The Texas Rangers became an important force for order in a time when very little was to be seen across Texas. It slowly evolved from a reconnaissance unit in the Texas Revolution to a military and police force by the time of statehood.
One of the earliest leaders of the Rangers was Tennessee native Jack Hays. Hays became famous for his bravery in battle and respected for his fairness in diplomacy and peace, helping to cement the legendary reputation of the force.
John Coffee Hays was born in January 1817 in Wilson County in central Tennessee, one of three children to a farm family. He was born into a family with a taste for adventure who often ended up on the front row to the historic events of the times.
In 1804, Hays’s grandfather sold his expansive estate, the Hermitage, near Nashville to Andrew Jackson, then an up-and-coming judge as well as Jack Hays’s distant great-uncle. Hays’s father fought with Jackson during the War of 1812.
His charmed boyhood came to a tragic end in 1833 when his father died. He lived briefly with an uncle in Mississippi, working as a surveyor for a short time. By 1836, with revolution sweeping across Texas, Hays went to join the cause.
He brought a letter of recommendation from Jackson, by this time the president, to Sam Houston, who knew Jackson and the Hays family well. Houston named Hays to a Ranger unit, serving with Erastus “Deaf” Smith and Henry Karnes.
Arrival in Texas
Hays came to Texas in the midst of chaos and spent much of his time with reconnaissance work in those maddening weeks as Texas settlers pulled away from the advancing Mexican army.
After the Texas Revolution, Hays was appointed deputy surveyor for the Bexar District, the sparsely settled but intensely challenged areas west of San Antonio. The Comanches controlled the Panhandle and much of West Texas and were determined not to let that control slip to anyone else.
Other tribes contested these lands, and Texas settlers moved steadily toward it. The intense back-and-forth fighting between tribes and settlers was a feature of the frontier for many years. It was in these years after independence that the Texas Rangers began to emerge initially as a military force separate from the regular army. As Hays surveyed land claims, he and other Rangers found themselves repelling tribal raids.
By 1840, he had risen to the rank of captain. But Texas was at its weakest, with sparse ability to even defend itself. The Rangers had the backbone of frontier defense for the republic.
In 1841, Mexico had stabilized just enough to launch a punitive raid into South Texas. Hays in response staged an assault on Laredo, a town claimed by Mexico in the disputed territory between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande. He returned the horses the Rangers had seized in the raid, promising that the raid was a warning. He would lead another raid against Mexico later that year.
After years of fighting largely on their own turf, Comanches decided to even the score and launch a surprise raid deep into Texas, stunning the populace. The 1841 Comanche raid brought them all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, spaces as different from their familiar plains and patches of western desert as any land in Texas could be.
Hays led a force at the Battle of Plum Creek to push them back to the plains.
Taking on Comanches
The Rangers did not have the force to confront the Comanches themselves for a sustained period. The Apaches shared a long enmity with the Comanches, and through careful negotiation, Hays convinced the skeptical Apaches to help them, or at least stay neutral for the time being. He then led a punitive expedition with the aid of an Apache chief, Flacco.
With Hays and Flacco at each others’ side, they often charged forward in one battle after another, leading their combined forces against the Comanches, sometimes outmanned 4-to-1. In the process, Comanche power over the arid lands of the West weakened.
The Comanches continued to be a major force in the area for some time; and Hays won the admiration of the Comanches, Apaches and Texans for his daring.
By the time Texas became a state in 1845, the Texas Rangers were a respected force on the frontier, and Hays was one of their most important leaders. However, the price of statehood increasingly meant the possibility of war with Mexico.
In the battles to come, Hays would distinguish himself once again.
Story to be continued next month.