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'Capt. Jack' set the bar for Texas Rangers, Pt. 1

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Editor's note: This is the first of a three-part series beginning with Jack Hays' adventures in the Old West. It will be followed by an interview with his great-great-great grandson, and concluded with a trip to his early stomping grounds near present-day Mt. Juliet.

The name John Coffee Hays may not ring many bells in Lebanon or Mt. Juliet, but the Wilson County native son, perhaps the most illustrious Texas Ranger of them all, claims legendary status in the Lone Star State and also left an extraordinary legacy in San Francisco and Oakland, California.

Hays first saw the light of day 200 years ago this January 28 near Little Cedar Lick. Before he bid this world adios in 1883, he had made the acquaintance of four presidents (Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, Franklin Pierce and Zachary Taylor), Texas statesmen Sam Houston and Stephen Austin, and Mexican General Santa Anna.

Known as "Captain Jack" in Texas and "Colonel Jack" in California, the great-nephew of Andrew Jackson helped change the course of history in the 1840s on the Southwest Texas frontier.

It was in early June 1844 at the Battle of Walker's Creek that Hays led a fight in which for the first time an entire company of Texas Rangers used five-shot Colt revolvers in combat with Indians. The Comanches had never before seen a gun that fired more than a single bullet.

"His contribution to Indian fighting by using a revolving pistol was revolutionary," said Texas State Historian Bill O'Neal. "He went Indian hunting and turned their tactics on them. The Indians had a repeating weapon, the bow and arrow, which they could use from horseback. They could ride you down as you were trying to reload.

"Hays had the breakthrough when Texas got their hands on those early Paterson Colts, and he employed them prior to the war with Mexico. He was a guy who just came out of nowhere and made quite an imprint, not just in Texas, but across the frontier."

Grant Porter Hays, one of the few living descendants of Hays, plans to tell his great-great-great grandfather's story to the world in a series of historical novels. He is 80-pages deep in volume one. One of the main points he hopes to make is that Hays was "a peaceful man, but when the time came he was a great warrior."

"What I'm doing with this novel is kind of a Larry McMurtry ('Lonesome Dove') thing. I'm reinventing and recreating what it was like and painting pictures," said Grant. "This is a tough one with such themes as slavery, Native Americans, the Trail of Tears. It was a very difficult time in history and can be very touching."

In 1785, Jack Hays' grandfather, John, came from North Carolina and settled in Little Cedar Lick. John's brother, Robert, wed Jane Donelson, sister to Rachel Donelson, the wife of Andrew Jackson. Robert was an uncle to Harmon A. Hays, Jack's father, making Jack a great-nephew to Andrew Jackson by marriage

The second-born son to Harmon and Elizabeth Cage Hays was christened John Coffee Hays after his father's commanding officer, Gen. John Coffee, whom Harmon had served under in the Creek Indian War. His grandfather Hays nicknamed him Jack, which stuck for life.

One of seven siblings, the youth attended a log cabin school and later studied at Davidson Academy in Nashville. After his parents died, Jack, 16, and his siblings, Sarah and Robert, were sent to live with their Uncle Robert Cage in Yazoo County, Miss.

Here Jack became a surveyor. He worked two years, saved his money and returned to Davidson Academy in Nashville for a year. The teenager then headed back to Mississippi, and in 1836, he went to seek his fortune in the territory that was shaping into the Republic of Texas.

Historian O'Neal said, "Hays came to Texas when he was 19 because that was the great adventure of the day. There was a parade of Tennesseans that went to Texas, and he just joined them. He was a surveyor and knew he could make a living."

Possessing a fine horse, a knife and a brace of pistols, Hays landed in Nacogdoches where a ruffian lured him into a gunfight, not a smart move, as Hays shot and killed the man.

Deciding to join the Army of the Republic of Texas, he took the advice of Sam Houston, and in December 1836, enlisted with a battalion of 208 mounted Rangers where he served in Deaf Smith's company for a monthly salary of $30.

Standing 5-foot-9 and weighing less than 150 pounds, Hays had hazel eyes and reddish brown hair. A man of vigilance, he always kept himself well-armed.

His biographer, James Kimmins Greer, in his 1952 tome, "Texas Ranger: Jack Hays in the Frontier Southwest," described him as "a slim, smooth-faced boy." A fellow Ranger, Nelson Lee, wrote of Jack "though a lamb in peace, he was a lion in war."

Greer also had the opinion that, "Without question, Jack Hays was the most spectacular and successful Indian fighter of Texas history."

Made captain of a Ranger company at age 23, for 10 years Hays tracked and fought Comanches, Kiowas, Mexican marauders, desperados and bandits.

Rangers were required to be of good character and courage, handy with a gun and steady in the saddle. They had to own a horse worth at least $100. Their garb included sombreros, long buckskin or cow leggings and long boots with rowled spurs. Among their possessions were a saddle, a rawhide rope, a hair rope for staking their horse, a rifle, one or two pistols, a knife, a Mexican blanket and a small wallet, in which they typically carried salt, parched corn and tobacco.

Due to Hays's boldness and his talent shooting a Colt on horseback, the Indians and Mexicans bestowed upon him such nicknames as Bravo Too Much, Devil Jack and Devil Yack.

O'Neal said, "He was physically courageous. He was a good pistol shot and also an excellent horseman. Those were his primary skills, in addition to what he learned from the Indians. He learned their battle tactics and turned that against them, usually Comanche and Kiowas."

Hays became the first Ranger to use Samuel Colt's five-shot revolver, and later, one of his Rangers, Samuel Walker, recommended a few improvements which led Colt to create a heavier six-shot weapon known as the Walker Colt.

It was in late 1843 that Hays saw to it that the 14 Rangers in his company were outfitted with two Colt Patersons apiece.

Said O'Neal, "The Texas navy had ordered the Colts, but they didn't get here in time for the revolution, but they got there. The government had them. Here were those things floating around. He got his hands on them some way."

Hays also saw to it that each man had an additional cylinder, which meant five more quick shots.

"Those first Colts fired five bullets. They were small guns and very awkward to deal with. They had to take the barrel off and the handle off to reload the five chambers and then had to put caps on each chamber. That's why they carried two cylinders," said O'Neal.

O'Neal said that Hays and his Rangers made history as they were the first to use the revolvers against the Indians. He describes what happened in that battle where Hays and his 14 Rangers were outnumbered by about 5 to 1.

"When the Indians saw how few Rangers there were, they pulled up and started shouting insults at them in English. The Indians would lay off about 50 yards or so, the maximum range of a musket. Once the white men had fired their guns and were reloading, the Indians would kick up their ponies and be all over them and then lance them or pepper them with their arrows.

"Hays had trained his men for this. They fired their long rifles, and then he had trained them to drop them to the ground and pull their first pistol. What spooked the Indians was when the white men rode their horses toward them and fired the first pistols. Then they caught another round, and they wheeled their horses. That was when Hays said, 'Powder burn 'em, boys,' and they shot 30 some-odd of them out of the saddle. They had some 70-odd warriors against a handful of rangers, and the Indians really freaked out when they fired that second pistol shot.

"Hays repeated that tactic with variation all over the place. In my book, 'Fighting Men of the Indian Wars,' I found exactly 19 engagements with descriptions. He was in at least a score of engagements and never lost. He was a terrific Indian fighter, and we get that from his Indian allies who hated the Comanches and Kiowas."

Another of Hays's renowned encounters with the Comanche came on a granite dome known as Enchanted Rock where he single-handedly held off dozens and killed 10 or so with his trusty Colts.

Said O'Neal, "I've been to Enchanted Rock. That doggone rock's kind of bald and hard to get up. From there he commanded everything around him and that fight was one of his most famous. He just about ran out of ammunition. The guy was absolutely fearless. He was something else. He was the stuff of legend.

"He was a little bit understated. He did not have a wonderful voice. He was only 5-foot-9. He never bragged, but everybody knew he was one deadly son of a gun. He was incredibly brave and had more guts than you could string on a fence."

Hays also served as a colonel, leading 250 Rangers in the 1st Regiment, Texas Mounted Riflemen, during the Texas-Mexican War, taking part in a key battle in Monterrey in September 1846.

He then traveled in March 1847 to Washington, D.C., where he met fellow Tennesseans, President James K. Polk and First Lady Sarah Polk. Upon his return, he married Susan Calvert on April 29, 1847, in the Magnolia Hotel in Seguin, Texas.

Called back into duty in Mexico, Hays and his Rangers battled Mexican soldiers from Vera Cruz all the way to Mexico City in the fall of 1847. After watching the Ranger in action, Gen. William J. Worth said, "Jack Hays is the tallest man in the saddle in front of the enemy that I ever knew."

O'Neal summed up his contributions to the Texas-Mexican War, saying, "Hays did the same thing with his Ranger regiment that he had done with his Ranger company while fighting Indians. By the time of the war with Mexico they were getting six-shooters. He outfitted his guys with two six-shooters.

"In the battle of Monterey they fought their way into the center of town. They had 13 shots before they had to reload. All the Mexicans had were muskets. Hays's men had 12 more shots. These guys had more firepower at this point than anybody in the world. With it, they fought their way into the center of Monterrey and helped capture it."

Never one to stand still, in 1848, Hays guided a crew of men to mark a new road west from San Antonio to El Paso. The expedition turned into a hike through hell. The band was forced to eat grass, rattlesnakes, panther and pack mules to survive, and 106 days later they wound up back in San Antonio, lucky to have escaped with their lives.

Shortly after that adventure, Hays forged a trail through the desert from Tucson, Arizona, to San Diego, California. By 1850 he had made his way to the Gold Rush territory of California, and the citizens of San Francisco quickly elected the famed Indian fighter as their first sheriff. A few years later, commissioned surveyor general of the state, he laid out the boundaries of Oakland. In that city he became a civic leader and land developer. In between all of that he managed to lead a regiment of volunteers and tangled with Paiute Indians in the Second Battle of Pyramid Lake in Nevada in 1860.

Comfortably set with 10,000 acres of land and an estate valued at $500,000, Hays semiretired in the 1870s and settled down on his Mountain Home Ranch in Piedmont in Alameda County. His health declined in his 60s, and he died in bed of rheumatism on April 21, 1883, at the age of 66. His last reported words were, "It's San Jacinto Day."

The beloved Tennessean-Texan-Californian was laid to rest not far from his ranch in Oakland's Mountain View Cemetery. Today, he is one of 30 men enshrined in the Texas Rangers Hall of Fame.

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