In the early 1850s, John Coffee “Jack” Hays was elected sheriff of San Francisco County and appointed United States Surveyor General for California, became one of the founders of the city of Oakland, and ran successful enterprises in real estate and ranching. But before all of that, he led the Texas Rangers into the history books. Usually outnumbered and against overwhelming odds, Hays triumphed in so many battles against bandits, Indians, and the Mexican army that he is what historian Darren Ivey called “the ideal Texas Ranger.”
Hays was born on January 28, 1817, in Cedar Lick in Wilson County, Tennessee. After his parents died, when he was 15 years old, he moved to Mississippi where he learned surveying. By mid-1836, he had migrated to Texas and joined a Ranger company under Erastus “Deaf” Smith. He soon took part in a skirmish with the Mexican Cavalry. He was appointed deputy surveyor of the Bexar District and subsequently often had skirmishes with marauding Indians while carrying out his surveying duties.
In 1840 Hays was appointed a captain of the Rangers. He proved to be a fearless fighter and a good leader. He saw action in battles at Plum Creek, Cañon de Ugalde, Bandera Pass, Painted Rock, Salado, Walker’s Creek, and others.
The battle at Walker’s Creek on June 8, 1844, marked a turning point in Ranger warfare as it was the first effective use of revolvers in close combat. Hays was a fan of the Colt Paterson percussion revolver and outfitted his Rangers with them. The “Texas Paterson” was an open-top, .36-cailber, five-shot cap-and-ball revolver with various barrel lengths and a folding trigger that was accessible only when the hammer was cocked. To facilitate the revolver’s use in close combat while on horseback, Hays and his men carried extra preloaded cylinders that they quickly swapped during battle.
The Walker’s Creek fight began as Hays and a company of 14 or 15 Rangers (accounts vary) were returning to San Antonio after an extensive patrol when they were attacked by some 80 mounted Comanches. Vastly outnumbered, Hays ordered his Rangers to charge the Comanches, who were caught off-guard by the maneuver. Putting their Colt Paterson revolvers to work, Hays and his men routed the war party.
Hays gained further respect as a fighter during the Mexican-American War (1846–1848) when he and his Texas Mounted Riflemen scouted for the army of Zachary Taylor and took part in the Battle of Monterrey. He also helped keep the communication and supply lines open between Veracruz and Mexico City for the troops under Winfield Scott.
In 1849 Hays left Texas and joined the Gold Rush to California. He was elected sheriff of San Francisco in 1850 and built the first permanent jail there, disbanded a murderous vigilante group called the Committee of Vigilance, and declared that all accused criminals had a right to a fair trial. In 1853 he was appointed U.S. Surveyor General for California. He was one of the developers of Oakland, and he held interests in land, banking, and utilities.
When the Comstock Lode was discovered near Virginia City, Nevada, in 1859, local Paiute Indians attacked, robbed, and killed several local miners and settlers. Hays went to Nevada and led hundreds of volunteers in a series of running gun battles with the Paiutes.
After the Paiute attacks stopped, Hays returned to California and became active in politics. He was selected as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1876. He passed away on April 21, 1883, and was interred in the Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, California.
Though he served as a Texas Ranger for less than a dozen years, John C. Hays made an indelible mark on the force. As Ivey wrote, “Even though ranger companies, battalions, and regiments had taken the field in previous years, Hays was the man who set the traditions of personal courage and gallant leadership that would be expected of future Texas Ranger captains.” You could say he was the Rangers’ Ranger.