John Coffee “Jack” Hays was a military officer of the Republic of Texas and a captain in the Texas Rangers. He served in several armed conflicts from 1836 to 1848, against the Comanche Indians and in the Mexican-American War.
John was born in Little Cedar Lick, Tennessee, on January 28, 1817, to Harmon and Elizabeth (Cage) Hays. He was one of several children, and when he was just 15 years old, both of his parents died, and the young man soon moved to Mississippi, where he began an apprenticeship as a surveyor. By 1836, he had moved west to Texas, joined the Texan army under General Thomas Rusk, and was soon appointed as a member of a company of Texas Rangers, where he took part in several armed conflicts, including the Indian and Mexican-American wars. His bravery in these battles earned him the promotion to deputy, and in 1840, he achieved the rank of captain.
During his reign as captain, Hays was responsible for improving the quality of recruitments, initiating tough training programs for the new Rangers, and initiating an “esprit de corps” within his command. He was described as a man who looked very slender and looking far younger than his age, his manners were unassuming, and he was a man of few words. Hays has often been credited for giving the Rangers cohesion and discipline and becoming a rallying figure to his men. Several celebrated Ranger captains came from those he commanded, including William Alexander Anderson “Bigfoot” Wallace, Ben and Henry McCulloch, Samuel H. Walker, and Robert Addison “Ad” Gillespie.
After the Mexican-American War ended, Hays left the Texas Rangers in 1848 and first traveled to San Antonio. He then followed thousands of other men to the California Gold Rush. Settling in San Francisco County, he was elected sheriff in 1850 and became active in politics. In 1853, he was appointed United States Surveyor General for California.
Ever-expanding, he was one of the founders of Oakland, California, and served as the first mayor. An ambitious man, he soon held interests in real estate, ranching, banking, and utilities. In 1860, he re-entered soldiering service when he was called on to lead an expedition during the Paiute War in Nevada, which had temporarily shut down the stage and Pony Express service over the western end of the Central Overland Mail route.
When the Civil War broke out the following year, he held a neutral position. In 1876, he was elected a delegate to the Democratic national convention.
Hays died in California on April 21, 1883, and was interred in the Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, California.
© Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated November 2022.
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