Big trouble in Brownsville

congressman, the political boss of the Rio Grande Valley and the mayor of Brownsville all told Capt. Bill McDonald of the Texas Rangers on Aug. 24, 1906 that he had made a big mistake by arresting military personnel on federal property.

After losing his father to a Yankee sniper and the family plantation to carpetbaggers, the young Mississippian and his mother took refuge with relatives in east Texas. Handicapped by a poor education, a lack of wage-earning skills and a giant chip on his shoulder, the newcomer faced a bleak future.

Then in 1876, Bill McDonald fearlessly disarmed and dragged to jail a drunken bully, who was the terror of Mineola. Grateful citizens rewarded the young hero with a job as deputy sheriff and a career in law enforcement.

McDonald wandered west seven years later to the fugitive-infested Texas Panhandle and Indian Territory.  The bantamweight manhunter with two huge pearl-handled pistols on his hips brought dozens of dangerous desperadoes to justice.

McDonald’s well-publicized exploits earned him an appointment in 1891 as a captain in the Texas Rangers.  He roamed the state putting into practice his famous philosophy that “no man in the wrong can stand up against a fellow that’s right and keeps on acomin’!”

McDonald never knuckled under to vigilantes no matter what the odds. In 1896 he faced down a Wichita Falls mob that wanted to string up two prisoners in his custody. “Damn your sorry souls!” he snarled. “March out of here and get away from this jail, every one of you, or I’ll fill this yard with dead men!”

The colorful captain compensated for his small stature with a toughness bordering on the unbelievable.  After sustaining four gunshot wounds in an ambush at Quanah, he had the bullets removed without anesthetic.

Three companies of black infantry arrived at Fort Brown on the southern tip of Texas on Jul. 28, 1906.  The 170 veterans of combat against the Sioux, the Spaniards in Cuba and guerrillas in the Philippines expected to be treated with respect.

For the proud soldiers the Jim Crow segregation of Brownsville was a humiliating slap in the face.  Refused service in the white-owned saloons and other public businesses, they were welcomed only by the comparatively few Mexican proprietors.

A private was pistol-whipped on Aug. 5 for failing to yield the sidewalk right-of-way to a group of white women by stepping into the street.  Eight days later, the report of an attempted rape resulted in the black troopers being confined to quarters.

Shortly after midnight on Aug. 13, 20 or so slipped out of their barracks and over the three-foot wall that separated the fort from the center of Brownsville. An estimated 60 rounds were fired, including a volley into a saloon that killed the bartender and pot shots at curious guests peeking out their hotel room windows.

After eight to ten minutes of indiscriminate shooting, the soldiers returned to their barracks. All were present and accounted for ten minutes later at an emergency roll.

From Dallas, where he was acting as sergeant-at-arms at the state Democratic convention, Capt. McDonald monitored the military inquiry. When a week went by without the identification of a single suspect, he headed for Brownsville picking up two Rangers and a district judge on the way.

McDonald gained admission to Fort Brown at gunpoint on Aug. 22 and cowed the commanding officer into letting him question scores of soldiers. He went back the next morning with arrest warrants for a dozen and put them in the guardhouse for safekeeping.

But by the following day, the tide had turned against the cantankerous captain. Congressman and future vice-president John Nance Garner, Judge Jim Wells, undisputed boss of South Texas, the Brownsville mayor and the judge, who had issued the warrants, decided McDonald had gone off half-cocked and had to be reined in.

Backed by 50 armed citizens, local officials confronted McDonald and his four-Ranger escort that evening in a hotel lobby. The district judge stepped forward and loudly demanded the return of the warrants. “I’ll tell you, Judge,” drawled McDonald. “You all look like fifteen cents in Mexican money to me.” He defiantly stood his ground and dared them to take the documents by force.

At that tense moment, a telegram arrived from the governor with strict instructions for McDonald to butt out. He grudgingly obeyed, and the three companies of black infantry, including the 12 accused, left Brownsville at sunrise.

While none were ever directly punished for the 1906 rampage and the murder of the bartender, every enlisted man was dishonorably discharged for withholding the names of the guilty parties.

As for Bill McDonald, two months after the Brownsville affair he retired from the Texas Rangers. President Woodrow Wilson appointed him federal marshal for the northern district of Texas in 1912, and he died on the job in January 1918.

“Unforgettable Texans,” Bartee’s fourth and latest book, is still available. Get your copy by mailing a check for $28.80 to “Bartee Haile,” P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77393 or order on-line at 

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