Does the world need another biography of Texas Jack?
That's the question I asked myself. I had planned on writing a novel about Wild Bill, Buffalo Bill, and Texas Jack's dramatic season together as The Scouts of the Plains. I was doing some research on the men, and I read Joseph G. Rosa's They Called Him Wild Bill, Don Russell's The Lives and Legends of Buffalo Bill, and Herschel C. Logan's biography of Texas Jack, Buckskin & Satin.
Buckskin & Satin reminded me very much of a specific moment from my childhood. I was in third or fourth grade at Rivermont Elementary School, and our teacher told us we were going to the school library. There, our assignment was to pick out a biography, read it, and write a report on the life of the person whose story was depicted there. I had no context for my choice, so just picked out a book with an interesting picture on the cover. Whoever said "Don't judge a book by its cover" forgot about the field of marketing, which is very much a combination of advertising and psychology combined in such a way as to convince you, by virtue of a book's cover, to judge it as worthy of a read. The book I picked up was a biography of Jim Bowie. The only thing I knew about Bowie was that Bowie knives were a thing, and I assumed he had invented them. I wondered if he was related to David Bowie, who I very much liked in the movie Labyrinth.
Now, you may not know this, but Jim Bowie led a pretty exciting life. I, unfortunately, didn't know about it, because the book didn't hold my interest like C.S. Lewis's Narnia books had. The biography of Bowie was written in a very specific kind of language, one that I didn't really understand then, but have come to associate with a certain kind of biography written in the middle of the 20th century. Academics have a word for it—hagiography. Originally, a hagiography was a book about a saint or religious leader, but now it just means a biography where the author reveres the subject, doesn't point out that subject's flaws, and heaps praise on their subject throughout. The writer of the biography of Jim Bowie I picked up at the Rivermont Elementary School library and Herschel C. Logan both believed that they were writing about someone important. Someone good. Someone who had, in some small way, changed the world and shaped it into their own vision—changed and shaped it for the better.
And I get it. I really do. The more I learned about Texas Jack and his wife Morlacchi, the more I liked them. The more I found myself pulling for them, despite knowing how their story would tragically end. You can't spend that long reading and writing about a person without developing some affection, and even some sense that in a way, their story has become a part of your story. I could write a thousand books after this one, but I will always be the guy that wrote the book about Texas Jack. That's part of who I am now.
But when we ignore, or simply don't see, the faults in people, I think we can be blinded to not just the realities of who they are, but what they have to overcome on the way to achieving whatever it was that made them notable. Texas Jack was no saint. Few men are. He drank and told stories and had a generally good time. Now, he wasn't a violent man. He didn't hit his wife or carouse or embarrass his family. But he was a man, with faults, who was very much a product of his times. On the day he was born, twenty-five slaves worked the fields of his father's home. As a teenager during the Civil War, Jack and his brothers fought to maintain that status quo. That doesn't make Texas Jack evil, at least not in the context of a Virginia landowner during the 1860s. But it does make the fact that Texas Jack later shared the stage with black actors more notable. It does make the fact that in Texas Jack dime novels—including a couple written by his real-life best friend and partner Buffalo Bill Cody—he employs and trusts implicitly as "majordomo" of his ranch a freed slave named Ebony Star all the more meaningful. Lillian Schlissel, professor emerita and director of American studies at Brooklyn College-CUNY, wrote in her book Black Frontiers: A History of African American Heroes in The Old West that “Not many other books before 1900 showed friendships between a white man and a black man...The story is unusual because in it a black man, Star, rescues the hero and saves his life. As with the Lone Ranger and Tonto, the Ebony Star is Texas Jack’s powerful friend and ally...Star has a place in the legends of the Old West.”
The men (and women) who became legends in the American West were imperfect. It isn't their perfection that makes them notable, it is the ways in which they rose above the adversity of their time. It was a world in which black men and women had been slaves on Virginia plantations, but in that world, Texas Jack shared the stage with African-American costars. It was a world in which it was easy to dismiss all Native Americans as "savage redskins," but in that world, Texas Jack hunted with, befriended, and immersed himself in the culture of the Pawnee people. It was a world in which to call a man a "cowboy" was amongst the worst of insults, but in that world, Texas Jack wrote about and spoke about his former profession in a way that made a lasting impact on the way America viewed the cowboy.
That's not to say that Buckskin & Satin isn't good, or isn't worthwhile. It just left enough room in Jack's life and in his legacy that I felt like there must be more to it. There is a paragraph, on pages 99-100 of Buckskin & Satin, that captures exactly what I mean. Having described Jack's life from 1872 until 1877, Logan writes:
"Very little is heard of Texas Jack during the next two years; it is presumed that he spent at least a part of his time hunting, a sport which he so thoroughly enjoyed. Some time was undoubtedly spent on stage, and last, but not least by any means, much time was enjoyed in the comfortable home he and his attractive wife occupied in Billerica, near Lowell, Massachusetts."
I read that paragraph, and I felt—KNEW—there must be more. And there was. So much more. What Mr. Logan covered in that paragraph takes me 106 pages and just over 34,000 words to cover in my book.
Those years, 1876 to 1879, were full of adventure. To summarize in brief, Texas Jack was involved with a venture at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia that ended tragically. Jack wasn't even in Philadelphia at the time because he had been called to serve as a scout for General Terry after Custer's defeat at Little Bighorn. Texas Jack befriended Donald McKay, a Warm Springs native and the hero of the Modoc War. McKay, along with Morlacchi and John Burke, joined Jack's new theatrical combination. Jack went west at least three times: once with Sir John Rae Reid, once with Captain Bailey and T.B. Birmingham, and once with Count Otto Franc. On one of these trips, Jack met Thomas Edison, nearly scaring the famous inventor to death. On another trip, Jack helped save some tourists who had been attacked by Nez Perce in Yellowstone Park. One of his fellow travelers alleged in the press that Texas Jack was a coward who knew nothing about Indians and less about the Yellowstone region, raising Jack's ire and forcing a response. Texas Jack played at least 400 shows after his partnership with Buffalo Bill ended, not counting matinees and performances in cities that haven't yet digitized their newspaper archives.
I wish Herschel Logan was around to see my book...to see what else there was to learn about Texas Jack...to talk about John B. Omohundro together. I hope he would enjoy the direction I went. I hope you will too.