In Texas Jack: America's First Cowboy Star, I make the argument that the "Cowboys and Indians" trope, so prevalent in film, literature, and America's self-created mythology finds its foundation in the spring of 1872 when real-life cowboy Texas Jack saved the life of his friend Buffalo Bill Cody in an encounter with Minniconjou Sioux warriors on the prairies of Nebraska. Buffalo Bill maintained, popularized, and enlarged this myth in his Wild West shows, where the finale of the night was a settler's cabin besieged by hostile warriors with Buffalo Bill himself riding to the rescue, not with his fellow scouts or an Army battalion, but with a group of cowboys.
The dime novels that made Texas Jack and Buffalo Bill famous depicted them as great "Indian fighters," always fighting against and prevailing over their "savage foes." These men, along with their stage costar Wild Bill Hickok, eventually became folk heroes, more akin to Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill than the real John B. Omohundro, J.B. Hickok, and William F. Cody. And when that happened, a lot of subtlety was lost, as was the truth about their relationships with Native peoples.
This is Pitaresaru (Chief of Men), who was the leader of the Chaui band of the Pawnee. In 1872, Texas Jack, who had spent time with Frank North among the Pawnee, learning their language and signs, was assigned to accompany the Pawnee during their annual buffalo hunt. He wrote fondly of his time hunting with Pitaresaru, who Jack called "Old Peter," and his new Pawnee friends.
While the Pawnee showed Jack how to hunt buffalo with bow and arrow, he showed them the lasso tricks he had picked up as a cowboy on the Chisholm Trail. The Pawnee nicknamed Jack ruukiraahak awikiickawarik "Whirling Rope," in appreciation for his skills. The next year, Jack was on stage with Buffalo Bill when the Pawnee were badly defeated at Massacre Canyon. Jack told reporters that the Pawnee, who he often referred to as "my tribe," were "the best Indians."
Dr. Kingsley, who hunted with Texas Jack and Buffalo Bill, remarked that“they have a sympathy and a tenderness toward Indians infinitely greater than you will find among the greedy, pushing settlers, who regard them as mere vermin who must be destroyed for the sake of the ground on which depends their very existence. But these men know the Indian and his almost incredible wrongs, and the causes which have turned him into the ruthless savage that he is, and often have I heard men of their class say that, before God, the Indian was in the right, and was only doing what any American citizen would do in his place.”
One newspaper reporter said, “Texas Jack states that the trouble between the palefaces and red skins in the Western States was caused by the thieving propensities of the former more than the shortcomings of the latter. White men steal their ponies and the Indians are never able to get justice."
Though Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack fought Minniconjou (and other bands of Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe) on the plains of Nebraska, they had complex relationships with Native people. Jack claimed, and likely believed, that his prowess as a scout was in large part due to his own Native ancestry. He often told people that his family, as well as his distinctive surname, were descended from Powhattan. Omohundro, he confided to friends, was a Pawhattan word that meant "the place where the fresh and the salt waters meet."
From the very beginning, Native people joined Texas Jack and Buffalo Bill on stage. When their show, The Scouts of the Prairie, made its premiere in Chicago in December of 1872, a small part was played by Carlos Montezuma, a Yavapai-Apache child who had been kidnapped by Pima raiders as a child and wound up in the care of Carlo Gentile, an Italian photographer. Montezuma, whose birth name was Wassaja, played the role of Azteka, making a brief appearance in the play’s Act III, where he attacked Phelim O’Laugherty, the drunken Irish character in the play until Ned Buntline’s character Cale Durg came to the rescue.
Montezuma and his adopted father stayed with the show for just over a month. Carlos Montezuma would go on become the first Native American man to receive a medical degree in the United States and to found the Society of American Indians. He was one of the most effective advocates for Native peoples for much of his lifetime.
When Texas Jack and Buffalo Bill split their dramatic combination, which had toured for their first four years as performers, Buffalo Bill hired Captain Jack Crawford as his costar. Texas Jack hired a Native man, Donald McKay. McKay was the son of a French fur trader and a Cayuse woman, and had already risen to national prominence as a Warm Springs scout working with the Army during the Modoc War. Donald, along with his daughter Minnie McKay, would join Texas Jack and his wife for hundreds of shows over the next four years.
After Texas Jack's death, Buffalo Bill's Wild West offered many Native people their sole chance to escape the confines of their reservations. At home, their ceremonial dances and traditions were made illegal under threat of violence, but in the tents and in the big stadiums of the Wild West, there were no such prohibitions.
Bill Cody blamed most of the trouble between white men and Indians on the white men. "In nine cases out of ten where there is trouble between white men and Indians, it will be found that the white man is responsible. Indians expect a man to keep his word. They can't understand how a man can lie."
I'll leave the last words to those native men who knew Buffalo Bill and called him "Pahaska," or "long hair," and considered him a friend. Black Elk (Heȟáka Sápa) spoke of Cody's "strong heart," and reportedly was touched by his spirit of generosity. Sitting Bull (Tȟatȟáŋka Íyotake) treasured a hat that Cody had given him and reportedly grew quite angry when a relative once wore it. "My friend Long Hair gave me this hat," the great Sioux chief boasted," I value it highly, for the hand that placed it upon my head had a friendly feeling for me." And Chief Red Fox (Tokála Luta) offered this great praise to his friend after his death:
"In my imagination, I can see his noble spirit winging over the lofty peak, and I bow my head in memory of one who always impressed me with kindness and compassion, and enriched me with the deeply entrenched integrity of his character."
Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack were more than folk heroes, they were real men. More than Indian fighters, they had complex and deep connections to Native people, and treasured and valued them as friends.