Captain Hughes, of the Texas Rangers
[From J. Marvin Hunter’s Frontier Times Magazine, October, 1927]
CAPTAIN JOHN R. HUGHES, now passing the evening of his life in quiet retirement at his home in Ysleta, near El Paso, Texas, is probably the oldest Texas Ranger in point of service.
For twenty-eight years he chased outlaws of high and low degree in the wild region bordering on the Rio Grande. He knows every curve and bend of the international boundary stream from its mouth to El Paso, more than twelve-hundred miles; he was familiar with the haunts in the Innermost recesses of the hills and mountains, where hard-pressed bandits were most likely to seek refuge; he could follow the dimmest trail through the thick-growing chaparral of South Texas, knowing just where it was going to lead; he knew the name and history of every criminal who Infested the border territory during the time he served as a Texas Ranger. This of itself was no small accomplishment, considering the fact that the list of outlaws numbered well up into the hundreds. and probably into the thousands. When a crime was committed, Captain Hughes would take a look at the scene, or perhaps Inspect the fugitive's trait, and say, "The man who did this was Pablo Sanchez, of Jose Somebody-else." He seldom failed in naming the guilty man, or leader of the band. Then Captain Hughes would begin a chase that was certain to have one of two endings. Either the fugitives were captured or killed. He has had more battles with outlaws than any man in the country, and has said less about them. It Is only from the brief written reports that he made to the State Adjutant General's Department at Austin of his operations from time to time that a record of his remarkable career could be obtained.
On the occasion of Captain Hughes' retirement. January 16, 1915, the San Antonio Express gave quite a write-up dealing with his career of usefulness, and from this write-up we copy the following:
"Captain Hughes is deeply religious. For many years he has held the position of superintendent of the Sunday school at Ysleta, where the headquarters of his Ranger company is located. For months at a time while he was away on a hunt for law-breakers his place in the Sunday school would be filled by a substitute, but whenever he went back to camp he took charge of the spiritual training of the children of the little community: It is not only on Sunday that Captain Hughes practices his devoutness. It has been part of his every day life for many years. He put up the ban against drinking and gambling on the part of the members of his Ranger company long ago. As for himself, he does not know the taste of intoxicating liquor or tobacco in any form. He never indulged in card playing or any other kind of gambling. He has seen life in all of its rough phases and from his boyhood days until now his principal dealings have been with the worst criminal element of the frontier region, but he came through the experience with his moral and physical being unscathed.
"The Southwest has produced and developed some remarkable men, but none who possesses a more wonderful life story than that which Hughes could relate. As a gunfighter he probably far outranks any peace officer either in or out of the Ranger service. How many men he has killed in the discharge of his official duties he will not say. He has never taken human life except it was, a case of kill or be killed. Notwithstanding his long years of hard service, his meeting up with all kinds and conditions of men, he is still as modest as a schoolgirl. The mere suggestion of publishing In a newspaper an account of some of his daring deeds brings a blush to his bronzed face. He not only opposes the idea, but he cannot be induced to talk about any of the stirring events of his career. There are many men on the border, however, who are able to give the desired information.
"When still In his teens, Captain Hughes left Cambridge, Illinois, his birthplace, and went to Indian Territory, where he lived for six years with different tribes of red men. He then moved to Central Texas and started a cattle ranch on a small scale. In 1885 a band of outlaws made a raid into the community where he was living and stole seventy horses, sixteen of the animals belonging to Hughes. The very daring of the nefarious enterprise made Captain Hughes angry and he proposed to his neighbors that If they would look after his ranch while he was gone he would 'go and get the thieves.' His proposition was agreed to.
"He then started on the most remarkable criminal chase that was probably ever made. Officers of the law have traveled over the world and brought back the human game they sought, but such things as that were nothing when compared with the undertaking which Hughes set out to accomplish. He was one man against a desperate gang of six cut-throats. In those days all of that broad expanse of country lying to the west of the Colorado River in Texas and reaching far into New Mexico, was almost entirely unpopulated.
"The outlaws had several days start of Captain Hughes and it was with no little difficulty that he finally struck their trail. For days, weeks and months he silently and relentlessly followed the thieves. At night he would throw his saddle upon the ground, hobble his horse and go Into camp. Close around him howled wolves and coyotes, These and the myriads of twinkling stars that looked down upon him from the broad canopy of heaven were his only company in the solitudes with the exception of his patient, endurance-bearing horse. The chase led across the plains of Western Texas, up through the Panhandle into what was then No-Man's Land, thence south again and into New Mexico. Finally Hughes came upon his quarry in camp in New Mexico. The memory of the long, silent ride, the hardships he had encountered, and the promise that he had made his neighbors that he would 'get the thieves,' put bravery into his heart and he made the attack upon the outlaws with such vehemence and boldness that they were able to offer but little resistance. When it was over the two surviving bandits were securely bound by Captain Hughes and taken to the nearest town, where they were turned over to the New Mexico authorities. They were tried, convicted and sentenced to prison.
"Captain Hughes rounded up the stolen horses, including the sixteen that belonged to him, and took the trail to Texas. He got home safely and delivered the horses to their owners. He was gone one year lacking fifteen days, on that long chase after outlaws. He covered more than 1,200 miles on the trip."
"The friends of the men whom Captain Hughes had followed and brought to Justice determined that this new Nemesis who threatened to interfere with their thieving operations should be put out of the way. They sent one of their number to murder Hughes. The purpose of the man was discovered and Hughes and a Ranger went out to meet him. The outlaw was shot and killed when the meeting took place. Other attempts to murder him by the desperadoes whose enmity he had incurred caused him to join the Ranger force in 1887. He says he wanted to be in position to hunt down the outlaws legally.
"Time after time this daring peace officer made long journeys on horseback into remote and dangerous localities, and seldom did he fail to land his man, either dead or alive. Train robbers, stage highwaymen, murderers, cattle and horse thieves, and a variety of other offenders, were checked in their wild and bloody careers by the coolness and daring of his exploits. A ride of 300 miles without a stop, except to change horses at some ranch house was a common experience of Hughes.
"For many years the Big Bend region In the upper Rio Grande border section was the rendezvous of fugitives from justice of many different kinds. It was filled with criminals, both white and Mexican, and it was considered worth the life of any peace officer to invade the precincts of the lawless country. Captain Hughes decided to do some house cleaning down there.
When a certain Mexican outlaw who had a particularly bad record sought refuge in the lower part of the Big Bend, 100 miles from the nearest railroad point, Hughes followed his trail alone. He came upon the man at a little Mexican store on the river bank. The outlaw was in a crowd of other Mexicans of his same Ilk, but this did not deter Captain Hughes from making him captive at the point of a gun. The companions of the prisoner edged away until they were partly hidden in a nearby clump of trees. Hughes placed the Mexican on a horse and was about to leave the spot with the prisoner when he was fired upon by the Mexicans from behind the trees. Hughes returned the fire and killed two of the attacking force. The others escaped by fleeing. He then started on his long journey to Marfa, the nearest railroad town. It was fortunate for him that night was coming on. This enabled him to make a wide detour from the main traveled trail and thus escape his possible pursuers. For two days and nights he and his prisoner journeyed through the desolate region, finally reaching Marfa, where the Mexican was placed in jail.
"Hughes made many other expeditions into the criminal-infested Big Bend country and finally cleared it of its lawless element.
"In 1890 the Ranger company to which Hughes belonged had a fight with Mexican smugglers in the Franklin Mountains. Sergeant Charles Fusselman and several of the outlaws were killed. Hughes was promoted to Fusselman's place. In 1893 the Rangers rounded up a band of Mexican brigands on Pirate Island in the Rio Grande. They wiped out the Mexicans, but Captain Frank Jones, commander of the Rangers, was killed in the fight. Hughes was promoted to Jones' place and he held it until his retirement. During the so-called Garza revolution against Mexico in the early nineties Captain Hughes was in the saddle almost day and night for many months hunting down the armed bands of Mexicans that were roaming over the lower border region.
"It was Captain Hughes who arrested Charles F. Dodge when the latter was attempting to make his way into Mexico in disguise. This was in 1904. Dodge was wanted in New York in connection with the famous Morse-Dodge case. Hughes got on the fugitive's trail in a remote part of South Texas and captured Dodge near the little town of Alice."
It was the happy privilege of the editor of Frontier Times to meet Captain Hughes at the reunion of the Texas Ex-Rangers at Menard in July, 1927, where we had a very delightful conversation with him. He is one of those genial, kindly characters whose magnetic personality at once impresses you and makes you feel that he will be your friend if you will let him. Although past the allotted threescore and ten in years. Captain Hughes is in robust health and is a fine specimen of manhood. On our cover design this month is shown a charcoal drawing of this famous Texas Ranger, made by our staff artist, Warren Hunter. Captain Hughes handed us a little verse of his own composition, which we would like to use underneath the picture, but space forbids, so we give it here;"When my old soul seeks range and rest,Beyond that long and last divide,Just plant it in some Canyon in the West.That has its sunny slopes, long and wide.Let cattle rub my tombstone down;Let coyotes howl to their kin;Let horses paw and dig the little mound:But with barbed wire don't fence it in."
Captain Hughes is of that sturdy type of men who made the organization known as the Texas Rangers famous. Not many of the Old Guard are left, and when they are gone their like will never be produced again.
Speaking of Captain Hughes' retirement from the Ranger service, The Cattleman, published at Fort Worth, Texas. in its issue of January, 1915, had the following to say:
"Captain John R. Hughes, the oldest Texas Ranger in the service in point of years, has handed in his resignation. Captain Hughes entered the Ranger service as a private in 1887 and gradually rose to Captain, all of his superior officers being killed by bandits. His twenty-seven years of service have been filled with thrilling events, and Captain Hughes bears the distinction of never having lost a battle in which he participated and never allowed a prisoner in his charge to escape.'
"Captain Hughes left home when very young and spent six years with the Indians in Indian Territory. Later he engaged in the cattle business along the line of Travis and Williamson counties, Texas. 'Thieves stole a number of horses from his ranch and after tracing them to New Mexico he recovered his own horses together with several belonging, to his neighbors, and two of the thieves were convicted and sent to the New Mexico penitentiary. Returning to his home he laid aside his pistol and gave his attention to his stock. The friends of the convicted men, however, laid their plans to murder him and one of the number visited his ranch for that purpose. Captain Hughes was away, but a Ranger who was hunting the man in question happened to be at his ranch at the time and exchanged several shots with him. The Ranger shot the pistol from his hand, but the man got away. He was wanted for murder and other offenses, and Hughes was deputized to assist in capturing him. About three weeks later the man was located, but would not surrender and was killed. The friends of the dead man were then so annoying that Hughes was forced to go armed at all times to protect himself, and he was persuaded to enlist in the Ranger service."
'I enlisted at Georgetown, on August 10, 1887.' said Captain Hughes recently in referring to his experiences as a Ranger. 'expecting then to stay only six or eight months, riding 700 miles on horseback I reached headquarters camp at Camp Wood, in Nueces Canyon, November 12. That same winter we moved camp to Rio Grande City, remaining in that section a year and a half, during which time we had many exciting experiences. Among other things the Garza war was started. I arrested Catarina Garza in August, 1888, for criminal libel, complaint being made by Victor Sebra. Sebra afterward shot Garza and two companies of Rangers were sent there to attend to the mob. I was the first ranger to arrive. Later it was I who arrested Charles F. Dodge, wanted in New York in connection with the Morse-Dodge case, which afterwards became so notorious. I took him to Houston and held him a week at a hotel while a legal battle was being fought over him, and finally delivered him to Judge Waller T. Burns."
'I have always been a horseback Ranger and have worked in every county on the Rio Grande from El Paso to Brownsville. In 1902 I was stationed at old Fort Hancock. A young man stole a horse at Ysleta and a county official wrote, asking me to catch him and return the horse. He also told a newspaper reporter that I would catch the man, and the El Paso Herald told of the horse being stolen and said that Captain Hughes was on his trail and was certain to catch him as I had never failed. I was absent from my camp on a scout when the message arrived, but returned two or three days later and read the letter and the paper. I started right away on his trail and caught the man about 300 miles away and took him to the El Paso jail."
'Unfortunately, I have been in several engagements where desperate criminals were killed. I have never lost a battle that I was in personally, and never let a prisoner escape. The longer I hold a prisoner the closer I watch him. I got my promotion all the way from private to captain by my superior officers being killed by bandits. Sergeant Charles Fusselman was killed by smugglers in the Franklin Mountains, April 17, 1890, and I was promoted to his place. Captain Frank Jones was killed on Pirate Island by Mexicans on June 30, 1893, and I was appointed by Governor Hogg to fill his place. My appointment as Captain is dated July 4, 1893. For several years I did not expect to live to the age l am now. I expected to be killed by criminals. An officer who hunts desperate criminals has no business having a wife and family and I have remained single. I have an interesting scrap book, and many of my friends have insisted that I should write a book of my life as a Ranger. I do not expect to do so, however asI have accumulated enough of this world's goods to keep the wolf away from my door and do not crave notoriety."
No more fearless or courageous man ever served as an officer of the law than Captain John R. Hughes, and his memory will long be treasured by those pioneers of the West who knew him as a faithful officer, an honorable, sober, upright gentleman.
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