We don't know exactly when John Omohundro arrived in the state that gave him his cowboy education and the nickname Texas Jack. He set out for Texas from his home in Palmyra, Virginia, not long after Robert E. Lee's final defeat at Appomattox Courthouse, but was delayed by a shipwreck. He made his way up the Florida coast, taught school for a brief period on the Florida panhandle, and then rode west, eventually starting his life as a cowboy at Sam Allen's Ranch near Galveston. If Jack made it to Galveston before June 19th, 1866, then he was working as a cook for Allen's cowboys as they celebrated Juneteenth, the anniversary of the announcement of emancipation by Union Major General Gordon Grainger when he sailed into Galveston Bay a year earlier.
President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation has theoretically freed all of the enslaved people in Texas over two years earlier on January 1, 1863, but Texas slaveholders allied with the Confederacy hadn't felt any obligation to heed Lincoln's executive order. Even after Lee's surrender of his Army of the Northern Virginia to General Ulysses S. Grant on April 9th of 1865, the Army of the Trans-Mississippi continued to oppose the Union for a month after Confederate General Joseph Eggleston Johnston's surrender of the Army of Tennessee on April 26, 1865. The Army of the Trans-Mississippi's surrender on June 2 signified the final death knell of the Confederacy. General Grainger's arrival at Galveston two weeks later, and his reading of General Order No. 3 on June 19th, 1865, meant that slavery as an institution was abolished everywhere in the United States.
Many of the cowboys Texas Jack was cooking for, and would soon work closely with, were former slaves. 30% of the population of Texas had been enslaved people in 1860, and many of these were the best herders, ranchers, and cowboys in the state. The years immediately following the Civil War saw an explosion in the cattle business, with beef prices soaring in the hungry post-war East and the ravaged South alike. Texas attle herds had grown as well, and it was smart business to run the cattle north, across Indian Territory, and to waiting railroad stations at Hays City, Abilene, and Dodge City. In many cases, the freedmen were better equipped for the trail than newcomers like Texas Jack. Bose Ikard, a former slave, rode with Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving as they blazed their cattle trail from Texas to Fort Sumner, New Mexico, and eventually on to Denver and Wyoming. A memorial to Ikard in Weatherford, Texas, was paid for by Goodnight, and bears his words about Ikard. "Served with me four years on the Goodnight-Loving Trail, never shirked duty or disobeyed an order, rode with me in many stampedes, participated in three engagements with Comanches, splendid behavior." Goodnight later said of Ikard, "I have trusted him farther than any living man. He was my detective, banker, and everything else in Colorado, New Mexico, and the other wild country I was in." Larry McMurtry based the character of Joshua Deets in his genre-defining novel Lonesome Dove on Bose Ikard.
Another black cowboy of the era was Nat Love, who arrived in the Lone Star State to become a cattleman at the same time as Texas Jack was driving his last herd from Texas to Nebraska. Nat had been born on the plantation of Robert Love near Nashville, Tennessee in 1854. Despite laws prohibiting the teaching of reading and writing to enslaved people before and during the Civil War, Nat's father, Sampson, secretly ensured his son was literate.
When Nat was 16, he sold two horses he had won at raffles to buy a ticket on a train bound for Dodge City. There, he found employment with an outfit from the Texas panhandle, the Duval Ranch, where he mastered the necessary skills of the cowboy before moving on to ranches in New Mexico and Arizona. In Arizona, he met western legends including Pat Garrett, Bat Masterson, and Billy the Kid. As the frontier closed and barbed wire fences and expanding rail lines ended the cowboy life he had become accustomed to, Nat found work in Denver, Colorado, and later in Los Angeles. In 1907 he released his autobiography Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as 'Deadwood Dick,' by Himself, one of the great tomes of cowboy life, right up there with Teddy Blue Abbott's We Pointed Them North: Recollections of a Cowpuncher.
After Texas Jack's death, his friend Buffalo Bill wrote a story titled Texas Jack, the Prairie Rattler; Or, The Queen of the Wild Riders. In this story, Texas Jack has a friend and trusted companion named Ebony Star, a freed slave now entrusted with the management of Texas Jack's ranch. At the end of the story, Jack and Ebony set off together on their own adventures. The pair are featured again in Prentiss Ingraham’s Arizona Joe, the Boy Pard of Texas Jack. 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.”
While books, movies, and tv shows often make it look like every cowboy in the American West looked like Texas Jack—tall, dark, and handsome...but always white—the truth is that the cowboy life that Texas Jack lived, loved, and wrote about was shared with black cowboys, men whose lives were forever changed by the events of Juneteenth—June 19th, 1865.