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Texas Jack: America's First Cowboy Star
by Matthew Kerns Today!
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This groundbreaking work by Matthew Kerns brings to light a lesser-known but vitally important figure in any history of American pop culture. It's probably enough to learn that John B. "Texas Jack" Omohundro was the only full partner of William "Buffalo Bill" Cody in terms of sharing the stage and revenue from that venture.
But Omohundro was so much more than Cody's pecuniary partner. They were good friends and had each other's back in frontier Nebraska for three years before stepping onto a Chicago stage together for Ned Buntline's Scouts of the Prairie and launching what would become the most popular entertainment sensation for decades in the form of Buffalo Bill. And for years after that fateful night in 1872, "Texas Jack" and Cody helped make stars out of Annie Oakley, Doc Carver, "Wild Bill" Hickok and others––begging the question, how did those luminaries thrive in the collective consciousness of America for the next 150 years, while Omohundro remained a stalwart, if lesser known figure?
The easy answer is that he died of pneumonia, in 1880––a few years before Cody exploded onto the national and then international scene with his famed Wild West show. There is more to this, though, and as Kerns illustrates, it's worthy of examination. He summarizes: "While his friends Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill were rendered iconic as the preeminent scout and lawman of the American West, Omohundro's legacy as the first cowboy on the American stage is fundamental to the mythologized Western hero later introduced to the world by Buffalo Bill and personified in the stories of Ned Buntline and Prentiss Ingraham . . . . If the idealized American man is the frontier cowboy, then the genesis of the American cowboy in popular culture is Texas Jack Omohundro, a man who, despite his moniker, was not from Texas." (This reviewer won't spoil the story of how he was given his nickname.)
In fact, Omohundro was born in Virginia. He served in the Confederacy, and later as a civilian scout for the U.S. army during the Indian Wars. In 1869, at Fort Hays, Kansas, "California Joe" Milner introduced Omohundro to Wild Bill Hickok, then the acting sheriff of Ellis County. Later this year, Jack met Cody for the first time, while the latter was scouting for the 5th U.S. Cavalary at Fort McPherson, Nebraska. Cody was instrumental in getting Jack hired on as a “trail agent and scout” for the 5th. Jack soon became known as one of the best trail agents, hunting guides, and Indian fighters on the frontier.
The year 1872 was a pivotal one for both Cody and Jack, the details of which Kerns writes in gorgeous detail, as he also does with Jack's work as a cowboy, and his time alongside Pawnee and other native peoples: "The clouds of dust gradually rise as if a curtain was lifted, horses stop as buffaloes drop, until there is a clear panoramic view of a busy scene all quiet, everything still (save a few fleet ones in the distance); horses riderless, browsing proudly conscious of success; the prairie dotted here, there, everywhere with dead bison; and happy, hungry hunters skinning, cutting, slashing the late proud monarch of the plains."
As well, Kerns reconstructs the relationships between Jack and other figures such as markswoman Ena Palmer, Louisa Cody, various indigenous peoples such as Pitaresaru of the Pawnee, Ned Buntline, Hickok, and of course, the love of his life, actress Giusseppina Morlacchi, whom he met when she joined Scouts of the Prairie.
Kerns meticulously reconstructs the fascinating––if sadly shortened––life of Omohundro using Omohundro's own letters, newspaper accounts, accounts of various Indian agents and agencies, dime novels, various historical societies, and much more. What emerges is the story of the man who actually was the driving force behind Cody's decision to go into show business, and perhaps was too authentic to shine as brightly as Cody through the ages. Until now.
-Julia Bricklin, author of The Notorious Life of Ned Buntline: A Tale of Murder, Betrayal, and the Creation of Buffalo Bill