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.”
The historian T.R. Fehrenbach postulated that the unique character of Texas came from one thing which differentiated it from other trans-Mississippi states; that it was in a constant state of war for the best part of half a century and so the readiness to fight for life at a moment’s notice became ingrained. Usually the fight was with the Comanches, who lived for war, plunder and ransom. While the Anglo settlers occasionally took a break from fighting to farm or ranch, or take up some peaceable trade, the Comanches never did; there was no other means of advancing in their culture, save being a fearless warrior and raider. At the high noon-time of their peak, they were the lords of the southern plains, from the Arkansas River to the Balcones Escarpment, having ruthlessly pushed other tribes out – the Tonkawa, Lipan Apache, the Karankawa and others. The Comanche ranged and raided as far as they pleased, occasionally interrupted by a fragile peace treaty.
A relative period of peace between the Penateka, or southern Comanche, and the Republic of Texas came to a spectacularly violent end in the spring of 1840 during the course of what had been intended as a peace conference in San Antonio. A contingent of chiefs and Texan peace commissioners met in a large building adjoining the town jail, on Main Plaza and Market Street. In token of their good faith, the chiefs had promised – or led the Texans to believe they had been promised – to turn over a number of captives, and sign a peace treaty. But the Penateka only released one; a teenaged girl, Matilda Lockhart, who had been savagely abused, raped and mutilated during a year of captivity. She told the disappointed and outraged Texan officials that the Comanches camped outside the town held more than a dozen other captives, including her own sister, but meant to extort large ransoms for each. When the chiefs and the peace commissioners met again, the commissioners asked about the other captives. The leader of the chiefs answered that they had brought in the only one they had. The others were with other tribes. And then he added, insolently, “How do you like that answer?”
It was always hoped, among the rebellious Anglo settlers in the Mexican state of Coahuila y Tejas that a successful bid for independence from the increasingly authoritarian and centralist government of General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna would be followed promptly by annexation by the United States. Certainly it was the hope of Sam Houston, almost from the beginning and possibly even earlier – just as much as it was the worst fear of Santa Anna’s on-again off-again administration. Flushed with a victory snatched from between the teeth of defeat at San Jacinto, and crowned with the capture of Santa Anna himself, the Texians anticipated joining the United States. But it did not work out – at least not right away. First, the then-president Andrew Jackson did not dare extend immediate recognition or offer annexation to Texas, for to do so before Mexico – or anyone else – recognized Texas as an independent state would almost certainly be construed as an act of war by Mexico. The United States gladly recognized Texas as an independent nation after a decent interval, but held off annexation for eight long years. It was political, of course – the politics of abolition and slavery, the bug-bear of mid-19th century American politics.