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The Arizona Rangers: Arizona Territory’s ‘Rough-Riding Police’

Arizona Rangers were used to keep the peace during a copper mining strike in the Morenci-Clifton area in 1903. Courtesy Arizona Library Archives

In 1901, Arizona was a perilous place to be. Law and order had not yet arrived, and cattle rustlers, horse thieves, stagecoach robbers, and smugglers were making life – and business – difficult.

Two of the territory’s largest cattle owners were seriously considering moving to other ranges. And the level of violence was even standing in the way of Arizona Territory gaining statehood.

So in March of 1901, Governor Nathan Oakes Murphy pushed through legislation creating and funding the Arizona Rangers – and shaped Arizona history.

‘Rough Riders’ of the Range

At first, the Arizona Rangers consisted of just fourteen men: Captain Burton C. Mossman of Bisbee, Sergeant John E. Campbell, and twelve privates. 

Mossman was former superintendent of the Aztec Land and Cattle Company – the “Hash Knife” outfit – covering 2 million acres in northern Arizona. Mossman was well practiced in dealing with cattle thieves, with a reputation for coolness and skill handling a revolver. 

The rest of the men hailed from throughout Arizona, bringing familiarity with its trails, watering holes, hidden canyons, and hideouts. They were cattlemen, cowboys, and police officers. One was a farmer, and one was a former waiter from New York. All fourteen had reputations for endurance and courage. 

They were expected to be expert marksmen, trackers, and horsemen, as well as experienced cowboys. 

Many of them were veterans of the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry under Colonel Theodore Roosevelt – known as the Rough Riders – which saw combat in the Spanish-American War and won fame for its part in the Battle of San Juan Hill. 

The Arizona Rangers were governed by U.S. military rules and regulations. The men received decent wages – $125 per month for the captain, $75 for the sergeant, and $55 for the enlisted men, which in today’s dollars would be equivalent to around $4,400, $2,640, and $1,900, respectively. 

They had to provide their own horses, but the territory paid for their arms and ammo. According to one report, they carried the most modern weapons available at the time. 

And they had carte blanche to arrest any criminal they encountered, anywhere in the territory.

Each Ranger had to submit a weekly report to the governor. One such report read:

Left Clifton and scouted toward San Francisco mountains river. Arrested Mexican at Rattlesnake Gulch, turned over to authorities at Clifton. Went out after Jose Jacon, murderer. Killed resisting arrest.

The Arizona Rangers had been modeled after the Texas Rangers, an organization founded in 1823 by Stephen F. Austin – the “Father of Texas” – to protect families who had settled in the border area after the Mexican War of Independence. Over the years, the Texas Rangers fought the Cherokee, the Comanche, and other Native Americans, and they mustered into federal service during the Mexican-American War. In the second part of the 1800s, the Texas Rangers served a crucial law enforcement role in Texas, similar to the one the Arizona Rangers provided in Arizona.

Arizona Rangers were used to keep the peace during a copper mining strike in the Morenci-Clifton area in 1903. Courtesy Arizona Library Archives

Daring and Effective

By March of 1903, the Arizona Rangers had earned a reputation for being daring and effective. “Arizona Rangers a Terror to ‘Bad Men’ of the Border,” one headline read. 

They had already “cleaned out” much of the criminal element in the territory, making a total of 125 arrests. And the deterrent effect had led many more criminals to vacate the territory. 

According to one news report of the time, thanks to the Rangers, cattle rustling was “getting to be a thing of the past in Arizona.”

The Rangers succeeded in part because they were outside parties, with independence from local politics. According to one newspaper report, in many areas of the territory, criminals and local politicians knew one another – they might have grown up together in the town – or had come to mutually beneficial agreements. 

The Rangers had no such considerations.

Their success came, though, at the cost of two Rangers’ lives. These men’s places were quickly filled – there was a waiting list of those who wanted to wear the Ranger’s badge.

In 1904, the legislature voted to continue the Rangers program for another three years, and increased the size of the force to twenty-six: one captain, one lieutenant, four sergeants, and twenty privates. Captain Mossman departed to return to ranching, to be replaced by Captain Thomas Rynning, a former lieutenant in the Rough Riders. 

The Arizona Rangers garnered a reputation for integrity, determination, and commitment to public service. According to one writer of the time, “The history of the rangers, under whatever leadership, was one of devotion and rare courage.”

‘Mistakes’ and Repeal

There were problems, however. One report from Bisbee describes a Ranger pistol-whipping peace-abiding residents on the streets of the town in 1904, in a “savage and brutal display of unwarranted authority.” And a 1905 newspaper editorial refers to members of the Rangers making unspecified “mistakes.” 

When the third and last captain of the Arizona Rangers, Harry C. Wheeler, took the reins in 1907, he established a rigorous training program and Code of Conduct, imposing a new level of discipline on the organization.

But the year 1909 brought an end to the Arizona Rangers. The legislature discontinued the program, apparently under political pressure from county sheriffs and district attorneys in the northern part of the state. 

During the Rangers’ eight years of operation, a total of 107 men served. The Arizona Rangers had made some 4,000 arrests, and approximately 1,000 of those had been for serious felonies. 

They had succeeded in their mission – “to clean up the country” – and in the process created their own lasting myth: of competence, hardiness, and devotion to justice.  

The Rangers returned in 1957, with the founding of a nonprofit organization that also called itself the Arizona Rangers, and included four members of the original group. The new Arizona Rangers received official recognition in 2002. Its 500+ members are all unpaid volunteers who receive special training. They have no law enforcement authority but provide “support and assistance” to Arizona law enforcement officials and officers, government and nonprofit security services, and youth support and community services.

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