By Bernie Sargent
My next story ties another individual to the saga of the Blue Whistler Cannon. Captain Jack Wallace “The Poet Scout” Crawford immigrated from Ireland at the age of fourteen. His parents were originally from Scotland but were forced to flee because of Jack’s father John’s revolutionary and seditious rants. Jack’s mother Alice, claimed to be a direct descendent of the famed Scottish leader, William Wallace. From Ireland the Crawford’s then migrated to America in 1861 at the onset of the Civil War. Settling in Pennsylvania with other members of the clan. Jack’s father enlisted for service leaving Jack to work in the coal mines to help pay the families bills. When Jack turned seventeen, he too enlisted in the Union Army. He was wounded twice, one of these injuries landed him in the hospital under the care of the Sisters of Mercy. It was there that he was taught to read and write, a talent that would shape his future.
Upon recuperation from his injuries, Jack returned to his home in Pennsylvania where he went back to work in the coal mines. Jack’s father also returned home to his family and his ways of drink and cavorting, a situation that Jack would later recant when he and his mother would kneel together and pray John would find his way to sobriety. Jack’s Mother passed away two years after his return and on her deathbed made young Jack promise never to drink, a commitment he never broke. Jack’s experience in the military and his relationship with his mother and father would find their way into the stage life that would become his calling later in life.
In 1869 Jack met and married a schoolteacher from the nearby town of Numidia, Anna Maria Stokes. Jack would soon be appointed postmaster of Girardville, Pennsylvania where they then relocated. Their marriage would result in five children. One of his daughters May Cody Crawford was named after his friend Buffalo Bill. He also took the position as an officer in the local coal miners’ union.
Jack would soon get a burr in his saddle and after reading dime store novels, and in 1875 would head to the Dakota Territory serving as a journalist for several newspapers while seeking a share of the riches that were being mined. He would soon be elected to the first city council in the fledgling town of Custer. A year later, he would become chief of a scout unit of about a dozen others whose mandate was to search for signs of natives who had a knack of hiding in the canyons and ambushing unsuspecting travelers and settlers who might happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. His nickname of Captain Jack may have first surfaced due to his leadership role with the scouts.
Soon after the Custer massacre at Little Big Horn, Jack joined the 5th Cavalry under General George Crook as a scout. He struck quite the figure wearing a buckskin outfit and toting a Winchester repeating rifle, cartridge belt with holster, a hunting knife and sheath, all gifts from the Omaha Bee Newspaper he wrote for and the town folk of Omaha that he left behind. While he was serving in his role as lead scout under Gen. Crook, Captain Jack undertook several exploits that would launch his notoriety in the print media featured prominently in the dime store novels that were immensely popular back east. One such adventure was when he traveled alone more than three hundred miles to deliver the news of victory over the tribe that participated in the Custer massacre to the New York Herald. The story of his ride is worth delving into in a future writing. Another story was when he delivered a private message from General Sheridan to his friend and fellow scout, Buffalo Bill Cody. Additionally, he carried a gift of a bottle of whiskey. Cody would later write in his autobiography that Jack was the only scout in service who would be capable of packing the spirits such a far distance, not only unbroken, but especially unopened.
While participating in the “Great Sioux War,” Jack was under the command of someone most El Pasoan’s know of, Captain Anson Mills. And while serving under him they raided a native encampment whose leader was Chief American Horse. In front of the Chiefs tipi was a flag of the 7th Cavalry and discovered around the camp were a number of uniforms, horses, weapons, and other various souvenir’s taken from the Little Big Horn battle site. The flag was eventually returned to Libby Custer, the wife of General George A. Custer.
Captain Jack’s exploits during the Civil War and the “Great Sioux Wars” elevated him to national celebrity status. His story telling talents would often times draw crowds in the thousands and on many occasions, performing three or four times per day. In later years, Jack, much like his fellow scouts, would express remorse over the details of what took place in the march against the Native Americans and excluded those details in his presentations and writings.
In the next issue, I’ll share Captain Jack’s future endeavors and his family ties to El Paso and the Southwest.
Sources: “Captain Jack Crawford: Buckskin Poet, Scout, and Showman”, Paperback Dale A. Miller
Black Hills Visitor.com, Find A Grave.com, “True West Magazine”, Navyhistory.org