The Scouts of the Prairie
Before December 16, 1872 there was no “Wild West.” West of the Mississippi River there were gamblers and lawmen, thieves and cowboys, braves and banditos, but the Wild West of popular imagination, with high noon shootouts and hammer fannin’ heroes hadn’t been boiled down to its essence until Ned Buntline’s play The Scouts of the Prairie, and Red Deviltry as It Is! premiered at Nixon’s Amphitheatre in Chicago.
Though a critic in the Chicago Tribune had issued warning that the theatre, in reality no more than a large canvas tent with wooden boards for walls, would reek of the presence of two thousand bad breaths and twice as many unwashed feet, on that cold winter evening it was packed to capacity. After an entertaining opening piece by a world-famous Italian ballerina who had delighted Chicago audiences for weeks, the footlights rose and the packed house quieted.
Onto the stage walked a man with a rifle, greeted with thunderous applause. He introduced himself as a mountain man and began to speak about the redskins he was sure were waiting just over the next rise, and wondering when his two friends would arrive to aid him. He had just clapped the butt of his rifle onto the stage boards as a signal to those friends when a man stumbled out of the audience and onto the stage, offering the remains of a bottle of whiskey to the man standing there. Perhaps the offender meant it as an offering, a new kind of bouquet for a new kind of show. After a moment of breathless suspense, the buckskin-clad speaker on the stage grabbed the offender by his neck and tossed him into the orchestra, smashing half a dozen stage lights on his way.
“Let any renegade paleface dare to cross this red line, and he shall thus feel the weight of my strong arm!” the man exclaimed and was hailed by rapturous applause. The luckless admirer was retrieved from inside an orchestra member’s viola where he had landed and was handed over to a policeman. As the offender was escorted out of the theater, the man on stage warned his audience about the dangers of strong drink. As he finished this impromptu temperance speech, he again banged the butt of his rifle on the rough boards of the stage. Two men nervously joined him on stage.
Before a painted forest backdrop, the three men now stood resplendent in fringed buckskins lined with fur. The man in the middle was tall and handsome, with long hair and piercing eyes. The next lines were his, but for perhaps the first time in his twenty-six years his nerves got the better of him. He stood nervously looking into the anxious crowd. Someone coughed. The silent moment stretched until the older and shorter man to his left spoke.
“Bill...you been out buffalo huntin’ again?” The shorter man’s voice was low and full of gravel. The tall man turned and stared. The question was repeated.
“Buffalo Bill! You been huntin’ those buffalo again?”
“Yeah,” came the stuttering reply, “with Milligan.” William “Buffalo Bill” Cody looked out into the sea of faces packing the theatre and pointed towards the spot where Mr. Milligan and his friends were sitting. William F. Milligan was a wealthy local paint merchant, well known to the Chicago crowd, and they erupted in laughter and cheers. Milligan had indeed been buffalo hunting with Cody that summer and had desperately wanted to face an Indian in combat until the moment a brave was spied in the distance across the Nebraska prairie. At this sight, Milligan experienced a sudden change of heart. “I don’t believe this is one of my fighting days,” he had told the other men in the party, turning his horse away from the native warriors, “and it occurs to me that I have urgent business at the camp.”
Members of the audience had heard accounts of Milligan’s hunting adventure with Cody, and their laughter and cheers were all of the encouragement Buffalo Bill needed. He began telling the audience about the hunt and the crowd as one leaned forward, hanging on his every word. This was the man they had read about in dime novels like Buffalo Bill, King of the Border Men, written by Ned Buntline, the man asking the questions and standing to Cody’s left.
During his lifetime Bill Cody would be the star of thousands of these dime novels, with titles like Buffalo Bill and Billy the Kid; or, The Desperadoes of Apacheland, Buffalo Bill’s Balloon Trip; or, Foiling the Apaches, and Buffalo Bill’s Kiowa Foe; or, Buckskin Sam’s Red Hand. The man to his right, wearing now a wide-brimmed hat, fringed buckskin jacket, and pants tucked into black cavalry boots, would also star in his own series of dime novels, including one that most of the audience would read as a serial in the weeks following that night’s performance, but fate would rob him of the lasting fame of his friend and co-star Buffalo Bill or the notoriety of his old mentor “Wild Bill” Hickok.
That man, having patiently listened to minutes of Cody’s talk, now let loose a blood-curdling war-whoop and yelled “Injuns!” as ten Chicago supernumeraries dressed as natives appeared on stage. The three buckskin clad men fired blanks from their pistols, vanquishing with haste the red threat to the thunderous applause of the Chicago audience. Cody’s wife Louisa would write in her memoir that it was at this moment that her husband Bill Cody, who had been a Pony Express rider, a soldier, a hunter, and a scout became a star. “He was back at home now, with Texas Jack at his side, pulling the triggers of his six-shooter until the stage was filled with smoke, and until the hammers only clicked on exploded cartridges. They yelled. They shouted. They roared and banged away…”
Texas Jack, born John B. Omohundro, was as well-known at the time as his partner on stage and trail Buffalo Bill. The same readers that voraciously tore through the pages of Buffalo Bill stories were fascinated by the man that the dime novels called Texas Jack, the White King of the Pawnees but, unlike Buffalo Bill Cody, the name Texas Jack Omohundro has faded into the depths of history. His contributions to the lasting legacy of the American West, on the other hand, remain indelibly woven into the popular idea of the western hero; loyal and brave to a fault, lasso and revolver in hand, riding west into the setting sun. While his friend Buffalo Bill was renown as a fearless hunter and scout, Omohundro’s legacy as the first cowboy on the American stage remains fundamental to the mythologized western hero later introduced to the world by his friend Buffalo Bill and personified in the stories of his other friends Ned Buntline and Prentiss Ingraham, the books of authors like Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour, and the movies of actors like John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, and Clint Eastwood. If the idealized American man is the frontier cowboy, then the genesis of the American cowboy in popular culture is Texas Jack Omohundro.