Thanks to the variety available on cable television, on many nights my wife nestles within the covers and watches re-runs of the Lone Ranger right before she goes to sleep. It is a great, comforting way to end the day, with Tonto and the noble, crime fighting hero of our childhood riding off into the horizon, crying “Hi- Yo Silver- awaaaay!”
According to many Lone Ranger aficionados, the legend of the Lone Ranger has been forming since Zane Grey published a book called The Lone Star Ranger in 1915. Nobody really knows the degree with which Grey's bestseller impacted Fran Striker's radio character, who began America's love affair with the masked crusader. But there can be no doubt that Zane Grey's saga certainly provided a prototype for Striker's plot, theme, subject and setting. Hunted by the law and outlaws, Fran Striker's ranger was six foot-two, moved like a panther, and wore two ivory handled Colts, almost mirroring Grey's character.
Striker seems to have morphed Grey's basics into a serial superhero show, but both works stand unique and need not compete with one another. Perhaps not coincidentally, both authors and their legends were aggressively published and distributed by Grosset and Dunlap, with permission from Harper & Bros. Just the similarity of names suggests at least a superficial kinship. Not only was The Lone Ranger extracted from The Lone Star Ranger, but Tonto got his name from another of Grey's most famous titles, Under The Tonto Rim. Recent scholarship, some fairly elastic, has tried to speculate on the deeper origins of the Lone Ranger, connecting the popular mythical character to at least two real lawmen from actual history. Therefore I am much less reluctant to share my own speculations!
A few years ago I purchased some artifacts purported to be from Zane Grey's estate, being auctioned on the Internet, including original Texas Ranger photos, a 1915 newspaper clipping provided by Henry Romeike Inc. of New York, and the proof sheet from Harper & Bros for Grey’s dedication of the book. These items were acquired because of my professional research for a sculpture project, but like most historic research, one focus was leading me straight into another. Soon the story these papers were trying to tell got me interested in an heretofore unrecorded, yet possibly important historic friendship.
And one simple narrative proves it:
A young cowboy gunslinger, very tall and Hollywood handsome, who comes from a family of gunmen, finds himself in a running battle with a murderous outlaw, in a kill-or-be-killed feud that can be settled only with his death or theirs. He kills his enemy, and flees his boyhood home to avoid prosecution, and enters into a dark world, where he continuously encounters the indiscriminate line between outlaw and criminal. He falls into bad company, a criminal element intent on robbing. But in a strange turn of events he becomes a lawman instead, a Texas Ranger, and ends up a fierce crime-fighter, and although he does not always win his battles, he is still a formidable ranger who takes out many dangerous outlaws and even gains the praises of the governor.
This is Zane Grey's basic plot in his book The Lone Star Ranger. It is also the true story of Ranger Frank Hamer.
While Zane Grey was becoming one of the hottest writers in America, the movie industry wasted no time bringing his stories to the silent screen. In 1919 William Farnum made a crack at playing the part of Grey's majestic Buck Duane, and then in 1923 Tom Mix starred in another version of the book. Then it was remade as a “talkie” in 1930, and then revisited as The Last of the Duanes the same year, and then that was redone again in 1941. Buck Duane, the “Lone Star Ranger” was well established in Western lore when Fran Striker is believed by many to have adapted the character into his radio programs, and then wrote many books featuring his character, simplified and souped-up and called the the Lone Ranger. Soon this popular American hero was being interpreted in comic books, movies and on television, and became a popular and permanent American icon in the 1940's.
The proof sheet for the dedication by Zane Gray to Capt. Hughes and his Texas Rangers. From an unrelated collection, the bronze badge is very similar to ones worn by Texas Rangers during that period.
In the author's dedication of The Lone Star Ranger, Grey chose to dedicate his saga of Buck Duane to Captain John Hughes and his Texas Rangers. It has often been assumed that Zane Grey had been so smitten with Texas Ranger Captain Hughes that he based his original hero on this legendary ranger after visiting Texas in 1913. But the character he invented did not really resemble Hughes very much. Hughes was way beyond his prime.
A previously unpublished photograph of Captain John R. Hughes, probably taken by Zane Grey, and found in his personal collection.
The Lone Star Ranger was young and big and handsome, but a dangerous and conflicted character, a bad boy gone good, a one-in-a-thousand outlaw-turned-hero, rising out of the lawless border region of the American southwest. Zane Grey wrote in his dedication…
“It may seem strange to you that out of all the stories I heard on the Rio Grande I should choose as first that of Buck Duane- outlaw and gunman.
But, indeed, Ranger Coffee’s story of the last of the Duanes has haunted me, and I have given full rein to the imagination and retold it in my own way. It deals with the old law- the old border days- therefore it is better first. Soon, perchance, I shall have the pleasure of writing the border of today, which in Joe Sitter’s laconic speech, 'Shore is ‘most as bad an’ wild as ever!' ”
In the book's dedication Grey reminisced about his sojourn with the Texas Rangers, about the legendary tracker Joe Sitters and others, whom he met probably in April of 1913, (Thanks to Ranger historian Mike Cox) and spoke fondly of, as if he had made lifelong friends and found lasting heroes... at least he could say he had actually met real Texas Rangers... and name them by name...
“Gentlemen, I have the honor to dedicate this book to you, and the hope that it shall fall to my lot to tell the world the truth about a strange, unique, and misunderstood body of men- The Texas Rangers…”
Grey's dedication provided a public thank you to the law enforcement agency which had allowed him to embed with them and study their character and methods. And it gave instant credibility to the story in the book. It also gave Grey a chance to forecast his next project, which he wanted to be about the “modern” Texas Rangers with whom he was so impressed. But cleverly inserted within his glowing praise, was a decoy allusion which has never been verified.
A Ranger Coffee had told him an irresistible tale about father and son gunslingers supposedly named Duane, and their triumph over the worst of border outlaws: the last of the Duanes. Grey made another distinction, that The Lone Star Ranger was about “the old law,” administered along the border in the early days, and that he had “retold” the story his own way, “given full reign to the imagination,” which means that when he got through with it, the rangers would probably not recognize it. But was Grey borrowing from Mark Twain's playbook and merely using “Ranger Coffee,” a trustworthy third party, and his haunting story to give the book an authentic and timeless appeal?
There was a retired ranger, Major A. B. or “Bob” Coffee, who was made Commander of the Ex-Rangers Association fifteen years later in 1931. Having been associated with the rangers since 1879 and obviously interested in the history of the organization, he might well have visited with Grey. Most rangers were not big talkers and they had learned through experience not to trust journalists. It is possible that Captain Hughes passed off the dapper wordsmith who was hunting for tales to A. B. Coffee, if he possessed the gift of gab. But there is no record of any rangers named Duane.
Not to play spoiler, but The Lone Star Ranger is set squarely in the career of one of the greatest of the great Texas Rangers, Capt. Leander McNelly who died in 1875. Even though Grey modified the spelling to “MacNelly,” there can be no mistaking the time period from the association with Company “A,” their border conflicts, and several situational markers during that time, especially McNelly's clever use of undercover agents. If Coffee told these stories, they were secondhand. But there is no doubt that Grey had learned a great deal about the famous Texas Ranger “Frontier Battalion” somewhere, and their real adversaries such King Fisher, also mentioned in the text.
The Duanes were obviously a creation of Zane Grey's imagination, that gave the author a basic theme of inherited sin, and the difficult escape from it, which propelled his main character. There was probably never a ranger whose life created a pattern for the Buck Duane saga. But with every great story, there is usually a germ of truth which provides the author some bones of the plot, and useful realistic details. And no doubt many a Western buff has wondered who provided those bones.
In the not too distant past, Bill O'Reilly produced a segment in his Legends & Lies television series which purported to have solved the mystery of where Fran Striker got his idea for the Lone Ranger. The show featured a long-overdue recognition of Oklahoma's Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves, one of the few Black Deputy U.S. Marshals to have ever been commissioned by the U.S. Marshal Service during that era. O'Reilly's show had researched and found some similarities, such as Reeves's use of Indian trackers, and the show reasoned that the public would never have gone for a black hero when the radio show was popular, and thus he had to be changed to a white man.
A rare tintype of (I believe) Deputy U. S. Marshal Bass Reeves
and his wife. One of the great unsung stories of the American West...
I was a bit dumbstruck. Convinced that Striker had built his ranger on Zane Grey's classic, and that even Duane's looks, geography and battles had been woven into the Lone Ranger legend, it seemed beyond possibility that Striker was led to needlessly base his mysterious character on a remote U.S. Deputy Marshal who spent 95% of his career in Oklahoma. There were some intriguing parallels, but Bass Reeves was never a Texas Ranger. He was never a young outlaw who lived or worked along the Mexican border, and although he was a big man, he was not exactly romantic, leading-man material. He just did not fit and I felt O'Reilly had created a lie about a legend.
My evidence is only circumstantial, but it has a little more going for it, and may actually identify the true identity of the lawman who inspired Grey, and to some degree, perhaps even Fran Striker's adaptation. In the package I purchased were three snapshots of Texas Rangers, one of Captain Hughes and another (suggested by the seller) possibly of Joe Sitters, and a larger post card-sized photo of a handsome unknown ranger, whom I immediately recognized. The “unidentified” ranger was none other than Frank Hamer, newly rejoined with the Texas Rangers in 1915 after policing stints in Navasota and Houston.
Six foot- three, Frank Hamer, City Marshal of Navasota around 1910
And here is where my personal theory began to develop about the origins of the legendary “Lone Ranger.” One of the old tattered press clippings in my tiny Zane Grey collection was a newspaper article about the tragic ambush and murder in late May of 1916, of former ranger, Customs Inspector Joe Sitters and another ranger, who were serving as Rio Grande River guards. When asked by a reporter to comment on the double murder, Zane Grey lamented that it “was not so significant because it was the passing of the oldest and most famous of the Rangers, but because it typified Sitter’s laconic remark, spoken in conversation with the author a year ago, that conditions in the border country were 'most as bad and wild as ever'.”
The Media of that day failed as usual to get the real story from Grey or the tight-lipped Rangers, but what happened before that would have made a dandy book or a motion picture, except that nobody would talk about it. Grey's dumb luck had led him into a violent region, soon to be the ground of perhaps the last epic gun battles of the Wild West. He hooked up with Captain Hughes and soon met and traveled with some of the most deadly and notorious Texas Rangers who ever lived- some soon to perish in the line of duty.
A hardened Ranger veteran and man-tracker who had impressed Grey, Joe Sitters became known to the American reading public in his book's dedication, then ironically made the most costly mistake of his long and colorful career. Divided from the main search party, Inspector Sitters and Ranger Eugene Hulen had been shot, robbed and mutilated while tracking the notorious Chico Cano gang in the mountains of far west Texas. This was about a year after Zane Grey had tagged along with these men looking for excitement.
This places Grey on his second trip in Texas, during the spring of the same year that The Lone Star Ranger was finally published, after an unbelievable saga of rejections, rewrites and publishing twists and turns. The Lone Star Ranger was released in June of 1915, just a month or so after Zane Grey had made a pilgrimage, believed to be his second, to Ranger country and visited with the legendary Joe Sitters and others in my photographs. Perhaps he was researching another book, as he suggested in the dedication, he wanted to write another book on the "modern day" Rangers.
Due to publishing demands and interference, The Lone Star Ranger was not Zane Grey's best work, and in fact it was not his plan to release all the material that ended up under the title. Harper & Bros coerced him into melding two manuscripts into one, which killed its consistency and gave it an even more circuitous plot. As you read it you get the feeling that even Grey has gone through some terrible, dark ordeal much like his character. It was divided as Book I, The Outlaw, and Book II, The Ranger. The dead-end sub-plots and cameo appearances in Book I create a sweeping blur of tragedy and confusion and hardship which make the book seem longer than it is. Book II rescues the protagonist and places him squarely in the clutches of a wealthy, beautiful belle. The result was cryptic and clouded with mystery and pathos... and love overcomes... who knows, the patchwork may have made it that much more convincing.
What was actually transpiring was the devious kneading and bastardization of Grey's work. He had written Last of the Duanes in 1913, probably after his first trek through Texas, but it was rejected by Munsey's Magazine as too much blood and bullets for their readers. He came back with a sanitized serial called Rangers of the Lone Star in 1914, and it finally introduced Buck Duane and his battle with injustice. Curiously, Argosy Magazine then gladly printed his original story that same year, and then Harper & Bros took Last of the Duanes the next year and beefed it up with the last half of Rangers of the Lone Star to create The Lone Star Ranger. Ironically the amalgamation became another Zane Grey bestseller.
Last of the Duanes birthed a number of movies but was not actually published in its original form until 1996. The main character, Buck Duane, was supposedly a fictional character, forged from the depths of "Ranger Coffee's" arsenal of Ranger lore, but had amazing similarities to one of the rangers Grey may have met on that first trip, and certainly on his second. And the picture of the "unknown ranger" in my stash proves Grey was more than a little aware, possibly inspired by Frank Hamer, one of the most sensational rangers on the border, and an intriguing possible prototype for “Buck Duane.” A magazine book review released by Harper & Brothers offered that the story was “easily paralleled in real life.” But by whom?
A fact revealed much later in his biography, Ranger Frank Hamer ran with a rough crowd during his youth and was actually caught up in a bank robbery scheme when just a teenager, although he backed out at the last minute. He killed his first man, his own employer, who had ambushed him, in a classic showdown. He was just sixteen. And it seems the parallels won't quit, as the legend grew... After that first killing, Hamer reportedly went to his mother and vowed...
“Mother I wanted to be a preacher, but from this hour on I’m making a vow to God I will pursue outlaws relentlessly and bring them to justice.”
This line sounds like a line right out of a Dell comic book. Could this resolution have inspired the creator of the Lone Ranger legend to have his character make a similar one? Ranger Frank Hamer later mused how different his life might have been had he gone through with his youthful fantasies, and had not the Rangers discovered him and offered him a legitimate expression of his predatory inclinations. And The Lone Star Ranger and its predecessors seem to be the exploration of that question.
After his first deadly gunfight, Buck Duane spends much of his time hiding and surviving in the wilderness, hard to track, a frontier “Die Hard,” impossible to capture, fighting against incredible odds. He displays all the command of the wild that would normally be attributed to a Native American.
“Many days and nights had gone to the acquiring of a skill that might have been envied by an Indian.” The Lone Star Ranger
And Ranger Frank Hamer was known to identify closely with Native Americans, to even live and think like an Indian, with remarkable abilities in riding, hunting, tracking and shooting. Walter Prescott Webb, one of the fathers of Texas literature, described his youthful development thus: “Nature became an open book to Hamer and he became more and more like an Indian.”
Lost on us today was the acknowledgment and admiration of early Western writers like Grey or Webb who edified the Native American as the ultimate outdoorsman, imbued with the highest sensitivity to the natural order; the greatest and most harmonious command of every fruit of the earth. It was Webb's highest compliment to equate Hamer with what he perceived as the “noble savage.” And perhaps Zane Grey already had.
Already a successful and popular writer, it is quite possible that Zane Grey made a few courtesy calls while in Texas, and also sought reliable historical sources. And these visits might have prompted him to salute certain informants in his coming novel... So one curious “coincidence” is the name a noble gentleman in Book II, a cameo character who befriends and informs Buck Duane right before he enters outlaw country... whose name is “Colonel Webb.” He is a fount of information, at one point admitting his study of the history of gunfighter Buck Duane...“I've kept track of his record, as I have all the others.” Duane recognizes that Webb is “ the kind of intelligent, well-informed, honest citizen that he had been trying to meet.” He was determined at that point “...to make this valuable acquaintance if not a friend.”
Walter Prescott Webb at this time was not yet the patriarch of Texana that he was to become. He was about twenty-five, more or less a “professional student” at the University of Texas in Austin, but in a few years would be on the faculty there; Just the kind of person Grey would seek out and research and party with. It is another friendship, strongly hinted, that we will never know for sure. But we do know they were both big fans of the Texas Rangers, and both had to have been very aware of Ranger Frank Hamer, who in less than ten years had already made his place in Ranger history.
In 1906, when just twenty two, this real-life lawman prodigy was recognized and recruited by two legendary old-time rangers, Captains John Hughes and J. H. Rogers, who saw him as a throwback to the wilder days of the 1800's, and agreed that young Hamer had the stuff of legends. Hamer quickly established himself as a fearless, deadly gunfighter, and after a gun battle in Del Rio, where his ace marksmanship ended a dangerous stand off, his own legend was born. He was soon recruited by the Governor of Texas to go subdue the warring town of Navasota in 1908. Ranger expectations had been high for the young gladiator, but the salary offered by the City of Navasota had been higher, and he left the ranger service under the desperate pleadings of the town and blessings of the governor.
The very embodiment of the majestic Texas Ranger myth, Hamer cleaned up well, as he put on a pressed shirt and tie and literally kicked some behinds, and mopped up in Navasota fairly easily. He married a schoolteacher, and tried to start a family. In Navasota young Frank Hamer immediately had to square off with one of the town's ruffian leaders, a hell-bent-for-leather Texas Aggie named Brown... whom he kicked and herded down the street in the mud, forever humiliated... and who became a lifelong foe in the process. All through The Lone Star Ranger, a villain, also named Brown is mentioned and pointed to as a devil incarnate. Said to be from Huntsville, a paragon of gambling, drinking and fighting, “Half the people are crooked,” (true, it is a prison town, coincidentally, a nearby town to Navasota) Brown is offered up as the Texas brain trust for evil, the kind that even bullied and robbed lesser outlaws. But due to the patchwork of the book, Rodney Brown is just a dead-end sub-character, a rabbit trail in the story, and is never brought to justice.
In Grey's and Hamer's West, sometimes the bad guys got away. The rascal Brown almost appears to be a private, subtle acknowledgment to Frank Hamer's real struggles, and a suggestion that they were ongoing, and never-ending.
All through The Lone Star Ranger are wonderful, subtle clues such as the antagonist Brown which suggest that Zane Grey had not only heard of Ranger Hamer but studied his career as a lawman, and took tasty incidents in his service as seed stock. For instance, Marshal Hamer proved his natural talent as a detective while in Navasota, very much as Buck Duane develops into one in the book. Once recognized as lawmen present to clean up the town, both are shot at from night time assassins, who are afraid to face him. But in a more peculiar parallel, they both find it necessary to shoot dogs. Hamer did so in real life after a man refused to restrain his dog from attacking other people's dogs in downtown Navasota. This went down in history as the only thing Hamer killed while serving in Navasota, and he never heard the end of it. Buck Duane also had to dispatch some bloodhounds who were tracking him, emptying his whole revolver into them. It seems Grey was determined to make his character always a little more dangerous than the model.
If Zane Grey was traveling around Texas and interviewing Ranger officers in search of Old West anecdotes, there is no doubt that Frank Hamer's name would have come up. It would have been very tempting for the old rangers to talk about the latest alpha-ranger, who had become the subject of many a ranger campfire. Hamer was very tall, but looked almost angelic, and yet with his extremely long legs, had a crippling kick-boxing technique that made grown men beg to be allowed to limp to the jailhouse, without further convincing. His pistol and rifle marksmanship was instinctive, in other words he did not need to look down the barrel and use his gunsights to aim, and he was deadly accurate, reportedly able to put a .45 slug through a silver dollar thrown into the air. But Buck Duane was said to have shot a playing card in two, looking at it edgewise!
After a couple of years of growing a sterling reputation in eastern Texas, Mayor Rice of Houston eagerly recruited Hamer to hopefully introduce his west Texas common sense and integrity to the expanding Houston police department. The increase in pay would have been a welcome boost to his plans to start a family.
Special officer Hamer displayed his policing abilities well and attracted many new fans, but in a couple of years the outlaw in him came to the surface. He succumbed to a running feud with a reckless big city journalist who insulted his integrity. In front of witnesses, Hamer boldly announced some deadly oaths and threats, all quite unprofessional, then slapped the insolent journalist with his signature swipe, best compared to that of an angry bear. Instantly he brought scandal and embarrassment to the Houston Police Department.
But he was not through. Hamer was not just showing off. Where he came from, men dare not insult each other without expecting a fight to the finish. He tried to make good his threats the next day, assaulting the reporter and his brother on the streets, striking one with his pistol and shooting over the head of the other. He then met them at the police station where he continued the assault, beating and throwing the indignant and bleeding reporter out of the station. Even the police station was no refuge for lying scamps.
“ 'But I'm no gunfighter,' protested Duane.” The Lone Star Ranger
He was later accused of shooting at his victims, but he denied ever trying to kill anyone... with a bit of cowboy braggadocio, “I am a good shot with a revolver, but I am not a gun fighter...” he protested.
The presence of villain Brown, the shooting of dogs, and this absurd quote in The Lone Star Ranger all seem to be evidence of Grey's idea of good-natured digs at his ranger inspiration.
A local newspaper acknowledged that there had never been a single complaint filed against the officer, but Hamer knew he had gone too far, and stepped down in the spring of 1913 before he could be fired. Bizarrely, H. C. Waters, the bloodied Houston Press reporter, later set the record straight, writing that Hamer was not a bad officer and had been generally on the side of the law, indirectly admitting that his article which challenged these facts and enraged the young lawman were off-base and even unfair.
After trying good-paying but politically-charged jobs in law enforcement in urban Texas, where public scrutiny was oppressive compared to the freedoms of a border ranger, Hamer was like a warrior in a playpen. Taming town bullies and racial unrest in Navasota led to bigger fish, exposing the Mafia and corrupt bankers in Houston, but he also learned about the complexities of big city government, and began a lifelong distaste for the Media and politicians.
In June of 1913 Frank Hamer paid his fines for assault and moved back to Navasota, and entered a time of indecision and humiliation. Even old adversary Brown was not as bothersome as Houston politics. If Zane Grey was going to catch up with him, this would have been the perfect time. Having been a popular ranger, an effective city marshal and a prominent detective in Houston, which was a major crossroads of the southwest, it is very possible Hamer had already met, even struck up a friendship with Zane Grey by 1913, when he first visited Texas. And Hamer would have been ripe to find a sympathetic ear, and someone who could help him restore his reputation.
The repeated mention of antagonist Brown in The Lone Star Ranger may also help pinpoint when and where the author and the lawman may have first met, since Brown of Navasota may be one of the few names which has any connection to reality. I propose that they first did serious interviews in Navasota after Hamer left Houston and might have been more relaxed and could talk about his service there and elsewhere. This would have been an opportune time, since Hamer was free-lancing and temporarily located in his old haunt, and eventually working for another former border ranger and good friend, Navasota City Marshal M. E. Bailey. The two would have been a treasure trove of ranger lore, and more importantly, free to talk about their ranger experiences. Grey had his plot, all he needed was a vision of his protagonist.
These were dark days for Hamer, who was no doubt discouraged, as he questioned his career choice and considered his options. He stayed unemployed awhile, probably sending letters and hoping to rejoin the Rangers. And probably against his wife's preferences, he finally chose to serve under his old deputy and former border Ranger, now City Marshal M. E. Bailey, who had taken his place. Both men were probably pining for ranger freedoms, but dreaded the pay. City Marshal Bailey had burned his bridge with the Rangers when he ignored orders and arrested four Mexican generals on a Mexican army recruiting foray inside of Texas. That mistake was what had brought him to work for Marshal Hamer in Navasota. For him there was no going back. And since Hamer still had admirers in the small town, he took an assignment in Navasota to track down a burglary and car-theft ring.
Like Buck Duane, Hamer had a natural talent for outing the truth and cornering the guilty. As they say, “it takes one to know one.” He cleverly left a bogus police memo for a local waitress to recover, and set a trap which caught the thieves and found many of the cars. A local prosecutor presented him with a Colt revolver, a treasure for a lifetime which he dubbed “Old Lucky,” but in truth his own luck had run out. So traumatic was the Houston controversy that his new wife Mollie, unable to handle the pressures and violence of being a lawman's wife, began to question her marriage to him. When ranchers in Kimble County wanted to hire him to catch rustlers, she put her foot down.
It was the summer of 1914 when Frank headed west and left Mollie behind... and began to negotiate his divorce and a permanent return to the Texas Rangers. Mollie almost instantly disappears from his life, an all too typical collateral casualty of a law career, much like Jennie, Buck Duane's romantic interest in The Lone Star Ranger. Frank Hamer had run into an overwhelming wall of small town gangsters, big city corruption, political correctness, and now rejection and heartbreak.
He was then around 31 years old. Hamer served the latter part of 1914 investigating a goat rustling operation in Kimble and surrounding counties, in central Texas. His evil nemesis there, a prominent rancher's son who killed a man and used him for wolf bait, ironically carried the name Buck. Using his superior skills as an outdoorsman, he arrested the wily criminal, but could not get a conviction. And convenient for my theory, Hamer reemerges in April, 1915 as a ranger on the Texas-Mexican border with Company C, hunting bootleggers, banditos and gun runners. And there also was Zane Grey.
A low priority within state budgets, Texas Ranger companies were constantly underfunded, so there was a firm freeze on hiring, and the pay was also low. The job of Texas Ranger came cheap for those few who qualified, but with a considerable cost and risk to the recruit. Each ranger had to provide his own horse, his own pistol, his own saddle and gear. He often had to pay for his own medical care. The only thing the state provided was grub and bullets. And occasionally burial expenses. Applications were not easily accepted or processed, and a man had to be fairly unambitious, unmaterialistic and half-crazy to want this kind of employment. No wonder Zane Gray found them strange and misunderstood.
Whether Hamer had already met Zane Grey by then, or met him there on the border in the middle of nowhere, will have to remain a mystery. But a casual read of The Lone Star Ranger suggests a deeper relationship, as it brings up numerous parallels to the legendary Frank Hamer, some of which had to be discovered in 1913 when the first version of the Last of the Duanes was being written; Buck Duane is young, very handsome, a lady killer, has to duck to get through doorways. He speaks only when he has to; Several times the text relates how tall and handsome Buck Duane is. “... too strappin' big an' good-lookin'... ” Much later in the book, which would have been borrowed from Grey's second manuscript, probably made in 1914, the text describes a climactic showdown, where Duane wears two guns... “one belted high on the left hip, the other swinging low on the right.”
Ranger Hamer was also blessed with extraordinary good looks. His buggy driver in Navasota once said “...he was the prettiest white man I ever saw.” With his big stetson on, Frank Hamer would have been as tall as most average doorways. My photo of Sargent Hamer obtained in my stack of Zane Grey papers perfectly illustrates Buck Duane's gun rig, the lower one is “Old Lucky,” a holstered Colt revolver, the higher one is his Colt automatic, stuck in his belt, ready for a crossdraw. Quiet like Grey's Buck, Frank Hamer was once described by a press reporter to be “as talkative as an oyster.”
True there were several tall, quiet, handsome rangers on the border who could have inspired Zane Grey. But If Zane Grey had not met Ranger Hamer in 1913 on his first foray into Rangerdom, the photo of Ranger Hamer from around 1915 makes a strong argument that they met on the border about that time. But this would have been too late for any literary nuggets to have made it into The Lone Star Ranger, or any of its parts published earlier. It might however, have been taken to give book illustrators some useful scrap to help portray a future hero.
Standing almost defiantly, armed and almost ready to draw, in front of an adobe building, typical of the Trans-Pecos region, in classic border garb, this striking photo recovered from Grey's papers reaches through time and makes some powerful suggestions. But the main thing is that Hamer's appearance matches the description of Buck Duane and his gun rig as described by Grey in the last portion of The Lone Star Ranger.
Ranger Frank Hamer perfectly fit into Grey's mold for Buck Duane. Even if the photograph was taken too late to have impacted the creation of his ranger protagonist, it still might suggest that the two men had met before and become familiar. And this is because Hamer was not friendly, especially to writers, and rarely posed for photographers, and almost never in such an informal, suggestive pose. The lucky photographer almost had to have been someone familiar, and had no way of knowing that he was capturing the young ranger at the prime of his life, and just days from the worst violence he would ever face. Zane Grey certainly got his money's worth on the Texas border. But he just missed a series of Mexican mounted assaults and bloody, deadly massacres of both sides.
In fact, Hamer had been recruited back into the Rangers for a critical purpose. There was a brewing threat on the horizon and the Rangers needed the best gunmen they could assemble. Right after the visit by Zane Grey in 1915, in early August large bands of mounted Mexican and Tejano terrorists began to execute the “Plan of San Diego,” and attacked some vulnerable south Texas ranches. The Plan of San Diego was a primarily Mexican conspiracy born in San Diego, Texas and refined in a Mexican prison. Its purpose was to aid the Germans in WWI by causing havoc on the border with the horrifying strategy of killing all white males over 16 years of age. The ultimate goal was the retaking of Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and California for Mexico.
Not surprisingly, a small war ensued between the revolutionaries and the combined but very limited forces of the U.S. Army and Texas Rangers. And it was war. Ranger style. The army was bound by military custom and administrative protocol. So Texas Rangers led the way and took the chances of offending the U.S. and Mexican authorities... by fighting fire with fire, or, as it turned out, violating International Law.
Protecting the Texas Border; Captain Monroe Fox and Sgt Hamer at Norias Ranch. They hold a white flag between them, often used by the bandidos to coax the Texans to let their guards down. This time it did not work.
A number of so-called revolutionaries were killed in a wild battle at Norias Ranch near Kingsville in South Texas. But this was just the opening ceremony. After a band of approximately one hundred Mexican and Tejano terrorists assaulted the Brite Ranch near Valentine, in a wild killing and robbing spree, it became obvious that they were not just after provisions or booty, but aiming to spill blood and control the Mexican- American population by intimidation. Any Hispanics who were simpatico with the Texas side were summarily executed. The terrorists, in those days called banditos, had perfected the strategy of sudden attack and then retreat across the border which prevented pursuit by law-abiding American forces. But the story goes that Ranger Captain Fox of Company B unleashed his dogs of hell after seeing firsthand the bloody carnage, and it became obvious that many more American lives could and would be lost.
It was better to offend the Mexicans than watch more brutal genocide of innocents. The U.S. Army was hamstrung. Sargent Hamer, recently transferred from Comapny C, and ten Rangers threw caution to the wind and tracked the raiders back to Candelia, Mexico. Outnumbered and in a foreign land, with no legal standing and no politician covering their back, every ranger had to have known that he might never get out of Mexico alive, and if he did he might face prosecution and unemployment. But their blood was up and at nightfall when the banditos began to party and celebrate, the Ranger's dozen drew down and opened up their guns on them. Nobody counted, and they left most of them for dead. It must have been scores of casualties, as this little-known International incident was the abrupt end of the nearly forgotten "Plan of San Diego."
If Zane Grey met Hamer at this time in his life, he was already known as a top-gun Ranger, a deadly gunfighter and a man of considerable ability in desperate situations. It seems incredible that a short while later, Hamer, perhaps the real Lone Ranger, was protecting American borders from an organized military incursion even as The Lone Star Ranger hit the bookstores. But with the controversial actions of the rangers, which cost Captain Fox his job, it would have been wise for Harper & Bros and Zane Grey to distance themselves from current border events.
Years later, in “I’m Frank Hamer” biographers Jenkins and Frost not so subtly title the chapter on Hamer’s border work “The Lone Ranger of the Rio Grande.” And this was absolutely true! As fate would have it, in another uncanny coincidence, not long afterwards, when border interdiction did not fit the long-range goals of the powers in Austin, Captain Hamer was abandoned on the border to enforce the law all by himself. Inexplicable orders from Austin reassigned all of his rangers elsewhere, and left Ranger Hamer in reality, the lone ranger along ninety miles of river border. This was not just an attempt to set him up for failure, it was a trap to get him killed.
But Hamer had been underestimated, and demonstrated a rare brand of confidence and personal power. The authorities in Austin could not really anticipate that they were dealing with a determined, alpha male, with a criminal mind, whose cunning would have made Buck Duane proud. Hamer had never hesitated to buck authority, when he was in the right, and he was not going to submit now. Undaunted, perhaps even a little challenged, the wily Ranger merely joined up with the Mexican border guards and successfully led them as he would his own men.
Outgunned and undermanned, they still stopped gun and whiskey trafficking across the border. Walter Prescott Webb claimed that after this administrative glitch, which looked like a betrayal, for the rest of his life Hamer always preferred “to run in a herd all by myself.” From his very first citizen's arrests of west Texas horse thieves, to his own version of Daniel in the lion's den in Houston, to his confounding indulgent state border interdiction policies, Hamer was the proverbial "lone wolf" spoken of frequently in The Lone Star Ranger. This term, first used by H. G. Wells, and later adopted by Chuck Norris, existed long before Ranger "Lone Wolf" Gonzaullas was given the nickname in the 1920's.
If ever there was a case of "art imitating life... and life imitating art," imitating life...
A cropped view of a previously unknown photo of Captain Frank Hamer, (top) from Zane Grey's personal collection. (bottom) Marshal Frank Hamer while working in Navasota.
The natural good looks, carried by a six-foot-three frame, and the keen senses and unparalleled abilities of Frank Hamer must have made him an irresistible subject to write about. I know my father, as a cub reporter, always counted his “interview” with Hamer as a highlight in his short journalistic career. Although the old ranger had little to say, he did provide proof of his marksmanship, and introduced my father to his pet javelina, who served as his public relations rep. My father had first met Frank Hamer in Houston in the 1930's, when he brought a badly wounded family friend to my grandparent's home after a labor dispute, for First Aid. Hamer had carried the grown man into the living room like a sack of potatoes, and gently laid him on the couch. Frustrating for my father, he had little to say about that event- or any other. He left it to others to tell the stories, which he knew would only bring more inquiry, which he despised. But many years before there was one story he did tell... And incredibly, as the Lone Ranger was found nearly dead by Tonto and nursed back to health, Hamer had once been shot and left for dead and found by a black man whom he credited for saving his life.
So if it is any consolation, in my theory the original Lone Ranger was white, but Tonto was Black!
The famous bluesman Mance Lipscomb, who at twelve years old was young Marshal Hamer's buggy driver and guide in Navasota, once recalled a conversation where Hamer told this story as he scolded Navasota whites. Captured by historian Glen Alyn, Hamer's account was delivered by Lipscomb in his own Southern Black dialect of course...
“ 'Now look. A colored man was the best friend I ever had in my life. Listen, I don’t want ya’ll to be mistreatin’ these colored folk. Cause I been a Ranger. A colored man picked me up, while the Carr boys shot me down. Shot my guts out, an’ left me layin’ there. An’ a colored man came along, an’ my guts was hangin’ out. An’ toted me, an rested, an carried me to a hospital. And let ‘em wash the sand off my guts, and sewed me up, and I’m livin’ today'.”
“An said, 'I want ya’ll to be surer than hell to respect ‘em. That’s been done over fifteen (actually only around 10) years ago. That colored man caused me to be livin’ today. No white folks didn’ get me here. They left me layin’ there…' ”
Although Lipscomb must have gotten some of the story confused over the sixty years between hearing it and telling it, there is no doubt about the basics of this account. Mance seemed to have especially relished in telling about his old friend's guts.. which he dearly loved. It is true that Hamer worked on the Carr ranch in 1905 right before he became a Ranger. In fact it was his proficiency for catching and turning in horse thieves there that got his invitation to join the Texas Rangers. The name Carr was indelibly written on the old musician’s memory, and he could not have known it otherwise. But it is very probable that Mance got this story confused with Hamer’s two shoot-outs with his boss Dan McSwain.
Young Hamer was nearly murdered by McSwain after he informed an intended victim of his boss’s plans to assassinate him. In fact McSwain had tried to hire young Hamer to do the honors, but he refused. Later McSwain, furious and paranoid, came up from behind him and shot him in the back with a shotgun, and left him for dead. Although Hamer's brother Harrison was nearby, (as the story goes) and largely responsible for saving his life, it is quite possible he commandeered the black man to borrow him and his buggy to take his wounded brother to town.
It was after finally killing McSwain the cowardly back-shooter, in the second gunfight that Frank Hamer made his vow to fight criminals. Buck Duane also had two confrontations with his first nemesis... before ending it in a shoot out. He chooses to face off with his jealous rival, assuming the man would shoot him in the back if he did not, thus increasing his chances of survival. This was the beginning of his outlaw saga... and the legend which created the most famous ranger character in Western lore.
Paradoxically, Hamer was the quiet, aloof Ranger who seemed to become an instant legend. After being nearly killed (again!) in a deadly shoot-out in Snyder, Hamer took some time off to heal from his serious gunshot wounds and went to California in 1918... And curiously, went to visit his friends and contacts there. Who? How? Why would Hamer, a no-nonsense gunman and Texas lawman, go to Hollywood, California? Being a leery, non-communicative cop, I always wondered how he knew anyone in Hollywood. But somehow he and his new wife Gladys were entertained by the most popular cowboy actor in the world!
In fact Tom Mix was familiar with the ranger, or at least his career, and gave him celebrity treatment, and even begged him to become a Hollywood actor and bring an authentic ranger to the silver screen. In effect, he was offering Hamer the chance to play the character he had helped to inspire. How the two got hooked up and became friends has been a mystery... until now, and we have to consider Zane Grey as the go-between. With his wife's support, Hamer refused an acting career and five years later, unable to lure the big Ranger into the part of Buck Duane, diminutive Mix eventually filmed his own version of Zane Grey's Lone Star Ranger and starred in it himself.
Here the obvious question leaps forth, why the resistance to fame and wealth? Hamer was a very smart man, and he knew his talents and his mission, and it was not acting like a western lawman, but being one. Movie making was laborious and artificial. If there was ever a warrior addicted to the action it was Ranger Frank Hamer. Nothing else would do.
Hamer must have talked to Zane Grey, perhaps several times and in depth, but made him swear to never divulge his source. And this secret would have served them both. It might have hampered Hamer's law enforcement career to reveal or exaggerate his adolescent outlawry via Grey's fiction. And Grey did not need the publicity battle of possible criticisms of controversial, current ranger exploits. Hamer gladly chose to always be the mysterious man... behind the mask. Interestingly, Grey never pursued that proposed book, where he “told the world the truth” about modern rangers.
Tom Mix poses with one of his personal inspirations.... Ranger Captain Frank Hamer
Knowing what history tells us about Ranger Hamer, it is easy to speculate as to why Grey never continued his infatuation. It comes down to the difference between a love story and a police report. Even though it appears that Grey drilled Hamer for useful details, and even accurately described him in appearance, character and speech, he still had to write a marketable novel. That means that he had to add romance and a storybook ending. And this is where the two would have parted ways.
If Frank Hamer, or whomever Grey found for inspiration for Buck Duane, was expecting a white-washed version of himself, he would have been disappointed. The very first lines of the book were “So it was in him then- an inherited fighting instinct, a driving intensity to kill.” The Lone Star Ranger was no glamorization of the Texas gun culture. The author set out, not to eulogize, but to understand the psychology of men on either side of the law who face killing every day. And when I reread his book, I find very little that is not absolutely compatible with what I know about Frank Hamer the man.
True to the classic Western hero, when Buck Duane has to choose between killing or loving, he chooses killing: “So the dark side overwhelmed Duane, and when he left the room he was fierce, implacable, steeled to any outcome, quick like a panther, somber as death, in the thrall of his strange passion...” But Grey the poet had to give his protagonist a weakness, the kind Hamer would never admit succumbing to, and make him conquerable by a woman's love. After all the violence, he sends him off to domestic servitude, in this case to a Louisiana plantation, to give up Texas, his career, his guns... this would not have pleased the hardened ranger a bit. In the final analysis, Grey paints the Big Bend of Texas as an untamable hell-hole, infested by killers and cattle rustlers and smugglers; a place any sane man would gladly abandon. And yet, this was where Ranger Hamer would stay for many more years.
After Harper & Bros took Grey's wandering tale of a ranger's random encounters in a Deadwoodian underworld, and turned it into a romance story, combining the ancient law of “eye for an eye,” with the irresistible power of a woman's love, probably even Zane Grey was dubious or even despondent about his Ranger series. In the beginning the question was whether Buck Duane was a criminal or an outlaw, and the author's examination of the difference between the two. In the end he was neither, as the man is rehabilitated by a pretty woman and a near death experience. Probably nobody was happy with the final result. And then the book sold like crazy!
Hamer may have been good friends with Tom Mix, but that was seemingly the end of his notoriety in Hollywood. So stupidly unaware were Hollywood portrayals of Hamer, opposite the glamorization of Bonnie and Clyde, that until very recently they have been ones of a fat, incompetent buffoon. It got so bad that Gladys Hamer sued Warner Bros for defamation and won a generous settlement! So... who was the real masked man? It is probably safe to speculate now... But personally, and I'm sure Captain Hamer would feel the same way, the last thing anybody wants would be more debate, or to detract in any way from Deputy Marshal Reeves, who has long deserved recognition as well.
All my theories aside, Frank Hamer was a Ranger considered by many lawmen, historians, and not a few criminals in Huntsville to be one of the greatest of all time… whose life would make the Lone Ranger story seem what it was… a mere child’s fairy tale… He was shot and cut many times, and killed over fifty men and one woman in gun battles. Recently Kevin Costner starred with Woody Harrelson in The Highwaymen, an excellent Netflix movie which portrayed his last and most famous manhunt, for Bonnie and Clyde.
Like that of Bass Reeves, it was recognition long coming, and greatly deserved. Among Hamer's many contemporary fans included Tom Mix, Roy Rogers, several Texas governors, Mance Lipscomb and the Black community of Navasota, Texas, Walter Prescott Webb, numerous old rangers, and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. And not coincidentally, my own father, and because of that, me... I was honored to sculpt a life-sized bronze of Hamer which stands in front of the Navasota City Hall, a tribute to a legendary lawman, of greatness long untold, perhaps even the man behind the mask; and perhaps a mysterious, secret friendship, eroded over time in the muddy currents of the Rio Grande.