Buffalo Bill: Son of the West
Although he was born in a small town in Iowa, just like another icon of the West, John Wayne, Buffalo Bill Cody would forever be known as a son of the West, the genuine article, buffalo hunter, Indian fighter, Army scout, the consummate horseman, and even a Pony Express rider at age 14. Buffalo Bill would do more to immortalize the legend of the West in American culture than any other hero of the frontier.
Buffalo Bill Cody would do for the Western mystique what P.T. Barnum would do for circuses. His Wild West Show would be seen by a half million Americans in the 25 years that Cody’s show toured across North America and Europe to huge audiences. The show would feed the nostalgia for a dying frontier and disappearing Native cultures, as well as the near extinction of many mighty beasts once roamed the continent. His Wild West show would remain wildly popular way into the 20th century and would help jump-start the Western craze in early motion pictures that would continue in American popularity into the early 1960s.
William Frederick "Buffalo Bill" Cody was born in 1846 in Le Claire, Iowa Territory and eventually settled with his family in Kansas Territory. Cody’s father died when he was eleven and the boy began working to support the family, purportedly becoming a Pony Express rider at age 14. He served in the Civil War under-age, then became a civilian scout for the U.S. Army in the Indian Wars. At the age of 26, Cody would receive the Medal of Honor for his scouting service.
Very early in life, Cody’s legend began. Before he was 20, right after the Civil War, he gained the name “Buffalo Bill” when he signed a contract with the Kansas Pacific Railroad to provide their workers with buffalo meat. During that time, Cody claimed to have killed 4,282 buffalo in eighteen months in 1867 and 1868. Cody used a large-caliber Springfield Model 1866, which he called “Lucretia Borgia,” after the beautiful but notoriously ruthless Italian noblewoman in Victor Hugo’s opera, Lucrezia Borgia.
In 1869, the 22-year-old Cody met writer and journalist Ned Buntline who was mesmerized by Cody’s tales as a Pony Express rider, scout, Indian killer, and buffalo hunter. He wrote stories about Cody for the New York Weekly, then a best-selling novel, Buffalo Bill, King of the Bordermen, that was largely fictionalized. It was serialized on the front-page of the Chicago Tribune, and Cody immediately became famous.
In 1872, at age 26, Cody started his career on the stage that would lead him down the path to become one of the world’s greatest entertainers and promoters. He joined up with an old scouting friend, Texas Jack Omohundreo, to perform in The Scouts of the Prairie, a show about the Wild West produced by Ned Buntline. The young, handsome Cody was a hit and his shows sold out. The next year, Cody invited another old friend, Wild Bill Hickok, to join the troupe. But Wild Bill was a surly participant, did not like acting and often hid behind the stage scenery. One night, when he was particularly annoyed, he shot at the spotlight when it was pointed on him. Buffalo Bill finally released Hickok from his acting obligations.
In 1874, Cody founded his own entertainment group, the Buffalo Bill Combination, in which he performed for part of the year and scouted on the prairies the remaining months. The troupe toured for ten years. Cody's part typically included a reenactment of one of his exploits in life at Warbonnet, Nebraska, where he claimed to have scalped a Cheyenne warrior.
Finally, in 1883, Cody changed his traveling revue to the very long name, “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World.” The original show featured horse cultures from around the world depicting the U.S. Army, American Indians, cowboys, Turks, gauchos, Arabs, Mongols and Russian Cossacks. All rode in a grand parade, dressed in colorful costumes, atop prancing horses.
Cody began soliciting some of the West’s most famous icons to join the show. The sharp-shooter Annie Oakley was one the most popular acts. Calamity Jane was in the show for a short time as a storyteller. Cody finally persuaded the reluctant Sitting Bull to join the show, along with 20 of his former fighters. But when Sitting Bull was first announced and entered the ring on his horse, the crowds booed, spit and threw things at him. Sitting Bull remained stoic, but he refused to participate in any re-enactments or “act” for Cody. Nevertheless, the two became friends and remained so for the rest of their lives. And Sitting Bull used the show to advocate for his people and educate white audiences in the ways of his tribe.
The show included reenactments of a stagecoach robbery, Indian attacks on wagon trains, a Pony Express run, a pioneer cabin being attacked by Indians and cowboys coming to the rescue, and, finally, a dramatization of Custer’s Last Stand.
Cody’s show became so popular in the States, he was compelled to take it to Europe as well, where he was met with equal enthusiasm. He performed for Queen Victoria in London and Pope Leo XIII in Rome. In 1893, Cody set up a huge show near the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, which further fueled his notoriety.
For a man who lived in a passing era of the old West, Cody became more and more forward-looking in his personal philosophies. He eventually came to be a conservationist and spoke out against hide-hunting and advocated for the establishment of limited hunting seasons.
He also was a champion for women’s rights and hired many women as performers. He said, "What we want to do is give women even more liberty than they have. Let them do any kind of work they see fit, and if they do it as well as men, give them the same pay."
But, most of all, he was a champion of Native civil rights. He had respected Indians immensely while working as a scout and learned his tracking and scouting skills from them. He employed many Native Americans who contributed much to the authenticity of his show. He thought his show offered them good pay with a chance to improve their lives. He described them as "the former foe, our present friend, the true American" and once said that "every Indian outbreak I have ever known has resulted from broken promises and broken treaties by the government."
Buffalo Bill Cody and Sitting Bull had become trusted friends and Cody had given the Chief a beautiful show horse as a gift to express his appreciation for participating in his Wild West Show. Sitting Bull had returned to the reservation. But in 1890, Cody received a telegram from General Nelson A. Miles, commander of the U.S. Army in South Dakota. Miles requested that Cody proceed immediately to Standing Rock Reservation, where a dangerous stand-off had developed. The Sioux and other Plains Indians had begun to perform the ghost-dance to conjure the spirits to help them in gaining their freedom. Sitting Bull had publicly expressed his support of the ghost-dance, which Army officials feared would further inflame the ghost-dance mania. General Miles hoped that Cody could use his influence with his old friend to deflect trouble and any violence.
Cody had reached Fort Yates and purchased some candy from the company store to take as a gift to Sitting Bull, who had a sweet tooth. He also brought with him five journalists in hopes they might bring light to the situation and diffuse the trouble. “I was sure,” he wrote later, “that my old enemy and later friend would listen to my advice.” But he was also concerned that he was going to “a hostile camp of Indians, risking all on the card of friendship and man-to-man respect.”
Meanwhile, nefarious forces were at work. Major McLaughlin, the agent of Standing Rock Reservation—hated Sitting Bull and hoped to arrest him and strip him of any power with his tribe. When he heard that Buffalo Bill was coming to meddle and was bringing journalists, he feared Cody would save his friend from arrest. McLaughlin arranged for his interpreter to head Cody off and tell him that Sitting Bull was heading back to Fort Yates, from whence Cody had come. Sitting Bull had been told that Cody was coming and held some hope in his heart that his old friend could aid in saving his people from an attack by the Army.
But McLaughlin succeeded in preventing Buffalo Bill from meeting with his friend. And the inevitable happened. Sitting Bull was killed by McLaughlin’s police at Standing Rock shortly thereafter. The beautiful horse that Buffalo Bill had given Sitting Bull was outside the Chief’s cabin when Sitting Bull was shot multiple times. The horse had previously been trained to commence dancing upon the start of gunfire during the Wild West Show. Legend has it that, as Sitting Bull was being assassinated, his horse began to prance once more.
Buffalo Bill mourned the unjust death of his old friend and knew perhaps more than most the worthiness of the old chief. He later wrote: “The greatest of all the Sioux in my time, or in any time for that matter, was that wonderful old fighting man, Sitting Bull, whose life will someday be written by a historian who can really give him his due.”
Buffalo Bill died at age 70 in 1917--with his boots on, always a showman and forever a son of the West.
You may also enjoy these posts:
-Wild Bill Hickok
-The Ghost Dance: Last Prayer for the Old Ways
© 2020 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER