Author writes new book on an American icon

By Page H. Gifford

     The West has always been that unknown, that unexplored frontier, something mystical and primitive to be feared and conquered, and many Americans, like John Omohundro, better known as Texas Jack, became one of those frontiersmen.

In Matthew Kern’s new book “Texas Jack: America’s First Cowboy Star,” he strips away the romantic myth of the American cowboy and gives a raw and honest expose of a legendary icon of the West.

The book took three and half years to write; two years of research and a year and a half of revising and editing. Kerns original goal was to write a fictional story about the year Wild Bill, Buffalo Bill, and Texas Jack did a theatrical tour together.  While he researched the men, he found multiple biographies of Hickok and Cody, and only one slim book about Texas Jack, written back in the mid-1950s.

“Texas Jack Omohundro was one of the most famous men alive in the 1870s, but he is largely forgotten today. He toured as “The Scouts of the Plains” with his friends Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickok, who are remembered as the foremost scout and showman and the most famous gunslinger and lawman of the Wild West, but Jack has been overlooked as the first cowboy to rise to prominence in America,” said Kerns. “I wondered why he should have been forgotten while his friends are so widely remembered. Later I discovered that the way cowboys are portrayed in books and film is very much a testament to the legacy of Texas Jack, who wore a Stetson and tall black cavalry boots on stage, was the first man to do a lasso act for theater patrons, and wrote widely distributed pieces about his life as a Chisholm Trail riding cowboy.”

He talks about the many facets of life in the West, often seen in film as gritty yet adventurous and glamorous. But for those who lived it was a way of life and the only life they ever knew.

Cattle drives were akin to our long-haul truckers of today because both spent a long time in the saddle, through all kinds of weather but Kerns dispels the myth that trail riders had encounters with native Americans since they avoided native American lands and many were already on reservations. It was all in a day’s work and the cowboy adapted to get the job done.

“To me, the most interesting thing about Jack’s personality is how much it informs fictional depictions of cowboys.  Reading descriptions of Texas Jack from his friends and contemporaries is like reading a casting call for the cowboy star in any film western—tall, dark, and handsome,” he said. “Beyond his physical attributes, his personality equally informs our cowboy ideal. Tall and lean, a natural horseman, deadly accurate with pistol and rifle, brave and loyal to a fault, Texas Jack was all of the things Cody would urge audiences to believe about the cowboys he led to the rescue of embattled settlers in arenas across the world for the next three decades.”

Growing up in Palmyra, Virginia, John Omohundro was born in 1846 into a privileged southern family, who owned Pleasure Hill, a plantation with 25 slaves who tended to acres of corn, tobacco, and wheat about a mile and half west of Palmyra. John was one of 11 children and found learning and plantation life boring and much preferred to be outside hunting and fishing, which concerned his parents who wanted him to get a good education, like his brother Orville, who eventually became a doctor.

Jack’s youngest brother, Malven Hill Omohundro, said that “from his youth, he seemed to have been a natural-born fisherman, huntsman, horseman, and ‘crack’ shot. He could catch fish when no one else could. While only a boy he had more dogs and horses, could ride better, hunted more, could find and kill more game than anyone else, even more than men of greater experience. Any kind of danger or adventure was his delight, and he was an inveterate lover of all the out-of-doors.”

Kerns points out that  his knowledge of the Virginia countryside he gained playing hooky proved valuable during the Civil War when he became one of Jeb Stuart’s most trusted cavalry scouts and spies.

“The abilities he honed during the war proved invaluable when he reached Texas and became a cowboy and as a frontier scout in the American West.”

He looks more closely at Jack’s motivation as the centerpiece of his character.

“I think Jack was motivated by both an internal drive and external factors.  The driving force behind Jack’s decision to leave Pleasure Hill, and head west for a life of cattle driving, Indian fighting, and frontier adventure was a practical one, there was no future for him, or the plantation, after the Civil War,” he said. “Jack and his older brother Orville served under General Jeb Stuart during the war, and the question of slavery was an existential one for the Omohundro farm.  The end of the war and slavery meant the end of that life, and each of the Omohundro children went to make their way in the world.”

“Internally, Jack seems to have been motivated by a drive to explore.” Kerns said that when the ship to Texas sunk in the Gulf and Jack found himself in Florida, he became a teacher for a short time. In Texas, he worked his way from camp cook to bronco buster and trail boss. Acting upon the advice of Wild Bill Hickok, he headed to Nebraska on a cattle drive and stayed there, tending bar until he established himself as a scout for the Army.  After dime novelist Ned Buntline included Jack in some of his western stories, Jack convinced his friend Buffalo Bill to join him for a theatrical tour.  And even after he became a star, Texas Jack continued to return west, leading treks into the new Yellowstone Park and across Wyoming’s Bighorn Basin. “He seems to have been driven by an urge to explore that never left him.”

Jack married the Italian ballerina “the Peerless” Giuseppina Morlacchi. She co-starred with Texas Jack and Buffalo Bill in their first stage show and fell in love with Texas Jack.  Their marriage was one of the most widely reported celebrity marriages of the day, the public being fascinated by the relationship between the buckskin-clad cowboy of the American West and the beautiful and graceful Italian prima ballerina.

“She was one of the most famous women of her time. She was dancing for Her Majesty’s Royal Theater in London when she was hired at considerable expense to come to America to appear in a show on Broadway. She introduced the cancan to America in Boston, creating a scandal only tempered by the esteem in which she was held by critics and the public alike.”

Jack and Giuseppina never had children but there was a boy known as Texas Jack Jr.

“Texas Jack Junior was a child that Omohundro rescued on a cattle drive in the late 1860s. Jack was at the head of a herd of longhorn cattle when he came across the remains of a westward-bound wagon train. There were no survivors.  Jack followed the tracks of Comanche ponies leading away from the wagons and discovered a young boy and two young girls who had been taken by the raiders. He managed to rescue the children, taking with him several of the ponies,”said Kerns.”When the cattle drive reached Abilene,  Jack sold the ponies to fund the children’s education at an Abilene orphanage. After his death, that young boy visited Jack’s brother and father in Virginia and told them the story, explaining that because he didn’t know his name or the names of his parents, he had taken up the name of the man who had rescued him—Texas Jack.”

 Texas Jack died in 1880 at the age of 33 of pneumonia. While together Buffalo Bill and the others never talked about death or mourned anyone. Twenty-eight years after his death, they all came together at Jack’s grave and Buffalo Bill gave an emotional eulogy.

The author, Matthew Kerns is a historian, author, and digital archivist who is a “life-long fan of American history” particularly the old West. He lives with his family in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

The book is available at, and others or for more information visit

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