Texas Jack, the Prairie Rattler (1883) Spotlight
About the Novel
Buffalo Bill Cody’s 1883 story Texas Jack, the Prairie Rattler; Or, the Queen of the Wild Riders is a good representation of the complicated issue of race in the 19th century and its representation in popular media. The plot is relatively standard, employing many of the tropes that dominate dime novels in general, and western stories more specifically, but the significance of the author, his subject, and the portrayal of the ways in which members of various races and social classes interact within is significant.
Texas Jack, the Prairie Rattler is presumably set just after the Civil War, though Buffalo Bill doesn’t give a year or mention the war itself in the story. The action takes place in Texas, ranging from the Mexican border to the Llano Estacado, the Staked Plain that covers the western half of the Texas panhandle. The characters can largely be considered tropic: Texas Jack is the handsome and heroic cowboy who can not ignore a man or woman in need. Don Castro Rivera is a wealthy Mexican man whose daughter has presumably been kidnapped, and who enlists the aid of the famous and chivalrous cowboy to ensure her safe rescue. The Don’s daughter is Rena Rivera, a beautiful senorita who has been taken captive by Iron Arm, the brutal and savage chief of the Comanche. Texas Jack is aided by Red Snake, a Tonkawa warrior, and Ebony, a former slave who is now the “majordomo” of Texas Jack’s ranch, running the operation while Jack is elsewhere performing heroic deeds.
Inexplicably saved from death at the end of the novel, Jack eventually returns home, having buried the Tonkawa, saved the Senorita, pleased the Don, defeated the Comanche, escaped the Mexicans outlaws, and thwarted the disgraced white soldier, Dick Turpin and Mark Melton, the former lover of Senorita Rivera now posing as the Comanche, Iron Arm.
The interplay between racial groups is, at times, surprisingly nuanced for a dime novel. Although many of the other Mexican characters in the story are depicted as stereotypical outlaws, Don Rivera and his daughter Rena are portrayed as sophisticated and respectable. Similarly, while the Comanche are often presented to the reader as “bad Indians,” Texas Jack is unable to best them without the help of his Tonkawa partner.
But perhaps the most interesting character is Ebony, a former slave who now runs the ranch and manages the cattle operations for the former Confederate soldier Texas Jack. Although not full equals, Jack trusts him implicitly and takes him on as a partner after the death of Red Snake. The Ebony character would later be used in other Texas Jack stories, like Arizona Joe, the Boy Pard of Texas Jack by Prentiss Ingraham. Lillian Schlissel, professor emerita and director of American studies at Brooklyn College-CUNY, wrote in her book Black Frontiers: A History of African American Heroes in The Old West that “Not many other books before 1900 showed friendships between a white man and a black man...The story of Arizona Joe is unusual because in it a black man, Star, rescues the hero, Joe Bruce, and saves his life. As with the Lone Ranger and Tonto, Ebony Star is Texas Jack’s powerful friend and ally...Star has a place in the legends of the Old West.” White protagonists taking on a partner of a different race would become an increasingly common trope in later dime novels, such as Frank Reade’s best friend, Pompei (black), or Nick Carter’s protégé, Ten-Ichi (Japanese).
In addition to its depiction of race, Texas Jack, the Prairie Rattler, is one of the first stories to feature a cowboy as the hero. Even earlier Texas Jack stories, such as Ned Buntline’s Texas Jack, the White King of the Pawnees from ten years earlier (1873), take place when Texas Jack was serving as a scout, rather than as a Texas cowboy. This story’s release coincided with the inaugural season of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, which would for the first time feature cowboys as the hero of the American West, and would use Texas Jack’s writings on the profession in their programs to do so.
Texas Jack, the Prairie Rattler was serialized in Beadle's Weekly nos. 40-50 between August 18 and October 27, 1883. The story was published complete in one volume the next year as Beadle's Dime Library no. 304 on August 20, 1884.
- The Comanche are depicted as savage enemies of Texas Jack, while the Tonkawa Red Snake is his faithful friend. What do these depictions tell us about the way white readers thought about Native Americans in the late 19th century?
- The partnership between the cowboy Texas Jack and his native ally Red Snake predates the stories of the Lone Ranger and Tonto by 50 years. Why was the idea of such a friendship between white cowboy and Native ally so enduring?
- Texas Jack, a former Confederate soldier, is shown as trusting a freed slave (Ebony) to run his ranch. Ebony later joins Texas Jack on adventures. What does Jack’s relationship with Ebony tell us about the author’s view of the American West?
- The villains of the story are all revealed to be race-pretenders. The Comanche Chief Iron Arm is actually Mark Melton, the former lover of Senorita Rivera. The leader of the Tigers of the Chapparal is actually American solider Dick Turpin. What does this tell us about the ways race was viewed by Americans in the 19th century?
- This story was written by Buffalo Bill Cody, a frontier celebrity and folk hero about Texas Jack, another. Though Texas Jack was really a cowboy in Texas, this book is completely fictional. Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack were both celebrities who became actors, creating fictionalized version of themselves. Do you see any parallels to “reality television” stars today?
- In his lifetime, Buffalo Bill went from being America’s most famous Indian fighter to a passionate advocate of Native American rights—from fighting Sioux on the Nebraska prairies to working and travelling with Sitting Bull in the Wild West shows. What do you think changed the way Cody thought about native peoples? What other cultural changes can be measured this way in the life of a single prominent person?
- Bricklin, Julia. The Notorious Life of Ned Buntline: A Tale of Murder, Betrayal, and the Creation of Buffalo Bill. TwoDot, 2020.
A biography of dime novelist Ned Buntline, who was the second most read author (after Mark Twain) of the 19th century, and the progenitor of the western dime novel genre.'
- McNally, Robert A. The Modoc War: A Story of Genocide at the Dawn of America's Gilded Age. Bison Books, 2017.
The Modoc War was the American/Indian conflict that provided the context of the ascendency of Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack as dramatic stars. McNally explains that the war was the consequence of a decades long deliberate attempt at the genocide of native peoples by the state of California.
- Rico, Monica. Nature's Noblemen: Transatlantic Masculinities and the Nineteenth-Century American West. Yale University Press, 2013.
A fascinating look into the ways in which men like Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack, along with their European friends Grand Duke Alexis and the Earl of Dunraven, both fit into and challenged pervasive 19th century stereotypes of masculinity.
- Schlissel, Lillian. Black Frontiers: A History of African American Heroes in the Old West. Paw Prints, 2008.
A chronicle of the ways in which African-American men and women lived and worked in the American West, and were depicted in both its fiction and non-fiction.
- Warren, Louis S. Buffalo Bill's America: William Cody and the Wild West Show. Vintage Books, 2006.
Warren’s is the most in depth look at the legacy of Buffalo Bill and the ways his life and his life’s work mirror broader social concerns of the era.