“Donald McKay, the leader of the Warm Springs braves, is a man just six feet high and well proportioned, the son of a noted Scotch fur-trader of the Hudson Bay Company, by his Indian wife. Donald has intelligence, is companionable and cool, speaks seven Indian dialects, thoroughly understands the Indian character, and has the judgement to control it admirably and to lead it to successful battle.”
-The New York Times, Wednesday June 4th, 1873.
There are many names that one might think of when they consider Texas Jack on stage. The earliest exploits with Buffalo Bill Cody and Ned Buntline, the spark with costar Giuseppina Morlacchi that developed into romance and marriage, drinking fake whisky with Wild Bill Hickok on stage, going through thick and thin with “Arizona John” Burke. But one fascinating costar that has been largely lost to history is Donald McKay.
The half-breed son of a prominent fur trader named Thomas McKay and a Cayuse Indian mother in eastern Oregon, Donald’s grandfather Alexander had come to Oregon in 1811 with the Pacific Fur Company of John Jacob Astor. Astor, a German immigrant who begun purchasing and tanning hides from his brother’s butcher shop in New York City, had gone on to trade fur with Montreal and then China, found first his own company and then the first United States community on the Pacific Coast, and eventually became America’s first multi-millionaire, the wealthiest person in the country when he died in 1848. Donald McKay grew up hunting in the Willamette Valley, and in the early 1850s began to work with the Army as a translator and scout.
When McKay was a young man, Tuuepum, the daughter of Tenino-Warm Springs chief Simtutus, was kidnapped by a band of “Snake Indians” (likely Northern Paiutes), and she was held in captivity for three years. McKay staged a daring rescue, earning the gratitude of the chief and the love of his beautiful daughter, whose name translated as “Fluttering Poplar.” The pair were married soon after the rescue, and together they had a daughter named Minnie.
In the 1860s, Donald’s brother William served as captain of the Warm Springs Indian Scouts, and Donald commanded his own company of Warm Springs natives for the Army. He served as a translator for the government when they treated with the Warm Springs, Klamath, Yurok, and Karuk tribes in Oregon and northern California.
In 1873, as Texas Jack and Buffalo Bill perfected their craft of engaging Indians (or supernumeraries dressed as Indians) on stage, McKay worked as a scout and translator, carrying messages between the army and Kintpuash, who was called Captain Jack in what would come to be called The Modoc War. News of a conflict between the United States Army and Modoc tribesmen under Kintpuash, known as Captain Jack, was reaching newspaper readers on the east coast just as the Scouts of the Prairie made their way east, and a standoff led to increased fears that further encouraged theater patrons to flock to see the Indian fighters who were now gracing the stages of New York. Two hundred Modoc had left the Klamath reservation after the federal agent assigned to the area failed to prevent the theft of Modoc lumber by Klamath tribesmen, returning to their former homes on the Lost River. During the time they had been in the reservation, settlers had moved into the area, and their new homes were now raided by returning Modoc. When the Modoc hid out in caves in the lava beds on the south shore of Tule Lake, a lengthy standoff ensued, with the Modoc eventually killing members of a federal peace commission, believing that the deaths of the Americans would discourage the government from attempting to remove the Modoc.
Quite naturally, the deaths of federal agents had the opposite effect on the willingness of General Grant to tolerate the native resistance, and additional troops were sent, capturing Captain Jack and his fellow tribesmen. The federal troops were assisted by fourteen scouts from the Warm Springs tribe under the leadership of Donald McKay. Captain Jack and five of his fellow Modoc were tried and sentenced to death, with two more committed to life sentences on Alcatraz. The remaining members of the tribe were sent to the Quapaw Agency in Indian Territory, present day Oklahoma.
When a newspaper reporter asked Cody for his assessment of the situation as an Indian fighter, he responded, “Give me old ‘Nancy Ann’, my breech-loader there, and let Jack have a lasso and scalping knife, and I’ll bet every cent I own we can clean out every bloody red son-of-a-corkscrew of ‘em inside of thirty days, and do our own scouting and cooking too!” When their theatrical season was done, Cody said that he and Omohundro were planning on heading out to California to take care of the situation. “We’ll see if we can’t get enough hair to stuff a rocking chair for the old woman...if clean ‘em out is the order, we won’t leave a papoose a week old. It’s harder work to kill and drag off twenty Indians on the stage every night than to perform the same job in real earnest.”
It is unlikely that either man had any intention of following through on Cody’s threats, but everyone involved understood that a certain amount of trepidation regarding the natives was good for business.
The success of Cody and Omohundro in The Scouts of the Plains ensured that many border themed dramas sprang up within months of their December 1872 debut. As news of the army’s fight with Captain Jack dominated newspapers in the east in 1873, dramatized versions of the events of the Modoc War began to appear, such as Captain Jack of the Modocs and White Hair; or, The Last of the Modocs. The body of Captain Jack had been stolen from its grave and embalmed and was now touring the east as a circus and carnival attraction. When an actor named Oliver Doug Byron began to tour with a drama entitled Donald McKay, the Hero of the Modoc War, the brothers decided it was time they played their own drama as themselves, just as Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack had done two seasons earlier.
When their first traveling Indian show failed due to poor management by the reservation agent the brothers had hired, William went back to his family in Oregon while Donald was briefly imprisoned in Boston for debt. When he was freed, he traveled to Europe for a number of years with a drama called Donald McKay, the Hero of the Lava Beds. McKay returned to America in 1876 to visit the Philadelphia where his then nine-year-old daughter competed in a series of races against the best female riders in the world. Jack was on hand, watching a racer known as Maud Oswald who had raced at P.T. Barnum’s Hippodrome and would soon join Jack on stage. But Jack was equally impressed with the young Minnie’s riding abilities, and quickly befriended her scout father.
As the two men got to know one another, they discovered that they had a great deal in common. Both had been celebrated in northern newspapers for their exploits, but both felt like outsiders: Omohundro the former Confederate soldier whose Virginia sensibilities often clashed with Yankee urbanity and McKay the half-breed Indian scout who was viewed as a hero for his work against other Indians, which meant he was fully accepted by neither the native people of his mother or the white people of his father. Both men had seen dramas produced by professional actors impersonating them, without benefitting from the production in any way. Both viewed their native heritage proudly but had worked tirelessly against the Indians that they saw as standing in the way of their country, of which both men were equally proud.
Staying in the same hotel and discussing their dramatic endeavors, Omohundro and McKay decided that it might benefit them to tour together. Without Buffalo Bill touring with him, Texas Jack may have believed that there was a decided benefit in having a real Indian war hero on the stage with him. During their last dramatic season together, Cody and Omohundro had discussed their desire to tell more realistic border stories, with less gunpowder and more of the kind of acting both men aspired to. Omohundro seems to have personally desired to show the differences between the native tribes, and was perhaps convinced that with McKay and his Warm Springs Indians, some Cherokee they had befriended in Philadelphia, and a group of Pawnee that Jack had hunted with in Nebraska, they could stage a show that was closer to real life on the frontier than the blood and thunder dramas that Ned Buntline and Fred Maeder had written for the scouts.