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Texas | Columns | Lone Star Diary

Born to be a Texas Ranger
The Life of
John Coffee (Jack) Hays

by Murray Montgomery
Murray Montgomery

It seems that from the day he was born, John Coffee (Jack) Hays was destined to be a Texas Ranger – when you consider his roots, it shouldn’t have been any other way.

Hays was born on Jan. 28, 1817, in a place called Little Cedar Lick, Tennessee. His father, Harmon, was of Scots-Irish descent and had fought alongside Andrew Jackson and Sam Houston in the War of 1812. From the very beginning no one in Little Cedar Lick must have doubted that baby boy Jack would be involved in many adventures during his stay on this earth.

The future ranger left his home early in life and attended Davidson Academy in Nashville. According to The Handbook of Texas, Hays became a surveyor and worked at his trade in Mississippi before coming to Texas.

After the young man heard of the war in Texas, he decided to join the rebels who were fighting for independence from Mexico. In 1836, Hays entered Texas at Nacogdoches just in time to join up with troops being led by Thomas J. Rusk – his first task was to help bury the remains of victims of the Goliad Massacre.

It’s been said that Sam Houston advised Hays to join a company of rangers under the command of Erastus (Deaf) Smith. That group was ordered to patrol from San Antonio to the Rio Grande, protecting citizens on the frontier from Indians and the Mexican army. During this time, Hays took part in a battle with Mexican cavalry near Laredo. After this battle, he was promoted to the rank of sergeant.

Jack Hays left military life for a brief period after he was appointed deputy surveyor for the Bexar District. However, it seems that he could not stand being away from the action and combined soldering and surveying for several years. This experience, along with his increasing knowledge on Indian warfare, helped prepare him for protecting survey parties in later years.

History tells us that Hays was a mild-mannered man and his features didn’t really measure up to what most people considered a ranger ought to look like. He was 5 feet nine inches and had a fair complexion. But when it came to fighting, this Ranger stood tall.

In the early years of the Texas Rangers, they were often outnumbered in most battles. They had to try and keep the peace between Anglo colonists and Hispanic settlers – the Indians were also a constant threat to cause problems.

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

In the 13 years that Jack Hays lived in Texas he gained a national reputation, especially during the Mexican War. He was hailed as a brilliant leader and fearless fighter. He was known as “Devil Yack” by his enemies and friends alike. In the war with Mexico, he served under the command of Gen. Zachary Taylor. During this time, Hays was promoted to the rank of colonel.

During the Mexican War, Colonel Hays saw action at Monterrey, Veracruz, Teotihuacan, and Sequalteplan. Often going against superior numbers, Hays’ rangers proved themselves time and time again on the battlefield.

Another important piece of history is that Hays and his rangers revolutionized warfare against Texas Indians by their effective use of the new Colt revolvers. In a fight with Indians in the battle of Walker’s Creek in 1844, Hays and 14 rangers charged into a large force of hostiles, blazing away with Colt pistols, and routed nearly 80 Comanche warriors.

After his illustrious years as a Texas Ranger and soldier, Hays went on to pioneer trails through the Southwest to California. He served for a while as an Indian agent for the Gila River country. Later, he was elected sheriff of San Francisco County. In succeeding years, he was successful in real estate and ranching – he was one of the founders of the city of Oakland. Hays was married and had three daughters and three sons.

It seems fitting that he died on April 21, 1883; the anniversary of the Battle of San Jacinto, some 47 years later. John Coffee (Jack) Hays is buried in California. Hays County, Texas, is named in his honor.


© Murray Montgomery
August 27, 2012 column
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