915. He and fourteen Sediciosos raided the town of Sebastian, thirty miles north of Brownsville. They robbed a store and executed A.L. Austin, the vigilante president of the Sebastian Law and Order League. Ransom responded by killing three Mexican ranchers while trying to head off de la Rosa’s band.
Because of its stature and proximity, the King Ranch was an obvious target. The Norias Division Headquarters of the King Ranch consisted of a large two story house for the ranch hands and a railroad section house for railroad employees who maintained the nearby tracks. In addition to the headquarters personnel were eight soldiers from Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. Sixty of De la Rosas’s cohorts attacked the Norias headquarters on August 8. In addition to the Sediciosos, twenty-five soldiers of the revolutionary general, Venustiano Carranza, joined de la Rosa. Railroad Customs Inspector D. Portus Gay spotted the Sediciosos from the section house. “Look at those big hats,” he said, “they are damned bandits!” The Sediciosos charged the ranch house with a piercing yell, but were met with deadly fire from the soldiers’ Springfield rifles. They were forced to retreat, leaving behind four dead. Two ranch hands and two soldiers were wounded. One elderly Mexican woman was shot through the mouth after calling one of the Sediciosos a “cowardly bastard of a white burra” to his face.
Norias Ranch House
In retaliation, Ransom’s men began executing Mexicans by the score. To make matters worse, the farming communities formed vigilante committees to circumvent local law enforcement and deal directly with suspected Sediciosos – often with a rope and a sturdy tree branch. Anglo residents began leaving their farms in the Nueces Strip for safer sanctuaries up north while Mexicans fled south to Mexico. Victims of Ransom’s “clean up” were found in tidy rows among the chaparral - bullet holes in the middle of their foreheads. Before the end of September 1915, two to three hundred Mexicans were executed.
On October 18, 1915, the most spectacular of the Sedicioso raids took place on a railroad track just north of Brownsville. Sixty Sediciosos pulled out a rail, causing a small train of one baggage car and two passenger cars to derail. An engineer was killed during the derailment while the fireman was badly scalded. Two soldiers, a former Texas Ranger, and a prominent state doctor were shot. The Sediciosos escaped back to Mexico. Ransom responded by killing three Mexicans that lived nearby.
President Woodrow Wilson realized that Mexico was the key to ending the uprising. Sedicioso cells operated openly across the border in Matamoros. Officers of General Carranza supported them with arms and men. Wilson, however, had a trump card to overturn Carranza’s support –foreign recognition of Carranza as President of Mexico. Northern Mexico was home to three noted revolutionaries: Pancho Villa, Pascual Orozco and Venustiano Carranza. All were vying for U.S. recognition of their claims to the Mexican presidency. Wilson hated Carranza but the other Latin American countries supported him. He extended recognition to Carranza who now had to remove the Sedicioso bases or face a possible U.S. invasion and loss of support. Showing that it meant business, the U.S. Army increased its troop strength on the border to 31,400. Carranza brought an end to the Sedicioso raids.
Ransom’s operations in South Texas are a dark passage in the history of the Texas Rangers and remain a source of heated controversy today. Ransom himself met an abrupt end in 1918 while staying at a hotel in Sweetwater. Upon hearing gunfire outside the door of his room, he walked out into the hallway and into the middle of a gunfight between two hotel guests. One of the guests accidentally shot him.