Hays, John Coffee (1817–1883)

By: Harold J. Weiss, Jr.

Type: Biography

Published: 1976

Updated: August 3, 2020

John Coffee (Jack) Hays, Texas Ranger extraordinary and Mexican War officer, son of Harmon and Elizabeth (Cage) Hays, was born at Little Cedar Lick, Wilson County, Tennessee, on January 28, 1817. His father, of Scots-Irish descent, fought with Andrew Jackson and Sam Houston in the War of 1812. Hays became the prototypical Texas Ranger officer, and he and his cohorts—John S. (Rip) Ford, Ben McCulloch, and Samuel H. Walker established the ranger tradition. Hays joined the Texas Rangers in the formative years of their role as citizen soldiers. His rangers gained a reputation as mounted troops with revolvers and individually styled uniforms, who marched and fought with a noticeable lack of military discipline. This rough-and-ready image of an irregular force left its imprint on the chronicles of ranger history.

In the thirteen years that he lived in Texas, Hays mixed a military career with surveying. At an early age he left home, surveyed lands in Mississippi, attended Davidson Academy at Nashville, and decided to cast his lot with the rebels in the Texas Revolution. In 1836 he traveled to New Orleans and entered Texas at Nacogdoches in time to join the troops under Thomas J. Rusk and bury the remains of victims of the Goliad Massacre. Houston advised Hays to join a company of rangers under Erastus (Deaf) Smith for service from San Antonio to the Rio Grande, under the orders of Col. Henry W. Karnes. In this role Hays took part in an engagement with Mexican cavalry near Laredo, assisted in the capture of Juan Sánchez, and rose to the rank of sergeant. After appointment as deputy surveyor of the Bexar District, Hays combined soldiering and surveying for several years. The more he learned about Indian methods of warfare, the better he protected surveying parties against Indian attacks.

In the three-way struggle of Anglo colonists, Hispanic settlers, and Indians, Hays proved to be an able leader and fearless fighter (called "Devil Yack"), who gained the respect of the rank and file of the Texas Rangers. Yet his stature-five feet nine inches-his fair complexion, and his mild manners did not match the looks and actions of the legendary ranger in later popular culture. From 1840 through 1846 Hays, at first a captain, then a major, and his ranger companies, sometimes with Mexican volunteers and such Indian allies as Lipan chief Flacco, engaged the Comanches and Mexican troops in small skirmishes and major battles. Important military actions took place at Plum Creek, Cañón de Ugalde, Salado (against Mexican soldiers under Adrián Woll), and Walker's Creek. In these battles Hays and his rangers were usually outnumbered, and their effective use of revolvers revolutionized warfare against Texas Indians.

The Texas Rangers gained a national reputation in the Mexican War. Into Mexico rode Hays's rangers. Out of Mexico came a mounted irregular body of rangers celebrated in song and story throughout the United States. This transformation in fact and fiction started with the formation of the First Regiment, Texas Mounted Riflemen, under Colonel Hays. Serving with the army of Gen. Zachary Taylor, the rangers marched, scouted, and took part in the attack on Monterrey in 1846. The next year Hays formed another regiment that participated in keeping communication and supply lines open between Veracruz and Mexico City for the troops under the command of Gen. Winfield Scott. In doing so, Hays's rangers fought Mexican guerrillas near Veracruz and at such places as Teotihuacán and Sequalteplán. Controversy between the rangers and the Mexican people still lingers, for they robbed and killed each other off the battlefields.

In the years that followed the Mexican War, Hays pioneered trails through the Southwest to California and became a prominent citizen of that state. In 1848 he tried unsuccessfully to find a route between San Antonio and El Paso, and the following year he received an appointment from the federal government as Indian agent for the Gila River country. In addition, he was elected sheriff of San Francisco County in 1850, appointed United States surveyor general for California in 1853, became one of the founders of the city of Oakland, and ran successful enterprises in real estate and ranching. Though he was neutral during the Civil War, he was prominent in Democratic politics in California; he was a delegate to the Democratic national convention in 1876. He married Susan Calvert in 1847, and they had three daughters and three sons. Hays died on April 21, 1883, and is buried in California. Hays County, Texas, is named in his honor.

Roger N. Conger et al., Rangers of Texas (Waco: Texian Press, 1969). James K. Greer, Colonel Jack Hayes: Texas Frontier Leader and California Builder (New York: Dutton, 1952; rev. ed., Waco: Morrison, 1974). Walter Prescott Webb, The Texas Rangers (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1935; rpt., Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982). Frederick Wilkins, The Highly Irregular Irregulars: Texas Rangers in the Mexican War (Austin: Eakin Press, 1990).

Time Periods:
  • Texas Revolution
  • Republic of Texas
  • Antebellum Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Harold J. Weiss, Jr., “Hays, John Coffee,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 29, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/hays-john-coffee.

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August 3, 2020