Six-Shooters and Shifting Sands: The Wild West Life of Texas Ranger Captain Frank Jones
by Bob Alexander
Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2015
468 pp. $34.95 cloth
Depending on who you ask, the Texas Rangers are either idolized or villified. Many hold on to the image of the Rangers as stalwart defenders of law and order who brought justice to the frontier. Others highlight their misdeeds, interpreting the Rangers as the enforcers of the white establishment that displaced Native and Mexican peoples in the process of conquering their land. While the first interpretation was commonly accepted and espoused long before events such as the 1936 Texas Centennial, the latter view has become increasingly popular as historians rightfully seek to reinterpret the past in order to give voice and perspective from previously excluded groups. Bob Alexander’s Six-Shooters and Shifting Sands: The Wild West Life of Texas Ranger Captain Frank Jones seeks to frustrate holders of each interpretation by giving a well-researched and unbiased portrayal of Ranger Frank Jones.
Alexander proves to be a fabulous writer as he laces his narrative with colloquialisms and occasional commentary on many of the sensational events surrounding the life of Frank Jones. There is plenty of flair and bravado that spices up the narrative. However, it is a mistake to dismiss Six-Shooters and Shifting Sands as sensationalism lacking academic merit. Alexander is a former law enforcement officer who spent enormous effort researching archived primary sources and reading the relevant academic literature to his subject. His book, reflecting his effort, is a valuable contribution not just to readers seeking to learn more about the Texas Rangers, but also to those looking for insight into the larger history of the Southwest.
During the nineteenth century, the Southwest was being transformed by American expansion and conflict with indigenous tribes (such as the Comanche and Kiowa) and Mexico. Frank Jones, despite being born in 1856 in Austin, grew up in the Texas Hill Country amid raids and frontier violence where several of his family members had fought and (like his older brother Willis) died battling the Comanche. Doing the majority of his work as a Ranger after the Red River War, Jones served at a time when the Rangers were transitioning from being fierce fighting bands to an organized and professional law enforcement agency. Showing a strong sense of duty and bravery in work mostly along border regions of Texas, Jones worked his way up the ranks to become the captain of Ranger Company D. Along his career history were missions to bring peace to feuds such as the Hoo-Doo War and the Woodpecker/Jaybird War, to protecting Hill Country ranchers from fence cutters, to hunting and capturing wanted fugitives, to arresting South Texas bandits crossing over from Mexico, and run-ins with South Texas politicians and revolutionaries such as Catarino Garza.
While serving in the field, Jones also did the bureaucratic work of a company captain managing a unit of Rangers. Contrary to popular perception, Rangers were held accountable for their actions whether it was drunk and disorderly conduct or shooting horse-thieves. How well they were held accountable is a question that Alexander does not answer fully. It is unknown from Alexander’s writing how many Ranger arrests during Jones’s tenure actually led to convictions, thus leaving the reader to wonder about the quality of evidence (oftentimes gathered through informants) against the arrestees. Another issue, (one raised by Jones to his superiors) was the matter of uniforms for his men. Without uniforms, were those shot for resisting arrest actually resisting arrest, or were they reasonably defending themselves against unknown, armed assailants? Ultimately, Alexander’s book veers away from idolization by applying critical scrutiny to both Jones and the Rangers. Alexander doesn’t shy away from exposing prejudice by the Rangers towards people of color but shows how they are reflective of the larger Anglo-American culture from which they came. Neither does Alexander shy away from applying the same scrutiny to the White, Mexican, or indigenous peoples who came into conflict with the Rangers. In Alexander’s writing, all sides are treated equally without one being given the benefit of the doubt as to who shot first.
For the reader looking for an objective analysis of the Texas Rangers, Six-Shooters and Shifting Sands undoubtedly leaps above previous works in Ranger history such as Walter Prescott Webb’s Texas Rangers. However, it would not be a satisfying read if the aim of the reader is to look at Texas History from the perspective of Comanches or Tejanos. Nonetheless, Six-Shooters and Shifting Sands is a great addition to a traditional subject that, like the sands along the Rio Grande where Frank Jones was killed in an 1893 gunfight, is also changing with the currents of time.
Joseph Fox is a Graduate Student and Instructional Assistant in the History program at Texas State University. He has written articles for the Handbook of Tejano History, a historical marker for the Texas Historical Commission, and he is currently researching the relationship between musicians and rival Texas brewing companies such as Lone Star, Pearl, and Shiner.