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  • Matthew Kerns

We Were All Cowboys

I recently came across a poem I wrote somewhere back in the mid 90s:

We were cowboys in our childhood. Indians in the weed-grown lawns Pirates between the fences Only the trees remember those days When puddles were oceans we sailed upon Boxes were cars or planes The stumps became our forts And the night our favorite place to play


The author, sometime in the early 80s.

Playing "Cowboys and Indians" in the back yard was a ubiquitous part of my childhood. Sometimes we were all cowboys and sometimes we were all Indians. Even when I grew up, I never stopped to wonder why we played cowboys and Indians. No one taught it to us. Our parents didn't ever suggest it to us. It must have been passed down for a hundred years, with young children learning it the older ones and teaching it as they grew older.

The author (left) with a fellow Dirt Pile Gang member circa 1984.

The history of "Cowboys and Indians" as a childhood game goes back years. Newspaper mentions were usually associated with accidents that happened as a result of the game, like this one from Bradford, Vermont, in 1897:

Or this awful incident from Warren, Pennsylvania, in October of 1906:

It didn't occur to me until much later that "Cowboys and Indians" is grossly inaccurate, historically speaking. The era of the trail-driving cowboy was relatively short and by that time Native tribes had been decimated by disease and largely confined to reservations. Passages across Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma—which was between the cattle herds in Texas and the rail towns in Kansas—were well secured, and ranchers paid a small fee to ensure safe passage to various tribes. With a handful of exceptions, cowboys and Native Americans didn't get into fights, and certainly not to any greater extent than cowboys and homesteaders, cowboys and lawmen, or cowboys and other cowboys. When Sioux or Comanche or Cheyenne or Apache people fought with Americans at all, it was with soldiers. So why didn't we play "Cowboys and Soldiers?" Why didn't some of us march in orderly lines as the rest whooped and hollered and brandished sticks we pretended were tomahawks?

Author (left) and his brother sometime in the mid 1980s.

The short reason is because of Buffalo Bill Cody. Cody's Wild West was the premier entertainment from 1883 until Cody's death in 1917, and the main way that people, both in America and abroad, learned about the American West. I talked more extensively about how Cody, an absentee ranch owner who never spent time as a cowboy, became associated with cowboys in this article, but suffice it to say that Cody was casting a whole group of former cowboys as Texas Jack Omohundro, who was Buffalo Bill's scouting partner, best friend, and earliest costar. At the end of Cody's show he rushed to fight a group of Indians with his band of Texas Jack stand-in cowboys and children ran home to imitate what they saw:

Maybe the children playing Cowboys and Indians in 1908 knew who Buffalo Bill Cody was, but I didn't when I was playing with my brothers and the group of neighborhood kids my Dad dubbed "The Dirt Pile Gang," and neither did any of the other members of the gang. We just knew that some of us were cowboys and some of us were Indians, just like our parents knew it, and just like their parents knew it because their parents saw Buffalo Bill show them it was the truth. Back in 2016, I started writing a book. Originally I thought it would be a novel about the time Buffalo Bill Cody (who I had learned about after my own cowboys and Indians days were over), Wild Bill Hickok, and Texas Jack Omohundro starred in a Broadway play in 1873. I started researching and discovered that though many people remembered the Bills—Buffalo and Wild—there wasn't a whole lot of information on Texas Jack. There was one book on him from 1954, but it seemed like it left a lot out, and it turns out it was about half of the story. So instead of writing a novel on the trio known as the Scouts of the Plains, I found myself writing a biography of Texas Jack. Sometime after my first draft I realized that though my facts were right, my story was all wrong. I was writing about Texas Jack, but not about the truth of Mr. Omohundro—that through his life, his stage persona, and his friendship with Bill Cody he had inspired every depiction of cowboys from Owen Wister to Louis L'amour, from Tom Mix to Clint Eastwood, from John Wayne to the Dirt Pile Gang playing in our backyard.

The author (right with charming mustache) with his father and brother, sometime in the early 1980s.

I got the news this week that my book has been moved into the copyediting phase with my publisher, Two Dot, and that we're on track to release the book next April. So if you've ever wondered why you grew up playing Cowboys and Indians, I've got a long and detailed answer for you. If you like learning about American history, or you enjoy a decent read, or you think the world's most famous cowboy marrying the world's most famous ballerina sounds like a yarn too good to be true, well then I've got a story to tell you this April. It's called Texas Jack: America's First Cowboy Star (it's on Amazon, so it must be real), and I hope you enjoy it.


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