139 years ago today, on June 28th, 1880, Texas Jack Omohundro died in Leadville, Colorado.
Just 33 years old, Jack had squeezed a lot of living into those years. An expert hunter and horseman by the time he was a teenager, Jack immediately volunteered to join his older brother on the front lines at the outbreak of the Civil War. Though he was initially turned down for service because of his young age, Jack volunteered as a courier for General Floyd and eventually became one of General J.E.B. Stuart's most trusted scouts and spies, handing Stuart his last battlefield dispatch before he was mortally wounded at the Battle of Yellow Tavern. Jack continued to serve, ending the war in Appomattox by cutting through enemy lines to return home rather than wait outside the courthouse while Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant.
After the war, Jack set off for Texas, riding cattle along the Chisholm Trail, Goodnight-Loving Trail, and trips to California, New Mexico, and Nebraska. Omohundro earned the nickname "Texas Jack" when he drove a herd across Indian territory to a drought-stricken and hungry post-war Tennessee. His cattle driving days lead him to Hays City, Kansas, where he met and befriended California Joe Milner and marshal James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok. Hickok advised Omohundro to try his luck at Nebraska's Fort McPherson, where Jack would meet his future partner and best friend William "Buffalo Bill" Cody, a scout at the fort who quickly convinced the Army to bend their rules on hiring former Confederate soldiers and make Jack a scout.
Cody's instincts about Jack were quickly proven correct, as Texas Jack saved Buffalo Bill's life in a skirmish with Sioux on the Loupe Fork. For the next three years, the two worked as scouts and hunters, leading parties including the Earl of Dunraven and Grand Duke Alexis of Russia on elk and buffalo hunts.
Writer Ned Buntline convinced the pair to join him in Chicago for a play Buntline wrote called "The Scouts of the Prairie, and Red Deviltry As It Is!" Though neither were actors, they became huge stars, known throughout America and across the world. Jack soon married his costar and leading lady, the beautiful Italian ballerina Giuseppina Morlacchi.
Jack's time was spent in both worlds, acting on the stages of the East and trekking across the West, exploring the wilds of Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana. He made several noted expeditions leading aristocrats into the new Yellowstone National Park and across the Wind River and Bighorn mountain ranges, scouted for the Army again after the defeat of Custer at the Little Bighorn, and wrote pieces for the Spirit of the Times magazine, detailing hunts, riding alongside the Pawnee, and running cattle on the Chisholm Trail.
Jack's lasting legacy was summed up in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper, which at the time was the most read paper in America:
"More refined than Wild Bill, more modest in asserting himself than Buffalo Bill, he stood on a plane above both, and though he recognized the fact that better fighters and better scouts than he were still content with the hardships of the prairies, he felt a superiority of education and a deep capacity of enjoyment that they could never attain…On the ranches of the far West, and occasionally among the rolling stone scouts, one finds genuine manhood, braced by intellect and backed by thorough-breeding."
Today we remember Texas Jack as the first cowboy of the American stage. If the idealized American man is the frontier cowboy, then the genesis of the American cowboy in popular culture is Texas Jack Omohundro