Duty Bound
The Story of John Wilson Vermillion &
The Mystery of Tombstone's "Texas Jack"


Awarded the Best Wild West History
Association Journal Article for 2010

Peter Brand © 2010



(The Introduction below is taken from the above article, published in the Wild West History Association Journal, Volume III. No. 4 August 2010)

My personal research odyssey regarding "Texas Jack" Vermillion began in the late 1990s, when I made a
pact with my good friend and fellow researcher, Jean Smith, to try to unlock the lives of the men
who rode with Wyatt Earp in Tombstone. We both felt that the men of Earp's "Vendetta Posse"
deserved to have their stories told, and that by doing so we might also expand our understanding of
the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday. It would prove to be no easy task.

At the time, published information on the posse was scarce and frustratingly unreliable. The one
exception to this rule seemed to be "Texas Jack" Vermillion. As early as 1957, author Pat Jahns had
first identified Vermillion in her book - The Frontier World of Doc Holliday, Faro Dealer from Dallas to
Deadwood. In chapter 13 she confidently proclaimed that after the Tombstone saga... "Texas Jack
Vermillion went back to Big Stone Gap, Virginia, bought a farm, married, raised a family, and was a
Methodist Sunday school superintendent, member of the school board and pillar of respectability,
until his death in 1910." There were no footnotes attached to this statement, however, Jahns
thanked Mrs. Opie Vermillion in the Acknowledgments section of her book, so we can assume she
was the source. Mrs. Opie Vermillion was actually Sallie Pettyjohn Vermillion, the daughter-in-law of
John Wilson Vermillion, whom Jahns had apparently identified as Tombstone's "Texas Jack".

The story seemed straightforward and believable at face value. However, exhaustive research by Jean
Smith in the Arizona historical records and elsewhere failed to find a link between the name "John
Wilson Vermillion" and Tombstone's Texas Jack. The challenge was then to determine if Jahns fed
the "Texas Jack" story to Sallie Vermillion, who then simply provided the biographical details of John
Wilson's subsequent life in Virginia, or if primary proof actually existed to support Jahns' claims. In an
endeavour to answer the question, I traveled to Bristol, Tennessee in 1997 and personally
interviewed John Pettyjohn Vermillion, who was John Wilson Vermillion's then 88 year-old grandson
and the son of Opie and Sallie Vermillion, who had both long since passed away.

As Wyatt Earp had stated that "Texas Jack" had been a carpenter by trade, I commenced the interview by
raising the question of John Wilson's trade or occupation. John Pettyjohn advised that his
grandfather was a farmer, not a carpenter. He did, however, add that men in those days were handy
with most tools, by necessity. John Pettyjohn Vermillion was barely 18 months old when his
grandfather died, but he did confirm that his family had never heard of the "Texas Jack" claim until
"reporters" arrived in Wise County, Virginia to interview his mother sometime after World War II. It
is possible that these so-called "reporters" were actually connected with Pat Jahns and were
conducting research on her behalf.

He stated that, according to family records, his grandfather was born in 1842 in Virginia and had headed
west after the Civil War. He believed his grandfather may have been a lawman in Missouri at some
stage between 1865 and 1883, but had no specific details. He thought that John Wilson did not
return to Virginia until 1883, when he married Nancy Fleenor in October of that year. The couple had
two children, Minnie Bell, born in 1884 and Opie Martin, born in 1887. Opie Vermillion subsequently
married Sallie Pettyjohn in October 1908.

John Pettyjohn Vermillion confirmed that neither he nor his mother had any specific information about
John Wilson's years in the west, as he had refused to speak in detail of his past. His mother had only
known John Wilson for just over two years before his actual death in early 1911. John Pettyjohn
advised that his mother had been unaware of the "Texas Jack" claims prior to her contact with the
"reporters" and that she had only spoken of his life back in Virginia from the family records. He
added that his grandfather had never lived at Big Stone Gap, Virginia. It was his father, Opie
Vermillion, who had resided there. Our interview concluded on a cordial note, but I was no closer to
unlocking the story of Tombstone's Texas Jack.

Over the years, several influential authors have published books regarding Wyatt Earp and Tombstone
and all followed Pat Jahns' lead by repeating the story that John Wilson Vermillion was Tombstone's
Texas Jack, yet none provided any primary proof. These authors included Frank Waters, Glenn Boyer,
Ben Traywick, Casey Tefertiller, Tim Fattig and more recently Jeff Smith, in a biography of conman,
"Soapy" Smith. I too was not immune from allowing Pat Jahns' book to influence my earlier writing
on Wyatt Earp's Vendetta Posse. Jahns' story regarding John Wilson Vermillion's return to Virginia
after an eventful life in the west contained just enough fact to entice, and just enough vagary to
cloud the issue.

With no other leads, and no direct evidence linking John Wilson Vermillion to Tombstone's Texas Jack, I
reluctantly shelved the story. Jean Smith and I continued to search for additional information, and
despite uncovering Vermillion genealogical records in Virginia and Tennessee we found nothing that
would advance the story for the critical missing years from 1865 to 1883. For the next ten years our
research focused on other members of Earp's Vendetta Posse, but I still held out hope that new
information would eventually surface about Vermillion.

The long awaited break-through finally came in late 2008 when I was contacted by professional
genealogist, Wayne Highsmith and Vermillion family historian and researcher, Doug Vermillion, both
of Indiana. They too were tracing John Wilson Vermillion's past and in doing so had made contact
with family members descended from his daughter, Minnie Bell. In the course of their work, it came
to light that Minnie's granddaughter possessed John and Nancy (Nannie) Vermillion's old wooden
storage trunk, containing correspondence, clothing and mementos dating back to 1876. The trunk
had been handed down through the generations and looked upon as an antique, and a unique link to
the family's past. The clothing had been examined, but the correspondence at the bottom of the
trunk had apparently not been read, nor examined, since Nancy had passed away in 1932.

The Vermillion descendants and family members agreed to share the trunk's contents with myself,
Wayne and Doug so that a far more accurate depiction of their ancestor could be written. In October
2009, we visited the family in Bristol, Virginia to study the trunk's contents. The family had
meticulously arranged the vital correspondence in chronological order and transcribed many original
documents and letters.

Thanks to their diligent research and generosity, John Wilson Vermillion's story came to life. He had
carefully saved most of the correspondence he received since 1876, and several documents related
to his work and his legal transactions. Although the correspondence is one-sided, in that it only
includes letters received by John, it is still possible to gain valuable personal insights and construct a
clearer time-line in regards to his movements from 1876 to 1883. The dutiful family man who
"emerged from the trunk" vindicated John Pettyjohn Vermillion's information from 12 years earlier,
and finally resolved the burning question - John Wilson Vermillion was NOT Tombstone's Texas Jack
and, in fact, had never set foot in Arizona. He had been a lawman in Missouri, but had NEVER known
Wyatt Earp and had NOT been involved in the Tombstone saga in any way.

Signed copies of the Wild West History Association Journal containing the full text of this award winning
article are available from the author, Peter Brand. Contact him at brando1882@hotmail.com for
further details.

Unsigned back issue copies of the Journal containing the full text are also available from the Wild West
History Association at www.wildwesthistory.org