The Wild West. It is the fundamental mythology of the United States of America, the iconography and imagery we have chosen to tell the story of who we are as a people and as a country. It is a mythology so enduring that depictions of it stretch from the yellowed pages of dime novels written while the West was still being won to the controllers and keyboards of gamers playing Red Dead Redemption 2. On film, from Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery in 1903 through Jeymes Samuel’s The Harder They Fall in 2021, the splendor and danger of the American West has captivated the imagination of generations.
The iconic figures of the American West are just as familiar. There are such stalwart lawmen as Wild Bill Hickok and Wyatt Earp and the outlaws they faced, like Jesse James and Billy the Kid. There are gamblers like Doc Holliday, scouts like Buffalo Bill Cody, and warriors like Crazy Horse (Tasunke Witko) and Geronimo (Goyahkla). Such names—such men—have become more than historical figures, as fiction trumped fact and their legends were superimposed over their lives. Each was a real man, but in the telling and retelling of their tales they have taken on the status of folk heroes, as much Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill as William Frederick Cody or James Butler Hickok.
Yet when we take a step back from the individuals and the individual stories woven into the tapestry of the American West, a curious theme emerges. Picture a meeting of these great Western men. Standing there are the scout Buffalo Bill, the lawman Wild Bill, the gambler Doc Holliday and the outlaw Jesse James. How are they dressed? Is Wild Bill wearing a marshal’s hat? Does Jesse James have on outlaw boots? Of course not. The wide-brimmed Stetson shading their eyes from the sun is a cowboy hat, and on their feet are tall leather cowboy boots. If the great men of the American West weren’t cowboys, how did the cowboy become the single most iconic figure of the American Western?
The truth is there was a famous cowboy who stood beside these men in real life and whose legacy is just as enduring, though his name has been all but forgotten by the casual student of American history. In 1873, when Buffalo Bill convinced Wild Bill to join a traveling stage show called Scouts of the Plains, their co-star was a real-life cowboy named John Baker Omohundro. Friends called him “Texas Jack.” Born on July 27, 1846 in Fluvanna County, Va., Jack served as a Confederate courier and scout during the Civil War, for a time under vaunted cavalryman Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, before drifting west to Texas and the life of an open-range cowboy.
Onstage Cody and Hickok impressed crowds with tales of buffalo hunting on horseback and gunslinging in frontier towns, while in his baritone Virginia drawl Texas Jack thrilled with stories of wild stampedes and cattle rustlers. He entertained packed halls, auditoriums and theaters as he whirled his lasso overhead, the first to turn that tool of the cowboy trade into an object of entertainment for fascinated audiences. Texas Jack was the first cowboy to rise to prominence in the American popular imagination, and his stage persona provided the foundation on which the cowboy trope in literature and film would be built. To understand the impact of Texas Jack, and just how unlikely it was the open-range cowboy should achieve such status and permanence in American pop culture, we should reflect on the history of the cowboy, both the word and the profession.
For much of American history it was an insult to call a man a “cowboy.” During the American Revolution the term referred to British Loyalists who stole livestock from local farmers and delivered them to British troops. On Jan. 22, 1779, New Yorkers hanged Claudius Smith, alias “Cowboy of the Ramapos,” for his guerrilla raids after Governor George Clinton posted a $1,200 reward for his capture. The word cowboy remained unflattering as late as 1881, when San Francisco’s Daily Exchange deemed cowboys “the most reckless class of outlaws in that wild country…infinitely worse than the ordinary robber.” The editors were referring to the infamous Cowboys of Cochise County, an especially ruthless band of rustlers and outlaws then operating near Tombstone, Arizona Territory, whose criminal activities were curtailed by the Oct. 26, 1881, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and subsequent Earp Vendetta Ride.
The passage of time and other factors have shaped our present-day view of the cowboy. The mid-1880s saw the expansion of the cattle industry from Texas across the entire West. American businessmen and wealthy European investors built vast ranches, bought cattle and hired cowboys, leading to one of the biggest economic booms in history. Their investments provided a foundation for U.S. dominance of the world economy while simultaneously funding the development of cities and infrastructure across the West. Books like Owen Wister’s 1902 novel The Virginian began to mythologize the cowboy, and literary giants from Zane Grey to Louis L’Amour followed suit.
Hollywood gravitated to the cowboy and Western locations from its earliest films well into the late 20th century. Westerns dominated movie house screens following World War II, and cowboy stories dominated Westerns. Leading actors across multiple generations starred in Westerns, from William S. Hart and Tom Mix to John Wayne and James Stewart, Burt Lancaster and Clint Eastwood to Idris Elba and Benedict Cumberbatch.
After the devastating loss of both his mother and wife to illness on Valentine’s Day 1884, Theodore Roosevelt escaped west to start a cattle ranch north of Medora in what would soon become North Dakota. He was indelibly shaped by Western ranch life and the cowboys he befriended. Returning to Medora by train in 1900 on a campaign swing for incumbent President William McKinley, the vice presidential candidate told locals, “I had studied a lot about men and things before I saw you fellows, but it was only when I came here that I began to know anything or to measure men right.” It was Roosevelt’s time out West that would shape and refine the New York City boy into the “Cowboy President.” He wouldn’t be the last politician to exploit the cowboy image of rugged independence to improve his standing with American voters.
Film stars, authors and politicians aside, nobody has had more of an influence on the popular perception of the cowboy than one man—Buffalo Bill Cody. From its May 1883 inception as Cody & Carver’s Rocky Mountain and Prairie Exhibition (a short-lived partnership with sharpshooter William Frank “Doc” Carver) until Cody’s 1917 death, no entertainment was as prevalent or as successful as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. The imagery and iconography of Buffalo Bill are indelibly tied to the profession of the cowboy, the rare occupation Cody—messenger, scout, soldier, teamster, buffalo hunter, showman, town planner and hotel proprietor—never held. “Cody plowed his theatrical profits into ranching,” author Louis Warren explains in Buffalo Bill’s America, “but like most ranch owners, he was an absentee owner who was never a cowboy.”
Yet central to Cody’s vision of the Wild West, indeed the defining icon of the Western man, was the cowboy. For more than two decades the culminating act of the show was listed in the program as “Attack on a Settler’s Cabin by Hostile Indians. Repulse by Cow-boys, Under the Leadership of Buffalo Bill,” or similar wording. With civilization at stake and the fate of the emblematic family of white settlers on the line, the group of heroes riding to the rescue did not comprise professional soldiers but cowboys, of course led by Buffalo Bill. When Cody, who scouted for the military well before taking to the stage, rode into actual engagements with hostile Sioux or Cheyennes on the Great Plains and Dakota Territory hills, he did so in the company of trained soldiers, never cowboys. Why then did Cody present the cowboy as the savior of the settler—of civilization itself—from the threat of savagery?
The answer is the man Buffalo Bill would eulogize as “one of my dearest and most intimate friends”—Texas Jack Omohundro.
Texas Jack rode into Buffalo Bill’s life as a cowboy in 1869. Cody had been placed in charge of the government’s livestock at Fort McPherson, Neb., kept on the payroll between scouting assignments, when Omohundro rode into nearby North Platte trailing a few thousand head of Longhorns. The men were soon inseparable. They hunted together. They drank together. They scouted together. They even hung wallpaper in Cody’s North Platte home together. When Buffalo Bill spent long weeks away scouting for the 3rd U.S. Cavalry, Texas Jack stayed in a spare room at the Cody house to ensure the safety of Bill’s wife, Louisa, and their children. “Pards of the Plains for life” is how Cody defined their relationship.
On April 25, 1872, Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack set out from Fort McPherson in pursuit of Minneconjou raiders who the night before had stolen seven horses from nearby McPherson Station, on the Union Pacific Railroad. Guiding 46 troopers and an Army surgeon under the command of 3rd Cavalry Captain Charles Meinhold, they tracked the horse thieves. The next afternoon, after a brief skirmish on the Loupe Fork of the Platte River in which Buffalo Bill was injured and three warriors were killed, the party recovered two horses, while the surviving raiders escaped. In his after-action report Meinhold singled out four men for mention. The first were Sergeant John H. Foley, who “charged into the Indian camp without knowing how many enemies he might encounter,” and 1st Sgt. Leroy H. Vokes, “who bravely closed in upon an Indian while he was fired at several times and wounded him.” Next was Cody, whose “reputation for bravery and skill as a guide is so well established that I need not say anything else than but he acted in his usual manner.” The last was Omohundro, “a very good trailer and a brave man who knows the country well, and I respectfully recommend his employment as a guide should the service of one in addition to Mr. Cody be needed.” Cody, Foley and Vokes each received the Medal of Honor for “gallantry in action.” It is uncertain why Texas Jack did not, though his past service to the Confederacy might have given Meinhold pause.
Clippings from local papers expand on the day’s events. A reporter for the North Platte Democrat wrote that after Cody began firing at the Minneconjou raiders, “the remainder of the command, hearing the fire, came up at full jump—‘Texas Jack’ at the head.…[He] immediately let drive and brought his Indian down.…Beside enjoying the reputation of a ‘dead shot,’ he is well skilled in the ways of the red man, and we are glad to know that his services have been retained by the government.”
Cody also described the fight in his autobiography. “Two mounted warriors closed in on me and were shooting at short range,” he wrote. “I returned their fire and had the satisfaction of seeing one of them fall from his horse. At this moment I felt blood trickling down my forehead, and hastily running my hand through my hair I discovered that I had received a scalp wound.” Another paper picked up the action with rhetorical flourish. “[To Texas Jack] was Buffalo Bill indebted for his life,” it noted. “The red thieves were pursued and overtaken by Bill and Jack, who each killed an Indian. A third redskin had just drawn a bead on Bill, when Jack’s quick eye caught the gleam of the shining barrel, and the next instant ‘the noble red’ was on his way to the happy hunting ground, his passage from this sublunary sphere being expedited by a bullet from Jack’s rifle at a distance of 125 yards.”
If the latter account is to be believed, Texas Jack quite literally saved Buffalo Bill’s life that April afternoon. What is certain is that Omohundro was his best friend, the first man Cody telegrammed when the latter’s 5-year-old son, Kit Carson, died on April 20, 1876. For three years on the Nebraska prairie Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack rode, hunted, scouted and camped together. For four years on theatrical stages from Maine to Texas they appeared together in more than 550 performances, not counting matinees.
Onstage Texas Jack was the picture of the cowboy. His costume included the ever-present Stetson, tall black cavalry boots and a fringed buckskin jacket worn open to reveal the Lone Star of Texas emblazoned on his shirt. He carried a lasso, rifle, revolver and bowie knife, prepared for any danger that might come his way. More often than not that danger took the form of hostile Indian warriors. These captivating stage encounters—Texas Jack locked in deadly combat against a tomahawk-wielding brave—were the genesis of “cowboys and Indians” backyard games for generations to come.
The concept of cowboys fighting Indians on the outskirts of civilization is so firmly ingrained in the collective consciousness as to seem clichéd, but the reality of the cowboy stands in stark contrast with such romantic depictions in print and on-screen. By the time of the big Texas cattle drives of the late 1860s herders meticulously avoided conflict with Indians. After all, ranch owners entrusted them with the care of their valuable stock. Ensuring the safe conduct of their charges during transportation made cowboys more akin to present-day truck drivers than buckskin-clad knights. The era of cattle drives along the Chisholm Trail, Goodnight-Loving Trail and countless others lasted from 1866 until the 1890s when the expansion of rail lines and laying of hundreds of miles of barbed-wire fence rendered the job of open-range cowboy obsolete.
During those scant 30 years of cowboy primacy, swift streams swollen by rain, lightning strikes, falls from horseback and disease accounted for the majority of cowboy deaths. A cowboy was more likely to draw his gun on a farmer than a card sharp across a town square at high noon, and more likely to fire his rifle at a coyote than a Comanche raider. Dust and tedium were the rule of a cowboy’s work, as was enduring the worst of conditions to ensure top dollar for beef. Unlike the fiction, the real cowboy’s life was far from romantic. “By all rights,” Lonn Taylor wrote in The American Cowboy, “he should have joined the hunters of Kentucky, the whalers, the flatboatmen, the plainsmen and all of the other American types who briefly caught the popular imagination, were popularized on the stage and in song, and were then forgotten. But the open-range cowboy was never forgotten.”
The reason the cowboy endured while all those other professions were forgotten is that after the death of his cowboy friend Texas Jack, Buffalo Bill Cody refused to let the public forget. Once, a lone cowboy rode with Buffalo Bill across the prairies of Nebraska. Now, hundreds of cowboys followed his lead in the spectacle of the Wild West. Where once a single cowboy stood onstage and twirled his lasso, now a legion of men demonstrated cowboy skills for audiences worldwide. Buffalo Bill enshrined Texas Jack’s experience as a cowboy in show programs handed out to millions of men, women, and children visiting the Wild West at stops in cities across the United States and throughout Europe. From the inaugural performance in 1883 and in long stands at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1886–87, Queen Victoria’s 1887 Golden Jubilee in London and the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, Wild West programs contained a section titled simply “The Cow-Boy,” written by Texas Jack in the spring of 1877.
“The cow-boy!” began the piece that introduced the profession to so many eager spectators. “How often spoken of, how falsely imagined, how greatly despised (where not known), how little understood? I’ve been there considerable.” With descriptions of stampedes and storms, cowboys singing to restless steers at night and “cow sense,” Omohundro outlines a profession requiring the patience of Job and peopled by ambitious, adventurous and rebellious young men, “taught at school to admire the deceased little Georgie [Washington] in his exploring adventures, though not equaling him in the ‘cherry-tree goodness.’” Signing with a flourish as both J.B. Omohundro and Texas Jack, the author concludes on a wistful note:
How many, though, never finish, but mark the trail with their silent graves, no one can tell. But when Gabriel toots his horn, the “Chisholm Trail” will swarm with cow-boys. “Howsomever, we’ll all be thar,” let’s hope, for a happy trip when we say to this planet, adios!
In searching for an archetype of the kind of man Buffalo Bill—soldier, scout and buffalo hunter—would elevate above all other professions in his simulacrum of the real West, presented as absolute historical truth to huge audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, one need look no further than John Baker “Texas Jack” Omohundro, cowboy.
Perhaps the breadth of cowboy adventures in literature and on film can also be attributed to the well-publicized exploits of Texas Jack. Years before Lakota warriors traveled with the Wild West, Omohundro led the Pawnees on their 1872 penultimate summer buffalo hunt in Nebraska. Before Cody defiantly erected his tents opposite the exclusive 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Texas Jack set up a Western-themed hotel, saloon and shooting gallery opposite the 1876 Centennial International Exposition in Philadelphia. Before Cody and Doc Carver launched the Wild West extravaganza in 1883, Omohundro and Carver displayed their skills with rifle, pistol, and bow and arrow at a series of exhibitions in 1878.
If the life of the average cowboy was trail dust and tedium, Texas Jack’s was never short on excitement, adventure and romance. In 1873 he married his beautiful co-star “The Peerless” Giuseppina Morlacchi, an Italian-born prima ballerina who was among the most famous dancers of the era, having introduced the can-can to the American stage in 1868. In 1874 Texas Jack guided Anglo-Irish noble and adventurer the Earl of Dunraven through newly established Yellowstone National Park. Three years later he blazed a new trail into the park from the southeast and rescued tourists from marauding Nez Perces as the latter fled Army troops through the park. Jack led Western hunts for such aristocrats as Dunraven, Sir John Reid and Count Otto Franc, all significant figures in the coming boom of the American cattle industry. He scouted for Brig. Gen. Alfred Terry in pursuit of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull (Tatanka Iyotake) in the aftermath of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer’s June 25, 1876, defeat at the Little Bighorn (Greasy Grass). One night in 1878 Texas Jack surprised Thomas Edison in a Wyoming hotel, shooting a weather vane atop a freight depot from the window of Edison’s room to prove he was “the boss pistol-shot of the West.” It is little wonder it took scores of cowboys to replace this one man in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West.
“William Cody seldom spoke of death or of people who had died,” biographer Warren notes. “In all his correspondence there is barely a mention of any deceased friends or acquaintances. He wrote no poignant words about Wild Bill Hickok, Sitting Bull or [Wild West manager] Nate Salsbury. No matter how tragic their deaths, he seldom spoke of the loss.” But Buffalo Bill did write multiple dime novels about his late cowboy friend Texas Jack. Omohundro, stricken with pneumonia, died in the high Rocky Mountain town of Leadville, Colo., on June 28, 1880, a month shy of his 34th birthday. On Sept. 5, 1908, almost three decades after Texas Jack’s death, Cody gathered the cast and crew of the Wild West around Omohundro’s grave in Leadville’s Evergreen Cemetery. There he delivered an impassioned eulogy for the man he called “one of my dearest and most intimate friends…one of the original Texas cowboys, when life on the plains was a hardship and a trying duty.” Buffalo Bill purchased the permanent gravestone that marks the Texas Jack’s final resting place.
Nearly a decade later, on Jan. 6, 1917, an ailing Cody rode through Leadville for the final time on a return visit from Glenwood Springs to Denver. Too weak to leave his train car, he sat up in bed when told he was in Leadville, telling his daughter about the grave of Texas Jack, his friend and partner. Four days later Buffalo Bill was dead.
Few men are truly remembered in the way the world remembers Buffalo Bill. Yet Americans largely forgot about Texas Jack Omohundro, the cowboy who first popularized the profession and introduced the lasso to the stage, and whose description of his life on the open range spoke to millions of spectators from programs handed out at each stop of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. Americans recall the names of the legendary lawmen and outlaws, of the braves and bandits, the soldiers and the scouts, but we forgot the name of our most important open-range cowboy. Americans forgot, but Buffalo Bill remembered. And because Buffalo Bill remembered Texas Jack, the world remembers the American cowboy. WW
This article, published in the April 2022 Wild West, received the 2023 Western Heritage Award for best magazine article from the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. Matthew Kerns, who writes from Chattanooga, Tenn., is a historian, web developer and digital archivist who manages the Texas Jack Omohundro Facebook page and has written many articles about Texas Jack. His 2021 book Texas Jack: America’s First Cowboy Star is recommended for further reading, along with Buffalo Bill’s America: William Cody and the Wild West Show, by Louis S. Warren, and The Notorious Life of Ned Buntline: A Tale of Murder, Betrayal and the Creation of Buffalo Bill, by Julia Bricklin.