Jack Hays' descendant shares intrepid Ranger's legacy
Editor's note: This is the second in a three-part series about Wilson County native John "Jack" Coffee Hays, who became an icon in Texas due to his skills as an Indian fighter. The Texas Ranger eventually settled in Oakland, Calif., where he became a land developer and philanthropist.
One of Jack Hays' few living descendants is on a mission to tell the story of an incredible lawman-soldier that few east of the Mississippi have heard.
"I am working on my own projects to bring light to the most understated hidden western hero in American history. Jack Hays is well known among historians, but in the public he is virtually unknown," says Grant Porter Hays, who is tackling a novel on his famed ancestor.
Grant, a great-great-great grandson of Jack Hays, was born and raised in Berkeley, California, and is a singer-songwriter, who lives in Tacoma, Washington. A member of the Former Texas Rangers Association in Fredericksburg, Texas, he lived in Texas for five years before returning to the Northwest.
His direct lineage to John Coffee Hays comes down through his great-great grandfather, John Caperton Hays; his great-grandfather, Harry T. Hays (named after Jack's brother, a Civil War brigadier general who commanded the First Louisiana Brigade, known as the Louisiana Tigers); his grandfather, William Hall Hays; and his father, William Hall Hays Jr.
"I have two sons, Jack and Dylan, and they're stricken with autism. It's not likely they will continue the offspring. That's part of the reason for me wanting to write my novel, to preserve history," said Grant.
Grant didn't really start taking interest in his great-great-great-granddad's story until he was about 14, when he attended a ceremony held in Jack Hays' honor that was organized by the Texas Rangers and Historical Society of California.
"My father died when I was 3. My grandfather was very conservative. He revered Jack Hays but didn't elaborate much. The Hays tradition was not to talk much about my family. I guess they considered it some sort of bragging. They gave me the book [a biography of Jack Hays] by James Kimmins Greer.
"So I started researching myself. By fate, I took my son to a horse camp in Texas for therapy. It was in Hays County, and I met this man who was named after my grandfather, and I started learning from Texans. Jack is very well known in Texas."
Grant considers it a travesty that no movie or TV show has presented the story of Jack Hays.
"The only person who has noted the character is Chuck Norris. In some episodes of 'Walker, Texas Ranger' he goes back in time to pioneer days after getting a snakebite or having a severe injury that puts him into a semi-dream state. He becomes a character, Hays Cooper, in the Old West, but the story line was rewritten to make his character into a bounty hunter."
Perhaps a new biography would stir up some interest, but Grant confesses that even he had to wrestle a bit with Jack's history as an Indian fighter.
"Growing up in California, where everything is very liberal, when I talk about this I get a lot of negative response. For one, he killed Native Americans. I got self-conscious about it, but when I went back and started digging into his legacy, I was happy to discover he was very honorable.
He was very Christian too. He actually had a Baptist preacher with him, who was a Ranger, and they would pray before going into battle."
In describing Jack Hays' character, Grant said, "He had an extremely high level of honor. He set the standards for all Rangers, and basically all Rangers based their selves after him and still do today. He really led by example and was very quiet, not a braggart.
"A close friend of his was an Apache chief named Flacco, and he said that when Rangers went into battle, Jack would lead the charge rather than send a lower-ranking guy, which is quite unique."
What does he consider the greatest contribution that Jack Hays made to American history?
"He is the prototype of the great Western hero. I don't think most people realize there was a real guy behind the Hollywood Western characters. He was not unlike the Lone Ranger. With Flacco, he was riding with a Native-American sidekick. I think a lot of the dime-store novels and pulp-fiction comic books were based on his story, and what really got lost was that his greatest attribute was honor."
Grant cannot explain how Jack went through a couple of dozen or more fights without taking away any serious injuries.
"I think some of that has been romanticized and embellished to a degree, but it is definitely a fact that he survived about 10 years as a Ranger, while the life of an average Ranger was three years. There's the story of Enchanted Rock. We don't how much of that's been embellished.
"He was considered kind of mystical to the natives. That rock was a ceremonial rock for the Comanche where they held sacred ceremonies. So when he survived there, the natives considered him almost like he was like a great chief who had protection from God. It was astounding that he survived."
While the Texas-Indians Wars were likely Jack Hays' greatest claim to fame, the remainder of his life also provided a heaping of high adventures.
"The Texas-Mexican War was a huge achievement for him. It seems to me everything he was involved in has almost been downplayed historically. The Rangers pretty much saved the U.S. Army in that war. The Army was losing, and they called in the Rangers because they needed help. The Rangers brought in their guerilla tactics and spying and turned the tide," said Grant.
After the war, Hays began scouting for potential trails to the western side of the continent. There were some starts and stops, but by 1850 he was checking out San Francisco. His reputation got there first.
In the wild and wooly city by the bay, vigilantes were doing their best to tame crime. Hays showed up at the right time and was elected San Francisco's first sheriff. He pulled the floor from beneath a wealthy baron, who was trying to buy votes. The Ranger ambushed a gala sponsored by his opponent with an astounding performance of stunts on his horse and wowed a big crowd. Word of mouth spread, and Hays then wore the sheriff's badge for three years.
He then was appointed general surveyor of California and, among other tasks, mapped out Oakland. Through savvy property deals he would create an enormous estate. Today, most of his former ranch land is occupied by the University of California at Berkeley.
Grant says that Jack was a founding member of Oakland Union National Bank and that he helped start the school for California School for the Deaf, Dumb and Blind in Oakland, which exists now as the California School for the Blind.
Hays' descendants no longer have any of Jack Hays' personal possessions as they donated a collection of his artifacts to the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles. (Grant's uncle, John Westphal Hays, served under museum co-founder and Western film star Gene Autry as a senior vice present of the California Angels baseball team.)
The collection of Jack's memorabilia at the Autry Museum holds eight items: two gold and silver teaspoons (a gift from Comanche Chief Buffalo Hump to Jack's first son, John, whom Jack nicknamed Buffalo Hump Jr.), a sword and scabbard from the Texas-Mexican War, a leather cotton jacket that Jack wore as a Texas Ranger, an iron document box, and two manuscripts.
Recently, Jack Hays' great-great-great-grandson purchased land in Middle Tennessee and hopes to visit Wilson County and explore the roots of his famed ancestor.
"I'm kind of going backwards from California on the trail of Jack. I've experienced Texas and now I want to learn about Tennessee," said Grant. "I love the Southeast, and I love the Smoky Mountains and the springs and the rivers. Being on the water is one of the favorite things for me and my boys to do. So I've got this cowboy bunkhouse project where I want to build a little retreat where the boys can be in nature and enjoy peace and quiet."
Grant believes the most important lesson his Ranger forefather Jack Hays offers is "to never give up, no matter the difficulties in life. Jack overcame terrible misfortune having to lose his mom and dad to yellow fever at a young age in Tennessee. Then he trod through constant obstacles across the frontier.
"He never gave into fear and always carried forward. This is something I use as inspiration in life when faced with a difficult circumstance, something all people experience. My sons being stricken with autism has been an emotional and demanding lesson.
"My grandfather's legacy has helped me to overcome and move forward while appreciating the gifts in the present day. This is the lesson that we can all learn when considering Jack Hays," said Grant.