Friday, May 6, 2016


John Wallace Crawford, known as "Captain Jack Crawford, the Poet-Scout", was born in Ireland in 1847. He came to the United States at age 14. He was illiterate, so work choices were slim. He went into the coal mines of Pennsylvania, where he probably would have stayed his entire life had it not been for the Civil War.

Jack joined the Union Army at age 17. He fought bravely and was wounded twice. During his recovery, a Sisters of Charity nun taught him to read and write. This was what I think of as the tipping point in his life. Because reading dime novels about western adventures propelled him westward around the time of the Black Hills gold rush.

By 1876, he was writing for the Omaha Daily Bee. He was elected to the first city council of Custer City, Oklahoma. The city organized a militia, the Black Hills Rangers, of which he was the highest ranking scout. He later joined Buffalo Bill Cody as a civilian scout for the U.S. Army. He survived quite a few harrowing incidents, often riding hundreds of miles to deliver news dispatches to couriers from The New York Herald.

Captain Jack became famous for several poems he published. He arrived in Deadwood, South Dakota just two weeks after the death of Wild Bill Hickock. He composed a poem for Charlie Utter entitled "The Burial of Wild Bill." Here is one stanza of the seven-stanza poem:

"Under the sod in the prairie-land
   We have laid the good and the true
An honest heart and a noble scout
   Has bade us a last adieu.
No more his silvery laugh will ring,
   His spirit has gone to God;
Around his faults let Charity cling
   While you cover him with the sod."

The whole time I was watching the HBO series Deadwood, I kept expecting him to make an appearance. He never did. But it was interesting to imagine him there among the characters, waxing prosaically about topics of the day.

Captain Jack traveled with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and continued to write. He performed monologues and mesmerized audiences with stories of his own experiences, as well as poems about the west. He eventually moved his wife and children west to live in New Mexico.

He had very progressive views, opposing the forced separation of Sioux children from their families. Watching a screaming child being torn from his mother's arms, he asked, "Don't you suppose that mother has the same feeling in her breast for her young as your mother had for you?" He believed that Native American families would all eventually be assimilated and believed the reservations were temporary.

Captain Jack died in 1917, having traveled all over the United States performing and entertaining. I sometimes feel sorry for his wife. He was gone more than he was home. She raised their children without much help from him. It must have been difficult.

You might wonder why I'm fascinated by this man. Captain Jack was married to the sister of my mother's father's mother. He was my great-great-uncle by marriage. I've heard about him my whole life. I adore the combination of writer and adventurer in him. Fascinating!

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