Early Life

 

John Baker Omohundro was born July 27, 1846 at "Pleasure Hill," the family home near Palmyra in Fluvanna County, Virginia. It is said that he was not very fond of the schoolroom, to which he had to ride five miles on horseback each way, and was known to "play hooky" upon occasion, arriving home at night with a long string of fish, which he had, somehow "miraculously obtained" during the day. From early youth he was a natural born fisherman, huntsman, horseman and "crack" shot who loved adventure, danger and the great outdoors.

Note: Texas Jack's middle name has sometimes been reported as "Burwell," but his name and birth are recorded in the family Bible as "Baker," his mother's maiden name.

The War Between The States

When the war between the states broke out, Jack's older brother Orville joined the Confederate army as a lieutenant under the command of Col. J.E.B Stuart. Jack, then 14, immediately volunteered his services but was, to his great disappointment, denied because of his age. After several attempts, he was finally accepted into the army when he was l6 and was assigned to his brother's regiment.

Jack quickly gained renown as a scout of ability and bravery, working directly under Stuart, and was soon to be widely known as the "Boy Scout of the Confederacy." Many times he would act as a spy moving among the Union troops as a chicken peddler or some other kind of tradesman obtaining information about the enemy. Little was he to know that within the next 10 years his best friends and saddle-mates would be former Union soldiers.

 

Texas Cowboy

 

After the war, Jack heard about the great ranches in Texas with their wealthy owners and decided that this was the place for him! Starting out by ship, he reached New Orleans but the ship encountered a storm and he became shipwrecked on the west coast of Florida. Jack stayed there and hunted and taught school. He struck out again for Texas, but this time on horseback.

 

Jack stopped at a ranch owned by a man named Taylor and was hired on as a cowboy. He soon became head of the ranch, which was said to be the largest in Texas. Not long after his employment there Jack, by chance, learned of a conspiracy planned by a gang of seven men to kidnap for ransom a local woman named Mrs. Sophie Elgin. Arranging a little "surprise party" for them, it was Jack who awaited the kidnappers at her house and his rifle took care of them when they tried to break down the door with a ram. A very grateful Mrs. Elgin was, after that, a staunch friend of Jack's

Jack began to make considerable money driving cattle from Texas to Nebraska and Missouri. It is unknown how many times he followed the famous Chisholm Trail to Abilene, Kansas and its railroad heading east.

One day, he came upon a pioneer home which had recently been ransacked by hostile Indians. Although the father and mother had been slain, Jack found a four or five year old boy hiding under the floorboards. Jack took the boy to Fort Worth, where he was placed in good hands. This boy went on in later life to be a showman in his own right, and used the name "Texas Jack Jr." in homage to his rescuer. While Texas Jack Jr. was touring with his Wild West show in South Africa, he happened to hire a young man by the name of Will Rogers. Texas Jack Jr. taught him how to do lasso tricks and Will Rogers later regarded his association with Texas Jack, Jr. as one of the most important periods of his life.

In the late 1860's, there occurred a terrible drought in the state of Tennessee. Many people were starving, and because of almost negligible transportation facilities, supplies were virtually impossible to get. Hearing of this situation, Jack decided that he could do something to help alleviate the problems for the people of Tennessee, and at the same time, make some money for himself.

He rounded up a large herd of cattle, enlisted a contingent of cowboys, and investing all his available capital in the venture, set off for Tennessee. The route, which went through rugged wilderness, was a very difficult and dangerous one. During the trip, several bands of hostile Indians were encountered and, in one surprise attack, seven of his cowboys were killed and many head of cattle were lost.

Within weeks however, the inhabitants of a small town in Tennessee were very happily surprised when they learned that a herd of cattle was being driven their way. Their appreciation was expressed by a rousing welcome for the drivers. Asking who was in charge of the cattle, the town officials were surprised to see a pleasant young man approaching.

"Where ya from?" asked one.

"From Texas, sir," came the reply.

"What's the name," called out another.

"Jack, sir," was the only answer.

"Texas Jack, eh?" came a rejoinder from one of the crowd, only to be caught up by loud cheers from the townspeople:

"Hurrah for Texas Jack!"

Thus does a newspaper account at the time of his death, record how J.B. Omohundro came by the nickname of "Texas Jack"— a name that was to follow him the rest of his life.

U.S. Army Scout

On one of his trips driving cattle to Nebraska, Jack met Col. William F. Cody, a scout in the U.S. Army at Fort McPherson. Col. Cody (more popularly known as "Buffalo Bill") and Jack became best friends. Bill, admiring Jack's ability as a horseman, hunter and marksman, induced him to stay at Fort McPherson as an army scout. The U.S. government had a policy of not hiring ex-Confederate soldiers, so Bill took matters into his own hands and appealed to the Secretary of War. It is said that Congress had to pass a special act to permit him to enlist Texas Jack as a U.S. Government Scout.

Jack, having for many years, ridden the mountain plains and prairies, sleeping in his saddle and associating with the Indians, learning their language and signs, was one of the few white men at the time to earn their trust. He

 

was particularly popular with the Pawnees who called him their "White Chief", and also dubbed him "Whirling Rope" due to his amazing dexterity with a lasso. One can imagine why he was indispensable as a scout for the U.S. Government.

As scouts at the fort, Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack conducted hunts for visiting European and English nobility. The Earl of Dunraven, in his book The Great Divide, wrote about his adventures and experiences hunting in Yellowstone and other areas of the great Northwest. He would have no other guide accompany him on his American hunting trips except Texas Jack. He described Texas Jack as follows: "If Buffalo Bill belongs to the school of Charles I, pale, large-eyed and dreamy, Jack, all life and blood and fire, blazing with suppressed poetry, is Elizabethan to the backbone."

 

The Earl relates an occasion of their meeting in Salt Lake City (then called Deseret): "Jack is a tall, straight, and handsome man, and in walking through the well-watered streets of Deseret in his company, I felt the same proud conscious glow that pervades the white waistcoat of the male debutante when, for the first time, he walks down St. James Street, arm in arm with the best dressed and most fashionable man about town. It was obvious to all that I was on terms of equality with a great personage, and on that account cigars were frequent and drinks free."

STAGE STAR: "SCOUTS OF THE PRAIRE"

In 1872, Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack met in Chicago with dime novelist Ned Buntline and decided to accept his proposal to bring to the eastern stage a taste of the adventures which they experienced on the western prairies as scouts.

In his autobiography, Buffalo Bill described the opening night of the play as follows:

"The Scouts of the Prairie was an Indian drama, of course, and there were between forty and fifty "supers" dressed as Indians. In the fight with them, Jack and I were at home. We blazed away at each other with blank cartridges, and when the scene ended in a hand-to-hand encounter, a general knock-down and drag-out, the way Jack and I killed Indians was "a caution." We would kill them all off in one act, but they would come up again ready for business in the next. Finally, the curtain dropped, the play was ended, and I congratulated Jack and myself on having made such a brilliant and successful debut."

 

In 1872, Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack met in Chicago with dime novelist Ned Buntline and decided to accept his proposal to bring to the eastern stage a taste of the adventures which they experienced on the western prairies as scouts.

In his autobiography, Buffalo Bill described the opening night of the play as follows:

"The Scouts of the Prairie was an Indian drama, of course, and there were between forty and fifty "supers" dressed as Indians. In the fight with them, Jack and I were at home. We blazed away at each other with blank cartridges, and when the scene ended in a hand-to-hand encounter, a general knock-down and drag-out, the way Jack and I killed Indians was "a caution." We would kill them all off in one act, but they would come up again ready for business in the next. Finally, the curtain dropped, the play was ended, and I congratulated Jack and myself on having made such a brilliant and successful debut."

Boston Journal, March 4, 1872:

"...The play of itself is an extraordinary production with more wild Indians, scalping knives and gun powder to the square inch than any drama ever before heard of...The chief interest, however, settles in the performances of the Hon. W.F. Cody (Buffalo Bill) and Mr. J.B. Omohundro (Texas Jack). Two finer specimens of manly strength and beauty were never seen on the stage or off the stage."

Richmond Enquirer, May 15, 1873:

"Ned Buntline and his two confreres, Cody and Omohundro, better known as "Buffalo Bill" and "Texas Jack" with their "Live Indians," drew another good house...The way the Scouts handle their navy revolvers is the main secret of their success...the handsome appearance made by these two gentlemen.. represent in a measure, real scenes of which they have been the actual heroes..."

Norfolk Journal, May 18, 1873:

"Buffalo Bill, Texas Jack, Ned Buntline and their "Ingins" filled the Opera House last night with one of the largest audiences ever assembled within its walls. The crowning piece of the night, that which excited the juveniles to the wildest demonstrations of delight, was Ned Buntline's famous blood and thunder drama of The Scouts of the Prairie...whenever Texas Jack and Buffalo Bill appeared on the stage, the audience cheered and applauded lustily...Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack are fine looking men, and have that certain daredevil look and manner that we have always been led to attribute to the western hunters and scouts. The performance was in every way worthy of the fame of the gentlemen who conduct it."

Jack thoroughly enjoyed his acting career, and in fact, it is thought by some that he held the act together. Herschel Logan states in his book, Buckskin and Satin:

"Had it not been for the steadying influence of Texas Jack upon Buffalo Bill during that first season, it is doubtful whether or not Cody would have kept on in the show business. It seems to be the consensus of students of history around North Platte, Cody's old home, that to Texas Jack should go a major share of the credit for Buffalo Bill's continuing on the stage. They base this belief on the fact that many times during the first year Cody was ready to throw the whole business of acting overboard, but was persuaded otherwise by his friend, Texas Jack, who was enjoying this new experience and who seemed to have had a leveling control upon the noted scout."

During the 1873-74 season, "Wild Bill" Hickok joined the scouts in a new play which they called Scouts of the Plain. Cody, in his autobiography, relates the following:

"Thinking that Wild Bill would be quite an acquisition to the troupe, we wrote him at Springfield, Missouri, offering him a large salary if he would play with us that winter. He was doing nothing at the time, and we thought that he would like to take at trip through the States, as he had never been east. Wild Bill accepted our offer, and came on to New York, though he told us from the start that we could never make an actor out of him."

Hickok was indeed rather unenthusiastic about life as an actor, and stayed with the play only one season. When he departed from the combination, Omohundro and Cody each gave him $500 and a fine pistol, biding him to "make good use of it among the Reds," and he headed back to where he really belonged - the west.

Dime Novel Hero

Texas Jack was made famous during the late 1800's and early 1900's not only because of his career on the stage but as the hero of many "dime novels" which were popular at the time. Many of his true-to-life adventures were fictionalized in those exciting little books.

An article in the New York Times Magazine of January 4, 1931 states,

"He was the Mustang King - The Conqueror of Cayuses without a rival. Horses came to him on the end of a lariat, and when he chose the wrong one in the dark, he could not coax it to go home. He was a Knight in Silvered Sombrero, defender of women, subduer of bullies...He fought Comanches by the tribe—and put them to death or flight. He led cavalry to the rescue of wagon trains. He saved officers' ladies from prairie fires...He had a heart so soft that it never failed the innocent and the friendless.

 

In the words of another writer, Texas Jack "...is a pleasant man who made friends easily, a man with a smile and a joke for all, but very dangerous when his anger was aroused."

Is it any wonder then that all of these traits, together with his many exciting exploits in the wilderness, made fine copy for the dime novelist? One such experience took place when Jack was at Fort McPherson:

 

Caught alone one day, many miles from the fort, the whole hostile Comanche tribes surrounded Jack and cut off escape. The Indians, well familiar with his ability with the rifle, did not attack even though they knew he was alone, but tried to starve him out. After several days, Jack decided to make the attack himself and ordered his horse to lie down as he had been trained to do.

As the Indians began advancing on him, he took a position behind his horse and opened repeating rifle fire over the horses back. Every shot brought down a Redskin. The others retreated, then started at him from the rear. Jack just turned his horse around and repeated the demonstration of marksmanship. Having thus dispersed the Indians, he got on his horse and rode back to the fort unharmed, where he had been given up for lost. Needless to say, he was joyfully met by the inhabitants of the fort who greeted him with delight.

 

Buckskin & Satin:
Jack In Love

While appearing on the stage in Chicago Jack first met Josephine Morlacchi, a dancer and an actress from Italy. Josephine Morlacchi is reputed to have introduced the highly popular "can-can" dance to American audiences. At that time, Morlacchi was playing the part of Dove Eye in "Scouts of the Prairie" and during the months the company was on the road, the two were often seen together strolling down the street or dining together before or after the show. They were married on Sept. 1, 1873.

The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle published this announcement of their marriage:

"Last winter fortune decreed that the charming and famous danseuse, Mlle. Morlacchi, and John B. Omohundro, known through the country as "Texas Jack," should meet in the city of Chicago. It proved to be a case of love at first sight. The fair actress immediately took a liking to the gallant scout of the prairies, the renowned Indian fighter and buffalo hunter. The affection ripened, until it took the form of a declaration of love on the part of Mr. Omohundro, which resulted yesterday in a ceremony which made the twain one. Our citizens who have been delighted for the past fortnight with the graceful acting of Mlle Morlacchi need no description of her personal appearance.

 

For the benefit of outsiders, however, we may say that she is a native of Italy, and was born in Milan, about twenty-five years ago. Like most of her countrywomen, she is a brunette, whose personal beauty is heightened by a grace of manner that is unsurpassed. She is a highly educated lady and such as have been fortunate enough to gain her personal acquaintance are loud in their praises of her accomplishments and character.

The man of her choice is a magnificent specimen of physical manhood. He is about six feet in height and of the finest proportions. A native of Virginia, born in 1846, the blood of Powhatan flows in his veins, and the aquiline nose, jet black hair, erect form, and piercing eye of that famed warrior are reproduced in the gallant 'Texas Jack.'"

Theirs was to be a bittersweet love story, for neither of them could have foreseen that their idyllic marriage was destined to end less than seven years later with Jack's tragic death at age 33 in the silver boomtown of Leadville, nestled high in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.

Josephine never recovered from her grief and was not to appear on the stage again retiring in seclusion to their home in Massachusetts.  There, despite many calls for her return to the stage, she refused, instead offering dance lessons to the mill working girls of Lowell.  Giuseppina Morlacchi, called "The Peerless" by newspaper critics in both Europe and America, died in Lowell at the age 39 of stomach cancer.

Untimely Death

Tragically, Texas Jack died at age 33. He and his wife were residing in Leadville in the spring of 1880 when he became ill with a bad cold. From Buckskin and Satin biographer, Herschel C. Logan.

After all, what was a mere cold to one who had endured all sorts of exposures and was accustomed to the vicissitudes of frontier life. It was only upon the insistent urgings of his devoted wife and of his friend Major T. C. Howard, at whose home they were living at the time, that he finally consented to take to his bed, firmly convinced that in a day or so he would be back to normal. Such was not to be, for in the delay the cold had turned into pneumonia and that into quick consumption. In spite of all the skilled physicians, headed by Dr. Henry Cook, could do, Texas Jack did not respond, but lapsed into unconsciousness. At 7:30 on Monday morning June 28, 1880, the beloved plainsman, scout, Indian fighter, guide and actor closed his eyes in the sleep from which none ever awakens.

 

Services were conducted in the Tabor Opera House. John Baker "Texas Jack" Omohundro was buried in the Evergreen Cemetery in Leadville. Logan captures well the extraordinary day.

The services were conducted by the Rev. Thomas J. Mackay, Episcopal Chaplain of the Tabor Light Cavalry. A choir composed of members of Fay Templeton's opera company, which was playing in Leadville at the time, furnished music for the occasion. Following the obsequies at the Opera House, which was attended by all who could crowd into the spacious show place, the funeral cortege took its leave. Led by a fifty-piece brass band, followed by Jack's former comrades of the Tabor Light Cavalry under the leadership of the Hon. H. A. W. Tabor, then Lieut. Gov. of Colorado, and

 

Rev. Mackay, the procession moved up Harrison Avenue to Eighth Street and thence westward to the newly plotted cemetery.  At the graveside, Mr. Tabor made a few closing remarks complimentary to his friend Texas Jack. The service was concluded by the firing of a military salute and the sounding of taps, a tribute to J. B. Omohundro, soldier of the Confederacy.

 

Twenty-eight years later, Jack's friend William Cody placed a gravestone on Jack's grave and gave a moving tribute.

“My friends, perhaps many of you do not know this man whom we have gathered to honor. No doubt you would like to know something of him, who was one of my dearest and most intimate friends.

 

John B. Omohundro, better known as "Texas Jack," was a Virginian by birth. The blood of the Powhatan Indians flowed in his veins. He was of proud and noble birth. During the Civil War he was a member of the cavalry commanded by Col. J.E.B. Stuart of the Confederate Army. He was one of his most trusted and faithful scouts, and performed almost invaluable service for him.

 

After the war he drifted westward and located in Texas, where he took up the hazardous work of a cowboy. He was one of the original Texas cowboys, when life on the plains was a hardship and a trying duty. When they began to drive the cattle to the northern country, he engaged in that occupation, following the herds northward, and returning after each trip for another herd.

 

Finally, he located at North Platte, Nebraska. It was there that I first met him. He was an expert trailer and scout. I soon recognized this and... secured his appointment in the United States service...In this capacity I learned to know him and to respect his bravery and ability. He was a whole-souled, brave, generous, good-hearted man. Later he and I went East to go into the show business. He was the first to do a lasso act upon the stage.

 

During this tour of the large cities he met and married Mlle Morlacchi, a famous dancer, who traveled with him. After I left him, he and she continued to travel. They came to Leadville, where she was engaged as a performer. Becoming attached to the place, my friend and his wife remained for a while.

 

It was while here that he was stricken with pneumonia, which was then prevalent. He succumbed, and was buried here under this mound by his many friends.

 

Jack was an old friend of mine and a good one. Instead of this board which now marks his grave, we will soon have erected a more substantial monument, one more worthy of a brave and good man.

 

May he rest in peace.”

Though Josephine had set aside money in her will to ensure that a permanent gravestone marked the resting place of her beloved husband, her wishes were never fulfilled.  Buffalo Bill Cody, dissatisfied with the modest grave marker and aware of the wishes of Morlacchi, arranged to have erected a "suitable monument" in the Leadville cemetery. The marker is there to this day.

Cowboy Hall of Fame & Texas Jack Association

 

In 1980 two men convened a meeting of interested friends and relatives of Texas Jack Omohundro in Leadville, Colorado in the town where he died 100 years earlier.  Those men were Frank Sullivan and Malvern Hill Omohundro Jr.

Frank Sullivan was a Springfield, Illinois, attorney and history buff who discovered Texas Jack in the writings of Irish nobleman Lord Dunraven, and recognized him as a colorful and outstanding player in the saga of America's Old West. At a meeting of the Sons of the American Revolution, Frank happened to meet Malvern Hill ("M.H.") Omohundro Jr., of Virginia. Noting his unusual name, Frank asked if M.H. was any relation to Texas Jack. Upon learning that M.H. was in fact Texas Jack's nephew, a lasting friendship was born. This meeting sowed the seeds of the creation of the Texas Jack Association.

Four years later in 1984, the group, numbering under 15, met informally in Cody, Wyoming and decided to expand the Association under the leadership of Dennis and Julie Greene of California. The Greenes developed the organizational structure under which the Association operates today, printed promotional literature, and edited and distributed the newsletter, The Scout.

The Association's members decided to meet every two years, and the tradition of the biennial "roundup" was born.

On March 18,1994, the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma inducted Texas Jack into the Hall of Great Western Performers. Jack was the first stage actor to receive this honor, which was presented at a black-tie, star studded banquet. Due to the efforts of Jack H. Omohundro Sr. of Crowley, Louisiana, Texas Jack now sits among many famous and illustrious film stars such as John Wayne, James Stewart, Ronald Reagan and Clint Eastwood. Jack received posthumously the special Wrangler award given only to recipients of this honor, and it was accepted by members of the Texas Jack Association Jack H. Omohundro Sr. and Dennis and Julie Greene.

Visit the impressive list of fellow Great Western Performers at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.

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