On April 26, 1872, Bill Cody rode out of Fort McPherson, Nebraska, in pursuit of a party of Miniconjou Sioux raiders and horse thieves. In his 1879 autobiography, Cody recalled that the Miniconjou “made a dash on McPherson Station, about five miles from the fort, killing two or three men and running off quite a large number of horses. Captain Meinhold, Lieutenant Lawson, and their company were under orders to pursue and punish the Miniconjou raiders if possible. I was the guide of the expedition and had as an assistant J. B. Omohundro, better known as ‘Texas Jack’ and who was a scout at the post.”
The day’s events, which would earn Cody the Congressional Medal of Honor, are worth exploring further as foundational to the portrayal of the cowboy in Cody’s later dramatic endeavors, and subsequently in depictions of the cowboy in American literature, television, and film. The incident became one of the milestones of Cody’s life, occurring just on the border between his twin careers as scout and showman. The episode would be recounted, with various degrees of accuracy, as a part of every subsequent Cody biography.
The Miniconjou and the recently rustled horses were spotted near the convergence of the Dismal and Middle Loup rivers. Omohundro discovered their trail going north and determined that they would probably make camp between the rivers, where they could water the stolen horses. Cody decided to set out at night, leaving the expedition in Texas Jack’s capable hands, informing the commander that “Texas Jack knew the country thoroughly and that he could guide the command to a point on the Dismal River where I could meet them that night.” Before leaving, Cody told Omohundro that “the general wanted him to guide the command to the course of the Dismal. When he got there, if he didn’t hear from me in the meantime, he was to elect a good camp.”[ii]
Confirming Omohundro’s report that the Miniconjou were camped on the Dismal, Cody returned to meet the command:
"I found the scouts first and told Texas Jack to hold up the soldiers, keeping them out of sight until he heard from me.
I went on until I met General Reynolds at the head of the column. He baited the troop on my approach; taking him to one side, I told him what I had discovered. He said:
“As you know the country and the location of the Indian camp, tell me how you would proceed.”
I suggested that he leave one company as an escort for the wagon-train and let them follow slowly. I would leave one guide to show them the way. Then I would take the rest of the cavalry and push on as rapidly as possible to within a few miles of the camp. That done, I would divide the command, sending one portion across the river to the right, five miles below the Indians, and another one to bear left toward the village. Still another detachment was to be kept in readiness to move straight for the camp. This, however, was not to be done until the flanking column had time to get around and across the river.
It was then two o’clock. By four o’clock the flanking columns would be in their proper positions to move on and the charge could begin. I said I would go with the right-hand column and send Texas Jack with the left-hand column. . . . I impressed on the general the necessity of keeping in the ravine of the sandhills so as to be out of sight of the Indians."
The two columns approached from the cover of the ravine, with the main force waiting and then initiating a charge. After a brief resistance, the raiders realized that they were surrounded and largely cut off from their mounts and surrendered. Cody, Omohundro, and Captain Meinhold’s troops had captured a band of Miniconjou Sioux from the southern agency at Whetstone Creek, which would soon bear the name of Brulé Sioux leader Spotted Tail (Siŋté Glešká).
In Captain Meinhold’s official description of the day’s events, he notes that “Mr. William F. Cody was the guide aided by Mr. Omehendev [sic] who volunteered his services.” At the end of his description, Meinhold mentions four men. The first is William F. Cody, whose “reputation for bravery and skill as a guide is so well established that I need not say anything else than but he acted in his usual manner.” Next are Sergeant John H. Foley, “who in command of the detached party charged into the Indian camp without knowing how many enemies he might encounter,” and First Sergeant Leroy H. Vokes, “who bravely closed in upon an Indian while he was fired at several times and wounded him.” The last is Texas Jack Omohundro, “a very good trailer and a brave man, who knows the country well, and I respectfully recommend his employment as a guide should the service of one in addition to Mr. Cody be needed.” Cody, Foley, and Vokes were each awarded the Medal of Honor for “gallantry in action.”[iv] Texas Jack, perhaps because of his former allegiance to the Confederacy, was not.
In their description of the encounter, a reporter for the local North Platte Democrat newspaper wrote that after Cody began firing at the Miniconjou raiders, "the remainder of the command, hearing the fire, came up at full jump—“Texas Jack” at the head. “Texas Jack” immediately let drive and brought his Indian down, and he finished by adorning his belt with his victim’s scalp-lock. . . . Too much praise can not be awarded to Captain Meinhold for his successful efforts. . . . Lieutenant Lawson, with the gallant members of “B” Troop, did their duty nobly and well, for which they have justly earned the thanks of the community. In this connection, we would mention the efforts of our heroic friend “Texas Jack.” Beside enjoying the reputation of a “dead shot,” he is well skilled in the ways of the red man, and we are glad to know that his services have been retained by the Government.
Another newspaper called the skirmish “a lively little Indian fight out at McPherson station. ‘Buffalo Bill’ and ‘Texas Jack’ each brought down a “redskin” The Indians then left.” In what would prove to be a characteristic display of modesty, Texas Jack deferred praise to Cody when asked about the incident. However, he would be referred to as “the hero of the Loup Fork” by Nebraska newspapers for having shot a Sioux just as that warrior fired at Buffalo Bill, causing the shot to merely graze the famous scout’s scalp rather than ending his life altogether.
Cody later wrote that “two mounted warriors closed in on me and were shooting at short range. I returned their fire and had the satisfaction of seeing one of them fall from his horse. At this moment I felt blood trickling down my forehead, and hastily running my hand through my hair I discovered that I had received a scalp wound.” Another newspaper reported that “to [Texas Jack] was Buffalo Bill indebted for his life. . . . The red thieves were pursued and overtaken by Bill and Jack, who each killed an Indian. A third “redskin” had just drawn a bead on Bill, when Jack’s quick eye caught the gleam of the shining barrel, and the next instant ‘the noble red’ was on his way to the happy hunting ground, his passage from the sublunary sphere being expedited by a bullet from Jack’s rifle, at a distance of one hundred and twenty-five yards.”
Here then is Buffalo Bill Cody, the man who more than anyone else would shape the public perception of the cowboy as the paragon of American courage and virtue, fighting Miniconjou Sioux braves alongside Texas Jack. Here is the great scout saved from death at the hands of “villainous Indians” by a lone cowboy. Tall and lean, a natural horseman, deadly accurate with pistol and rifle, brave and loyal to a fault, this man would be all of the things Cody would urge audiences to believe about the cowboys he led to the rescue of embattled settlers in arenas across the world, as well as in their counterparts working the ranges of the American West. In the cowboy, Bill Cody presented a hard worker, an enduring spirit, a man of principle, an American knight. In sharing this version of the cowboy with audiences, Buffalo Bill was sharing with them his old friend, Texas Jack.
Soon after the encounter with the Miniconjou Sioux raiders on the Loup Fork, a report on the battle from the pages of the North Platte Democrat appeared in full in the June 10 issue of Street & Smith’s New York Weekly, the publishing house that printed the dime-novel stories of novelist and frontier celebrity Ned Buntline. “Why should the novelist weary his imagination in drawing fictitious characters,” the preface asks, “when even our own land contains living heroes whose noble deeds are as marvelous as any that the mind could conceive? Ned Buntline takes his characters from life—paints them as they are; and his admirers, aware that they are reading history, peruse his stories with an interest impossible to be aroused by mere works of fiction.” The article closes with a promise that Texas Jack, the Hero of the Loupe is another story which Ned Buntline has promised to place in our hands at an early day. He is now hard at work upon it, and our readers will find that Texas Jack is a hero worthy of the esteem in which he is held by his comrade, Buffalo Bill.”
William F. Cody and John B. Omohundro were fighting enemy Sioux far from the fort on the Nebraska frontier in April and appearing in stories about fighting Indians in New York papers in June. By December, they would stand together onstage, portraying Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack in a play based on the stories inspired by the reality they had lived mere months earlier.
It was that day, April 26, 1872, and the cowboy Texas Jack saving the life of Buffalo Bill, soon to be the most important, successful, and famous entertainer in the world, that inspired thousands of pages in books and thousands of hours of film worth of "Cowboys and Indians" stories. When Buffalo Bill rode to save the settlers in the cabin surrounded by hostile warriors at the end of his Wild West shows, this is the moment he was most inspired by. When Cody chose the cowboys who would ride with him in that show, he was choosing men who would represent the cowboy who had been his best friend and who saved his life to the spectators filling the arenas. For those two men on that day, they were just "acting in their usual manner," not knowing that their actions would live forever.