Think you know about the American West? You don't know Jack.
When Texas Jack died 142 years ago on June 18th, 1880, he was the most famous cowboy in the world. When Jack and his best friend Buffalo Bill Cody launched the first western stage show in 1872, they had no idea they were creating the modern western. When they agreed to let Ned Buntline write stories about them a few years earlier, they had no idea they would become living legends. And when Texas Jack saved Buffalo Bill's life in a skirmish with Minniconjou Sioux warriors, neither man could have known that the world would be telling western stories inspired by that day a hundred and fifty years later.
A month shy of his 34th birthday when he died in the high Rocky Mountain town of Leadville, Colorado, Texas Jack had squeezed a lot of living into those years. An expert hunter and horseman by the time he was a teenager, Jack immediately volunteered to join his older brother on the front lines at the outbreak of the Civil War. Though he was initially turned down for service because of his young age, Jack volunteered as a courier for General Floyd and eventually became one of General JEB Stuart's most trusted scouts and spies, handing Stuart his final battlefield dispatch before he was mortally wounded at the Battle of Yellow Tavern. Jack continued to serve through the toughest years of the Civil War, ending his fighting at Appomattox by cutting through enemy lines to return home rather than waiting outside the courthouse while Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant.
After the war, Jack set off for Texas, riding cattle along the Chisholm Trail, Goodnight-Loving Trail, and trips to California, New Mexico, and Nebraska. Omohundro earned the nickname "Texas Jack" when he drove a herd across Indian territory to a drought-stricken and hungry post-war Tennessee. His cattle driving days led him to Hays City, Kansas, where he met and befriended California Joe Milner and marshal James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok. Hickok advised Omohundro to try his luck at Nebraska's Fort McPherson, where Jack met his future partner and best friend William "Buffalo Bill" Cody, a scout at the fort who quickly convinced the Army to bend their rules on hiring former Confederate soldiers and make Jack a scout.
Cody's instincts about Jack were quickly proven correct, as Texas Jack saved Buffalo Bill's life in a skirmish with Minniconjou on the Loupe Fork River in April of 1872, shooting a warrior who had just drawn a bead on his friend and firing just in time to ensure that warrior's bullet merely grazed Cody's scalp rather than ending his story before it began. For three years, Texas Jack and Buffalo Bill worked as scouts and hunters, leading parties of European aristocrats including the Earl of Dunraven and Grand Duke Alexis of Russia on elk and buffalo hunts.
Writer Ned Buntline convinced the pair to join him in Chicago for a play Buntline wrote called "The Scouts of the Prairie, and Red Deviltry As It Is!" Though neither were actors, they became huge stars, known throughout America and across the world. Jack soon married his costar and leading lady, the beautiful Italian ballerina Giuseppina Morlacchi, considered the greatest dancer in the world.
Jack's time was spent in two worlds, acting on the stages of the East and trekking across the West and exploring the wilds of Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana. He made several noted expeditions leading aristocrats into the new Yellowstone National Park and across the Wind River and Bighorn mountain ranges, scouted for the Army again after the defeat of Custer at the Little Bighorn, and wrote pieces for the Spirit of the Times magazine, detailing hunts, riding alongside the Pawnee, and running cattle on the Chisholm Trail.
Jack's lasting legacy was summed up in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper, which at the time of Jack's death was the most read paper in America:
"More refined than Wild Bill, more modest in asserting himself than Buffalo Bill, he stood on a plane above both, and though he recognized the fact that better fighters and better scouts than he were still content with the hardships of the prairies, he felt a superiority of education and a deep capacity of enjoyment that they could never attain…On the ranches of the far West, and occasionally among the rolling stone scouts, one finds genuine manhood, braced by intellect and backed by thorough-breeding."
Today we remember Texas Jack as the first cowboy of the American stage, the truth upon which all of the cowboy legends were built. If the idealized American man is the frontier cowboy, then the genesis of the American cowboy in popular culture is Texas Jack Omohundro. ______________________________
Texas Jack's story has never been fully told. Until now. Texas Jack: America's First Cowboy Star by Matthew Kerns tells the true story of the Virginia boy who became a Texas cattleman, of the Confederate spy who scouted for the US Army, of the cowboy who became a star. Julia Bricklin, author of The Notorious Life of Ned Buntline, calls it a "groundbreaking work [that] brings to light a lesser-known but vitally important figure in any history of American pop culture...Kerns meticulously reconstructs the fascinating—if sadly shortened—life of Texas Jack Omohundro. What emerges is the story of the man who actually was the driving force behind Buffalo Bill's decision to go into show business, and perhaps was too authentic to shine as brightly as Cody through the ages. Until now."
Texas Jack: America's First Cowboy Star by Matthew Kerns, available at:
Signed and inscribed first edition copies of the book, as well as the Wild West magazine with my Texas Jack cover story, are available at no additional charge at: