Anybody that likes John Wayne movies will love Jack Hays. In San Antonio he was called "a gentleman of purest character and of much energy and ability", in Mexico City "Tejano Sangriete" (Bloody Texan), while a Lipan Apache chief said: "Captain Jack heap brave; not afraid to go to hell all by himself". Yet when Jack Hays took a shot it could have meant either, with an instrument invented by William A. Burt [solar compass] or one by Samuel Colt. As a Texas Ranger Jack Hays became a legend, and it is generally overlooked that he also was a professional surveyor.
It is difficult to write about Jack Hays without opening up some deep wounds in many of our fellow citizens. He can be called a frontiersman, surveyor, Indian fighter, Mexican War hero (or villain if you will), boundary commissioner, sheriff, surveyor-general, real-estate developer, to name but a few of his titles, and he was controversial in all of them. His Texas contemporaries considered him a kind and respectful man who wore modest clothes, spoke little and ate little. His beardless face and small, wiry frame made him look more like a boy than a man, especially when he stood next to his party of grizzly bearded Texas frontiersmen. But in the saddle on a spirited horse he grew into a giant. Quick and well coordinated, with a firm jaw and piercing eyes, determined, fearless, Jack Hays was a superb leader of men.
He was a native of Tennessee, coming from the same region and cast from the same mold as were Andrew Jackson and Sam Houston, where he was born John Coffee Hays at Little Cedar Lick in Wilson County on January 28, 1817. Jack was still a boy when the family moved to Wilkinson County, Mississippi, where his parents died within a week of each other of yellow fever, leaving seven children in the care of relatives. Here in Mississippi, at the age of fifteen, young Jack began his surveying career. Within a year the teenage surveyor had already stalked and shot an Indian who had chanced upon the survey party and killed one of their horses.
Hays surveyed in Mississippi until 1836, when news of the Texas rebellion drew him to that southwestern frontier. Arriving too late to take part in the fighting that cemented Texas independence at the San Jacinto River on April 21, 1836, he took up residence in San Antonio, surveying headrights for the Republic of Texas. In early 1840 a group of San Antonio citizens recommended him to President Lamar to survey the boundary of Travis County, seat of the newly created capital city of Austin. Later that year Hays became a captain of a "spy company" later called "Rangers", established under an 1838 law "for the protection of the Frontier against the Comanches and other Indians".
A number of books have been written about Jack Hays, extolling his role as captain of the Texas Rangers. This is not the place to discuss the Indian Wars, suffice it to say that Hays’ exploits as an Indian fighter cover the eight years up to the Mexican War [1846/48], when several companies of Texas Rangers were mustered into national service. Hays, by now promoted to colonel, was put in charge of a mounted regiment that shot their way into Mexico City and was soon labeled "Los diablos Tejanos" (the Texan devils).
After the fighting stopped in 1848 Jack Hays mustered out of the Army to resume his surveying career, while the Texas legislature recognized his service both to his state and his country by naming Hays County in his honor.
In the same year 1848 Jack Hays’ career almost came to an untimely end when he led an expedition into the Big Bend of the Rio Grande, at that time terra incognita to all but a few Indians. The object was to find a wagon route from San Antonio to El Paso (and eventually to the Pacific). Hays and his thirty-four companions set out the first week in September with an inaccurate map and a guide who didn’t know the way. Before the month was over they had killed and consumed their mules and began eating bear grass. By the time the exhausted party stumbled into the dusty streets of San Carlos on the Mexican side of the river they had been without food for twelve days. Eventually the party made it into Presidio, but the men were in no condition to continue to El Paso, still 150 miles away, and Hays decided to return to San Antonio. As a result of this disastrous trip, Hays recommended and the government accepted a more northerly route still traveled today.
The treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo that ended the Mexican war had put the United States on a collision course with Texas over the boundary of New Mexico Territory. Hays served on a commission created to settle the dispute, which ended with the "Compromise of 1850" that created the present Texas-New Mexico boundary.
In 1849 the government established the Office of Indian Affairs within the Department of the Interior and tried to recruit suitable men to make peaceful contact with the Indians. Somebody recommended Jack Hays and in April 1849 he was appointed subagent for the area of the Rio Gila, New Mexico. The appointment was a flop. The ruthless Indian fighter was unable to make the transition and could not even make contact with the Apaches he was supposed to supervise. He resigned his office in January 1850 to join the Gold Rush and at the time of his resignation was already in San Diego.
The rough-and-tumble gold diggers were more appreciative of Jack Hays’ talents than were the Indians. In less time than it takes to reload a six-shooter he was elected sheriff of boisterous San Francisco County, an office he held until President Pierce appointed him Surveyor General of California on March 19, 1853. Four years later in July 1857, militant Mormons ran David H. Burr, Surveyor General of Utah, out of Salt Lake City. As Hays was not a man likely to be run off by anybody, he was appointed to fill the vacancy. Apparently he never moved to Utah to assume office, for by now he was deeply involved in the affairs of Oakland, a city he had laid out and was actively promoting. There he made a home for his family. In 1844 in Texas he had married Susan Calvert of Seguin and eventually the couple had six children, four of which died in childhood. In Oakland he entered the real estate business and became politically important, growing wealthy as a developer and financier.
But there was one last fight in the fighting surveyor. In 1860 on the Carson River in Nevada, Indians killed several prospectors in retaliation for their kidnapping of two Paiute girl children. In turn, a ragtag volunteer army from Carson City of about a hundred men tried to avenge the killings. Near Pyramid Lake they were lured into an ambush by Paiute and Shoshone warriors and promptly lost seventy-six men killed with, most of the survivors had been wounded. News of what became known as the "Pyramid Lake War" reached California, bringing four companies of U.S. cavalry and more than 500 volunteers from Nevada. Hays was asked to lead 300 of these volunteers of the "Washoe Regiment", and managed to defeat the Indians in several skirmishes that included hand-to-hand combat.
John Coffee "Jack" Hays spent the remaining years of his life on his eight-hundred-acre ranch at Fernwood. When the old surveyor-warrior died on April 21, 1883 he left an estate worth half a million dollars. California had been good to him. But as he lay dying his thoughts drifted back to those boisterous days in the Texas of the 1830s and 40s, where as a young man he had surveyed and fought, and with his last breath he whispered: "It’s San Jacinto Day!"