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A Chat With Texas Jack

From The Spirit Of The Time Magazine, April 14, 1877.

The other evening, a little group sat in one of the parlors of the Hertmann House, Bowery. It consisted of Texas Jack, Signora Morlacchi, his wife, Mr. Bell, our artist, and Critic.

Mr. Bell sketched, Texas Jack and the Signora chatted, whilst Critic listened and questioned.

John B. Omohundro, better known as Texas Jack, is one of the best types of an American imaginable. Our friends, the Parisians, should see Jack, and their opinions of our men would be considerably modified. Here is a man old Dumas would have immortalized, and Ponson du Terrail made the hero of a series of novels in fifty-eight volumes.

Texas Jack has a noble and most sympathetic face, beaming with intelligence and kindness. The peculiarities of two great races are easily traced in its features. The regular and beautiful aquiline profile is French norman. His mother was a French lady, and he tells us, reputed a most lovely woman. She died when he was young, hence he does not speak her language. She had seven sons, Texas Jack is the lowest in stature, being exactly six feet high. If you are well acquainted with the portraits of courtiers of the time of Louis XIV, which the brush of Phillipe de Champagne has left in the galleries of Paris, you will at once recognize, when you see Jack, that he possesses the finest type of French face. But in the exceeding breadth of the cheekbones, the peculiar oval of the forehead, and the firmness and power of the jaw, it is evident that he has Indian ancestors. His father comes of a grand tribe, the Powhattan, to which belonged the heroine Pocahontas.

“I've seen my uncles on my father’s side,” said he. “They were all men over six feet; indeed I am the shortest of the family. It appears we degenerate in stature. My grandfather and his people were all of them six feet two and three inches. My father and his brothers were not so tall, and although I’m six feet, and my brothers are still taller, yet none of them reach six feet two inches. It is so with all Indian families; civilization does not seem to agree with them.”

Critic — What do you think will be the end of the American Indians?

Texas Jack — They’ll all be swept away, except the Cherokees. That tribe intermarries with the whites, gets civilized, and forms the finest race of men and women in the world.

Critic — You have very little faith in the Western Indians?

Texas Jack — Very little. They are so inferior to the Easterns that I imagine in a hundred years or so, they will be quite extinct. You see the best Western Indians are the few who were driven from these States by the advance of civilization.

Critic — Do you speak any of their languages?

Texas Jack — Oh, dear, yes, several. But they are really not beautiful; the perpetual recurrence of the chi and cha make them sound like chatterings.

Critic — But they are very rich in words, are they not?

Texas Jack — By no means, they are quite the contrary, very poor. They possess few words, and all these words have double, and even treble, and quite opposite meanings. Hence when they are translated they have such a grandiloquent sound. I fancy the dialects of the Eastern Indians were finer than the Western, but so much exaggerated concerning them that to read of their speeches you would think they were so many Miltons; but, I assure you, they talk very commonplace talk, and display their ignorance at every turn.

Critic — Do you recognize French or English words amongst theirs?

Texas Jack — Occasionally, and even Italian and Spanish, but those were doubtless introduced by the missionaries, and chiefly apply to articles of furniture and agriculture, borrowed from us. They also have words that sound just like English, but have a very different meaning; thus, heart means tongue, and dart eye. My opinion of their languages is not a high one at all. Indeed they are so poor that pantomime is absolutely necessary in order to supply the want of words and sentences.

Critic — What do you think of the intelligence of the Indians?

Texas Jack — Some tribes are very clever and sharp. All Indians have marked peculiarities, which are interesting. Nearly all of them are great physiognomists, and can determine your character by your face, and this with surprising ease. I inherit this.

[Here a request was made by the artist, who was taking the portrait which heads this article, for silence, and Mr. Jack relapsed into quiet idle. Meanwhile Critic attacked the Signora, and a lively conversation ensued.]

The Signora — I have been married four years to Mr. omohundro, but it seems to me as if I had known him all my life. He is very good and kind, and never angry. No, I have not yet accompanied him on any of his expeditions into the prairies. He always leaves me at home, but I want to go, and shall, I hope, be of the next party. I suppose, however, I shall have to be left somewhere on the confines of civilization. Still, I am strong, and do not mind fatigue, though I strongly object to bears and rattlesnakes.

Critic — You used to dance at the Scala, at Milan, did you not?

The Signora — Yes, I did once dance at that theatre, but I am not the Morlacchi I’m often mistaken for.

Critic — I heard you sing remarkably well last night. [In her play of Thrice Married, the Signora since Ernani, Ernani, involarmi, in a very artistic manner.]

The Signora, who is a remarkably pretty black-eyed Italian lady, with charming manners, answered, Yes, but I ought to sing better than I do. Signor Arditi, of Her Majesty’s Theatre, London, wanted me to become a singer, but I preferred my dancing. I have a strong, dramatic, soprano voice, in the style of Mlle. Tities, but I never cultivated it to any great extent. I can get along without Norma or Lucrezia. My husband can act also very well. You see he belongs to the Indian race, which pantomimes wonderfully, and also to the French, who are born actors. You will scarcely believe me when I tell you he can act Quasimodo to perfection, although he won’t play it in public. He cripples himself up to look like a hunchback, and it is a capital performance.

Critic — We can ill imagine such a superb man acting the roles of a hunchback.

The Signora — Well, he can do it. I have played Esmerelda all over the country, but never with him.

By this time Texas Jack was allowed to talk again, and we began conversing about pantomiming, a gentleman, who is well acquainted with the Italian style of pantomime, now joined us, and began to pantomime with the famous scout. “Ah! You are like my wife,” cried he. “You can only do the broad and decided gestures, but I can achieve something far more subtle. Now watch, I will repeat in pantomime anything you wish me to say to yonder Indian.” He pointed to an Indian of his company seated at the other end of the room, and both fell to talking by gestures so slight, and yet so expressive, that a long conversation was held by these means, which was afterward interpreted to us. “Now, you Italian and French people cannot do that sort of thing. You must have Indian blood in you to do it. You can only express broad passions and feelings. We can speak. Even my wife, a pantomimist by profession, and an Italian to boot, cannot do what we do. Now I will read your character and tell you the impression you made upon me at first sight, and afterward you will confess to me if I am right or wrong, and pardon me if I wound you, but remember it is your own wish to know, and so you shall.”

Texas Jack then told to us each of our characters, in so surprisingly truthful a manner, that it seemed supernatural. “That is another Indian gift, and a very necessary one to us, who have to roam the plains amongst all kinds of dangerous men. Think of the life I’ve led! I am a link between civilization and the other thing. I have to endure hardships, live amongst renegades and savages, and this is the kind of life my ancestors led for countless generations before me. Do you wonder if I possess, by inheritance and habit, some peculiar gifts indispensable to a man in my position?”

Critic — Do all Indians have these faculties?

Texas Jack — In a more or less degree. Of course they don;t all of them understand the traits of civilized men as well as I do, and, therefore, are sometimes mistaken.

Critic — Do you like acting?

Texas Jack — Yes, but I can scarcely call acting the performances I give. They however, suit my public and purpose, by giving folks some idea of savage life. I think I could act very well, and my wife, a fine artiste, thinks so too.

Critic — The Signora is an artiste of a very versatile kind, and a very charming one. You could have no better professor in the art.

Texas Jack — I’m glad you think so, for she is really a very superior woman. I first acted in Chicago, but have not much experience in the profession even now. I like the plains, and my life there best; I'm going out again soon with an English Captain. You know I was with Earl Dunraven some time ago.

Critic — Did you like him?

Texas Jack — Very much, indeed. He is a perfect gentleman, highly cultivated, and most amiable. I enjoyed the trip with him. He is so much of a man.

Critic — The scenery in the Far West must be wonderful.

Texas Jack — Beyond all power of description, grand and strange. You cannot imagine what it is like. The Yellowstone region is far more beautiful that any fairy scene in your plays here. The coloring is so vivid and surprising, that if you did not see it you would not believe it possible. The Yellowstone is one of the wonders of the earth, but there are other like places out there quite as interesting.

Critic — I suppose civilization is getting along even there, and changing things greatly.

Texas Jack — One thing to be observed is that civilization has plenty of room to stir about in there, and I guess it will take a long time to upset things generally. Some one told me that buffaloes were already decreasing. I don’t believe it. I saw, last season, herds of many thousands dashing along the prairies. The bears may diminish, by going higher up in the hills, and the snakes might, with advantage, disappear altogether. When I was with the Earl of Dunraven we shot several huge grizzly bears.

Critic — You were, then, out in the Yellowstone.

Texas Jack — yes, and a queer region it is. I can’t attempt to describe it. It is all red, pink, blue, and yellow, off rocks, and hot water springs. There’s one spot so weird and unnatural that they call it the Devil’s Dome, and the Indians declare bad spirits live in it. Near there is a pyramid seventy feet high, evidently formed by a water-spout. It stands on a level, is small at both ends, and large in the middle. It is perfectly dry, and looks somewhat like a ram standing on its head. I left my lariat one night in one of the Geyser springs, and lo! The next day I found it turned to stone. A man would be petrified in the same way, if he remained long enough in the water. The Tower Falls in the Yellowstone are splendid, over two hundred feet high, but the Grand Fall is far finer. It rushes over five hundred feet of rock. Imagine, we found a lake, twenty yards wide in circumference, of boiling water, and smelling like scalded pigs. Thousands of tons of water were hurled up from its center, to thirty and forty feet, in lofty spouts. There is little or no vegetation, and, of course, little or no animal life in this terrible and fantastic region. It is so strange that I advise everyone to go and see it, for if anyone tells them about it, they will barely believe what they hear.

Critic — Is it finer than the Yosemite?

Texas Jack — It is nothing like as beautiful. Yosemite is lovely. The Yellowstone is queer, but both are very well worth the trouble of being visited. Earl Dunraven’s book, “The Great Divide,” gives a splendid description of the place, and I can assure that the Earl deserves a high compliment on that work, which you should read. Sir John Reid and his cousin Eaton are very accomplished men, and I enjoyed being with them. They are first-rate hunters. English gentlemen of their class give a fine example of manliness by the way they come out and hunt, and discover things in the unknown parts of our continent. They bring education and science with them. I have been with several who were scientists, botanists, and naturalists of high order, as well as huntsmen.

Critic — In your last letter to The Spirit you mentioned Florida. Do you like that country?

Texas Jack — Yes, much, but it is the climate which makes its charm. It is very mild and yet not enervating. Hunting down there is good, but it is the great Mexican and Californian range which is most worth seeing. Once upon a time, when I was out in the interior of Florida, circumstances obliged me to seek the position of school teacher. The schoolmarm was about to retire, and I was anxious to take her place. The young idea is taught how to shoot out there promiscuously, and a he is as good as a she in teaching it. The schoolmarm was said to be of great erudition, and pronounced likely to ‘smash’ any man at larnin’. I addressed her a letter, in consequence, in which I used the biggest words I could think of. I styled her “honored madam” and beat heavy on “construction”, “promiscuous”, “retard”, the “affinities”, and all the ten syllables in general. The letter was profoundly respectful. The next day I was mobbed. The schoolmarm could not read my letter. The big words stuck in the throats of her admirers, and it was with difficulty I persuaded them I meant no harm. They apologized, and I was accepted as teacher.

The first day I told the little boys and girls the world was round, and the sun stood still to warm it. The children were amazed. In the evening in came the father of a promising young family, the majority of which flourished amongst my pupils. “What do you mean by tellin’ a lot of damned lies to my youngsters?” says he. “What do you mean?” cried I. “Why, you idiot, don’t you be a tellin’ of ‘em that the sun sticks stock still, and this ‘ere earth goes round him? That’s a lie, and you know it. Don’t I see the sun a-gettin’ up every blessed morning in one place, and a-going to bed in t’other, and you idiot you, you keep on a tellin’ them ‘ere youngsters it sits there all day long, contrary to evidence. You go home, young man. You are dangerous, and’ll be a-tellin’ of ‘em I ain’t their own father next, you will. Go home, young man.” With this, the irate paterfamilias bounced out of the room, sweeping his offspring before him like ducklings in a whirlwind.”

Here the Signora rose to bid us farewell, and after a few compliments to the lovely and accomplished young lady, we were obliged, much against our will, to take leave of her gallant husband. We say “much against our will,” because so fascinating is the conversation of this distinguished huntsman that it is difficult to imagine any more delightful manner of passing the time than in the company of one whose experience is so vast, and whose observation is so just and intelligent.

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