Texas Jack Omohundro became famous for the jobs he worked: Chisholm Trail riding cowboy, frontier scout, theatrical star. What isn't quite so well known is that twice in his life, Texas Jack worked another job that requires every bit as much courage as a cattle stampede, as much cunning and grit as a scout on the prairie, and as much patience and resourcefulness as a theatrical star—Texas Jack was a teacher.
It might be hard for us to picture the man so often pictured in a broad Stetson and with an assortment of rifles and revolvers at his disposal as a schoolmaster, but just after General Lee's surrender at Appomattox, John Omohundro set out for Texas. He made it to New Orleans where he caught a boat bound for Galveston, but a storm in the Gulf of Mexico capsized the ship and stranded Jack on the east coast of Florida. Here is the adventure in Jack's own words:
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 pater familias bounced out of the room, sweeping his offspring before him like ducklings in a whirlwind.
And while it might be strange to consider the famous cowboy teaching a bunch of rural Florida students, even here we catch a glimpse at the true Texas Jack—a cowboy, yes, but also a literate and well-read man. Here, he quotes a 1728 poem called Spring by James Thompson:
Then infant reason grows apace, and calls For the kind hand of an assiduous care. Delightful task! to rear the tender thought, To teach the young idea how to shoot, To pour the fresh instruction o'er the mind, To breathe the enlivening spirit, and to fix The generous purpose in the glowing breast.
Yes, our heroic cowboy sometimes quoted Shakespeare, Milton, and apparently James Thompson. Jack left Florida and finally made it to Texas, where he became perhaps the most well-known of the original Texas cowboys. As a cowboy, he earned his famous nickname, learned the language and signs of the Comanche and several other tribes, established a reputation for fearlessness and bravery, and eventually made his way to North Platte, Nebraska, where he met Buffalo Bill, became a celebrity, and eventually a star. But when he got there he worked two jobs. The first was as a saloonkeeper at Lew Baker's establishment. The second was again teaching school to the young children on the Nebraska frontier.
This time, when a group of parents asked him what he would teach he was more careful with his answer. Wary of his previous experience with the irate father and desperate for work, when one of the men asked whether he believed the Earth to be round or flat, Jack replied, “I can teach it either way you want it taught...I need the job.”
On this Teacher's Appreciation Week, I would like to send a big thanks to all of the teachers out there for all of the hard work you do. You're in rare company.