Until the last half of the nineteenth century the sparseness of the population in Texas prevented riots like those in eastern cities. Because local records were similarly sparse and the state was not involved in most local incidents, information on riots that have taken place in Texas is incomplete. Only a few incidents occurred that could be termed riots before the Civil War. Though some of these would be considered riots now, these disturbances were a common experience on the frontier and were viewed more lightly. The occurrence of cowboys "taking a town," for example, which often involved some destruction of property, was usually considered an innocent diversion. Some other incidents that were considered riots by legally constituted authorities are now regarded in another light. Such was the affair in 1832 in which a group of citizens armed themselves to free William B. Travis, Patrick C. Jack, and Edwin Waller, who had been imprisoned at Fort Anahuac by Col. John Davis Bradburn (see ANAHUAC DISTURBANCES). The nearest equivalent of a riot in the early days of Texas was the feud. The first and largest of these, the Regulator-Moderator War, occurred along the Sabine River between 1839 and 1844. Smaller feuds were common, especially toward the western frontier. Mob violence at times broke into rioting, generally with the object of lynching slaves or abolitionists. Most lynching, however, occurred not as the result of rioting, but as the work of vigilance committees that operated secretly.
The greatest number of riots in Texas occurred between the beginning of the Civil War and the end of the nineteenth century. Though numerous factors accounted for the sudden increase, in general the unrest stemmed from the social and economic uncertainties of the times and the sense of dispossession that dominated most segments of society. Almost invariably, racial strife was involved. Between July and December 1870, 124 arrests were made by the State Police alone for rioting. A riot in Limestone County in 1871 was typical of those that occurred during this period. When a Black policeman killed a white man in Groesbeck, the animosity between African Americans and Whites erupted into mob violence. Fearing threats that Blacks were going to burn the town, whites throughout the county armed themselves and gathered at Groesbeck. Governor Edmund Jackson Davis declared martial law and sent in state troops; he thus averted a violent breakdown of law. In 1872 a similar riot occurred at Springfield. Often state troops were required to restore order, and members of the mobs were usually left unpunished even when they were identified. In 1877 at El Paso one of the most destructive riots in the state occurred; property damage was estimated to cost $12,000 to $31,000. The incident, the Salt War of San Elizario, was caused by a dispute over rights to use salt ponds that had for years been used by people on both sides of the border free of charge and were regarded by those people as part of the public domain. After Charles H. Howard filed a claim for the land on which the salt deposits were located, Louis Cardis encouraged Mexicans and Mexican Americans to defy the claim. Howard shot Cardis and took refuge with state troops at San Elizario, where a mob of 500 besieged them for four days. When Howard gave himself up, he was killed, and the mob overran the town. In the wake of the violence, five men were found dead and much property was destroyed. The military post at El Paso was regarrisoned, but no measures were taken against the members of the mob, many of whom were Mexican nationals.
In the 1880s and 1890s racial incidents continued to be the major cause of riots, although economic conditions also became a factor. A riot of Black troops occurred at Fort Concho in 1881. About fifty Blacks broke open an arms rack and invaded the town of San Angelo, where they destroyed property and wounded a man. The violence stemmed from the killing of a Black trooper and subsided after Texas Rangers were sent to the area. The Rio Grande City Riot of 1888 occurred after the arrest and subsequent killing of a Mexican-American resident. In the Beeville Riot of 1894 violence broke out between Mexicans and Blacks due to increased Mexican immigration and a shortage of jobs. In 1897 state troops were called out four times to protect prisoners from mobs; in one instance they failed to protect their charge from lynching. State troops were called out in 1898 to keep peace at Houston during a streetcar strike and at Galveston during a wharf strike; on two other occasions they were called upon to protect prisoners from mobs. In 1899 the Laredo Smallpox Riot was precipitated among Mexican-American residents who protested being moved from their homes under quarantine. They gathered in hundreds and fired several shots in an encounter with city officials. Rangers were sent in to subdue the mob before any serious damage was done. That same year troops of the Texas Volunteer Guard (see TEXAS NATIONAL GUARD) were sent to Orange to suppress a mob organized to drive Blacks out of Orange County.
The most common cause of riots in the first half of the twentieth century was public outrage toward prisoners. Mob threats of violence to prisoners necessitated the use of state troops on four occasions in 1900. In 1901 three lynchings by mobs took place despite the calling of state troops; in two instances the troops suppressed the mobs. At Brenham rioting broke out over the employment of a Black brakeman by a railway; it was suppressed after two days. In 1902 mob violence brought on the use of state troops three times. In one instance the mob hanged a prisoner before the troops' arrival. Troops were called out three times on this account in 1903, twice in 1904, three times in 1905, and once in 1906. The Brownsville Raid (1906) precipitated a serious race riot involving Black soldiers. Troops were needed elsewhere in 1907 and 1910; in the latter year rioting at Slocum resulted in the killing of eight Blacks. Other mob actions in the first decade of the century resulted from strikes at Houston in 1904 and racial tension at Ragley the same year. A riot also took place in Fort Worth in May of 1913. The Houston Riot of 1917 was started by about 150 Black troops from Camp Logan, a temporary training center near the city. The riot, touched off by the arrest of a Black woman, was the culmination of general uneasiness and hostility following the establishment of the camp. It resulted in the deaths of seventeen people, mostly whites; the anger of an aroused white population necessitated martial law for four days. The Longview Race Riot of 1919 also resulted in the proclamation of martial law. A strike at Galveston in 1920 produced lawlessness that required the help of the Texas National Guard. Mexia was declared in a state of anarchy because of a riot and was placed under martial law from January to March 1922. The Sherman Riot of 1930 stemmed from the arrest of a Black who had assaulted a white woman; rangers were called to protect the prisoner, but a mob set fire to the courthouse and virtually seized control of the town. When troops of the Texas National Guard arrived, they were attacked by the mob, and before martial law restored order, a number of buildings were destroyed. Enforcement of oil-conservation laws in the 1930s also necessitated the use of the National Guard to suppress mob lawlessness.
The guard was also called in September 1937 to suppress mob violence at Marshall and again to quell the Beaumont Riot of 1943. In Beaumont a white mob, outraged at the assault of a White woman by a Black, terrorized the Black section of town. Two died and 100 homes were destroyed. In 1955 the National Guard was used to control a riot at Rusk State Hospital. In May 1967 a riot that occurred among Black students at Texas Southern University in Houston resulted in the death of one policeman and the wounding of two students and two police officers. Though the immediate cause of the riot was the arrest of a student, the night-long incident was related to general racial tension. See also STRIKES.