"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Monday, April 4, 2016

The Lives and Legends of Buffalo Bill by Don Russell

The real thing

A splendid portrait of Cody on old age

I apologize in advance for the length of this post and hope you will plow through to the end! Buffalo Bill’s career was so long and so action-packed that it is difficult to be more succinct.

The best book on Bill

The definitive book on Buffalo Bill is The Lives and Legends of Buffalo Bill by Don Russell (University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1960). The plurals in the title are indicative of the different careers of William Frederick Cody (1846 – 1917) and the multifarious stories told about him – some true.
A great book
Reading about great figures of the old West can be a hazardous business: there are a lot of sensational, opinionated and poorly-researched books out there. There always have been, even when the lawmen and Indian fighters and outlaws concerned were still alive. But some biographies stand head and shoulders above others. If you want the lowdown on certain great figures of the West - the real, factual story and the complete picture - you would do well to read, for example, Casey Tefertiller on Wyatt Earp, Robert DeArment on Bat Masterson, TJ Stiles on Jesse James, Robert Utley on Billy the Kid, Leon Metz on John Wesley Hardin, and so on – there are quite a few. And you read Don Russell on Buffalo Bill.

The book was written over half a century ago and doubtless since then research has thrown up new facts and, perhaps, different perspectives. Yet as you read Russell’s life of Bill you are filled with confidence that you are getting the truth. It’s well written, too, being readable and entertaining as well as informative.

The overall tone of the biography is pro-Cody. That is not surprising: biographers warm to their subjects, even become a bit defensive about them sometimes. Perhaps a liking for the person was a reason for embarking on the work in the first place. But that is not to say that the book is uncritical or biased. This is no hagiography. Buffalo Bill appears warts and all. And the story feels complete.

Pro and anti

There are, and have been for many years, quite vigorous pro- and anti-Buffalo Bill camps. There are those who regard him as a mountebank, a man who unjustly puffed his own merits and achievements and was more showman than plainsman. The word charlatan has even been used. In the era of revisionist Western movies in the 1970s, notably with Paul Newman as Cody in the Robert Altman-directed Buffalo Bill and the Indians, Cody was portrayed as a drunk and a fraud. Others, however, have admired Cody and thought of him as a patriotic American who brought pleasure and instruction to millions. There is also, dating right back to the days when Buffalo Bill was still riding the Plains, a tradition of dime novels and, later, movies and TV which gave us the Buffalo Bill of legend and derring-do, the incomparably brave and capable scout and Indian-scalper who could do no wrong and never missed his mark. As always in these cases, the truth lies somewhere in between.

One thing is very clear from reading Russell: Cody did not exaggerate his prowess as a plainsman and scout. On the contrary, he minimized it, modestly. Those who really knew, such as army commanders, gave him much more credit than he did himself and described some really quite remarkable actions he undertook which demonstrated both courage and skill. It is true that Cody was notoriously vague about facts, seems to have had a genuinely poor memory, especially for dates, and was, as a showman, perfectly content to let ghost writers make absurd claims, especially in dime novels and pulp magazine articles. It seems almost as if he genuinely didn’t care. As a result, all sorts of legends have grown up about him and some people have accused him of lying about his past.

I’m not going to retell the whole life of Buffalo Bill here (you will be relieved to hear). A blogpost/book review isn’t the place for that and this one is already quite long enough. Anyway, you can read Russell and get a much fuller picture. But I’ll just pick out elements that were new to me or struck me as especially interesting, concentrating more on the early life, which is less well known about. Maybe it’ll be a ‘taster’ for you and get you ordering the book.


The biography gets straight into Cody’s ancestry and early life in Chapter 1. His people seem to have come from the Channel Islands and settled in Massachusetts at the end of the seventeenth century. Cody’s parents, Isaac and Mary, moved to Iowa, near LeClaire, and William Frederick was born there on February 26, 1846 in (happily and in the best tradition) a log cabin.

As a boy Cody was called Will or Willie, but that had to go. We couldn’t have a hero of the plains known as Buffalo Willie. It has become a legend that Willie never had a day’s schooling in his life (and Cody himself did little to contradict that) but in fact Russell tells us that he went to school at an earlier age than usual – his father Isaac was keen on education and paid most of the salary of a teacher, a Miss Goodridge. Still, Bill’s instruction was neither deep nor long-lived. While on the benches, though, he made friends with two young Kickapoo boys from the reservation nearby and he must have learned some Indian ways from them.

The Codys settled in Kansas – in fact Isaac claimed to be the first legal settler in Kansas after the act to organize the territory was signed by President Pierce on May 30, 1854. Isaac did not consider himself an abolitionist and was certainly no ‘free soil’ crusader. But he dabbled in politics and made a speech, saying, “I believe in letting slavery remain as it now exists, and I shall always oppose its further extension.” That was enough to get him shouted down as an abolitionist and he was stabbed with a bowie knife by a man in the crowd with whom he was in dispute over land. This injury was at least a contributory factor in Isaac’s death three years later, though not before he was elected to the territorial legislature in January 1856. Cody later claimed that his father “shed the first blood in the cause of freedom in Kansas” but that’s stretching it a bit.
Cody aged about 11
Aged ten, Willie made a brave and arduous ride to warn his father that a band of Border Ruffians were looking to lynch him. Russell says that when Isaac died, the “principal legacy he left his son was [a] restless pioneering urge toward the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.” Buffalo Bill followed that trail all his life but never quite caught up with the gold.

Young man on the plains

Willie had to work early. Aged 11 he got a job riding as express messenger for Russell and Majors in Leavenworth, carrying messages to the telegraph post three miles away. Russell and Majors became Russell, Majors and Waddell and operated the Pony Express in 1860, but that was still five years in the future. Willie meanwhile was ‘promoted’ to working on a wagon train minding the oxen, but proudly wearing a revolver strapped to his waist. He got into a knife fight with an older boy, rival for the hand of a fair maiden they had both taken a shine to, and he slashed the lad on the leg. It was decided that Willie should discreetly absent himself for a while and he accompanied a wagon train to Fort Kearny, a journey of about 40 days. “The trip proved a most enjoyable one for me,” Cody wrote later. Already he was getting experience on the Plains.

Typically, Cody later wrote “…no incidents worthy of note occurred on the way” yet train boss John Willis, who became a good friend, wrote to Cody years later, “Of course you recolect the time the Buffalo run through the train and stampeded the teams and you stoped the stampede.”

Wild Bill

Cody said that it was on this trip that he first became acquainted with Wild Bill Hickok. Hickok was ten years older than Cody, “generally admitted to be the best man physically in the employ” of Majors and Russell, and Hickok stood up for Cody when young Willie was being bullied. This was to be a lasting friendship. They ran into each other again during the Civil War and were scouts on the plains together afterwards. There was clearly mutual admiration and they remained friends until Hickok’s murder in 1876.

He shoots an Indian

Still a boy, Willie killed an Indian. “From that time forward,” Cody wrote later, “I became a hero and an Indian killer. This was, of course, the first Indian I had ever shot, and as I was not more than eleven years of age, my exploit created quite a sensation.” It is difficult for us to imagine these days an eleven-year-old boy with a revolver strapped about him roaming the West and killing someone. But to Cody and doubtless to many of his contemporaries it all seemed quite normal.

Pony Express

Willie, now called more often Billy, was fourteen when the Pony Express started. Don Russell wrote in 1960, “Some skeptics have vociferously denied that [Cody] ever rode Pony Express at all, but they offer no argument against it except his age.” In fact there are many today who think that Cody riding for the Pony Express was an exaggeration or legend with origins in the dime novels. Russell goes further and says that Cody was employed as rider by none other than the notorious Joseph A Slade. Mark Twain was much taken with Slade, as he wrote in Roughing It, and Cody seems to have gained a similar impression: “Slade, although rough at times and always a dangerous character – having killed many a man – was always kind to me. During the two years I worked for him as pony-express rider and stage-driver, he never spoke an angry word to me.” Still, at one point Bill Hickok led a raid to recover Pony Express horses stolen by Indians, and succeeded. At the ensuing drinking spree Slade got into a quarrel with a stage driver and shot him dead.

It was also at this time, when Cody was fifteen, that he killed a second man, one of a band of robbers and murderers whom he surprised in a dugout, while he was trying to get away from them. Two tried to stop him and he hit one over the head with his revolver and shot the other. It was the only time Cody tells of killing a white man.

Civil War

Cody was fifteen when the Civil War broke out. But fully a quarter of volunteers were under eighteen so Billy was not alone. His first activity in the war was as a horse thief. There were many volunteer forces that verged on being private armies and Cody joined one. He later wrote, “The Free State men, myself among them, took it for granted that as Missouri was a slave state the inhabitants must all be secessionists, and therefore our enemies.” Cody’s troop took their captured Missouri horses to Leavenworth. “The government officials, hearing of our operations, put detectives on our track, and several were arrested.” Cody was not detained, though, and his mother made him give up jay-hawking, “for such it really was.”
Cody as young Civil War volunteer
Loafing about Fort Leavenworth, Billy ran into Wild Bill again. Billy joined Hickok on an ox-train taking supplies to the Federal post at Rolla, Missouri and thence to Springfield. With the money they earned they went to St Louis where Billy rode as jockey on Hickok’s fancy racehorse but they were beaten soundly and lost all the money they had. Hickok got a job as a scout next day but “I being so young,” wrote Cody, “failed in obtaining a similar employment.”

But he carried military dispatches in the fall of ’61 and assisted George Long in the purchase of horses for the government. In the spring of ’62, just turned sixteen, he was a guide and scout for the Ninth Kansas Volunteers under Col. Clark in Kiowa and Comanche country. He met Kit Carson at this time (and was to name his son Kit Carson Cody in 1870).


Billy returned home in the winter and resumed attending school, briefly. But, despite his early less than happy jayhawking experience, he became a Red Leg under the aptly named Captain William S Tough, also sometimes spelled Tuft and Tuff. Tough was a Southerner but had been shot by some bushwhackers and raised a company in Leavenworth and hanged five of them. Thenceforth Tough was considered a Union man. Hickok was also reported to have been a Red Leg but Cody does not mention him. Cody says they had “many a lively skirmish with the Younger brothers, and when we were not hunting them, we were generally employed in carrying dispatches between Forts Dodge, Gibson, Leavenworth, and other posts.”

Billy hurried home when he heard his mother was very ill but she died in November ‘63. Cody says that he subsequently hung round Leavenworth and “entered upon a dissolute and reckless life – to my shame be it said – and associated with gamblers, drunkards, and bad characters generally. I continued my dissipation about two months and was becoming a very ‘hard case’.” Cody is quite frank about how he enlisted with Jennison’s Jayhawkers at this time. “One day, after having been under the influence of bad whisky, I awoke to find myself a soldier in the Seventh Kansas.” The official record shows William F Cody, age 18; born in Scott County, Iowa; occupation, teamster; eyes and hair, brown; complexion, fair; height 5’ 10”.

In 1864 Cody took part in a full-scale battle when Union forces under General Andrew Smith, with the Seventh Kansas on his extreme right, engaged and repelled Confederates under Nathan Bedford Forrest at the Battle of Tupelo, sometimes called Harrisburg, on July 14. You might think Cody would have boasted about being in a fight in which Forrest was defeated – it didn’t happen often. But in his autobiography Cody only said, “General AJ Smith re-organized the army to operate against Forrest, and after marching to Tupalo [sic], Mississippi, we had an engagement with him and defeated him. This kind of fighting was all new to me, being entirely different from any in which I had ever before engaged.”


Towards the end of the war Cody was on special duty as an orderly in St Louis and there he met Louisa Frederici on May 1, 1865. “Boylike, I thought it very smart to be engaged. I asked her … if she would marry me if I would come back after the war was over. And jokingly, she said ‘yes’.” He says that he then went back to fighting and forgot all about this light-hearted conversation but when he was discharged from the army she began writing to him urging him to keep his promise. “I concluded to do it.”
Louisa, Mrs. Cody
It was a disaster. Having read of Cody’s long life with Louisa I find her to be an unpleasant and unscrupulous person and their life together was almost always miserable. Cody was no saint, far from it, and he didn’t really do domesticity, but he didn’t deserve her treatment of him. She was a hypocrite (for example publicly accusing him of drunkenness when she herself drank) and dishonest (for example using money Cody sent her to enlarge their Nebraska property to buy land in her name only). Though she had her partisans, and Russell tries to be fair, I have no time for her. She had no sympathy for or understanding of the West. She looked down on her husband's career on the stage and on the Wild West shows, thinking them vulgar, yet she was perfectly content to live high on the hog on the proceeds. Bill remained steadfastly loyal to her (there is no evidence that he was unfaithful) and late in life they came to a sort-of reconciliation, or at least a mutual toleration. But he deserved better.

A scout on the Plains

Life as a young married man, and soon a young father, was perhaps not easily compatible with a career on the Plains as a scout. Louisa was left alone a lot, and usually had to care for their children alone. But Cody now entered on what in many ways was the most successful and exciting part of his life.

Though Cody himself was modest about his achievements at this time, senior Army commanders were more forthcoming. Sherman was especially laudatory. Cody scouted for him from the fall of 1865, guiding the general to Fort Leavenworth and Fort Kearny. At this time Cody also drove a stagecoach for Ben Holladay’s Overland Stage Line. He tried running a hotel with Louisa but couldn’t stick at it. All through 1866 and ’67 he guided, scouted and served as dispatch rider. He guided General Custer to Fort Larned.

Cody then got involved in a scheme to found a town, Rome, but it was a failure (the railroad passed it by), and it was illustrative of a whole lifetime of failed investments. He was a hopeless businessman and though he made wagonloads of money later from his show-business career, it all disappeared in unsound end-of-the-rainbow schemes and he rarely seemed to have a dollar to his name.

In 1868 he got a job killing buffalo to feed the railroad gangs on the Kansas Pacific (or what later became known as the Kansas Pacific). It was this that won him the name Buffalo Bill. The workers sang when he turned up:

Buffalo Bill, Buffalo Bill
Never missed and never will;
Always aims and shoots to kill
And the company pays his buffalo bill.

There were other Buffalo Bills and some of them gained contemporary fame but it was Cody who appropriated the soubriquet in the long term, and would never lose it.

In 1868 he also acted as a detective. The Topeka Leader reported on March 28, “WF Cody, government detective, and Wm. Haycock [Wild Bill], Deputy U.S. Marshal, brought eleven prisoners and lodged them in our calaboose on Monday last – a band of robbers having their headquarters on the Solomon.”

In the fall of ’68 Cody had an adventure when he was captured by Chief Satanta of the Kiowas. He managed to persuade Satanta that he was on a mission to get cattle to be issued to the Kiowas and this worked for a time, until the Indians saw no cattle but instead saw Bill high-tailing it for Fort Larned. They pursued him and were gaining but he came up with a party from the fort who drove the Kiowas off, killing two.
General Sheridan at Fort Hays had to get word to Fort Dodge that the Kiowas were on the warpath but “it was impossible to get one of the ‘Petes’, ‘Jacks’ or ‘Jims’ … to take my communication. Cody [,] learning of the strait I was in, manfully came to the rescue and proposed to make the trip to Dodge, though he had just finished his long and perilous ride from Larned. … At Dodge he took six hours’ sleep, and then continued on to his own post – Fort Larned – with more despatches.” Cody then returned to Fort Hays with yet more messages for Sheridan, who wrote, “Thus, in all, Cody rode about 350 miles in less than sixty hours and such an exhibition of endurance and courage was more than enough to convince me that his services would be extremely valuable in the campaign, so I retained him at Fort Hays till the battalion of the Fifth cavalry arrived and then made him chief of scouts for that regiment.”

In 1869 Congress cut the Army from 54,641 men to 37,313 and many officers and men left the service. Those who remained found it much harder to get promotion and many served in comparatively menial ranks compared with their Civil War levels. Yet senior officers insisted on retaining Cody: he was too valuable to lose. Major Carr (a Brevet Major-General) was an especial admirer and got for Cody what no other scout ever had, a citation from the War Department and the award of $100. Cody never mentioned it.

It is clear that Buffalo Bill’s career in the 1860s was full, varied and exciting, and it is also clear that, far from boasting or exaggerating about his prowess on the Plains, it took others, notably respected senior commanders, to tell the stories.

The Battle of Summit Springs

The summer of ’69 saw a major campaign against the Indians – eight companies were in action. Pulp novels and movies often have masses of cavalry dashing to the rescue but Russell tells us that actually most of the almost a thousand actions fought by the regular army against Indians between the Civil War and the end of the century were fought by an under-strength company or at most two, and often by even smaller units. Total Army casualties (usually wounded rather than killed) were 1,944, an average of two per engagement.

The fight at Summit Springs, however, in July 1869, was one of the few that would satisfy Hollywood and it is no wonder it later became a spectacle in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. Cody played an important part in the battle but has been denied his due because many authorities have based their accounts of it on the reminiscences of Luther North, brother of well-known Indian scout ‘Pawnee’ Frank North. Luther North had it in for Cody and denigrated his actions, glorifying those of his brother. In fact Luther claimed that Cody missed the fight entirely. In reality, though, eye-witness accounts, such as that of Lt. Edward M Hayes, credited Cody for the way the Fifth surprised the Indians. “It was due in great measure to the daring and guidance” of Cody, Hayes wrote. “This was considered the greatest of many achievements of this wonderful scout.” It is also probable that Cody killed Tall Bull, or Tatonka Haska, leader of many raids on the frontier.

Cody gains national fame

It was at this time that Cody met the scoundrel Edward Zane Carroll Judson, better known by his nom de plume, Ned Buntline. Judson had served time for desertion in the Civil War (though claimed falsely to have been chief of scouts with the rank of colonel). He had half a dozen wives, several simultaneously, and had shot, in a duel, a Nashville man who accused him of ignoble designs on another. He had been jailed for a year in New York for instigating a riot. In St Louis he was an organizer of the so-called Know-Nothing Party and fomented another riot, this time against the German element in that city, whence he fled to escape re-incarceration. He was a temperance lecturer who drank. Altogether, he was not the most savory of characters.
EZC Judson, aka Ned Buntline
Buntline did not invent the dime novel but he was one of the most vigorous of Beadle & Adams’s contributors, and boasted that he wrote as many as six ‘novels’ a week. However, few of these were ‘Westerns’ and he did not, as many think, write a long series of dime novels featuring Buffalo Bill. In fact the story Buntline wrote about ‘Buffalo Bill’ in 1869 was more based on the (exaggerated) exploits of Wild Bill Hickok. Cody and Buntline met only briefly in July 1869. Cody had little to say later about the encounter beyond the fact that “he asked me a great many questions.” On December 23 there appeared in The New York Weekly the first installment of Buntline’s story Buffalo Bill, King of the Border Men. Cody was flattered but the story did not contain an ounce of truth. There was no mention of Summit Springs or killing Tall Bull or even life on the Plains. It was, rather, a series of phony yarns about Civil War border fighting. But it made Cody’s name famous.

Hunting parties

The next phase of Cody’s career concerns hunting parties on the Plains. Bill seems to have made a conscious effort to project himself as a ‘famous’ figure. It was now that Cody, perhaps in partial imitation of the admired Hickok, adopted the famous long hair and goatee beard. He started sporting a rather theatrical costume of buckskins and high boots and large sombrero. With the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 sportsmen came out in considerable numbers to shoot. Even as a boy in Leavenworth Bill had watched with amazement the entourage of Englishman Sir St. George Gore who had, much to the disgust of Jim Bridger, shot 2,500 buffalo on one hunting trip. From 1870 another Englishman, Sir John Garland, made regular visits, paying as much as a thousand dollars for a buffalo horse and adopting the ‘American’ habit of a cocktail before breakfast. Lord Adair (later Dunraven) was another. Cody and his pal Texas Jack Omohundro guided and mentored these aristocratic marksmen, and made a good deal of money from it, as well as notoriety. They told yarns and showed early signs of showmanship.

In 1871 James Gordon Bennett, publisher and editor of the hugely popular New York Herald, engaged Cody for a hunting trip and it was all reported in the columns of his paper. Buffalo Bill's name seemed to be on everyone's lips, East and West.

Cody’s sobriety and seriousness did not improve. He lost money he had promised his wife for furniture at roulette. He raced his horse, Tall Bull. He played practical jokes. Some of the hunting parties were extraordinarily extravagant, with waiters in evening dress, wagonloads of champagne, greyhounds, linen, china and crystal glassware, and Cody entered fully into the spirit.
The Grand Duke Alexis
It all climaxed with the hunt of the Russian Grand Duke Alexis in 1872. Though a private expedition, this was regarded as an affair of state. Russia was then considered a friendly power that had acted to curb British and French sympathy for the South in the Civil War and had recently ceded Alaska to the US. General Sheridan was tasked with the preparations and who else but Buffalo Bill would be the MC? Bill excelled himself in the national limelight. In effect, he put on the first Wild West show. On parting, Alexis gave Cody a purse of gold, a diamond stickpin, a Russian fur coat and jeweled cuff links and studs. The headline in the Kansas City Times read ALEXIS ON THE UNTAMED BISON’S NATIVE HEATH. HE IS INTRODUCED TO BUFFALO BILL. In other words Alexis had the honor of being presented to Buffalo Bill and not the other way round.

Buffalo Bill goes East

Cody was given leave of absence with pay and invited to Chicago by rich buffalo hunters. He was provided with railroad passes and five hundred dollars for expenses. It was his first time East and his first dress suit. He attended balls. He visited Niagara Falls. He was fêted at the Union Club in New York City. He was accommodated free at the Brevoort Place Hotel (where he ran into Ned Buntline again; Buntline immediately penned another absurd Buffalo Bill tale to cash in on Cody’s celebrity). Cody was the hero of the hour.

Medal of Honor

But he was called back to the frontier. Indian troubles had flared again. He was lent a private railroad car to get to Chicago. By the time he got to Fort McPherson the expedition had already left so he mounted his faithful Buckskin Joe (he had sold Tall Bull) in evening dress because he had forgotten his trunk at a drinking party and reported to his new commanding officer, Colonel Reynolds of the Third Cavalry.

They reached the South Fork of the Loup River in Nebraska on April 26, 1872. Cody scouted the area and discovered an Indian camp. There was a brief action in which Cody crossed the river on Buckskin Joe but the cavalry horses behind him refused to. Cody killed three Indians and recovered two stolen horses. As a result of this action “Mr. Cody” (for he was technically a civilian) was awarded the Medal of Honor on May 22, 1872. (In 1916 an Act of Congress ordained that the Medal of Honor could only be given to officers or enlisted men, and Cody was stripped of his award, though Russell says it is unlikely he ever heard of this action.)

The stage

During the summer and fall of 1872 Cody received many letters from Ned Buntline urging him to go on the stage. Officers and friends argued against it but Buntline’s magic words, “There’s money in it” proved too strong a draw. On December 18 at Nixon’s Amphitheatre in Chicago, Cody and Texas Jack appeared in Scouts of the Prairie, a ‘dime novel for the stage’ scribbled down by Buntline in four hours the night before. It was a wild success with the boisterous crowd, though less so with the critics. The Times said, “On the whole it is not probable that Chicago will ever look upon the like again. Such a combination of incongruous drama, execrable acting, renowned performers, mixed audience, intolerable stench, scalping, blood and thunder, is not likely to be vouchsafed to a city for a second time – even Chicago.” But the first night made $2800 and Buntline’s words proved prophetic. It was the start of a long career on the stage for Cody, a cheerfully dreadful actor.

Russell says that the Times reporter had witnessed the birth of the Western.
Buffalo Bill treads the boards
Buntline, however, did not see the possibilities and departed the scene. Fortunately for Cody he was replaced by the capable ‘Arizona’ John M Burke, who was to devote thirty-four years of his life to the promotion of Buffalo Bill, on the stage and then in the Wild West shows.

The stage was to be an alternate calling for Cody for some years to come. He toured in ‘the season’ and returned to scouting in between theatrical tours. This active service added credibility to his stage persona.

The killing of Yellow Hand

In Chapter 17 of his book Russell reconstructs in detail Cody’s killing of ‘Yellow Hand’ (actually Hay-o-wei, better translated as Yellow Hair) in the post-Little Big Horn Sioux war of 1876. It was on Hat Creek near present-day Montrose, Nebraska (not on War Bonnet Creek as often reported).

Much of what people 'know' about this affair comes from the dime novels. In fact Hay-o-wei was not a great chief, the Indians he was with had not participated at Little Big Horn, and it was not "the first scalp for Custer."  Nor was it a great battle but a small dusty skirmish. It was not even a 'duel', more a sudden unexpected coming together in which Cody got lucky (and Hay-o-wei didn't). You can read the minutiae of the encounter in the book but what struck me about the account was that Cody was wearing one of his stage costumes that day, a vaquero outfit of black velvet slashed with scarlet and trimmed with silver buttons and lace. Here we see Cody blurring the distinction between the two worlds he inhabited, and this melding of historical action and show-business glitz was to become increasingly common, to the point where you wonder if by the end he could tell the difference.
A dime novel woodcut became a very widely circulated and sensational colored print:
"First scalp for Custer"
September 1876 was to be Cody’s last employment as a scout. Now he would give himself to ‘The Buffalo Bill Combination’.

The Wild West

Well, the rest of the story is very well known and Russell gives us the long history of Bill’s Wild West. For more than three decades Cody's show was the biggest, most famous and most commercially successful entertainment in the world. It was a major influence on how Americans saw themselves and their history and on their ideas of their frontier past (and indeed the importance of the notion of 'frontier') and furthermore it was a highly influential overseas advertisement for the United States.

Was the Wild West all phony? Well, yes, in many ways it was. In 1888 Cody promoted to the finale of the show, for example, his depiction of Custer's last stand, with Custer's trusty scout Cody gallantly arriving to save the hero but with the words "too late" projected onto the tableau. It was total hooey. Cody only met Custer a couple of times (when he guided him briefly in '68 and when Custer attended the Grand Duke Alexis in '72) and he was hardly a trusted colleague. Cody was nowhere near Little Big Horn on June 26, 1876.

And yet to Cody there was a deeper 'truth'. He wanted his depiction of the West of the frontier days to be a patriotic lesson to Americans, an illustration of heroic Westerners' (including his own) part in forging the national character in those days. He even wanted to assume the mantle of Custer. He started wearing his hair in Custerish fashion and dressing in semi-military buckskins like the great hero. He invited Custer's widow to the show several times and rather fawned on her.

Cody insisted on authenticity in the details of firearms and so on. Russell makes the fine point that “there was more extravagance than there was exaggeration” in the dime-novel Bill and the Bill of the Wild West. There was nothing deliberately mendacious going on, just a cheerful refusal to be tied down to hard fact, which was quite usual for the time.

Richard Slotkin, in another book, put it rather well when he called Buffalo Bill's Wild West "a space in which history, translated into myth, was re-enacted as ritual."

Cody allowed himself to be exploited as a hero and he made a living from it. But “in his own time there were few who disliked Bill Cody.” His courage, horsemanship and marksmanship were genuinely remarkable, and he was a genuine hero of the Plains. Genuine is a good word, despite all.

What came across to me most on reading Russell's account of Buffalo Bill's Wild West, however, was the sheer scale of it. What we today would call the logisitics were astonishing. This enormous operation moved across continents, often doing one- or two-night stands, and set up and broke down the show with the precision of a giant oiled machine. Indeed, when the show was in Germany the Prussian army sent observers with stopwatches and clipboards to monitor precisely how everything was unloaded from and reloaded onto the trains. It would be valuable for their war effort when the time came.

Russell has interesting asides on figures such as Annie Oakley and Sitting Bull. It’s interesting to me, though, that Russell devoted over half his book to Cody’s life before the Wild West, and I am glad he did. I learned a lot about Cody I didn’t know before.

Russell says that Cody was not as heavy a drinker as has often been suggested. Certainly he never failed to perform because of drink and he also never was drunk on duty when he was a scout.
It was actually called Buffalo Bill's Wild West, not 'Wild West Show'. Cody insisted on the educational and patriotic message: it was not mere entertainment.
Eulogies on Cody’s passing on January 10, 1917 came from President Woodrow Wilson, General Scott, General Miles, Theodore Roosevelt and many, many others. At his interment on Lookout Mountain, Colorado (where I felt when I visited that there is still a palpable atmosphere despite all the souvenir stores and so on) we are told that “all morning three thousand motor cars toiled up the seven and one-half miles of Lookout Mountain”. It must have been an astonishing spectacle – fittingly. Russell calls it “Denver’s gaudiest funeral.”

Poseur? Maybe, but he was the genuine article.
All that has been said by debunkers has had surprisingly little effect on public opinion. Buffalo Bill has become a symbol of an epoch. Movie-going audiences expect Indians to wear head-dresses and ride ponies, and cowpokes to wear ten-gallon hats and tote six-guns, not because that was how it always was then but because that’s what Buffalo Bill did in his show.

Don Russell says that even to us in an age skeptical of heroes, “If he was not one, who was?”



  1. Wow! A heroic post on a truly heroic figure. I’ve been reading about the West on-and-off for about 25 years, and the only person from the historical period that I wanted to meet was Buffalo Bill Cody. I think that the vast majority of his debunkers have no problem with Buffalo Bill per se; rather, they object to the very notion of the West. It’s a very post-60s sensibility, but there it is.

    Oddly enough, I don’t think there has really been a great movie about Bill. The Joel McCrea has some good things in it, but it doesn’t really work as a movie. Oddly enough, the scenes of Bill in Hidalgo, though brief, really resonate – that’s pretty much the man I imagined Bill to be.

    I think Bill is the most fascinating figure to emerge from the West because he was both an integral part of the Western experience, but he also knew enough to realize that it was an important, historical pageant. A born romancer, he knew the West was the stuff of Romance, and almost single-handedly created the myth of the West as we know it. Every Western novel, every Western movie, all the big stars that come to mind when thinking of the genre (Mix, Hart, Wayne, Rogers, Autry, Eastwood, etc.) owe something, to one degree or another, to this Olympian figure.

    1. Merci, mon brave.
      I agree that Cody was one of the truly greats.
      I also agree that there has never been a really good screen Cody. McCrea was fine but he was given such a preposterous script.
      Well, long live the myth of the West!