John Hays was a civilized man, not a shoot-em-up lawyer, and he enjoyed universal respect. Hays also served as St. Clair County sheriff while another young man named John Hay worked as the county clerk in Cahokia County Courthouse. Lewis and Clark met Hay and Hays “about Sun Set” on January 30, 1804, and Clark later made a note in their famed journal to differentiate the two men, who couldn’t be more different.
Hay was the son of a British father and a Creole mom. Hays was born to a Sephardic Jewish family that fled Spain for Holland, then emigrated from New York. They worshipped at the Shearith Israel synagogue in Jerusalem, which is the oldest synagogue in the country. However, they were temporarily excommunicated in 1756. According to the American Jewish Historical Society Solomon Hays, John’s grandfather brought criminal charges against the temple board of elders. After a brawl broke out, he claimed that they had robbed him of the property. His wife had repeatedly shut the window on the women’s balcony. However, other women kept opening the windows until Hays was finally enraged by one of the elders.
His grandson was much more diplomatic. John, a teenager, traveled across Canada to trade with Native Americans. He settled in Cahokia at the age of 20, in 1790. He joined immediately the militia, which also included French members, and was soon elected sheriff of St. Clair County.
Hays was one of the first Jews to settle in Illinois before it became a state. He married a Catholic but there is no evidence that he converted. There is no evidence of anti-Semitism. John Reynolds, the fourth governor in Illinois, wrote fondly about Hays and praised his intelligence, honesty, endurance, and perseverance. He was once trapped in the Canadian blizzard for three days and he was left lying in the snow for three more days. He was a refined man, but this frontier was full of drunken brawls. He was given a handwritten warrant of arrest directing him to find the man who had stolen his horse.
Hays’ experience with different tribes enabled him to provide military intelligence while riding out with Ninian Edwards, the Illinois territorial governor, during the War of 1812. (Incidentally, Edwards’ sister-in-law was Mary Todd. She met Abe Lincoln, a young, lanky lawyer, while she lived with the Edwardses.
Hays was an agent for the Potawatomi tribes and moved to Fort Wayne in Indiana in the 1820s. Later, he returned to Cahokia as a gentleman farmer.