Jack Hays Part II
Jack Hays, a Tennessee native, became one of the most noted of the early Texas Rangers, serving with the group almost from its beginnings during the Texas Revolution in 1836. The actions of the Rangers were widely known and sometimes controversial. However, Hays helped make it a respected force on the frontier. As war with Mexico approached after Texas became a state in 1845, Hays found that the Rangers were needed more than ever.
As the United States supported the Texas claim on the border at the Rio Grande, contrary to Mexico’s claim of the border at the Nueces River to the North, a confrontation was inevitable to occur. When the Mexican War erupted in 1846, Ranger knowledge of the disputed territory was important in the early weeks of the fighting. The army was still small, so Hays quickly organized six companies of volunteers for the fight. Hays and his Rangers rode into Monterrey with Gen. Zachary Taylor in the September 1846 battle, capturing a key strategic point in northern Mexico. Months later, Hays led Texas Rangers through the mountain passes near Veracruz on the way into Mexico City with Gen. Winfield Scott, helping defeat the last Mexican resistance to American forces, often against superior numbers.
Hays returned to Texas as a hero. In 1848, the state legislature organized Hays County, just south of Austin, naming it in his honor. It was because of Hays and the Rangers that even the design of firearms changed dramatically. Hays’s expertise with the Navy Colt Patterson five-shot revolver inspired Samuel Walker and Samuel Colt to produce the six-shot Colt-Walker Revolver.
His time with the Texas Rangers soon came to an end. Not long after the end of the Mexican War, Hays was appointed as the federal agent for tribes in the Gila River Valley of the New Mexico Territory, which at that time included most of the modern states of Arizona and New Mexico. He was respected by both the tribes and settlers in this position, but he looked for other opportunities outside the deserts of the Southwest.
As news of the discovery of gold touched off a massive move to California for gold seekers, Hays joined the quest. He guided a wagon train through the New Mexico Territory on the way to California, discovering important wagon trails along the way that would take days off the travel time for those that followed. He settled in San Francisco, which was the epicenter of the Gold Rush. At the time, it was the only port or city of any importance in California, though it began 1849 with a population of a mere 500 residents. His sister, Sarah, and her husband, Richard Hammond, were encouraged by Hays’s successes to make the trek westward themselves. Though Hays did not travel into the mountains to prospect himself, he made a tidy fortune off real estate.
In 1850, voters elected Hays to become Sheriff of San Francisco County. The city itself had surged past 50,000 residents. A newcomer himself, voters trusted him to tame a county almost out of control at the height of its gold fever. It would be the only elective office he ever held.
In 1853, he was appointed the federal surveyor-general of California. As the Gold Rush faded, more settlers entered California focused on the riches of the soil rather than the riches of the mines. The position only gained more importance as the economy of California transitioned into agriculture. He later moved across San Francisco Bay and became one of the earliest residents of Oakland.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, he largely retired from any military activity. He contented himself to stay at his estate in Oakland and concentrate on his investments and staying involved in state politics.
In the meantime, his family continued to have their own brushes with history. Younger brother Harry became a noted lawyer in New Orleans and a Confederate general during the Civil War, noted for his bravery at the Battle of Gettysburg. Their sister’s son, John Hays Hammond, became an ambassador and a mining magnate with interests from Colorado to South Africa in the late 1800s, with their grandson becoming the noted inventor of the radio-guided torpedo and a colleague of Thomas Edison.
Hays spent his last years tending to his investments and staying active in state politics. He died at his home in California in 1883. Today, Hays County is a growing suburban county of more than 200,000 residents. The Texas Rangers he led are now far less of a military body and instead an elite police investigative unit, but no less a force to be reckoned with by outlaws.