Few characters in Black Hills history were ever as flamboyant, or as poetic, as John Wallace “Jack” Crawford.
Crawford was born in Donegal County, Ireland, in 1847. His parents brought the family to the United States from Northern Ireland when Jack was 14, and settled in the Pennsylvania coal-mining region at Minersville. Jack’s mother, Susan Wallace Crawford, was a descendent of Sir William Wallace, the famous Scottish hero who waged war to gain Scotland’s freedom in the early 14th century. Susan’s influence and his Celtic heritage played a large part in Jack’s upbringing, and in his later life.
Jack began to support his family by working in the mines when his father enlisted in the Union Army in 1861. By some accounts it was a blessing that the elder Crawford went off to war, as he was a hopeless alcoholic.
As the war escalated, Jack enlisted in the Pennsylvania Regulars and headed south to fight. He was twice wounded in heavy fighting during the last days of the War, and spent a great deal of time convalescing in a hospital. It was while he was a patient that a Sister of Charity taught the young soldier to read and write.
Upon returning from the war, Jack continued to support the family. Crawford married Maria Stokes in 1869, and the union was blessed with four children (Eva, Harry, May (died in 1886), and Elizabeth Esther (also called May)). He took pride in family, and often related the story of his promise to his mother–made two years after returning from the war. As she was dying, worn out from struggling with family problems caused by her husband’s alcohol addiction, Susan Crawford received a deathbed vow from her son that he would never drink liquor. Captain Jack not only kept the promise, he professed it to all that would, and would not, listen. He lived the sober life, and it became one of his trademarks in his adopted home–the American West–during the following decades.