Features

November 2002

Living Law Enforcement History

These organizations have been supporting local law enforcement and catching crooks since before the West was won.

by William Bell


Colorado Mounted Rangers have no specific authority, but are often deputized by local law enforcement. They are there to help at community events, fairs, and festivals, as well as to deploy for search-and-rescue missions or to back up local police departments.

Back in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, law enforcement was tenuous at best in much of the American West. The more civilized towns might have had a marshal or small police force, while a county would have probably had only a sheriff and a smattering of deputies to cover hundreds of square miles. With few state or territorial organizations in existence-the well-known Texas Rangers being an exception-volunteer groups often sprung up to fill the gaps.

Some lesser-known outfits that helped keep the peace in the old days were short-lived or eventually evolved into state police or highway patrol units. Few of these groups have survived into the 21st century, but two carry on as volunteers assisting full-time law enforcement, much as they did long ago.

The Colorado Mounted Rangers

In the days of the Wild West, a few territories formed ranger units to protect the citizenry. Two such territories were Arizona and Colorado. Eventually, the ranger units were disbanded only to be resurrected later on in the mid-20th Century as volunteer organizations, offering assistance to law enforcement in their communities.

With a history that stretches back for more than 140 years, the Colorado Mounted Rangers have had an on-again-off-again past. First organized as the Colorado Rangers when the region received territorial status on February 28, 1861, the Rangers operated as militia fighting with Union forces at the Battle of Glorieta Pass in 1862 (the Gettysburg of the Far West) and later in 1864 battling Indians and participating in the Sand Creek campaign.

They helped to clean up mining boom towns and then in the 1890s worked to prevent riots and violence during the dawning of the labor union movement and the resulting strikes of miners against the large mining corporations. In 1916, when statewide-and then, later, national-prohibition was enacted, rangers took on the duty of enforcing anti-liquor laws. The Colorado Rangers took on state police functions from 1921 until 1923, when the legislature disbanded the organization. Colorado was then without a state law enforcement unit until 1935 when the State Highway Courtesy Patrol was formed, which later became the Colorado State Patrol in 1945.

While many own horses, the Colorado Mounted Rangers—as emblazoned on their modern badges— often use ATVs or SUVs in their duties.

The Colorado Rangers was resurrected a few months into World War II when Colorado Governor Teller Ammons incorporated a troop of volunteer Colorado Mounted Rangers in the town of Baily. Ten years later, in 1955, the Rangers changed their constitution to form a squadron with several troops scattered throughout the state so they could assist law enforcement across Colorado.

In this new incarnation, by 1980, Troops A through I were serving in various parts of the Rocky Mountain State and just recently, Troop J was formed. Troops may include up to 51 members led by a captain, with a complement of lieutenants, sergeants, and rangers. Members attend monthly troop meetings as well as training sessions and special call-outs.

The Colorado Ranger badge from the early 1900s was a “Sunburst” design and few originals remain in existence today.

Ranger recruits must be sponsored by a ranger or the troop captain, be at least 21 years of age, and undergo a 90-day trial period, during which time a background investigation is performed. The candidate is rated on meeting and call-out attendance and must pass mandatory training requirements. Once the investigation is successfully completed and after the rating period, a vote is taken by the troop members to accept the candidate, a simple majority passing. There is also a Cadet program for young people aged 14 to 20.

Colorado Mounted Rangers have no specific authority, but are often deputized by local law enforcement. They are there to help at community events, fairs, and festivals, as well as to deploy for search-and-rescue missions or to back up local police departments.

New rangers have to purchase almost all of their equipment, including a pistol or revolver, OC spray, handcuffs, a collapsible baton, and nylon or leather gear. Before a weapon or self-defense item can be carried, the new ranger must be trained and qualify in its use. The Ranger training guide includes some 20 courses running the gamut from public relations to the use-of-force continuum, first aid, and traffic control. Many rangers own horses or put personally owned vehicles to use, such as ATVs or 4X4 sport utility vehicles.

Often, local sheriffs deputize rangers, although their true role is civil preparedness, not chasing crooks. Colorado Mounted Rangers participate as honor guards in parades wearing their cowboy hats, yellow silk scarves, hunter green western-cut shirts, and tan Wranglers; one of their missions being to carry on the look and traditions of the Old West. Many are experts in search and rescue and go after lost fishermen, hunters, and hikers, or find downed aircraft.

On the left is Capt. Tom Grieve of the modern Colorado Mounted Rangers, dressed in regulation uniform. On the right is Lt. Dave Johnston in an old-style Colorado Ranger uniform, clutching his Model 1897 Winchester shotgun.

Rangers perform crowd/traffic control and ensure safety at large gatherings such as fairs, biker rallies, Territory Days in Old Colorado City, Westfest in Colorado Springs, Bronc Day at Green Mountain Falls, and even international events such as the 2001 World Cup Mountain Bike Championships, which were held in Durango.

While they usually help in everyday policing functions, the rangers are also on call for emergencies. They can be called out by the governor or county/ state emergency-preparedness organizations for duty during such public safety crises as the Black Ridge Fire in 1994 or this year's long list of wild fires that threatened not only forest resources, but lives, homes, and entire communities.

The Arizona Rangers

One function of the Arizona Rangers is search and rescue. They are often called out to find the trails of lost hikers or hunters. Here, Sgt. John Brocavich of the Sierra Vista Company “cuts sign,” or looks for a trail, with his horse Outlaw.

At the turn of the 20th Century, influential citizens and politicians wanted to clean up the Arizona Territory in preparation for eventual statehood. The territory had become a haven for the lawless as surrounding states made things hot for horse thieves, stagecoach robbers, rustlers, and hold-up men. The vast empty Arizona Territory encompassing 113.909 square miles of desert, mountains, and valleys was made to order for those trying to avoid the law and carry on their nefarious activities.

An Act of the Arizona Territorial Legislature passed in March 1901, established the Arizona Rangers, a small group of law enforcement officers composed of a captain, a sergeant, and 12 privates, whose sole mission was to rid the territory of outlaws. This was an elite group of lawmen originally led by former Rough Rider and deputy sheriff Captain Burt Mossman. His men were all expert cowboys, many Spanish-American War Veterans or ex-peace officers. They adopted the most effective weapons available at the time, Winchester Model 1895 rifles in .30-40 Krag and Colt Single-Action Army revolvers in .45 Colt. They went right to work chasing "South of the Border Bandits."

In late 1902, another ex-soldier, Tom Rynning, took over as Captain. During his tenure, the Ranger force was expanded to 26 men and in 1903, the organization adopted the famous 5-point star that became its trademark. Rynning insisted on marksmanship practice and preferred single recruits fluent in Spanish. His force cleaned up the border town of Douglas and helped keep the peace during mine disputes and strikes. The rangers under Rynning ran to ground robber Burt Alvord who stole $33,000 in gold bullion, $16,000 of which was never recovered.

In the background can be seen the rugged mountains near the Arizona-Mexico border. The original Territorial Rangers patrolled the border to stop raiding “banditos” before the days of the Border Patrol.

The Arizona Rangers' last captain, Harry Wheeler, was a former cavalryman and a deadly gunfighter who took over in 1907. Wheeler composed a list of general orders for the rangers and established 15 ranger posts, scattering his 23 men throughout the territory. Wheeler concentrated most of his rangers on the Mexican border and kept the peace in border towns such as Naco and Nogales.

During this time, a rift developed between the rangers and local sheriffs and marshals, who believed the rangers' territorial authority deprived local law enforcement of reward money posted for the capture of outlaws. An outfit that had remained un-political during its existence finally succumbed to political maneuvering by the legislature and the Territorial Arizona Rangers were disbanded by the governor in February 1909.

In 1957, four of the original Territorial Rangers resurrected the Arizona Rangers, which was registered as a non-profit group with state peace officer status. Later, in the early 1970s, the rangers gave up their authority and incorporated as a charitable organization. Like the Colorado Mounted Rangers, the Arizona Rangers have no specific individual arrest authority, but assist law enforcement agencies within the state. They provide crowd and traffic control at such events as the Tubac Arts Festival, Sonoita horse races, Professional Cow Punchers Rodeo, Butterfield Stage Days, fairs, and festivals, and assist in DUI task force operations.

As a charitable organization, the Arizona Rangers also help needy and troubled youths within their communities through fund raising and benefits, as well as by providing scholarships to deserving students.

Another mission of the Arizona Rangers is to preserve their history and the traditions of the Old West by maintaining the Arizona Rangers Museum, located in Nogales. The museum is housed in the old courthouse, which dates from 1904, and contains exhibits of old and new ranger memorabilia. A unique program carried on by the Arizona Rangers is the marking of the graves of original Territorial Rangers. Of 107 old time rangers, 23 gravesites have been found and marked with a small plaque, which gives the date of service and rank.

Master Sgt. Anne May is in charge of training for the Sierra Vista Company. New Rangers must attend a 40-hour academy and qualify with firearms, and learn first aid and CPR.

To enlist in the Arizona Rangers, a candidate must be at least 21 years of age and have no criminal history. The recruit must actually reside in Arizona at least six months of the calendar year, complete the screening process and probationary period, subscribe to the aims and goals of the Arizona Rangers, and be accepted by a majority vote of eligible rangers in the company being joined. Trainees must attend the "Ranger Basic Forty," a weeklong session staffed by instructors from the Arizona POST program. During the "Forty," new rangers receive training in firearms handling and qualification, first aid, and CPR, among other skills. New advanced courses are being offered starting this year, with two levels of law enforcement assist certifications.

Rangers expect no compensation for their service and provide their own uniforms, equipment, weapons, and transportation to duty locations within the state. Rangers wear the historical five-point star and have both summer and winter dress uniforms, with black trousers and white or dark blue shirts, plus light blue (chambray) shirts and blue jeans for rough duty assignments and training.

The modern Arizona Rangers organization was revived in 1957 by four of the original Territorial Rangers. They are chartered as a non-profit, charitable group assisting local law enforcement and helping troubled youths.

Many members also dress in traditional cowboy-style clothing for ceremonial purposes and carry Old West six-shooters in fancy tooled leather rigs. While some companies allow single-action type revolvers for duty use, most rangers carry modern Glock and 1911 Government Model pistols or Smith & Wesson revolvers.

There are 13 companies of Arizona Rangers in locations including Sierra Vista, Tucson, Phoenix, Benson, Willcox, and Show Low. Many rangers have their own horses and participate in search-and-rescue missions, plus there is a bicycle patrol. Often, rangers are commissioned by local law enforcement agencies and have assisted with perimeter security on raids of clandestine "meth" labs or on SWAT callouts. Rangers still face the same kinds of dangers today as their Wild West counterparts did when Arizona was still a territory. This was demonstrated a decade ago by the line-of-duty death of Ranger Sgt. John W. Thomas, Jr., who was shot by an armed robber following an ATM holdup.

2001 marked the Centennial Year of the Arizona Rangers as proclaimed by Gov. Jane Hull. The governor urged all Arizona citizens to express their gratitude to the men and women of the ranger companies who have given countless hours of volunteer service to their communities each year and provided financial resources for numerous youth activities, while serving as models of patriotism for the state and the nation.

William Bell is a 25-year veteran of law enforcement and is currently a port director for U.S. Customs in Indianapolis.