Iconic Texas Ranger named “Rest IN Peace!”
A hard-riding, sharp-shooting doctor of many talents
If you had to guess how a tough Texas Ranger of the 1800s would earn a name, such as “Rest in Peace,” you might assume it was because he had sent so many bad guys and fearsome Indians to their graves to “rest in peace.” You’d be wrong! I’ll tell you the actual story in just a few minutes.
First, let me introduce John Salmon Ford. He was born in 1815 in South Carolina and was reared on a plantation in Tennessee. He studied medicine beginning at age sixteen. Young Doctor Ford arrived in Saint Augustine, Texas in 1836, just six weeks after Texas became a republic. He was twenty-one years old. His old life was behind him. Ford had married Mary Davis in Tennessee and they had two children. The marriage quickly resulted in divorce. Ford had gained custody of his daughter and left her in the care of his parents, who hoped to follow him to Texas. The son remained with Ford’s former wife.
When Ford reached Saint Augustine, rumors were sweeping East Texas that the Cherokee Indians living in Texas were planning an uprising in support of Mexico retaking Texas. East Texas counties raised companies of men and sent them to Nacogdoches, where Sam Houston had assumed command. Inspired, after hearing Sam Houston speak, Ford joined the Saint Augustine volunteers and spent several days in camp with other volunteers. When the Indian chiefs convinced Houston that their intent was peaceful, the volunteer troops went home. Doctor Ford had no idea that this brief episode would be his first involvement in a long, long list of events of importance in Texas over a period of sixty years.
Dr. Ford returned to Saint Augustine, where he began his practice of medicine, studied law, passed the bar exam and was active in the community. He taught a boy’s Sunday school class and started a Thespian group—a forerunner of today’s Little Theatre.
However, two years after the 1836 concern about a Cherokee-Mexican coalition to overthrow the new Texas Republic, such a plot exploded upon the scene. Vincente Cordova, one of Nacogdoches’ largest landowners and a Mexican loyalist, assembled hundreds of Mexican loyalists and Indians. Cordova encouraged the group. “To not cease to harass [the Texans] for a single day; to burn their habitations, to lay waste their fields, and to prevent their assembling . . .” In return, he promised protection from Mexico and titles to Texas land. Again, a call went out to citizens for volunteers to fight Rip Ford, Texas Ranger the rebellion. Dr. Ford and his musket again joined the Saint Augustine volunteer company. In the face of Texan’s armed resistance, Cordova fled. The rebels were dispersed from the local area. Hiding in other parts of the state, Cordova continued to work to incite rebellion. Indian and Mexican rebel raids intensified.
Although Cherokee Chief Bowles claimed his tribe had no part in the many attacks, the fear of the public and the determination of President Mirabeau Lamar to rid the state of the Cherokee, ultimately resulted in Chief Bowles agreeing his tribe would to leave the state, but only in return for compensation. When Bowles continued to delay leaving, the Texans feared he was buying time to gather his warriors. Texas Secretary of War, Albert Sidney Johnston, was sent to continue negotiations. He was accompanied by nine hundred members of the Texas army. When it appeared Bowles would fight rather than leave. Johnston ordered his troops toward Bowles Village.
Meanwhile, the Saint Augustine citizen volunteers (including Ford) had been ordered to neutralize the Shawnee who were camped at Big Spring Village. The mission was accomplished by confiscating the locks of the Shawnee’s flint lock rifles. Later when the troops arrived at Bowles’ village, they found a two-day battle was over, and Chief Bowles and most of his warriors were dead. The remaining Cherokee were removed to Indian Territory (what is now Oklahoma). Dr. Ford returned to his Saint Augustine medical office on Columbia Street, where he made house calls for two dollars, and wrote prescriptions for ipecac, quinine, and calomel. A surgical bill to a Mr. Lewis for fifty dollars, reveals Ford removed a piece of bone from Lewis’ son’s brain and provided post-operative treatment.
Six years later, in 1844, Ford successfully won a place in the Texas House of Representatives, where he served on the committees for Indian Affairs and Education. He also bought and edited the Texas National Register newspaper, subsequently changing its name to The Democrat. The following year he married Louisa Swisher.
In May of 1846, Louisa became ill. Ford ignored his newspaper duties to nurse her. After a brief illness, she died at age 27 on August 5, 1846 and was buried in Section One of the Old Grounds of Oakwood Cemetery in Austin. Ford was distraught. He left the cemetery as one who “has had the besom [broom] of destruction pass over his domestic hearth.”
Just prior to Louisa’s death, the U.S. Government had declared a state of war with Mexico. The Mexican-American War was underway with Texas troops already fighting along the Rio Grande border. Hoping that military service would provide relief from his grief, Ford cast his lot with the Texas Rangers on May 10,1847. Private Ford joined Captain Samuel Highsmith’s company of Colonel John Coffee Hays’ regiment of Texas Mounted Volunteers, a group largely composed of experienced Texas Rangers. Ford was quickly promoted to lieutenant and transferred to Hay’s headquarters staff as regimental adjutant.
One part of Jack Hay’s command was posted to Texas’ frontier defense, A second group was sent inside Mexico, to protect General Zachary Taylor’s supply line from guerrilla attacks. Ford joined the group headed for Mexico. Although Ford’s duties were based at headquarters, he organized a fifty-member spy company to operate independently of the regiment’s usual activity. Rather than waiting for guerrillas to attack, the spy company went in search of them. When the regiment moved, the spy company served as scouts. The regiment elected Ford as captain. Ford proved himself a capable soldier as the spy group pursued Celedonio Jarauta Ha-rou-da, a Spanish Catholic priest and notorious Mexican guerrilla leader. Fighting was fierce. In one attack on the rangers by Padre Jarauta’s Ha-rou-da’s guerrillas, the rangers new’ Colt six-shooters proved key to repulsing the guerrillas.
In his memoirs, “Adventures with Guerrillas,” Lieutenant E.M. Daggett, had this to say about the Colt revolver: One thing that contributed to save our command in this affair was the holy awe and superstition entertained by the untutored [Mexican]s in regard to the “revolver.” They understood the term to mean a turning around and about—a circulator; and were led to believe the ball would revolve in all directions after its victim, run around trees and turn corners, go into houses and climb stairs, and hunt up folks generally.”
It was at this point in his career, that Ford most likely earned the name “Rest in Peace.” Along with his fighting duties, as Colonel Hays’ adjutant officer, Ford wrote letters of condolence to the loved ones of troops either killed in action, or who died from disease (unfortunately, there were lots of those). Ford’s habit was to write ‘Rest in Peace,” or RIP (rip) at the end of these letters. Soon the other Rangers were calling him Old RIP or Rip Ford. The nickname stuck.
Had you met Ford at this time—immersed in his fighting career—here’s what you might have experienced. Visualize a tall, slim man, dressed in buckskin pants and a worn buckskin jacket, fringed at the hem and neck. As he steps out of Colonel Jack Coffee Hays’ command tent, he places a flat, high-brimmed black hat on his head and comes toward you. As he gets closer, you can see a revolver holster low on each hip. He wears his dark hair combed straight back from his forehead. It’s just long enough to tuck behind his big ears. Set in a clean-shaven face, his mouth forms a straight line and his expression is watchful. Ford’s deep-set, piercing blue eyes focus briefly on you, scan the area behind you, and shift back to you, making eye-contact. In a well modulated voice with a touch of a Southern accent, he says, I’m Captain Rip Ford, Colonel Hayes adjutant officer. How can I help you?
In May of 1848, following the end of the war, Ford put soldiering aside temporarily and joined Robert S. Neighbors, an Indian agent, in exploring the un-mapped country between Austin and El Paso, in search of a good trail. By June of 1849, the exploration and surveying project was completed. The map of their recommended route between the two towns, became known as the Ford and Neighbors Trail. It stretched 580 miles and could be traveled on horseback in twenty days. The trail subsequently served 49’ers seeking California gold and settlers moving west.
Later that year, Ford’s previous commander, John Coffee Hays, joined the 49er California gold rush. Ford returned to rangering and was officially promoted to captain in the Texas Rangers. His assignment, to patrol and protect the far western frontier from Indians and Mexican bandits. For two years, based near Corpus Christi, he and a small group of men engaged in hard and effective policing of the sandy desert and plains between the Frio, Nueces, and Rio Grande Rivers.
Mustering out when his tour of duty was over, Ford was solicited to provide support to a Texas-born Mexican, Jose Carbajal, who, with the support of several north Mexican states, wished to establish a free republic in Mexico along the Rio Grande. Some leading citizens of the south Texas frontier, objecting to high Mexican tariffs and other obstacles to trade, were also supportive of Carbajal’s efforts. Ford was unable to provide much help due to illness, possibly malaria. The campaign failed before Ford recovered.
By 1852, he was back in politics as a Texas State Senator and publishing his newspaper on the side. In 1854 he was mayor of Austin.
Six years later, in 1858, Federal protection of the frontier had faltered The death toll of settlers had skyrocketed in counties on the fringe of settlement. The Texas governor signed a bill authorizing one-hundred additional frontier rangers, who would join those already in the field, under a single commander—Rip Ford. The campaign was successful. By August the Indians left Texas for lands in Indian Territory.
The next year, Major Ford was transferred to the Rio Grande, where he no sooner had arrived, than he led a small group of his rangers against the bandit-general Juan Cortina. The daring Cortina had invaded Texas with four or five hundred men. By theft, murder, and cattle rustling, the bandits terrorized the entire southwest of the state for months, even taking over the town of Brownsville. Under Ford’s leadership, men of Ford’s Rio Grande Squadron, Texas Rangers defeated Cortina, who was seen swimming across the Rio Grande to escape. His men melted away and no longer occupied Texas’ side of the River. However, they continued to raid. With federal permission, and a warning to Mexico, Ford, his rangers, and members of the U.S. Second Cavalry took the fight into Mexico, finally ending Cortina’s banditry.
In 1861, Ford was a member of the Texas Succession Convention, which voted to leave the Union. He helped negotiate a critically important trade agreement between Texas and Mexico as the Civil War began and was promoted to colonel in the Second Texas Cavalry. Working to secure the Texas frontier forts which were manned by federal troops, Ford took command of Fort Brown, near the Texas town of Brownsville, with orders to remove the federals, who would be sent home. He was accompanied by an armed force. After negotiations, the Union soldiers left. Now his challenge was to restaff the fort which was located across the Rio Grande River from Matamoros, Mexico, soon to be the heart of the Texas cotton trade.This assignment was a crucial one, since the Union Blockade was curtailing shipping in and out of the South.
The selling of cotton internationally was essential to the funding of the Confederacy. The Union blockade hampered the Confederacy in acquiring supplies, and significantly reduced its ability to get Southern cotton to market. The options available to the Confederacy were running the blockade (a risky and often unsuccessful proposition), or bringing supplies in and shipping cotton out to market through Matamoros’s Port of Bagdad at the mouth of the Rio Grande. This strategy required using ships which were registered in foreign countries and flew foreign flags. Since the Union did not want to create international incidents, foreign flag ships were generally safe from the blockade.
Along with repairing and restaffing Fort Brown, Ford was given responsibility for ten forts along the western frontier from his headquarters at Brownsville. He also took time —in May of 1861—to marry Addie Smith, a young Brownsville woman less than half his age. One has to wonder when he found time to court her. In 1862, Ford was assigned command of all Texas troops on the Rio Grande. In July he was reassigned to Austin, the headquarters of the Texas Confederacy, to take charge of the state’s conscription of soldiers. at the same time, maintaining some responsibility for the Matamoros cotton trade. Unhappily, he had left Addie at her fathers’ home in Brownsville, due to her pregnancy. She joined him in Austin in November, and he met his new daughter, May Louise Ford, who had been born in August. For four months he became a private citizen.
In early November of 1863, the Union Commander of the Gulf, captured Brazos Island and took control of Fort Brown and the Rio Grande River north to Rio Grande City, closing trade between Matamoros and Brownsville. Valley residents petitioned the Texas government for “Old Rip” to come to their rescue. He did. The next month, Ford took command of a regiment of volunteers too young or too old for regular service. He named this regiment the Cavalry of the West. Shortly thereafter, Ford was promoted to brigadier general.
By 1865, the Civil War was winding down. The Confederacy’s surrender took place at Appomattox, on April 9, 1865, By May 11th—more than a month later—word of the surrender had still not reached the Confederates in far southwest Texas. The commander of a Union camp on nearby Brazos Island sent three hundred Union soldiers to take possession of Brownsville. Along the way, the federal troops attacked a Confederate outpost at Palmeto Ranch. On day two of the action, Ford informed Confederate Gen. James Slaughter in command of the outpost, that,”You can retreat and go to hell if you wish. These are my men and I am going to fight.” Ford led his men to battle, and routed the Union troops, sending them running from the battlefield. The South had won the battle, but had already lost the war. The Battle of Palmeto Ranch was the final land battle of the Civil War. Won by General Rip Ford and his men.
By the close of the Civil War, Ford’s hair was grey, He had mostly dark chin whiskers, wore a general’s uniform, and had thoughtful (some might say sad) eyes that had seen many a battle. Never was he commissioned as a confederate officer. Instead, he served his beloved Texas as a Texas frontier ranger.
After the Civil War, Ford spent the next three decades serving Texas in a variety of ways:
• As a delegate to the 1872 Democratic convention in Baltimore
• In 1873, as cattle and hide inspector in Cameron County, to help fight rustling
• Also In 1873, as a Special Sergeant of Arms and calming force in the election
riots between supporters of gubernatorial candidates Davis and Coke
• In 1874, as mayor and marshal of Brownsville
• As a member of the State Constitutional Convention of 1875
• As a Texas Senator from 1876 to 1879
• In 1879, as superintendent of what became the Texas School for the Deaf.
• In his later years, he wrote historical articles and reminiscences of his
John Salmon (Rest in Peace) Ford, a unique Texas hero, died in San Antonio on November 3, 1897, after sixty years of service to Texas. He was 82 years old. May he rest in peace.
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