Leadville Herald Review
Leadville has a long history of people coming here, making their fortune and then heading to Denver or back east to continue accumulating, and spending, their wealth.
As a result, many of the famous names associated with this city — Molly Brown, David May, the Guggenheims, Horace Tabor and many others — are not to be found in Leadville’s Evergreen Cemetery, but are buried elsewhere.
Evergreen, however, is the final resting place of John B. “Texas Jack” Omohundro, called America’s First Cowboy Star in a recently-published book by Matthew Kerns.
The book covers Texas Jack’s rather short but eventful life of almost 34 years. His parents owned a plantation in Virginia before the war, and it tells of his service in the Civil War on the Confederate side. After the war, he headed to Texas, because Virginia and the south offered little opportunity to make a living. In Texas he became a real cowboy, driving cattle north from the huge Texas ranches.
In 1869, Texas Jack became friends with James B. “Wild Bill” Hickok and William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody. Through Cody’s intercession, Texas Jack was subsequently hired as a scout and trail guide for the government despite his earlier stint as a Confederate soldier. He also led hunting parties for well-heeled Americans and foreigners.
A humorous part of Kerns’ book describes how the first Wild West Show, “Scouts of the Prairie,” came about, starring Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack.
Apparently Ned Buntline, writer of dime novels which had featured both Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack, claimed he had written a play which would be performed in Chicago involving many of the exploits of the two men, some real and some imagined.
When Texas Jack and Buffalo Bill agreed to perform in it, they ran into a number of obstacles. First of all, Buntline had not yet written the play, but said he could put one together in the four days before the opening performance. Also of concern was the fact that neither Buffalo Bill nor Texas Jack had ever learned to act, although they had spoken in public about their adventures.
Buntline cobbled together pieces of his novels, as well as stories he had heard the two men tell, and came up with a play in four hours. Texas Jack and Buffalo Bill had just a few days to learn their lines.
The show debuted in December 1872. Although the actors had spent a few days and nights memorizing their lines, they forgot everything when the curtains opened. After two hours of what Kerns described as local actors dressed as Indians being “lassoed, stabbed multiple times, shot and thrown offstage by the two scouts,” the play was over.
The Chicago audience loved it.
Also significant about the performance was that it marked the meeting between Texas Jack and Giuseppina Morlacchi. The Italian ballerina, known for introducing the can-can to America, had quite an international following and had been hired for a role in “Scouts of the Prairie.” The two were married in Rochester, New York in 1873. Unlike some romances, this one never lost its luster and lasted until death finally parted the two.
After performing with Buffalo Bill for some time, in 1877, Texas Jack formed his own acting troupe in St. Louis, known as the Texas Jack Combination, and began touring, performing in a series of plays, often with his wife.
Texas Jack and his wife came to Leadville in 1880 when each agreed to separate performances at different theaters. Although Morlacchi owned a house and farm in Massachusetts, the couple was considering retiring from show business in Leadville. By that time, Texas Jack was battling with alcoholism. It was said he was suffering from tuberculosis and using whiskey to self-medicate. Eventually he developed a cold which turned into pneumonia, leading to his death on June 28, 1880. Following a spectacular funeral held at the Tabor Opera House, he was buried in Evergreen Cemetery.
Morlacchi returned to Massachusetts and never resumed her stage career. Six years after her husband died, she died of cancer in Massachusetts, where she is buried.
Buffalo Bill came to Leadville with his Wild West Show in 1909, some 29 years after Texas Jack’s death. Accompanied by his troupe and numerous others, he rode his horse to Evergreen Cemetery and gave a speech memorializing his old friend, well covered in the Herald Democrat. Noticing the wooden marker on Texas Jack’s grave, Buffalo Bill ordered a more appropriate tombstone, which still marks the grave today.
Buffalo Bill did not return to Leadville again until 1917. At that time he was quite ill. He spent a night in his railroad car in Leadville, but Buffalo Bill was not well enough to leave the train and visit his old friend’s grave. Four days later, he died in Denver.
It’s interesting that both Texas Jack and Buffalo Bill’s final resting places turned out to be in Colorado, since neither is from this state. As far as the tourists are concerned, Texas Jack has mostly been forgotten, whereas Buffalo Bill is still well known today. Kerns noted in his book that Buffalo Bill’s grave on Lookout Mountain gets around 400,000 visitors a year. Texas Jack’s grave in Leadville, he said, gets only a few dozen, most of them relatives who come to decorate the grave on the anniversary of his death.
Considering that Texas Jack died at age 33 and Buffalo Bill at age 70, the attention Buffalo Bill receives isn’t surprising, as he took his Wild West Show all over America and then to Europe. It is a bit surprising that Texas Jack doesn’t receive much recognition from Leadvillians. He does have a Facebook page, Facebook.com/jbomohundro, and the Texas Jack Association was formed to remind the public of his legacy. That group meets every other year and is responsible for Texas Jack being added to the Hall of Great Western Performers in the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in 1994.
After Buffalo Bill died in Denver on Jan. 10, 1917, a fight over where he would be buried commenced between Denver, Cody, Wyoming, and North Platte, Nebraska, which served as his home base and where his famous Wild West Show was founded. The matter was settled when the city of Denver offered Louisa Cody, Wild Bill’s widow, $10,000 for the city to arrange the funeral and bury the body on Lookout Mountain.
I visited Buffalo Bill’s grave more than 30 years ago when a visitor from out of state wanted to see it. I was surprised by the number of coins visitors had left on the gravestone, apparently a continuing tradition.
I’ve visited Texas Jack’s grave a number of times, most recently this past Saturday after completing the Kerns book. Aside from a group visit some years ago, most likely from the Texas Jack Association on the anniversary of his death, I’ve never seen anyone at the gravesite. There was no one there Saturday, but there were signs of visitors. A number of coins covered the top of the gravestone.
Martinek served for 17 1/2 years as editor of the Herald Democrat. As editor emerita, she continues to contribute articles and this column. Reach her at email@example.com.