Friday, May 28, 2021

Texas Jack--Scout, Cowboy, and Actor

John Baker Omohundro, also known by some as John Burwell Omohundro, was born July 26, 1846 in Palmyra on the Pleasure Hill farm in Fluvanna County, Virginia, to John Burwell and Catherine Baker Omohundro of Anglo-American ancestry. He attended grammar school in Fluvanna. At an early age, he demonstrated a strong skill in hunting and fishing.

Also known as "Texas Jack", he was an American frontier scout, actor, and cowboy. He served in the Confederacy during the American Civil War and, later, as a civilian scout for the US Army during the Indian Wars. Before his untimely death, Texas Jack became a legendary figure in the American Old West as a Western showman performing dramas on the stage throughout the country. He became a world-renowned hero in dime novels published around the world.

At the start of the American Civil War, Omohundro attempted to join his older brother, Orville, in the Confederate Army. He was twice refused for his age, but was allowed to serve as a courier at the headquarters of the Virginia Militia under Major General John B. Floyd. Because of his youth and knowledge of the countryside, he became known as the "Boy Scout of the Confederacy". In February 1864, at the age of 17, he successfully enlisted as a private in Company G of the 5th Virginia Cavalry, part of the Army of Northern Virginia. He soon served directly in General J.E.B. Stuart's command as a courier and scout. At the Battle of Yellow Tavern, he delivered a scouting report to Stuart only minutes before the general was killed in battle. During the Battle of Trevilian Station, Omohundro was wounded and admitted to the Confederate States General Hospital in Charlottesville on June 20, 1864. After recovering from his injuries, and a short leave home, he returned to his company and scouted under the command of General Lunsford L. Lomax. Following the Third Battle of Winchester,  the 5th Virginia Cavalry was consolidated with the 15th Virginia Cavalry, where Omohundro scouted under General Fitzhugh Lee during the last months of the war.

After the Civil War, Omohundro left Virginia at age 19 for Florida. After a short time, he moved on to Texas, arriving at the Taylor Ranch near Brazos, where he began working as a cowboy participating in cattle drives, notably on the Chisholm Trail, driving herds north to railheads in Kansas. After one drive across Arkansas to a meat-poor Tennessee, he was given nickname "Texas Jack" by the locals.

On another drive, Omohundro found a five-year-old boy orphaned after a Native American raid killed his family. He took the boy to safety in Fort Worth, and the boy later took the name Texas Jack Jr. in homage, going on to run the Texas Jack's Wild West Show and Circus in 1903 in South Africa.

It may have been on one of those drives that he made the decision to relocate once again, moving first to Fort Hays, Kansas, and then to the North Platte, Nebraska, area. Drawing on his past experience, including time spent as a scout during the Civil War, Omohundro picked up odd jobs scouting, hunting and guiding.

In 1869, Texas Jack moved to Fort Hays, Kansas, where he met California Joe Milner and Wild Bill Hickok, the latter being sheriff of Ellis County at the time. Later that year, Jack met and befriended William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody, who was working with the 5th U.S. Cavalry at Fort McPherson. Jack was hired as a scout and trail guide during the Indian Wars. Special permission had to be obtained since the U.S. government did not generally permit the employment of ex-Confederate soldiers. During the Battle of Summit Springs, Texas Jack captured his well-known white horse from Indian Chief Tall Bull. Texas Jack moved to Cottonwood Springs, Nebraska, where he continued to work as a scout for the government.

In 1869, Texas Jack met William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody, who was also scratching out a living scouting, hunting and guiding. They became fast friends, scouting together for the Army and engaging in hunts. Texas Jack made a lucrative living leading hunting expeditions for American and foreign parties, which were popular at the time. 

Custer, Grand Duke Alexei, and Cody

Together with Cody, Texas Jack led the highly publicized royal hunt of 1872 with Grand Duke Alexei of Russia and several American military figures, including General Philip Sheridan, General George Armstrong Custer, and Colonel James W. Forsyth. Later in 1874, Texas Jack guided the Earl of Dunraven though Yellowstone and Geyserland. In 1876, Texas Jack led Sir John Rea Reid and his party on a hunt around the Bighorn Mountains and Sweetwater country. 

Texas Jack points at Cody, who reclines in front of Buntline

In December 1872, Omohundro and Cody debuted the first Wild West show, Scouts of the Prairie, written and produced by Ned Buntline. Dime novelist, Ned Buntline, wrote the play in four hours. It debuted in Chicago.

Texas Jack's performance was well-received by critics and featured the first rope act performed on the American stage.

Ned Buntline, Buffalo Bill Cody, Giuseppina Morlacchi, Texas Jack Omohundro

The show starred Giuseppina Morlacchi, a dancer and actress from Milan, Italy. She was the same age as Texas Jack and Buffalo Bill. She became a classically trained dancer, traveling throughout Europe. She moved to the United States at age 21 to perform in the theater circuit with her Morlacchi Ballet Troupe, making her American ballet debut in 1867. She introduced the can-can to the country the following year. A fine actress as well, she was soon appearing in the major cities of the American Northeast. Just weeks before his buffalo hunting expedition with Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack, the Grand Duke Alexis saw Morlacchi on stage. Buntline also saw her and recruited her to join his new play, Scouts of the Prairie.

Giuseppina did not come alone to the United States. She was accompanied by her manager of five years, John Burke, who was smitten by her. He had presented her with rings and was planning on settling down with her in a house in Lowell, Massachusetts. Those dreams ended when she met Texas Jack. For the Virginian and the Italian, it was love at first sight. She returned the rings to John Burke and pledged herself to John Omohundro. Heartbroken, Burke wore the rings and never married. Instead of devoting his life to her or to any another woman, he spent it instead promoting his new friend Buffalo Bill. It was a task he pursued until Cody's death.

With Scouts of the Prairie's combination of the two well-known scouts with the lovely and talented Morlacchi, the 1872-73 season of the road show was a resounding success. 

The relationship between Morlacchi and Omohundro was also a success; Texas Jack and she fell in love and were married on August 31, 1873, at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Rochester, New York.

Bill Hickok, Texas Jack, Bill Cody

Texas Jack and Buffalo Bill pose with their friend "Wild Bill" Hickok. Hickok joined them onstage in the play Scouts of the Plains in 1873-74.

The following year Texas Jack, Morlacchi and Buffalo Bill struck out on their own with a new play, Scouts of the Plains, and a new co-star, their friend Wild Bill Hickok.

In 1873, Buntline left, and Texas Jack's friend, Wild Bill Hickok, joined the group to headline in a new play called Scouts of the Plains. Hickok did not enjoy acting, often hiding behind scenery, and in one show, he shot the spotlight when it focused on him. He decided he preferred gambling. He was the first to leave the show mid-season.

Desiring a lighter tour schedule, the Omohundros parted amicably with Buffalo Bill Cody in 1876 to create their own troupe, re-enacting scenes from the West on stage. In 1877, he formed his own acting troupe in St. Louis, known as the Texas Jack Combination featuring Morlacchi, Arizona John Burke, Modoc War scout Donald McKay, trick-shot Maud Oswald, and several Sweetwater and Warm Spring Indians. In May of that year, he debuted Texas Jack in the Black Hills, written by Harry Seymour, to rave reviews. Other plays the combination performed included The Trappers Daughter, Life on the Border, and The French Spy.

Texas Jack & Guiseppina 

The Texas Jack Combination was successful for Giuseppina Morlacchi and Texas Jack. They happily toured together for the next several years, with periods of relaxation at the Massachusetts home once desired by John Burke. They continued to perform separately as well.

In 1878, Texas Jack appeared with Dr. W. F. "Doc" Carver, a dentist turned exhibition shooter who he met several years earlier in North Platte, Nebraska. Five years later Carver joined forces with Buffalo Bill to create Buffalo Bill's Wild West.

Beadles Dime Novel

Texas Jack became a popular subject of the dime novels of the late 19th century. One of the first in which he was featured was the 1872 title, Texas Jack; or The White King of the Pawnees, written by Ned Buntline. Texas Jack's popularity grew as he was featured on covers by publishers including Beadle's New York Dime Library, the Nickle Library, Log Cabin Library, DeWitt's Ten Cent, Street and Smith, and others. Many of these stories were written by the prolific author Prentiss Ingraham. Omohundro wrote articles in newspapers across the country recalling his hunting and scouting stories, and is credited as having authored one dime novel for Beadle and Adams in 1876 titled Ned Wylde, the Boy Scout.

Texas Jack and Morlacchi settled in Massachusetts with a home in downtown Lowell and a small farm in Billerica. In the spring of 1880, after several performances in the region, the couple decided to take their show business career to the silver-mining town of Leadville, Colorado, for a series of performances. There, Omohundro became acquainted with Horace Tabor and briefly joined Tabor's Light Cavalry, a local militia formed to keep order in the newly founded town. The couple decided to stay in the Rocky Mountain West rather than return to Massachusetts.

A few months after arriving, Texas Jack contracted a cold, which developed into pneumonia, and he died weeks later on June 28, 1880. The funeral was well-attended, and he was given full military honors, with several military companies in attendance firing a three-volley salute as his flag-draped coffin was lowered into the ground. His final resting place is Evergreen Cemetery in Leadville.

The grave of Texas Jack in Evergreen Cemetery

Shortly after Texas Jack's death, grief stricken Giuseppina Morlacchi departed for their Massachusetts home in Lowell. She never returned to the stage. She died of cancer six years later.

After several years, the grave fell into disrepair, and a traveling group of comedians raised funds to provide for its upkeep. In 1908, while passing through Leadville, Cody visited the cemetery and commissioned a granite grave marker for his old friend, mistakenly listing Texas Jack's age as 39 years.

In 1980, the Texas Jack Association was formed to preserve and promote Texas Jack's memory.

In 1994, Texas Jack Omohundro was inducted into the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in the Hall of Great Western Performers.


In only one source did I find reference to another incident in Texas Jack's life. Evidently, during his 1878 exhibition tour with "Doc" Carver, he ended up in Rawlins, Wyoming. He was there at the same time that Thomas Edison and a slew of astronomers,. scientists, and newsmen descended on the small railroad town in mid-July to prepare for the upcoming total solar eclipse expected to take place July 29, 1878.

The following was how Thomas A. Edison described his stay:

"There were astronomers from nearly every nation. We had a special car. The country at that time was rather new; game was in great abundance, and could be seen all day long from the car window, especially antelope. We arrived at Rawlins about 4 P.M. It had a small machine shop, and was the point where locomotives were changed for the next section. The hotel was a very small one, and by doubling up we were barely accommodated. My room-mate was Fox, the correspondent of the New York Herald.

"After we retired and were asleep a thundering knock on the door awakened us. Upon opening the door a tall, handsome man with flowing hair dressed in western style entered the room. His eyes were bloodshot, and he was somewhat inebriated. He introduced himself as `Texas Jack'--Joe Chromondo--[sic] and said he wanted to see Edison, as he had read about me in the newspapers. Both Fox and I were rather scared, and didn't know what was to be the result of the interview. The landlord requested him not to make so much noise, and was thrown out into the hall. Jack explained that he had just come in with a party which had been hunting, and that he felt fine. He explained, also, that he was the boss pistol-shot of the West; that it was he who taught the celebrated Doctor Carver how to shoot. Then suddenly pointing to a weather-vane on the freight depot, he pulled out a Colt revolver and fired through the window, hitting the vane. The shot awakened all the people, and they rushed in to see who was killed. It was only after I told him I was tired and would see him in the morning that he left. Both Fox and I were so nervous we didn't sleep any that night.

"We were told in the morning that Jack was a pretty good fellow, and was not one of the `bad men,' of whom they had a good supply…."


Although it did not move my plot along, I thought this scene was too good to pass up. I included a fictionalized version in my book, Mail Order Blythe. Blythe and her roommate view this scene from the top of the stairs that led to their attic room.


To find the book description and purchase link for Mail Order Blythe, please CLICK HERE.








1 comment:

Julie Lence said...

What a grand life he led. Thank you for sharing, Zina!