This photograph, taken sometime in November of 1872, is the only known image of Texas Jack with his friends the Earl of Dunraven and Doctor George Kingsley. It is also the only known image of Texas Jack, America’s first famous cowboy, on horseback. The image is part of a larger collection of images taken at Fort McPherson, Nebraska, where Texas Jack and Buffalo Bill both worked as scouts between 1869 and 1872, when they left to launch their new careers as stage stars.
The image is important because it verifies a few things I have suspected, but couldn’t verify. The first, and perhaps most interesting, is that Jack is wearing the same outfit he used on stage during the Scouts of the Prairie tour, and the same one he is wearing in the earliest extant cast picture with Buffalo Bill, Giuseppina Morlacchi, and New Buntline. This means that from the start, Omohundro and Cody were doing their best to represent themselves as close to their real-life personas as possible.
The image was preserved and digitized by, and is shared here with the permission of, the Lincoln County Historical Museum in North Platte, Nebraska, the town that Texas Jack called home, where he met Bill Cody, where he courted southern belle Ena Palmer, where he worked as a bartender at Lew Baker’s saloon when scouting work was scarce.
I love a good museum.
The West is full of great museums. Cody, Wyoming’s Center of the West, which is really five superb museums and a research library all under one roof, is one of my favorite places to experience and learn about the history and legacy of the American West. The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City has art, artifacts, and history that explore the many facets of Western history before, during, and after the height of the golden age of the American cowboy. And the Autry Museum in Los Angeles showcases the pop culture version of the west, from silent movies to talkies on the silver screen, highlighting the ways that the story of the American West became America’s mythology.
But sometimes the real treasures aren’t just in the great museums, they’re in the really good ones. Take the Lincoln County Historical Museum in North Platte, Nebraska. Across the street from the Wild West Arena and just around the corner from Buffalo Bill’s “Scout’s Rest” Ranch, the Lincoln County Historical Museum is an unassuming building set back from the road, which in this case is North Buffalo Bill Ave.
My wife and I stopped by on the way from the Western Writers of America conference in Rapid City, South Dakota. We headed south through the Pine Ridge Reservation, stopping to pay our respects at Wounded Knee and stunned by the landscape of Nebraska’s sand hills. We walked into the museum on a warm Sunday afternoon and were greeted by museum volunteers Kathy and Doug Wentz.
I’ve visited countless museums, large and small, and seldom have I had a better experience interacting with volunteers. Kathy and Doug were quick to offer a warm greeting and pointed out a few “must-see” things in the museum. I was singularly focused on checking out the portion of the museum dedicated to the history of Fort McPherson, but found myself particularly drawn to two other sections. The first is an exhibit detailing the history of the Service Men's Canteen in the Union Pacific Railroad station at North Platte. Situated alongside the Union Pacific Railroad tracks, the North Platte Canteen stood as a beacon of refreshment and hospitality for soldiers passing through the area during their brief ten- to fifteen-minute stopovers. Throughout its operation, nearly 55,000 dedicated Nebraska women selflessly served nearly seven million soldiers, offering sustenance and care as they embarked on their journeys to fight in World War II.
The second exhibit that really blew me away was newly launched in May, and shares the stories and experiences of the Japanese immigrants that established roots in Lincoln County during and after the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. The fact that this museum was able to pull together the contextual information, the images, and the artifacts that they’re using to tell the story of the generations of Japanese and Japanese-American men and women who have lived and worked in and around North Platte over the last 120 years is a testament to the dedication and the work that this museum and its staff and volunteers have put into showcasing the interesting history of the area.
The section on Fort McPherson was great, and really shed some light on the place where Texas Jack and Buffalo Bill worked and sometimes lived while they were in frontier Nebraska. I had seen images and a drawing of the buildings at the fort before, but the images and artifacts at the museum really helped bring the place to life. The image I am sharing here was blown up and mounted as part of the exhibit, noting the time that Dunraven and Kingsley came to the area to hunt bison, elk, and deer in the Autumn of 1872. The Fort McPherson experience continued as my wife and I walked out the back door of the museum and saw the row of buildings that stretched out ahead of us.
On the right, preserved just as it had been in the days when Fort McPherson at Cottonwood Spring was bustling with soldiers and scouts alike, was the old HQ building. Walking inside, I could imagine Texas Jack and Buffalo Bill sitting at a chair and talking to General Phil Sheridan about the elk hunt they had just been on, or to Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer about where they were going to take Grand Duke Alexis to hunt buffalo. Across the path stands a period log home that once saw visitors stop for water as they crossed Nebraska on the Oregon Trail and another home that was ordered from Sears, shipped to North Platte, and assembled on site.
A mulberry tree near the end of the lane was full of ripe berries, and birds chirped as they feasted. I was reminded of something that came up when I was researching Texas Jack and the period of his life he spent in North Platte. Dr. George Kingsley wrote in a letter home to his wife while hunting with Dunraven and Texas Jack that “Jack raves poetically as we canter along side by side, and on one of us remarking what a deal of beauty there is in the most plain prairie, he bursts out, “Ah! You should see it in the spring-time, with the antelopes feeding in one direction, the buffaloes in another, and the little birdies boo-hooing around, building their nesties, and raising hell generally!”
Listening to the birds and enjoying the scattered flowers and the ripe mulberry, I couldn’t help but think back to the Kurt Vonnegut line, “I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.” We’re so incredibly lucky that museums like the Lincoln County Historical Museum in North Platte exist to preserve the history of a place and the people that lived there. It’s worth noting our appreciation for people like museum curator Jim Griffin and volunteers like Kathy and Doug Wentz, all helping to share the stories of those that were here before us, from dashing cowboys hunting bison with Pawnee braves to Japanese farmers desperate to start a new and better life, from the soldiers and scouts of Fort McPherson to the women and men in the North Platte Canteen.
North Platte and Lincoln County are lucky to have such a wonderful resource, and I’m pleased beyond words to find another piece of Texas Jack’s history, a picture of America’s first cowboy star on the back of his horse, ready to head out on an adventure with two of his friends, two men whose written record of those days provides such insight into Jack’s life. Enjoy this “new” picture of Texas Jack, and stop by the Lincoln County Historical Museum the next time you’re near North Platte. It’ll take you back in time, for just a little while.