The Poet Scout. 1847 -1917
by Alister McReynolds
John Wallace Crawford was an Ulster Scot born in Carndonagh, East Donegal on March 4th 1847. His parents were both born in Scotland. The father, John Austin Crawford was born in Greenock near Glasgow and married Susan Wallace who was not only a Scot but claimed to be descended from no less a personage than Sir William ‘Braveheart’ Wallace. Like many Scots at that time the Crawfords moved and settled for a time in Ulster. When John Austin Crawford emigrated a second time Susan followed him and found him, working as a miner in Schuylkill County, near Roaring Creek and the small settlement of Minersville, in Pennsylvania. The children had been left behind but in 1860 they came by themselves on a sailing ship. John Wallace Crawford was by now 13 years old but was, as they used to say, ‘big for his age’.
However any sense of ‘friends and family united’ was soon shattered because as soon as the children arrived John Austin Crawford was off to join the Union Army to fight for his ‘new’ country in the Civil War. Immediately after his arrival in Pennsylvania young John, though merely a boy, started to work in the coalmines, picking slag for about $1.75 per week. At age 15 however he lied about his age and joined the Pennsylvania Regulars. His father was wounded twice, initially at Rappamattock and then more severely at the momentous Battle of the Wilderness, which took place from May 5th-7th 1864. John Wallace Crawford at age just 17 was wounded the following week at the equally fiercely fought Battle of Spotsylvania. The father died shortly afterwards of a combination of both his terrible wounds and the debilitating effects of alcoholism.
Jack was wounded on two more occasions during the Civil War but in particular his hospitalization and recuperation during that ‘first blooding’ was to have a hugely significant impact on his life. He was nursed back to health in the Sisters of Mercy hospital near Philadelphia, where the nuns not only nursed him but taught him how to read and write. Eventually his learning of those skills would lead Jack to his career as a writer. However in the short term and directly after the War, it allowed him to secure a position as a postmaster in Numidia Pennsylvania. In September 1869 Jack married the local school teacher, Anna Marie Stokes and together they had 5 children including a girl, who was named for Jack’s friend William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody. Her name was May Cody Crawford.
In 1875 Jack was appointed as a Captain of the Black Hills Rangers of Dakota. It was at that time that a kinsman of mine, Robert McReynolds* made Crawford’s acquaintance. McReynolds tells us:
‘Captain Jack Crawford, the poet scout, is one of the noble characters whose memory will live so long as records exist of the poineers who braved the vicissitudes of the frontier and made possible our Western civilization of today. A man of broad mind, daring and brave and yet with all the sweet tenderness of a child of nature, he became great by achievements alone. Others have gained a temporary fame by dime novel writers. Captain Jack, in comparison with others, stands out as a diamond of the first water. He has helped to make more trails than any scout unless it was Kit Carson. That was before the war. During that struggle he was wounded three times in the service of his country. When the war closed he was for many years chief of scouts under General Custer. He laid out Leedville in the Black Hills in 1876, and was of great service to the government in the settlement of the Indian troubles which succeeded the Custer massacre.’
It was at that time, in July 1876, that Buffalo Bill Cody also met Jack for the first time. Crawford replaced Cody as Chief of scouts of the 5th Cavalry. Cody tells us that that was, ‘only two months after the Custer massacre at the Little Big Horn, and a mere three weeks after the murder of Wild Bill Hickok in Deadwood’. Jack captured both of these events in verse:
Custer’s death at the Little Big Horn-
‘Did I hear the news from Custer?
Well I reckon I did, old pard.
It came like a streak o’lightning,
And you bet, it hit me hard.
I ain’t no hand to blubber,
And the briny ain’t run for years,
But chalk me down for a lubber
If I didn’t shed regular tears.’
Death by shooting down of Wild Bill Hickok by Jack McCall in Deadwood.
‘Sleep on brave heart, in peaceful slumber,
Bravest scout in all the West;
Lightning eyes and voice of thunder,
Closed and hushed in quiet rest.
Peace and rest at last is given,
May we meet again in heaven.
Rest in peace.’
After becoming Chief Scout for the 5th Cavalry under the command of Eugene A. Carr, Crawford made a famous horseback ride with urgent dispatches from the Battle of Slim Buttes to Fort Laramie, a distance of 350 miles in 4 days. This battle took place on the 9th and 10th September 1876 and was the first victory that the U.S. army had over the Sious after the Little Big Horn. There is an excellent thumb-nail sketch that has come down to us of Jack Crawford’s appearance at that time.
‘…about 6 feet tall and of fine build, and dressed in a nicely fitting artisitc buckskin suit, very much resembling Wild Bill.’
In 1876 Jack Crawford became an entainer in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. However their partnership ended in Virginia City Nevada in the summer of 1877 when, during a combat scene, Crawford accidentally shot himself in the groin. Jack, who was a lifelong teetotaller, (a promise that he had made to his mother on her deathbed), somehow blamed the incident on Cody’s drunkenness.
The Poet Scout’s first book was published in San Francisco in 1879. It contained amongst others the very memorable poem, ‘Only a Miner Killed’, which was less sentimental and more hard-hitting than much of his work and is said to have been a major influence on Bob Dylan’s song, ‘Only a Hobo’. The poem was actually written in 1877 after the death of Commodore Vanderbilt and contrasted the ostentatious funeral of this wealthy man with the bleak and miserable funeral procession that Jack had witnessed following the death of a poor miner.
‘Only a miner killed! God, if thou wilt,
Just introduce him to Vanderbilt,
Who with his millions, if he is there,
Can’t buy one interest – not even one share.’
In 1879 Jack relocated his long-suffering family from Pennsylvania to the New Mexico territory and began scouting for the army again, this time in their war against the Apache nation. He also became a post-trader at Fort Craig New Mexico and engaged in ranching and mining. Ten years later he was acting as a Special Agent for the Justice Department investigating the illegal liqour trade in the Indian Reservations of the Western States and Territories. He continued for the following 30 years to travel the lenght and breadth of America as an actor, lecturer, special government agent and adventurer and always paying careful attention to any silver or gold strikes. Jack Crawford’s written accounts of life on the frontier are noted for their true representation of the real dangers that pioneer life entailed. Sometimes Native Americans were portrayed as violent demons and sometimes that description was sympathetic and understanding of the universal human motivations that Jack ascribes to the tribesmen.
In later life Jack separated from his family and moved back East settling in Woolhaven, Long Island, New York where he died of Brights Disease on 27th February 1917.
Alister John McReynolds, Honorary Fellow-Institute of Ulster Scots Studies, University of Ulster, Northern Ireland
Captain Jack Crawford’s poem celebrating Robert Burn’s Anniversary and entitled,
‘In the Hielans O’Nevada To The Sons of Caledonia’.
Awa’ ye brawny sons o’Scotland,
Up the banks an’ doon the braes,
Through the Hielans 0’Nevada,
Sing your sangs o’ither days.
This is no sich Cowrie’s valley,
Nor the Forth’s fair sunny side,
Nor the grand auld rugged mountain.
Father o’the classic Clyde.
Yet just for a while imagine
Ye are back on Scotia’s shore;
‘Mang the grouse on hill or heather,
Whaur the Hielan’ waters roar.
Or perhaps in glens o’brecken
Whaur the Doon and Afton rin,
Thinkin 0’your Robby’s courtship,
By the licht o’bonnie minn.
Noble, brave, unselfish poet,
Dinna slicht him ‘mid your joys;
Fill an’ drink tae him a bumper
He was Nature’s bard, my boys.
First o’Scotland’s famous freemen,
Spurnin’ Lords and Monarch’s crown;
Far ower honest tae be schemin’
Bobby Burns; boys, drink her down.
Ride ance mair wi Tam O’Shanter
‘Till the wutches arch your hair;
Smile at Hornbrook’s vaunted weesdom,
Sigh at Holy Willie’s prayer.
Prie the he’rty, sonsie Haggis
Ere ye rise tae gang awa’
Let the Louse an’ Mouse the gither
Teach us lessons big an’ braw.
Up in Heaven wi Hielan’ Mary
Burns noo sings a sweeter sang,
Bootless wearin’ brichter laurels
Than the men wha did him wrang.
‘Scots wha hae’ methinks I hear it
Hoo sic sparks o’genius shine
At your picnic drain this bumper,
‘Bobby Burns an’ Auld Lang Syne’.