John Coffee Hays

Jack Hays 004In 1836, a 19-year-old young man by the name of Jack Hays migrated from his home in Tennessee to the Republic of Texas.  He came from a good family, was well-educated, and had influential friends or friends of the family, including one former governor of his home state by the name of Sam Houston.  Jack’s father, Harmon, fought alongside Andrew Jackson and Sam Houston in the War of 1812.

Arriving in Texas, Jack presented himself to General Houston, made his manners, and presented to him a letter of recommendation from his great uncle, Andrew Jackson who was, at the time, serving as President of the United States.  Rachel Jackson was Jack Hays’ great aunt from the Donelson family, and a relative of Jack’s mother.

The well-mannered Jack Hays spoke in an even, measured tone.  He was thoughtful, considerate, and logical.  Houston liked the young man and appointed him to serve with the Texas Rangers, variously referred to as ranging spies and scouts (the term spies being synonymous with scout).  History doesn’t remember much about Jack between 1836-40.  He was apparently in the learning stage of his career.

The Stars have gleamed with a pitying light

On the scene of many a hopeless fight,

On a prairie patch or a haunted wood

Where a little bunch of Rangers stood.

They fought grim odds and knew no fear,

They kept their honor high and clear,

And, facing arrows, guns, and knives,

Gave Texas all they had—their lives.

~W. A. Phelson

Life in Texas demanded uncommon practicality and an uncompromising attitude toward survival.  The entire purpose behind Mexico’s invitation to these migrating Americans was so that they could deal with the problem of hostile Indians, which in the course of the previous three hundred years, Spanish Mexico never resolved [1].  Texas promised but one thing: a hard life.  Initially, if settlers were plagued by Indians with hostile intent, it was up to them to band together and solve the problem —or die.  But small groups were only capable of defending themselves; they were not equipped to address the larger problem of Comanche culture.

When Jack Hays arrived in Texas, the rangers had been in existence for thirteen years, although not as a formal organization and not labeled as Texas Rangers.  They were an irregular force, unpaid, poorly equipped, and their only reason for existing at all was the necessity of defending the colonies.

By 1839, rather than waiting for the horror of an Indian assault in the dead of night or at first light, the Texans had begun to take the fight to the Comanche.  This aggressiveness was a new experience for the Comanche.  Four events in 1839-40 became more than episodical footnotes in Texas history.  They included the discovery of a Mexican plot to unite hostiles against Texas settlements, the fight with Cherokees and their expulsion from Texas, the Council House Fight in San Antonio, and the Battle of Plum Creek.

The Battle of Plum Creek unfolded as a consequence of the Council House Fight in San Antonio [2].  Under the Comanche Moon [3] of August 1840, a band of Comanche warriors and their allies, numbering between 500 and 1,000 Indians, moved south from the Comancheria under the war chief Buffalo Hump of the Penateka Tribe.  Their route of march took them east of San Antonio, near Gonzalez, and struck deep within the Anglo-Texas region above the Nueces.  The Comanche cut a swath of destruction and no white was safe.

On 6 August, Buffalo Hump surrounded the town of Victoria and did something that few Indian war leaders had ever done before: he seized the town.  The citizens of Victoria, hastily thrown together within a span of moments, held but a small section of the town.  Comanches rode howling through the town, killing fifteen people, including slaves.  When they left, they took with them upwards of 2,000 horses [4].  These horses would be the undoing of the Comanche raiders.

When Buffalo Hump was finished with Victoria, he led his marauders to Peach Creek, moving toward the Gulf of Mexico in a great half-moon formation.  Texas militia turned out, but they could only hover on the Indian’s trail and observe them from the flank of the Comanche formation.  Settlers unfortunate enough to find themselves in the Comanche’s path welcomed death after their horrific torture.  The corpse of one man, Parson Joel Ponton, was found with the soles of his feet sliced off, and to make sure he suffered, the Indians dragged him along for miles before they bashed in his head and took his scalp.

The Indians were easy enough to track; all one had to do was follow the burning houses and plumes of dust kicked up by hundreds of Indians.

On 8 August, Buffalo Hump arrived at Linnville, Texas, a small town situated on Lavaca Bay.  People who survived at Linnville did so only because they quickly boarded boats and put out into the Bay.  When Buffalo Hump was finished, Linnville ceased to exist.  Every building was burned to the ground.  Linnville was never rebuilt.

The Comanche’s loot from this sortie was about two-years worth of merchandise consigned to Samuel Maverick and James Robinson.  Three whites and two Negroes were killed.

Retribution for the Council House fight had been obtained and Chief Buffalo Hump was finally sated.  It was time for the war party to return to the Comancheria.  Buffalo Hump had with him between 2,000 and 3,000 horses, mule-loads of loot, dozens of prisoners.  Thus burdened, the Indians could not move quickly back to the high plateau. 

Jack Hays 002As the Indians walked their horses and prisoners back to the West, dusty riders were pounding their horses through the coastal prairie.  Every male who was old enough to carry a gun was turned out from Lavaca, Gonzalez, Victoria, and a hundred widely scattered farms.  The Texans answered the call of their captains: J. J. Tumlinson [5], McCulloch [6], Caldwell [7], and Burleson [8].  Present too was a young ranger by the name of John Coffee Hays. 

Very early in his ranging career, Hays had become friends with an Apache chief named Flacco [9].  In the years of their acquaintance, not once did Jack lead a charge into an enemy formation where Flacco wasn’t at his side.  But Flacco wasn’t Hayes’ only native American ally.  In August 1840, the Tonkawa chief Placido and thirteen of his braves joined with Hays’ rangers in dogging the Comanche war party as they headed for the Big Prairie, just off Plum Creek.  Tracking wasn’t necessary because it was impossible not to see massive plumes of dust into the distance.

Plum Creek runs adjacent to the town of Lockhart, Texas, about 30 miles south of present-day Austin, a branch of the San Marcos River.  When Felix Huston [10] and Colonel Burleson reached Plum Creek, they dismounted their militia and independent rifles and had them conceal themselves within the scrub along the creek near Good’s Crossing.  There, they awaited the arrival of Buffalo Hump.

Once the Indian cavalcade entered the prairie, Huston, Burleson, and Caldwell walked their horses out from their concealed positions, their mounted rifles following in column.  As the two great lines of horsemen converged, the Comanche began to display their impressive skill on horseback—showing off, as it were.  The young Texas were suitably impressed with the Comanche’s skill, but the experienced officers were unimpressed and impatient with the bravado.  Burleson and Caldwell waited for Huston’s order to charge, but he seemed mesmerized by the Comanche show and said nothing.  Burleson and Caldwell knew that the Indians were only trying to delay combat until they had pushed their stolen horses forward.  Burleson finally leaned over to told Huston to give the order, which he promptly did.

Screaming and shooting, the Texans spurred into the Comanche flank, stampeding the herd of horses and the Comanches as well, who floundered while trying to control their mounts, the herd, and the pack animals.  Horses and mules piled up on the boggy stretch and the Indians began to show signs of panic.  At this moment, the Texans rode into and among the Comanche and began firing their .36 caliber Colt six-shooters, methodically killing every Comanche in their path.

Plum Creek wasn’t a battle in the sense of opposing sides in fixed formations; it was more of a running gunfight that lasted fifteen to twenty miles.  At first, once the Comanche settled down and realized it was time to withdraw at the gallop, the Indians easily distanced their pursuers, but they were bearing too much loot and trying to control thousands of horses.  And their prisoners were in the way, as well. 

Early in the confrontation, panicked Comanche bashed their prisoners in the head and left them for dead.  One captive woman was tied to a tree and pierced several times with arrows—only her bone corset saved her.  But the Comanche were cruel to their own in equal measure.  One warrior, angry because his squaw was holding him up, ran her through with a lance and left her there to die.

The combat was up-close, personal, and cruel.  Despite the ferocious reputation of the Comanche, the battle was less that than it was a massacre.  The Texans were angry, dozens of Indians fell mortally wounded from their mounts.  In the end, between 80 and 100 warriors lay dead.  One Texan combatant was killed.  Soon after the battle, owing to his performance at Plum Creek, President Lamar elevated Jack Hays to Captain of Texas Rangers.

In 1842, Hays commanded Texas Rangers against the invasion of Mexican General Adrian Woll.  Hays, handsome and quiet, a gentleman of the purest character, and through his utter fearlessness in the face of grave danger, set an indelible stamp upon the Texas Rangers.  In his own day, Hays’ reputation was such that every young man wanted to emulate him.

Three characteristics stood out.  First, he was self-contained and self-confident.  He was no talker, would not tolerate rudeness in any man, a born partisan who was intensely loyal to Texas and what it stood for.  Second, he was not a great gunman, but a man possessed of unsurpassed leadership, devoid of fear or hesitation, and whose rise to fame came from his own ability.  Third, Hays was a superb psychologist, able to bend friend and foe to his will.  He was the same kind of man as Ben McCulloch, Sam Walker, Leander McNelly, and Big Foot Wallace —good men who became better men under Jack Hays’s influence.

Jack Hays was the first to use the Colt revolver on Plains Indians.  On one occasion, he was jumped on the Pedernales River (present-day Kendall County) by a war party of seventy Comanches.  Serving under Hays were fourteen rangers.  His choices were run and die, or fort up and fight [11] —and this is what the Comanches thought he would do.  Texans could not match the Comanche on horseback, and so when confronted by hostiles, they routinely dismounted their horses and fought a defensive action from the ground, which immediately gave the Indians the advantage.  On this occasion, Hays took a different route.  He and his fourteen mounted rangers attacked the Indians on horseback.  He lost a few rangers but killed 35 to 40 Comanche.  The difference was in the fact that each ranger carried two six-shooters.  The Indians couldn’t compete with the Colt revolver.

Shortly afterward, Hays’s company encountered another superior force of Comanches west of San Antonio, in the Nueces Canyon. The Indians, shrieking and shooting arrows, swept around and surrounded the mounted rangers.  At Hays’s order, the Texans emptied their long rifles, then leaped into the saddle. Hays yelled “Charge!” in his high, clear voice. The Rangers were at close quarters before the startled Indians —who had rarely known white men to do anything but fort up or run— could turn their horses. “Powder-burn them!” Hays screamed

As Texas Rangers rode between the Comanche ranks, they shot the Indians from their horses on both sides.  The Comanches were entirely brave; they turned to stand —only to observe the Rangers coming on, fire-spitting again and again from their fists, striking down milling horsemen on all sides.  The Indians fled, and Hays and his boys pursued them for three miles.  In the end, the demoralized Comanches threw aside their useless shields, lances, and bows.  Leaning low over their horses, the hostiles raced away in routed flight.  The Comanche war chief stated later that he lost half his people, and that wounded warriors died on the trail for a hundred miles to the Devil’s River.  “I will never again fight Jack Hays, who has a shot for every finger on the hand,” the Indian moaned.

Neither Hays or any of his rangers ever tried to downplay the crucial role of the Colt six-shooter in mounted combat. “They are the only weapon which enabled the experienced frontiersmen to defeat the mounted Indian in his own peculiar mode of warfare….” Read one testimonial. 

Colt 1836The six-shooter was important beyond the romanticism and enduring symbolism it produced. A superb horseman in open country, armed with one or more long-barreled Colts, represented the most effective weapon system known to the middle nineteenth century.  In one step, Texas borderers achieved parity with the Plains Indians and a marked superiority over the Mexican cavalry lance and the vaquero’s rope.  They would hold both until the dispersion of an effective, accurate breechloading rifle, which did not appear until the 1870s. The revolver, very simply, meant power in southwest Texas, and long after the power was no longer needed, this symbol is synonymous with Texas today.

Between 1846-48, Hays commanded the First Regiment of Texas Rangers at the Battle of Monterrey, established six companies along the northern and western frontier, and then later commanded the Second Regiment of Texas Rangers in Winfield Scott’s Mexico City campaign.  While fighting under General Joseph Lane, who was defending the American line of communication at Veracruz, Hays defeated a superior force of Mexican cavalry at Galaxara Pass [12] and a guerrilla force at Matamoros, which enabled General Lane to capture the Mexican supply depot.  Once again, Jack Hays was the first to use the Navy Colt Paterson (Paterson being the name of the city in New Jersey where they were produced) five-shot revolver in an armed conflict.  He subsequently dispatched Captain Sam Walker to meet with Samuel Colt, which led to the legendary Colt Walker six-shot revolver.

After the Mexican-American War, Jack Hays married Susan Calvert, a descendant of George Calvert, First Baron Baltimore.  Between 1947-49, they lived quietly in Seguin, Texas.  Upon the birth of their first child, Chief Buffalo Hump sent the Hays family the gift of a golden spoon. 

Jack Hays 003In 1849, Jack Hays received an appointment as an Indian Agent for the Gila River reservation in the territories of New Mexico and Arizona.  In that same year, Hays led a party of Forty-Niners from Texas to California, and upon arrival, the Hays family decided to remain in California.  In 1850, Jack Hays was elected sheriff of San Francisco County, where he served for three years.  In 1853, he was appointed to serve as United States Surveyor-General for California.  He was one of the earliest residents of Oakland, and over several years, amassed a fortune in land speculation, real estate development, and ranching investments.

Civil War came to America in 1861, but John Coffee Hays wanted nothing to do with it [13].  We hear nothing more about Jack Hays until 1876 when he was elected as a delegate to the Democratic Party National Convention.  Jack passed away at his home 21 April 1883.

Sources:

  1. Conger, R. N.  Rangers of Texas.  Waco: Texian Press, 1969
  2. Greer, J.K.  Colonel Jack Hayes: Texas Frontier Leader and California Builder.  New York: Dutton, 1952
  3. Webb, W. P.  The Texas Rangers.  Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982 (Reprint)
  4. Wilkins, F.  The Highly Irregular Irregulars: Texas Rangers in the Mexican War.  Austin: Eakin Press, 1990

Endnotes:

  1. The reason Spanish Mexico had so many problems with the Comanche is that the Comanche held the Spaniards in utter contempt.  In the early days of Anglo-Texas, the Comanche, having no experience with them, treated the Texians with caution and friendliness.
  2. On 9 January 1840, three Comanche chiefs and their entourage rode into San Antonio where they sought a conference with Texas Ranger Henry W. Karnes.  They stated their desire to negotiate peace with the Texans.  For an account of this event, see Of Conflict and Sorrow. 
  3. Comanche moon refers to that stage of the lunar cycle when the brightness of the moon enabled Comanche warriors to travel at night, a tactic of stealth that enabled them to travel great distances undetected.
  4. To the Comanche, horses were as valuable as gold was to the white man.
  5. John Jackson Tumlinson, Jr. (1804-53) served as a captain of Texas Rangers in DeWitt Colony.  When in 1823 his father was killed by Indians, John and his brother Joseph led a handful of settlers to track down and kill the guilty parties.
  6. Ben McCulloch (1811-62) was a Texas Ranger, United States Marshal, and a Brigadier General in the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War.  He traveled to Texas with his brother Henry in the company of David Crockett, who was a neighbor in Tennessee.  Ben served as a first lieutenant and second in command to John Coffee Hays.  During the Battle of Plum Creek, McCulloch distinguished himself as a scout and commander of the right-wing of the Texas Army.
  7. Mathew Caldwell (1798-1842) (nicknamed “Old Paint” on account of his whiskers appearing spotted) was a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence, a soldier in the Texas Army, a captain of Texas Rangers from Goliad, a captain of infantry in the Texas first regiment, and led a company of mounted rifles at Plum Creek.  Caldwell had been wounded at the Council House Fight. 
  8. Edward Burleson (1798-1851) served in the War of 1812, migrated to Texas in 1830, served as a lieutenant colonel of infantry under Stephen F. Austin, was appointed as Brigadier General of Volunteers to replace Austin in command of the Texas Army,  In 1836 he commanded the first regiment at the Battle of San Jacinto; at Plum Creek, he commanded a militia company of mounted rifles.
  9. Two Lipan Apache war chiefs were named Flacco: Flacco the Elder, and Flacco the Younger.  Flacco the Younger became the friend and scouting companion of Jack Hays.  Flacco the Younger was murdered by Mexican bandits while herding horses south of San Antonio in the winter of 1842.
  10. Huston (1800-57) was an attorney, adventurer, and a brigadier of the Texas Army.  Huston arrived at Plum Creek on the evening of 11 August and took command of all gathering troops.  Most people viewed Huston as a peacock; great to look at but deficient in matters of courage and military efficiency.
  11. The last mistake any Texan ever made with the Comanche was to try and run from him.
  12. With 35 Texas Rangers, Hays assaulted and defeated a Mexican cavalry force of 150 men.
  13. Jack’s brother Harry served the Confederacy as a Brigadier General with responsibilities in New Orleans, Louisiana.

About Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.
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1 Response to John Coffee Hays

  1. Andy says:

    Spell binding. I reading this with the same page-turning excitement that I read countless stories of the Southwest as a boy.

    All of your stories are good. Most are excellent. This one stands as noteworthy.

    Well done.

    S/F

    Liked by 1 person

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