19th century badass gunslinging Texas Ranger John Coffee Hays is the ultimate rea-life asskicker whose story bizarrely ties together the more well-known tales of Sam Houston, Andrew Jackson, Chuck Norris, Clint Eastwood, Zachary Taylor, Wyatt Earp, and the dude with the shotgun who smokes all those fucking buffalo when you go hunting in The Oregon Trail. In a gunfire-filled life that makes even the most tobacco-soaked gritty dime-novel adventure story look like the Letter from the Editor in a Victoria’s Secret catalog, this hard-ridin’ Texas Ranger busted skulls from Tennessee to California, survived hundreds of battles against ridiculous Punisher-style odds, and now goes down in history as one of the most famous and important members of the United States’ most well-known state police force.
Born in Cedar Lick, Tennessee in 1817, John Coffee Hays was the nephew of American badass and future president Andrew Jackson. Hays’ dad was a high ranking American officer who had fought alongside Andy Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812, but both Hays’ dad and mom died of yellow fever when Jack was just 15 years old… leaving Jack and his six siblings parentless. The kids were sent to Mississippi to live with their relatives, and Hays started working as a land surveyor… which was a hell of a lot more dangerous job in 1832 than it is these days.
Basically, back in the 1830s, there was a ton of Louisiana Purchase territory that hadn’t been mapped, surveyed, or charted effectively yet, and land surveyors in these days basically went out into the unknown fucking wilderness with a rifle, some food, and a few nerdy math tools and tried to survive by camping out in the middle of nowhere while they took measurements and drew maps. Wild animals, Indian attacks, cold, starvation, and exposure to the elements were constant threats to these small surveying teams, but Hays was more than up to the task of Bear Gryllsing his way through the backwoods in pursuit of the noble cause of geography. Described as a quiet, well-spoken, fairly skinny dude, he really shined in situations where he got to pull his gun and start kicking ass: According to his buddies, he was basically a completely different person – a “monster” – when his life was on the line.
Hays did the land surveying gig for a while, but when shit started going down with Goliad and the Alamo in Texas he decided he wanted to get in on the action. He rode for Texas in 1840, introduced himself to Sam Houston as the nephew of Andrew Jackson, and was immediately given an officer’s position in a relatively-new organization charged with providing order on the sprawling frontier – the Texas Rangers.
It didn’t take long for Hays to work his way up, and before long “Captain Jack” was commanding a company of Rangers charged with patrolling the southwestern portion of Texas. Now, if you thought surveying sounded hard, imagine this – Captain Jack had forty horsemen under his command, and he was charged with almost single-handedly protecting hundreds of miles of Wild West Texas from Comanche raiding parties, Mexican Army patrols, murderous bandit gangs, cattle rustlers, horse thieves, and all other manner of ultra-violent, gun-toting marauders that wouldn’t hesitate to start popping caps the instant they saw the five-pointed tin star that was pinned on Hays’ chest.
Hays’ first job was to build his team, outfit them, and train them for war. Among the first things he did was tell his guys to dump their shitty one-shot pistols and trade them in for a relatively-new invention – a five-shot revolver known as the Colt Paterson:
He pulled his 40-man team from a hand-picked crew of the toughest riders and gunmen he could muster. Most were Texans, but he also had plenty of Apache, Comanche, Mexican, and Tejano Rangers riding alongside his crew. He also opened shit up and recruited civilians when he could, especially when they were folks who wanted vengeance – like, if bandits burned down your house, Hays gave you the opportunity to ride with him and hunt those fuckers down. He also trained his men day and night to shoot and ride, drilling them in daily exercises where they had to shoot a man-sized target at 40 yards while at a full gallop. If he had a few days in a town, he’d invite nearby Indian tribes and ranchers to come have “riding battles” with his men, challenging them to friendly horse-riding and target-shooting competitions for the enjoyment of the townsfolk. Before long, every man in this guy’s crew was a pipe-hitting hard-as-fuck gunslinger decked out in animal skins, cool mustaches, rifles, pistols, and big-ass knives.
Hays also started adapting Native American, Mexican, and Texas settler survival tactics to give his team more range on the frontier. His guys traveled only with what they could fit in their saddlebags – ammo, food, water, and maybe a collapsible tent or something. When they were hungry, they shot animals for food. They rode dozens of miles daily, responding quickly to any threats they heard about and riding down gangs and raiding parties with ease. Most would surrender without a fight, simply on virtue of the Rangers’ reputation. Anyone who resisted usually didn’t live to regret it.
One of Hays’ Rangers most famous engagements took place on June 8, 1844, at an engagement now known as “The Battle of Walker’s Creek”. Hays only had about fifteen men with him at the time (he often had to split up his force to cover more ground), when suddenly, out of the treeline on the far side of a creek, a similarly-sized force of Comanche rode out and let loose with a volley from their rifles. Hays held his fire and watched as the Comanche then quickly retreated back into the woods. He sized up the situation immediately, and a seasoned Indian fighting vet like Captain Jack Hays wasn’t about to fall for this Genghis Khan fake-retreat bullshit. He hung back, told his men to wait, and it was only when the Comanche realized their ambush wasn’t going to work that they sent their entire 80-man force out to face the Texans.
So, with a creek separating 15 Texas Rangers from 80 rifle-toting Comanche braves, Captain Jack Hays did pretty much exactly what you’d expect him to do.
"Me and Red Wing aren't afraid to go to hell together.
Captain Jack, he's too mucho bravo. He's not afraid to go to hell all by himself."
- The Apache warrior Flacco, Hays’ elite second-in-command
As he rode head-on towards a shocked force that outnumbered him nearly four-to-one, Hays screamed out for his men to hold their fire until they were right on top of the enemy. Yelling, “crowd them, powder-burn them boys!” , John Coffee Hays and the Texas Fuckin’ Rangers rode to point-blank range on the enemy and then opened up with their revolvers. The Comanche were using one-shot pistols (kind of like a pirate pistol), and in the close range engagement they couldn’t put out nearly enough firepower to compete with the Rangers. Hays’ men unloaded their guns, flipped pre-loaded cylinders into the revolvers in seconds, and kept shooting, dishing out ten rounds in the time it took their enemy to fire one. The enemy bolted almost immediately. Hays didn’t lose a man.
One of his officers at the battle, Lieutenant Samuel Walker, was so impressed with the effectiveness of the fight that he would go on to design and co-create a six-shooter pistol known as the Walker Colt. It got a lot of use in the Civil War, and they’re the guns used by Clint Eastwood in The Outlaw Josey Wales.
There’s another amazing story about Hays hunting down a group of smugglers who were running contraband into Texas from Mexico. I don’t have a ton of info on this, probably because it was fucking par for the course and nothing special to write about for the 1840s-era Texas Rangers, but I guess Hays tracked these assholes down, cornered them near a ravine, and then surprised them by jumping his horses across a gorge and ambushing from a side they weren’t expecting. Even though he had just 20 men with him, Hays captured 29 smugglers, killed a few more, and didn’t lose a single Ranger.
Like I said, just another day in the office I guess.
When the Mexican-American War broke out in 1846, Hays was called in to action to assist the American invasion of Mexico. Promoted to Colonel, Hays was given 250 cavalrymen and appointed commander of the First Regiment, Texas Mounted Riflemen. Serving as the cavalry wing of Zack Taylor’s force, Hays’ Rangers worked as scouts, recon, and anti-guerilla forces. Their job was to keep the supply lines and communications lines open, and this led him to multiple battles with guerilla forces all throughout Mexico. He performed admirably in the battle for Monterey, where his Rangers spent three days fighting through the city streets, and outside Vera Cruz he drove off a force of 200 Mexican cavalry that were threatening the American flank – without losing a man. There’s a great story that Santa Anna referred to the Rangers as “Los Diablos Tejanos,” and that at some point after the war Hays went to a ball in Austin Texas wearing a dress uniform he’d looted from the Mexican President’s palace.
Even though he was a huge celebrity in Texas (they even tried to convince him to run for governor), after the war Hays decided to move out west and start a new life. So, sure, let’s do the fucking Oregon Trail shit, that sounds great. He rode from Texas to Tucson, had to stay there six weeks because so many members of his party were sick, and then he rode from there to San Diego, on horseback, fighting off Apache raids, disease, heat, animal attacks, and other horrible stuff every step of the way. From San Diego, he spent two weeks sailing north to San Francisco on a steamboat that almost capsized twice due to storms.
So, basically, after almost dying a dozen times in the process, John Coffee Hays ended up in San Francisco, California. Because he was by far the biggest badass in the city, Hays was elected to be the city’s first Sherriff almost immediately.
Sherriff Hays built the first permanent jail in San Francisco, disbanded a fairly-murderous vigilante group called the “Committee of Vigilance”, and brought order by declaring that all alleged criminals had a right to a fair trial under the law. When he wasn’t hanging criminals, hunting down thieves, or leading a huge group of militia to defeat the Paiute Indians in the Second Battle of Pyramid Lake, John Coffee Hays worked as the U.S. Surveyor General for California. In that capacity, he founded the city of Oakland, was a stockholder at the Oakland Gas Light Company, served on the Board of Regents for the California School for the Deaf and Blind, founded the Oakland Union National Bank, and was Mayor of Oakland for a while.
When the Civil War began in 1861, Hays was offered high-ranking commands in both the Union and Confederate armies, but he declined both so that he could focus on all that other shit he had going on. He died peacefully in 1883, and in buried in Oakland… not that far from Wyatt Earp.
The Story of John Coffee Hays
San Francisco's First Elected Sherriff
Texas Ranger Hall of Fame
Cox, Mike. Texas Rangers. New York, NY: Forge, 2008.
Metz, Leon Claire. The Encyclopedia of Lawmen, Outlaws and Gunfighters. New York, NY: Facts on File, 2003.
Moore, Stephen L. Rangers, Riflemen and Indian Wars in Texas. Denton, TX: University of North Texas Print, 2010.