McDonald, William Jesse (1852–1918)

By: Harold J. Weiss, Jr. and Rie Jaratt

Type: Biography

Published: 1952

Updated: August 23, 2019

William Jesse McDonald, captain of the Texas Rangers, son of Enoch and Eunice (Durham) McDonald, was born in Kemper County, Mississippi, on September 28, 1852. His career as a peace officer spanned nearly four decades. His father was killed at the battle of Corinth in Mississippi in 1862. "Bill Jess" moved to Texas with his mother and other relatives after the Civil War and settled on a farm near Henderson in Rusk County in 1866. He was involved at sixteen in a conflict with Union authorities and tried for treason, but David B. Culberson acquitted him. McDonald graduated from Soule's Commercial College, New Orleans, in 1872 and taught penmanship in Henderson until he started a small store at Brown's Bluff on the Sabine. In the 1870s he established himself as a grocer at Mineola, where he became closely associated with James Stephen Hogg, then justice of the peace at Quitman. Through Hogg, McDonald met Rhoda Isabel Carter, whom he married in January 1876. While attempting to succeed in business, he also tried to earn a living as a police officer. In the early 1880s he served as deputy sheriff of Wood County. In 1883 the McDonalds moved to Wichita County, where he occupied himself first with cattle, then with lumber. After reinvesting in cattle about two years later, he filed on school land in Hardeman County, where he soon became deputy sheriff, special ranger, and United States deputy marshall of the Northern District of Texas and the Southern District of Kansas. His bold tactics drove the Brooken (or Brookins) gang from Hardeman, and his raids on cattle thieves and train robbers in No Man's Land and the Cherokee Strip made him a Texas legend. At the beginning of 1891 Governor Hogg selected McDonald to replace Samuel A. McMurry as captain of Company B of the Frontier Battalion of the Texas Rangers. As a ranger captain from 1891 to 1907, McDonald played two key roles: investigating crime and carrying out administrative work. His administrative duties ranged from hiring and firing personnel to handling citizen complaints and sending reports to superiors. "Captain Bill" and the rangers under his command took part in a number of celebrated criminal cases from the Panhandle region to South Texas: the Fitzsimmons-Maher prize fight in El Paso (see BEAN, ROY), the Wichita Falls bank robbery, the murders by the Murder Society of San Saba, the Reese-Townsend feud at Columbus, the Conditt family murders near Edna, the Brownsville Raid of 1906, and the shootout with Mexican Americans near Rio Grande City. In these endeavors only one ranger, T. L. Fuller, lost his life.

Although McDonald was nearly killed in a gunfight with Sheriff John P. Matthews of Childress County in 1893 in Quanah, he was no mythical western gunfighter. His reputation as a gunman rested upon his easily demonstrated marksmanship, a flair for using his weapons to intimidate opponents, and the publicity given his numerous exploits. Yet McDonald had the ability to track outlaws, to evaluate physical evidence found at the scene of a crime, and to stand off mobs. His admirers see him as one of the "Four Great Captains," along with John A. Brooks, John R. Hughes, and John H. Rogers.McDonald's detractors have portrayed him as an irresponsible lawman who accepted questionable information, precipitated violence, hungered for publicity, and related tall tales that cast himself in the hero's role. In April 1905 he served as bodyguard in Texas for the visiting President Theodore Roosevelt, who later entertained him at the White House. In August 1906 McDonald's handling of black troops in the Twenty-fifth Infantry made him known as "the man who would charge hell with a bucket of water." In his last ranger exploit, he and his men shot their way out of ambush in Starr County. Governor Thomas M. Campbell made him state revenue agent in January 1907. McDonald's enforcement of the Full Rendition Act caused great criticism but increased the state tax valuation almost a billion dollars in two years. McDonald acted in 1912 as bodyguard for Woodrow Wilson, who later as president appointed him marshal of the Northern District of Texas. McDonald died of pneumonia at Wichita Falls on January 15, 1918, and was buried at Quanah. Engraved on his tombstone is his motto: "No man in the wrong can stand up against a fellow that's in the right and keeps on a-comin'."

Virgil E. Baugh, A Pair of Texas Rangers: Bill McDonald and John Hughes (Washington: Potomac Corral, the Westerners, 1970). Tyler Madeleine Mason, Riding for Texas: The True Adventures of Captain Bill McDonald of the Texas Rangers (New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1936). Albert Bigelow Paine, Captain Bill McDonald, Texas Ranger (New York: Little and Ives, 1909). Walter Prescott Webb Papers, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. Walter Prescott Webb, The Story of the Texas Rangers (Austin: Encino, 1971).


  • Law, Law Enforcement, and Outlaws
  • Texas Rangers

Time Periods:

  • Late Nineteenth-Century Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Harold J. Weiss, Jr. and Rie Jaratt, “McDonald, William Jesse,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed January 28, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

August 23, 2019