The Texas of Jack Omohundro
The state of Texas and Jack Omohundro were roughly the same age when he arrived there, and the influence of the Spanish, French, and now American control of the area had transformed it into the land of cattle the young man sought. Though the area had ostensibly been controlled by the Spanish during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the ever-present threat of French expansionism combined with a lack of material resources compared to Spain’s other colonial holdings meant that the Spanish crown had little impetus to develop the land that would eventually become Texas. A series of fifty missions were established to convert natives to Christianity, but persistent attacks by Comanche Indians riding from the Comancheria made supporting these missions prohibitively expensive. In 1761, French King Louis XV gifted his holdings west of the Mississippi River to Spain in order to precipitate the seizure of the area by British forces. Without the threat of French encroachment, Spain was even more reluctant to economically support the missions across the area.
When Mexico achieved its independence from Spain in 1821, the new government demanded that both civil and religious officials swear an oath to Mexico and deny their allegiance to the Spanish crown. Rather than take the oath, many of the missions decided to leave the auspices of the protection provided by the Mexican government. Unsure of their future, the men and women who inhabited the missions began to seek safety elsewhere, and the government became increasingly eager to bring immigrants to the region. In this endeavor, the Mexican government found an ally in an unlikely partner named Moses Austin.
Austin was born in 1761 in Connecticut and opened several dry goods stores with a brother before moving together to southwest Virginia to operate a lead mine. Though they were initially successful, the debts the brothers incurred eventually caused the collapse of the company they founded. Rather than face jail time for his debts, Mose moved to upper Spanish Louisiana in present-day Missouri to begin a new mining operation. In exchange for a league (4,428 acres) of land to mine, Austin swore loyalty to the Spanish crown and agreed to encourage other American families to settle in the area. His former mine and lands in Virginia were eventually purchased by Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase of 1803 meant that the land Mose Austin had been granted by the Mexican government was now under American jurisdiction. Austin founded the Bank of St. Louis, but the bank failed during the Panic of 1819 as a part of the first major peacetime financial crisis in the United States. Once again, Austin turned to Spain for help, approaching the government with a plan to colonize a different part of their holdings, Texas. The Governor of Spanish Texas, Antonio Maria Martinez, agreed, awarding Austin a land grant and permission to settle some three hundred American families there.
The agreement offered American settlers up to 277 acres if they agreed to farm. If they agreed to raise livestock in addition to farming, they were promised an additional 4,338 acres. The promise of 4,615 acres of their own land proved to be an irresistible draw. American settlers hastily agreed to the deal, which included one caveat; the new settlers would have to learn how the Mexicans raised livestock.
That livestock management on the scale available in Texas was new to the American way of thinking is made obvious in the language of the cattle ranch. The word ranch itself is derived from rancho, the Spanish word for farm. The word rodeo for the roundup, the corral to pen the animals in, chaps from the chaparreras worn for protection by the vaqueros, anglicized as buckaroos. Lassos (lazos) and lariats (la reatas) were used to control the animals, and the cowboy was anxious to avoid a stampede (estampida). To work the cattle, the cowboy rode his mustang, an anglicization of mesteño which means wild or untamed.
To ensure that they could control the cattle from horseback, settlers adopted the Spanish style saddle, with a large saddle horn on the pommel, allowing the lariat to be tied or dallied. Being a young man, as Omohundro was when he arrived in Texas, was not necessarily detrimental when faced with the challenges of working stock. Jack would later write that, “youth and size will be no disadvantage for his start in, as certain lines of the business are peculiarly adapted to the light young horsemen.”
To learn more about how the Mexian vaquero became the Texas cowboy, and how Texas Jack Omohundro made the cowboy famous, preorder your copy of the new book Texas Jack: America's First Cowboy Star by Matthew Kerns, coming April 1, 2021, wherever books are sold: https://www.dimelibrary.com/book