Bridges: McDonald worked as Ranger, keeping law in remote areas of West Texas

Dr. Ken Bridges

The Texas Rangers in its long history in the state has produced legendary figures in its quest to uphold the law and keep Texans safe. Capt. William Jesse McDonald was one of many examples. McDonald’s life had led him to serve at different times as a school teacher, shopkeeper, rancher, and eventually becoming one of the most respected law men in Texas.

Bill McDonald was born in 1852 in eastern Mississippi. He was still a child when his father, Enoch McDonald, volunteered to fight with the Confederacy during the Civil War. But in 1862, his father was killed in the vicious bloodletting at the Battle of Corinth. After, his widowed mother moved the two of them to Henderson County in East Texas to be near relatives.

He was stubborn from a young age. At the age of 16 in 1868, he reportedly got into a fight with Union troops and found himself charged with treason. Only the intervention of a prominent local officials resulted in the charges being dropped.

However, he had a keen mind and attended Soule Business College in New Orleans, graduating in 1872. He became a school teacher for a time, teaching penmanship before he turned his eye to business. He operated a couple of stores in East Texas before becoming a deputy sheriff in Wood County. By 1883, he and his wife moved to Wichita Falls to take up ranching. 

They moved further west to the Quanah area several years later. Here, Texas, like most other frontier states was beset by bloodshed and lawlessness. Cattle thieves and organized gangs terrorized the few settlers in the area, hiding in the vast stretches of emptiness that covered West Texas and the Indian Territory in those years. He became a deputy sheriff again, and as raids worsened, McDonald was made a special Texas Ranger, attacking marauders far and wide to finally bring order to the area.

As a result, in 1891, he was named captain of the Texas Rangers Frontier Battalion, where he and his fellow Rangers worked to protect citizens from further raids and to act as the police for remote locations that had none.

As a Ranger, he had a reputation as a keen observer and tracker. Long before forensics became a standard tool of law enforcement, McDonald was using the same principles in solving cases and capturing fugitives, an otherwise nearly impossible task on the seemingly endless stretches of land across the state in the late 1800s.

He found himself in many shootouts, including one with the sheriff of Childress County in 1893. Though shot on several occasions himself, he reportedly never took another life, but his skill with a gun and reputation preceded him and used it to defuse many difficult situations without a weapon at all. The instances in which McDonald and other Rangers prevented riots from erupting had led to the reputation of “One riot, one Ranger.” 

In February 1896, McDonald received a telegram while riding the train into Wichita Falls from another Ranger case in El Paso informing him that City National Bank had been robbed. Bandits had seized $600, killed one man, and wounded another in a blaze of bullets in broad daylight. Within two hours of receiving the message, he had arrived at the train station, and ridden out of the city with a posse of five other Rangers in pursuit of the murderers. They charged through the brush on a blustery winter day and caught them within hours.

He continued to serve as a Ranger until 1907 when he became a revenue agent for the state, ultimately collecting more than one billion dollars in revenue for a state enjoying the beginnings of the oil boom and looking to reap the technological promises of the twentieth century.

In a time period when most men in their fifties would be slowing down, McDonald took on what were perhaps his most important assignments. In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt picked him to serve as one of his personal bodyguards during his trip through Texas. Seven years later, incoming President Woodrow Wilson also tapped McDonald as his personal bodyguard. In recognition of his work, Wilson named McDonald as United States Marshal for the district of North Texas.

He fell ill suddenly in early 1918 and died of pneumonia at his home in Wichita Falls. McDonald has since been inducted in the Texas Rangers Hall of Fame in Waco in recognition of his colorful life and unwavering dedication as a law man.

Dr. Ken Bridges is a writer, historian and native Texan. He holds a doctorate from the University of North Texas. Bridges can be reached by email at