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"A Glimpse of Texas Past"

Paint Rock:
The Last Comanche Fight of Jack Hays

by Jeffery Robenalt
Jeffery Robenalt

In July 1845, after the Congress of the Republic of Texas approved the terms of annexation offered by the United States government, President James K. Polk dispatched General Zachary Taylor and 5000 Federal troops to the small Texas settlement of Corpus Christi at the mouth of the Nueces River. According to the Mexican government, the Nueces was, and always had been, the border between Mexico and the province of Texas. However, based on the Treaties of Velasco, signed by Santa Anna after the Texas Revolution, the Texans insisted the border was the Rio Grande.

In late December, the United States Congress officially recognized the Rio Grande River as the border. General Taylor then prepared to move his troops south into the land that stretched between the Rio Grande and the Nueces known as the Nueces Strip; an act that would eventually initiate hostilities between the United States and Mexico. The Texas Rangers were long familiar with the lawless Nueces Strip, and Captain Jack Hays rode to Corpus Christi to offer the services of his Rangers to act as scouts for the American Army, who in 1845 lacked a cavalry branch and depended on slow-moving, mounted infantry known as dragoons to provide mobility.

Jack Hays portrait
Portrait of Jack Hays
Wikimedia Commons

While Jack Hays was presenting his offer to General Taylor, he received word of a large Comanche war party putting the torch to the settlements southwest of San Antonio. Knowing that he could never catch the elusive Comanches by following their trail, Hays quickly returned to San Antonio, and after gathering up forty Rangers and a few Tonkawa and Lipan Apache scouts, rode hard for Enchanted Rock, a well-known Indian landmark northwest of the old mission town. In this way, the veteran Captain of Rangers hoped to intercept the war party before the warriors could escape into the far reaches of the Comancheria.

Comanche Portraits
Comanche Portraits

Hays and his Rangers reined up at Enchanted Rock early the following morning only to find that they had barely missed the Comanches, but the Indian scouts soon found a fresh trail heading off to the northwest. A severe drought had long plagued the area, and the scouts were sure that a small lake formed by the nearly dry Concho River would serve as the only watering hole in that direction for miles around. The lake stood at the base of Paint Rock in present day Concho County. Based on this information, Hays made a fateful decision. Facing odds of more than ten to one, the Rangers set out to beat the Comanches to the water.

Forty-two hours and 130 miles of hard, bone-jarring riding later, Jack Haysís weary Rangers did exactly that, reaching the lake at 1:00 in the morning, well ahead of the unsuspecting Comanches. After ordering the picketing of the horses to the rear, Hays carefully concealed his men in a willow thicket along the north shore; the only approach to the water. On the south rim, the face of Paint Rock rose high above the shimmering moonlit surface of the lake.

Paint Rock TX Indian Pictograph Bluff
Paint Rock, TX Indian Pictograph Bluff
Photo courtesy Barclay Gibson, January 2010

As expected, the war party approached the lake at dawn, thirsty, saddle-weary, and anxious to rest for the remainder of the day. Hays let the warriors get as close as possible to the willow thicket before giving the command to open fire. Smoke and fire billowed out of the willows with the roar of the Rangersí rifles, and the Comanches fell back in disarray, carrying off as many of their dead as they could. However, a few alert warriors spotted the Rangersí trail as they rode out of range. The tracks clearly showed there were no more than thirty or forty riders concealed in the thicket. With their superior numbers, the Comanches believed they could easily overwhelm the Rangers in the full light of the new day.

The first Comanche attack would come rolling out of the northeast, ensuring that the blinding glare of the rising sun would shine directly in the Rangersí eyes. With their short bows, long war lances, and buffalo hide shields tough enough to turn a rifle ball, the Comanches presented a fearsome spectacle as they assembled for the charge. The war chief, feathers and colored ribbons fluttering in the breeze, lowered his long, scalp-decorated war lance, and the warriors suddenly broke into a screaming, galloping mass of color.

Hays fired when the Comanches closed to within fifty yards, and the Rangers quickly joined in with a thunderous volley. Galloping past the willow thicket, the warriors released a barrage of arrows as they slid off to the sides of their horses to avoid the deadly Ranger rifle fire. Circling wide, the Comanches made a second charge past the thicket before pulling back to regroup for a lance charge that the Rangers quickly broke with the brutal firepower of their rapid firing Colt revolvers and muzzle-loading shotguns.

The Comanches made several more gallops past the thicket throughout the remainder of the day before finally withdrawing to the prairie and setting up camp for the night. By now they were growing so desperate for water they were forced to send warriors in relays for more than twenty miles to get it.

Late the following morning, the Comanches launched a massive attack in four separate waves, the first waves attempting to get the Rangers to empty their weapons, so the later waves could close in. A few warriors in the final wave managed to crash their way into the thicket, war lances lowered, but they were again blasted off the backs of their painted ponies by the Rangers superior firepower.

Paint Rock TX - Indian Pictographs
Paint Rock Pictographs
Photo courtesy Barclay Gibson, January 2010

Withdrawing to the top of Paint Rock, the Comanches spent the remainder of the day firing arrows high into the air, attempting to arch them into the willow thicket. The arrows were ineffective from such long range, but the Ranger rifles managed to chalk up a few more Comanche victims who carelessly exposed themselves on the rim of the high rock. As the sun began to set, the frustrated warriors again withdrew to the prairie, their thirst unquenched.

Early in the morning of the third day the Comanches attacked the Texans from several different angles at once, forcing the defenders to divide their fire. Realizing from the diminished volume of gunfire coming from the thicket that the Rangers were running low on powder and ball, the war chief took his time, massing his warriors on the high ground to the northeast for one final attack that would surely overwhelm the beleaguered defenders.

By mid-morning all was ready and the war chief rode to the front of his warriors, raising his war lance high and haranguing the Comanches into making one final supreme effort. Screaming his fury, the Comanche leader heeled his stallion to a gallop and led what was to be the final charge at the willow thicket. The Rangers calmly picked out targets over the sights of their long rifles and took up the slack in their triggers, waiting patiently for Hays to open fire and swallowing the fear that churned their bellies as the painted warriors drew closer.

Hays had been trying to get a decent shot at the Comanche leader since the fighting had begun, and at less than a hundred yards he finally got his chance, when the war chief made a fatal mistake by turning on the back of his galloping pony to urge his warriors on. As he swung around, the Comancheís buffalo hide shield turned with him, exposing his right side. Jack Hays chose that instant to open fire, and the war chief was dead before his body struck the tall grass of the prairie.

The untimely death of the war chief shattered the momentum of the charge, and a terrible wail of anguish arose from 600 Comanche throats as the warriors milled around in front of the thicket. Before the Comanches could recover their momentum, Rangers up and down the line opened fire with a rolling volley of thunder. The leaderless warriors retreated as several more painted ponies were emptied. Hays ordered one of his men to ride out, rope the war chiefís neck, and drag the body back to the Ranger lines. This act of defiance infuriated the Comanches, and they galloped past the thicket one final time, launching a cloud of arrows before riding away in frustration to the northwest toward for the Comancheria.

Jack Hays Statue, San Marcos TX
Jack Hays statue in front of Hays County Courthouse in San Marcos.
Photo by Jeffery Robenalt, February 2011

The Battle of Paint Rock was a resounding victory for the Texas Rangers. More than 100 Comanche dead lay strewn across the prairie in front of the willow thicket. Incredibly, only one Ranger had been wounded in the fighting, and one unlucky horse killed by an arrow launched from the rim of Paint Rock. With the dawn of the Mexican American War, Jack Hays would devote the remainder of his Texas Ranger career serving as a volunteer with the United States Army, riding for both General Zachary Taylor at Monterey and General Winfield Scott on the road to Mexico City. Paint Rock was to be his final major engagement with the Comanches.

Finally, in the absence of official records, some historians have questioned the truth of the Rangersí victory at Paint Rock, as they have Jack Haysís efforts at Bandera Pass and his solo fight against the Comanches at Enchanted Rock. Some have even suggested that Paint Rock was an attempt to revise history for the sake of tourism dollars or to ďglorifyĒ the Rangers. However, the Texas Rangers need no help from me or any other historian to bring glory and honor to their name. History is, and always will be, an attempt to recount the distant past, and one manís history is often times another manís fiction. I choose to believe those like Joe Tom Davis in Volume IV of Legendary Texans, and Thomas W. Knowles in They Rode for the Lone Star: The Saga of the Texas Rangers, who believe in the truth of Paint Rock as I do.

© Jeffery Robenalt
"A Glimpse of Texas Past" June 1, 2012 Column

References for "Paint Rock: The Last Comanche Fight of Jack Hays "

  • Austerman, Wayne R. (2010), Ambush and Siege at Paint Rock, originally published by Wild West Magazine, published online February 05, 2010, HISTORYnet.com Weider History Group.
  • Davis, Joe Tom (1989), Legendary Texans Vol. IV, Eakin Press, Austin TX ISBN 0-89015-669-7.
  • Knowles, Thomas W. (2009), They Rode for the Lone Star: Saga of the Texas Rangers, Lone Star Publishing, ISBN 978-09435416.

  • See Paint Rock, Texas
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