Scouting for signs of John Coffee Hays
Editor's note: This is the third and final part of a series on Wilson County native John "Jack" Coffee Hays, a famed Texas Ranger, who battled Indians and Mexican soldiers before co-founding Oakland, California.
The illustrious Indian fighter and Texas Ranger John "Jack" Coffee Hays was born 200 years ago this Friday near Little Cedar Lick, a few miles northeast of Mt. Juliet.
Few local schoolchildren were ever taught his story. Among the handful of adults around here who are aware of Hays' incredible legacy is Cumberland University history teacher Rick Bell.
"My favorite class to teach is 'Expansion of the U.S.,' which is about the American West, and I talk to my students a lot about Hays," said Bell. "Hays played a huge role in the shaping of the West."
"The Texas Rangers were first really to fight against the Comanches. There was a wide expanse in West Texas. When settlers started moving into Comanche territory, it was their first time to encounter a horse culture. They just couldn't fight against them with their long rifles. So Jack Hays realized that the only way to fight against Comanches was to fight on horseback.
"He was trying to figure out a weapon to fight with, and he found out about the Colt revolvers. He was the one who introduced that weapon on the Texas frontier. Samuel Colt was about to go bankrupt because the U.S. Army would not buy his guns. Hays' success with the weapon basically saved the Colt company.
"Everybody's heard of Sam Houston and the Lebanon connection [Houston practiced law briefly in the Cedar City before he became the president and then first governor of Texas], but Jack Hays was important too. I wish people knew more about him," said the local historian.
Hays' imprint in the county of his birth appears to be practically non-existent. It's hard to fathom that there may be no tangible connection other than his grandfather and father's names listed on ancient deeds and maps.
However, a 205-year-old simple frame house of worship stands proud on private property several miles west of Lebanon. This could be the site where Jack Hays and his family, who were Presbyterians, assembled with others believers each first day of the week when Hays was a lad.
The weathered but solid Liberty Chapel Church sits about 12½ miles west of the Lebanon town square. The beams in the 30X50 foot structure, made of poplar and other timber, were mortised and pegged together. The original piers and floor remain; however, the floor has been recovered with a new layer of wood.
"The reason why it's still standing, it's got a good tin roof," said David Howell, who owns the building and surrounding acreage. He suspects the structure may be the oldest original church building in the county.
"I think it is very likely Jack Hays and his family did attend what was Liberty Chapel, which later became Little Cedar Lick Baptist Church," Howell said. "The building did not become a solely Baptist church until about 1825, so I think there is a very good chance Jack could have been in the building, since there was a Presbyterian Society as a part owner of the building."
In the quest of getting his Foxwood Farms, which has been in the family since 1809, confirmed as a century farm, Howell has spent long hours poring over deed books and maps.
"I got carried away," he confessed. "I started looking at land grants in deed books for land here in the northwest corner, who had them, who they were, what happened to grants over time. Often with details and current information you can get better placements for the land grants. The boundaries of land grant properties became very fluid over time. Some boundaries moved as much as a quarter mile. It's a jigsaw puzzle.
"I got to know a lot of the property owners by name in the northwest corner of the county. A lot of them were my relatives. I knew Madelon Smith [a late Mt. Juliet historian] and was reading her information with the connections to Ranger Jack Hays. It stated that he was from Little Cedar Lick, Wilson County, Tennessee, in several documents.
"I wondered where. I had never seen Hays names on any place from Highway 70 up Benders Ferry Road to the Easter Seal Camp.
"His grandfather was John Hays. Madelon had a letter from Harmon Hays referring to his uncle Robert, a brother of John Hays. I still haven't exactly located where Harmon A. Hays, Jack's father, was living at the time Jack was born.
"I'm pretty well sure they lived in neighborhood of Davis Corner Road or a little south," Howell said, speaking of Jack's grandfather, John, and father, Harmon.
He believes the Hays home was three miles northeast of the church on a ridge between Little Cedar Lick Creek and Spencer Creek.
Howell said the salt lick known as Little Cedar Lick was located in the southwest corner of the intersection of Liberty Chapel Road and Benders Ferry Road.
"Liberty Chapel Road was a buffalo road for part of the way. Liberty Chapel Road only ran from Benders Ferry Road to Nonaville Road. The buffalo road veered off more to the north before crossing the creek and going on to Drakes Lick [located north of today's Lakeview School]," he noted.
"These two creeks in the Mt. Juliet area originally were called Big Cedar Lick Creek, which goes past the Little League ball fields in Mt. Juliet, and Little Cedar Lick Creek. The lick in their names was later dropped so they became Cedar Creek and Little Creek."
Howell discovered that the ground the church occupies was part of a farm purchased by Joshua Tipton in 1812.
"He was a farmer, blacksmith and preacher. As soon as he bought the property, he dedicated the northwest corner for a church. He built it around 1812-1813 and called it Tipton's Meeting House."
Exploring the structure and eyeballing an exposed corner of the church house on a recent afternoon, Howell points to tiny bits of metal exposed in the wood and exclaimed, "Did Tipton make these nails?"
Tipton served with Andrew Jackson under the command of Gen. John Coffee in the War of 1812 at the Battle of New Orleans and died April, 20, 1815, never making it back to Tennessee.
From about 1815 to 1825, the building was shared by the Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian societies as a common meeting house and known as Liberty Chapel. In 1825, Tipton's widow and children sold the land to the Baptists, and the name was changed to Little Cedar Lick Baptist Church.
"At founding it was a mission of Big Cedar Lick Baptist Church [today's Mt. Olivet Baptist Church on Hickory Ridge Road]," Howell said, "but during most of its 135-plus-year operation, it was a standalone congregation. In the early days it was the only Baptist Church north of Highway 70 until you get to Laguardo."
As a youth, Howell attended Little Cedar Lick Baptist Church with his family.
He said the church permanently closed its doors in 1961 or 1962. The reason being the nearby waters of Old Hickory Lake had been rising since 1957. A large percentage of the members lived on the west side of the creek, and by the early '60s the waters flooded a bridge which cut off their direct route. Instead of making a longer drive, most opted to attend congregations closer to their homes.
"My end goal for the 'meeting house' at this time at is to at least stabilize the structure, clean up the lot around the building, and put the building in condition to last many more years," said Howell. "As I told one of the fellows from the Ranger Association, 'I don't want the building to fall down on my watch.'"
Capt. Jack Hays most likely would approve.