Bell talks native Wilson County western icon

Xavier Smith • Dec 12, 2017 at 6:08 PM

Lebanon city historian and Cumberland University professor Rick Bell shared the story of a Wilson County native that became an icon in the western portion of the country Monday during the Lebanon Kiwanis Club meeting.

“I’m going to tell you about John Coffee Hays. His friends called him Jack, so I’ll call him Jack, as well,” Bell said. “Although we haven’t heard of him, he became famous.”

Hays was born in Wilson County in 1817, according to Bell. His father and grandfather both fought in the War of 1812, which set the stage for his life.

He received his name from another soldier, John Coffee, which Coffee County is named after, and grew up in Wilson County until his early 20s at the end of the 1830s.

Hays built a relationship with Sam Houston, who put Hays in the Texas Rangers, stationed in San Antonio.

“The Texas Rangers were a rough bunch of guys. I think in history, now, we obviously think of the Texas Rangers as a law enforcement agency. But, back in the old days they were not exactly law enforcement agents.”

Bell said at the time Hays joined the group, it typically featured men who came from the roughest backgrounds and were not afraid to fight – the complete opposite of how Hays was described.

Bell said as people moved into Texas, they moved further west and onto land home to the Comanche people, who were skilled horsemen. As Americans encroached on their land, war broke out, including the Mexican-American War.

“Jack Hays is credited with making the Texas Rangers what we know them as. He basically created the Texas Rangers,” Bell said. “He said, ‘If we want to be in this territory, we have to fight fire with fire. We have to fight like the Comanche.”


Bell said the biggest problem Hays faced was weaponry, noting the guns the rangers fought with did not measure up to the Comanche’s skills with bow and arrow and were difficult to use on horseback.

Samuel Colt was in Connecticut at the time of Hays’ conflict and was developing the first revolving pistol. A company in Patterson, New Jersey agreed to manufacture the gun, but the U.S. military did not want to use the guns because of a lack of a need.

“The Colt Co., almost as soon as it started, is going bankrupt because no one wants to buy their product. That was until Jack Hays hears about it,” Bell said.

Bell said Hays made an order for the guns and after testing the guns, realized he had the weapon he needed to defeat the Comanche. Hays said he trained his rangers on how to use the guns with efficiency while riding horses until they become experts on using the weapons.

“Using that weapon and using Jack Hays’ technique – and history is debatable about if it was good or right – they were able to conquer the Comanche and open up Texas for settlement,” Bell said. “The Colt revolver became a weapon that was very famous in the American West. Jack Hays is the one who brought the revolver to the American West.”

Bell said Hays also helped shape the image of cowboys in the American West.

“The idea we have of people in the American West riding horses, having on a gun belt and being gunfighters all comes from Jack Hays, because he’s the one who introduced it to the West,” Bell said. 

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