In the aftermath of the Civil War there was little law and order along Texas’ southern border with Mexico. Post war turmoil allowed bandits, gunmen, horse thieves, and cattle rustlers to flourish. One area in particular, commonly referred to as the “Nueces Strip,” was known for its lawlessness.
Situated between the Nueces and Rio Grande Rivers, ownership of the land had been contested between Texas and Mexico since 1848 when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo brought an official end to the Mexican-American war. Article V of the treaty established the Rio Grande as the southern boundary with the United States and also required Mexico to relinquish all claims to Texas.
However, the 150 mile strip became a virtual no man’s land with Texas claiming the Rio Grande as its southern border, and Mexico maintaining that the line of demarcation extended north to the Nueces River. The dispute resulted in frequent cross-border raids with Texas cattlemen and Mexican “caudillos” perpetrating acts of violence against the other and livestock exchanging hands illegally back and forth between the two warring parties.
To end the lawlessness Texas governor Richard Coke authorized a “Special Force” of Texas Rangers under the command of Captain Leander H. McNelly to aggressively deal with the situation. From 1875-1876 this force of some 41 men used brutal tactics to quell the illegal activity.
Captain Leander H. McNelly was your stereotypical Texan, tall and lithe. He also embodied the definition of the commonly used description “lean and mean;” he was utterly ruthless in the execution of the mandate given to him by the governor of the State of Texas. – excerpt from Palo Duro.
Though successful, McNelly was eventually removed from his Ranger command for using questionable methods – including torture and summary executions, ignoring the orders of his superiors, and making multiple border crossings into Mexico in violation of Mexican territorial sovereignty.