Police history: Was John Hughes the real Lone Ranger?

Texas Ranger John R. Hughes brought thousands to justice and to those who chose to fight, a hard reckoning

Some historians believe the “Legend of the Lone Ranger” was inspired by the life of U.S. Deputy Marshal Bass Reeves. Since we have brought you Reeves’ story, it is time to introduce you to Texas Ranger, John Reynolds Hughes, whose life others believe inspired the tale.

How a gang of rustlers inspired Hughes

At 14 years of age, Illinois native John Hughes traveled west to work on a cattle ranch. Enamored by Native American culture, he lived for four years with the Choctaw and Osage.

In this photo of Texas Rangers, Company D, John Hughes is seated in a chair at the far right. (Photo/Public Domain)
In this photo of Texas Rangers, Company D, John Hughes is seated in a chair at the far right. (Photo/Public Domain)

In 1874 he drifted into the Fort Sill area, where he became a trader with the Comanche and a close friend of Quanah Parker.

Leaving this period of life behind, he went to work cattle drives on the Chisolm Trail. Since Hughes was a man without vices, he saved his money and bought himself a small ranch near Liberty Hill, Texas.

In 1886 a gang of rustlers stole his and his neighbors’ horses. In a time before insurance companies, an act of criminality such as this ruined many a small rancher.

Hughes felt he had another option besides submitting himself to the ravages of criminality-created poverty. He used the considerable skills learned from the Choctaw, Osage and Comanche to trail the rustlers across Texas and into New Mexico. When he caught the rustlers, a gun fight ensued. Hughes killed two rustlers, inspiring the others to surrender.

Hughes returned home with not only his own horses, but his neighbors’ horses as well.

Hughes joins the Texas Rangers

Impressed with this feat, Texas Ranger Ira Aten recruited Hughes to help him track escaped murderer Judd Roberts. The track was long and arduous, but throughout his life, Hughes proved tireless in pursuit. Hughes and Aten caught up to Roberts, who chose death over surrender.

The Frontier Battalion

These experiences convinced Hughes that the Ranger life was for him. Hughes enlisted in the Texas Rangers in 1887 and was immediately plunged into the Ranger effort to restore peace among the cattlemen who were waging the “fence wars.” This conflict arose between cattlemen who wanted open ranges and cattlemen who wanted to fence in their land.

To curb the rampant cutting of fences during this conflict one Ranger tactic was to rig dynamite to the fences in key areas in such a manner so that cutting the fences would trigger a deadly explosion. This approach dramatically deterred fence cutting, but the Adjutant General of Texas deemed it too harsh and ordered the practice stopped.

Hughes rode with the “frontier battalion” who held the line against the incessant criminal brutality of bandits on both sides of the Rio Grande. During many hard rides and hard fights, Hughes showed leadership and was promoted to sergeant.

An episode that would make Hughes a legend occurred in 1893 when Captain Frank Jones pursued a border crossing gang of rustlers and killers referred to as the “Bosque Gang.” The gang was led by Jesus-Maria Olguin and his sons, Severio, Sebastian and Priscellano.

Jones’ request for more Rangers to pursue this gang was denied, but in spite of suspecting he would be outnumbered in any encounter Jones “rangered” on.

While searching the area of Pirate Island, which lay literally in the Rio Grande – partially in Texas and partially in Mexico – Jones spotted two gang members. As these gang members fled on their horses, the Rangers pursued. The fleeing bandits led them not only into Mexico, but also directly into an ambush. Jones was immediately wounded and, after a 45-minute gun battle, ordered his men to save themselves. With that last command given, he was hit again and killed.

Hughes was promoted to captain and vowed to seek justice for his predecessor. He enlisted the aid of undercover Texas Ranger Ernest “Diamond Dick” St. Leon who accumulated 18 names of bandits involved in the ambush. Many were members of the Olguin family who felt themselves beyond the reach of Texas law because the Mexican government considered the event an incursion rather than a crime.

Hughes and his frontier battalion ensured that in places where the law failed, justice would prevail. They hunted down nearly every man on that list. All of these bandit killers chose to fight and die in a hail of ranger bullets, or surrender and die at the end of a ranger rope. The intrepid Hughes earned respect on both sides of the Rio Grande and became known as “Border Boss.”

The Modern Rangers

Hughes reinforced his widely known reputation throughout his career and it served him well. When notorious killer Jim Miller plotted to kill Sheriff Bud Frazer of Pecos, Texas, Frazer summoned Hughes for help. Miller landed in the Pecos jail without a fuss within minutes of Hughes arriving in town. As deadly as Miller was, he was a man who knew his own limitations.

In 1900, Hughes’ vaunted frontier battalion was abolished. Hughes was immediately appointed one of the first four captains in the modern Texas Rangers. By the time he retired in 1915, he proudly reported he had never lost a prisoner or a gun fight. He retired as the longest serving and most decorated Texas Ranger in its history.

Who was the Real Lone Ranger?

Who was the real inspiration for the Lone Ranger? Was it John R. Hughes, Bass Reeves, both, or neither?

What does it matter?

The Lone Ranger was fictional. Reeves and Hughes were real men whose countless long rides brought thousands to justice and to those who chose to fight, a hard reckoning.

In the 19th century Colt called its pistol the “Peacemaker.” That is a misnomer, because both bad and good men carried it. The real peacemakers were Hughes, Reeves and countless other men who pinned on a badge. During a time when peace was but a dream, these living legends made it a reality.

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