History Friday Encore – Jack Hays’ Big Fight

(Next weekend, the good people of the Kendall County Historical Commission are observing the 170th anniversary of the Big Fight at the Sisterdale Dance Hall, in bucolic downtown Sisterdale, Texas. There’ll be a number of local and national authors there, including S.C. Gwynne, of Empire of the Summer Moon. My daughter tells me not to get all fan-girly, but it is a fantastic book. This will be the third or fourth time I have been in a book event and met up with an author whose’ books were sources for me in doing my own. So – from last year’s archives, without further ado…)

Jack Hays holds an outsized place in the history of the Texas Rangers, who began as a sort of heavily-armed and mounted Neighborhood Watch, metamorphosed into frontier protection force, and only much, much later into a law-enforcement body. But he was one of the earliest Ranger commanders; a surveyor by profession, born in Tennessee and raised in Mississippi, who would live to a ripe old age as a politician and lawman in California. Quiet, modest, self-effacing, Jack Hays became the very beau ideal of a captain of Rangers. He came to Texas at the very end of the fight for independence from Mexico in 1836, and worked as a surveyor and alternately as a soldier volunteer. He had been among the Texans in the Plum Creek fight, but made his name in the decade afterwards, astounding people who knew only his reputation upon meeting him for the first time. He was slight, short and refined in appearance and manner, and looked about fourteen years old. But he was also a gifted leader of irregular fighters and possessed an iron constitution. His fearlessness and daring became a byword among his fellow Rangers and his Tonkawa Indian allies and scouts. Chief Placido of the Tonkawa exclaimed admiringly, “Me and Red Wing not afraid to go to hell together. Captain Jack heap brave; not afraid to go to hell by himself.” The Texas historian T.H. Fehrenbach noted, “He mauled Indians from the Nueces to the Llano, and never with more than fifty men.”

He gained fame everlasting in a peculiarly concrete way, with the Big Fight. This encounter was actually just one of many brush-fire fights between Hays’ Rangers and the Comanche during the existence of the Republic of Texas early in the 1840s. There were so very many skirmishes and fights between his San Antonio ranger company (which operated with the funding and participation of many early Anglo residents) and those Comanche raiders who came down from the Llano to make free with any horses, captives and portable loot they could carry away. It is my own opinion that such encounters happened so often that they tended to run together in the minds of those rangers fortunate enough to survive them. I also suspect that Jack Hayes was too busy in the field, either fighting Indians or pursuing his profession as a surveyor, and too personally modest to write detailed after-action reports in a manner which would content historians.

In the summer of 1844, settlers in the gentle rolling country north of San Antonio were particularly jumpy. Captain Hayes led out a patrol of fourteen of his volunteers on a long patrol into the wilderness between the Pedernales and Llano Rivers, looking to find traces and trails of raiders coming down from the open plains north of the Hill Country. Of his comrades on that long patrol, one stood out for having already had a most eventful life in Texas. Samuel Walker was about the same age as Jack Hays, and also rather unassuming in manner and boyish-appearing, he was not a Southerner, but a Yankee from Maryland, and a veteran of the Seminole War in Florida. He had also participated in the ill-judged attack on Mier, survived the Black Bean Draw and a stint of durance vile in Mexico’s Perote Prison, from whence he had escaped before (presumably slightly out of breath) joining Jack Hays’ Ranger Company.

Returning towards San Antonio from a month of looking for a fight, Hays’ rangers were following an old trail which ran between San Antonio and the deserted San Saba presidio. They were in the neighborhood of present-day Sisterdale, in a country of gently rolling prairie patched with thin brush, stands of timber and sprinkled with large oaks and cypress trees wherever there was water from the many tributary streams. They were about to set up camp for the night at the point where the trail crossed the Guadalupe River when one of the troopers spotted a honey bee hive in a large tree. The prospect of tasting something sweet could not be resisted, but as one of the Rangers was climbing the tree, he looked back along the trail to see that they had been followed by half a dozen or so mounted Comanche warriors.
The fifteen Rangers hastily saddled up again – but they did not go off at once in hot pursuit of the Indians. Upon seeing they had been spotted, the Indians had turned and withdrawn towards the timber lining a nearby ravine at an oh-so-tempting and leisurely pace. Jack Hays didn’t take the bait – he had played that very trick himself, two years previously, when he drew General Woll and his forces out of San Antonio and straight into an elaborate ambush on the banks of Salado Creek. Hays held his men fast. Within a few moments, nearly seventy impatient Comanche came boiling out of the tree-line … and to their evident surprise, the outnumbered Rangers advanced slowly to meet them. The Comanches may have found this rather unnerving; they fell back across the ravine and up to the summit of a low knoll at their back. They dismounted there, and began shouting taunts towards the Rangers – in Spanish, which the Indians and Anglo-Texans held as a language in common. The Comanche had the advantage of high ground and a commanding view, but such was Jack Hays’ confidence in his men, himself – and one more thing – that he led his fourteen fighters around the knoll, out of sight of the Comanche and up another ravine to the top of the knoll, where they announced their presence on the Comanche flank with a shout and a volley from their rifles.

Briefly startled, the Comanche party rallied around their chief, said to be a particularly able and experienced war leader named Yellow Wolf. In fights such as this, the Indians customarily waited to draw fire from single-shot firearms, counter-attacking with a flurry of arrows as their opponents reloaded their long weapons – which would take at least a minute. Instead, Hays’s outnumbered Rangers threw their long guns aside aside, and drew out their surprise weapons. Back east, the pioneer industrialist, tinkerer and industrialist Samuel Colt had developed a patent five-shot repeating pistol, the 1836 Paterson Colt. It was expensive, a little more mechanically complicated than it needed to be, required careful and regular maintenance, and was a time-consuming and finicky process to re-load, but it shot five bullets in quick sequence. A quantity of them had been supplied for the short-lived Texas Navy, but many eventually found themselves in the hands of Rangers. It was an ideal weapon for short-range fights from horseback, especially if such a fighter had a pair of them and extra cylinders (corrected) pre-loaded with powder and ball.

And Jack Hays had seen that his men were equipped with Patersons – and moreover, had trained and drilled them tirelessly. In minutes, the fight on the knoll turned into a dusty, swirling melee of horses and black-powder smoke and men. The Comanche recovered and charged the Rangers, who responded by backing their horses rump to rump in a tight defensive square. The fight became a deadly close-range slugging match, Indians and Rangers bare yards apart, so close that some of the combatants were marked with powder burns. The Comanche had their own close-range weapon – a lance with a slender leaf-shaped blade on a 14-foot shaft. One Ranger was killed outright, and two, including Sam Walker and Addison ‘Ad’ Gillespie were terribly wounded by lance-thrusts.

No more than any sensible soldier would do in a fight when nothing in particular was at stake but face, the Comanche chose to cut their losses. Their preferred method of attack was to pick their ground and melt away when there was nothing concrete to be gained by standing fast. Yellow Wolf’s surviving warriors rallied and began withdrawing. Unexpectedly for them, the Rangers followed; implacable with as many bullets to command as there were fingers on a hand. They were well-drilled, they covered for each other, disciplined and steady. The Ranger with an empty pistol must remove the little metal wedge which held the whole thing together, remove the barrel and attach a new loaded cylinder. Like Plum Creek, it went to a running fight over two or three miles; desperate pursuit, parry and thrust, charge and feint, retreat and advance. Yellow Wolf masterfully held his diminishing band together. Finally came a moment; the Rangers were nearly out of ammunition or time to reload. Jack Hays shouted to his men; anyone with a load should target Yellow Wolf. Ad Gillespie called back that he did; he still had his rifle and it was loaded. He halted his horse, dismounted and carefully took aim. At a distance of thirty paces, it was not a challenging shot for a frontiersman with a good rifle. Yellow Wolf dropped, and the remaining Comanche fled, leaving the field to the Rangers.

Two years later, with another full-out war against Mexico in the offing, the skirmish on a hilltop above Sister Creek was immortalized in the annals of American invention. Sam Walker was back east, consulting with Sam Colt about a redesign of the revolving pistol. This would be a heavier, sturdier, and less-complicated iteration; the so-called Walker Colt. At the urging of the inventor, Sam Walker did a sketch of the Big Fight, which was transformed by a professional engraver into a scene which would be embossed on the barrel of the improved revolver.

All three Rangers – Jack Hays, Sam Walker and Ad Gillespie all participated in that war, but only Jack Hays survived it. In 1849, he resigned his command of the Rangers, and followed the Gold Rush to California, where he remained for the rest of his life, although he returned often to Texas to visit.

1 thought on “History Friday Encore – Jack Hays’ Big Fight”

  1. ‘It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.’
    —Mark Twain

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