"This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962
Sometimes it feels a bit hard to sort out fact and fiction with William "Buffalo Bill" Cody. He was bigger than life, he was romanticized by writers, and he did the same with his Wild West shows. He was every bit a self-promoter as he was a remarkable historical person.
Cody was born in the not-so bigger than life town of LeClaire, Iowa, on 26 February 1846. He had five sisters and one brother (who died young from a fall from a horse). In 1853-4, the family moved into the area that was to be the Kansas Territory. His father died in 1857 and Cody had to help out providing for the family. He soon learned how to ride and shoot and landed a job helping a wagon-freight company as a wrangler and messenger.
He tried his hand at prospecting during the Pike's Peak gold rush and fared poorly. He also spent time as a trapper. In 1860, he got a job with the Pony Express (run by the same company he had worked for previously). He did some riding but not a lotmainly due to the fact that service only lasted from 3 April 1860-18 November 1861. He was also still young and kept farther east, away from the more dangerous legs of the journey. (There are numerous stories, many which I had trouble confirming about his early life and dealings with Indians and "badmen," some of which may be true or partially truethat is part of the legend that is Buffalo Bill, and one that he often did little to rebut.) During this time, he met another legend of the west, James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok, who would tour for a time with Cody as part of one of his Wild West shows.
At the beginning of the Civil War, Cody was back at home tending his sick mother. He found the territory full of conflict between Kansas "free-staters" and pro-slavery Missourians. He attempted to join the Kansas side but it was against his mother's wishes (she later died in 1863). Instead he worked as a messenger for the army and later as a scout. Eventually he enlisted in the Seventh Kansas Cavalry and served for 19 months (one year active duty), seeing action in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Missouri.
After the war, he married Louisa Frederici and moved into his family's home. He continued his work with the army as a scout. In 1867, he "earned" his nickname when he became a "buffalo hunter" (bisonthere is no indigenous species of buffalo in North America, despite what the song says) for the railroad. The bison were used to feed the construction crews building the Kansas Pacific railroad. According to Cody, he killed 4280 "buffalo" during the seventeen months he worked (over 251 per month, between 8-9 a day). What really cinched the name was an eight hour contest he had with another hunter named William Comstock. The result was reportedly Cody 69, Comstock 46.
Following his stint as a "fearless buffalo hunter," Cody returned to scouting for the army. He was the chief scout for the Fifth Cavalry where he took part in some of the battles during the Indian wars (16). For his service, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1872 (revoked in 1916 due to his not being a regular member of the armed forces at the timeit was restored in 1989).
If he wasn't already a legend, it was 1869 that sealed it for him. That was the year that dime novel writer Ned Buntline (real name: E. Z. C. Judson) met and chose Cody as his next big western hero. He wrote and published Buffalo Bill, King of the Bordermen. Buntline specialized in a sort of " pulp" writing that romanticized a west that he actually knew fairly little about when he began writing. The books (a few hundred) were short and often violent and sensationalistic, mythologizing his heroes. The public ate it up and much of their conception of what the West was came from such places (as Cody's shows did later on)
Cody continued some scouting and sometimes led people on hunting parties as a guide (most notably Grand Duke Alexis of Russia, for whom Cody arranged a mock battle using real Indians). He had been invited back east on many occasions and Buntline was insisting he join him and portray himself in a stage play The Scouts of the Plains (1872). Not much of an actor, Cody was enthusiastic and a natural showman. He and Buntline had a bit of a falling out but it didn't seem to effect the play, since Cody continued in the role for another eleven seasons. By then, he had done some writing of his own, producing an autobiography (1879).
In 1876, he was briefly called back into service following the defeat at Little Big Horn. It was during this time that another part of the legend arose. During a battle, he supposedly "first shot with a rifle, then stabbed in the heart and finally scalped 'in about five seconds'" (www.pbs.org) an Indian known as Yellow Hair (often incorrectly referred to as Yellow Hand). Conflicting testimony exists, some referring to it as hand-to-hand combat (and more than "five seconds"), some that he was shot from afar, some that the scalping took place after Yellow Hair had died in battle, another claim is that the scalp was taken by another soldier and Cody bought it for $5. Whatever the truth of the story, it was incorporated into the stage play the next season ("Buffalo Bill's First Scalp for Custer").
It was in 1883 that he went off on his own, conceived and created "Buffalo Bill's Wild West." It was a large scale outdoor extravaganza. Part exhibition, part rodeo, part reenactment, part circus. Included were a large cast of Indians and "cow-boys" (originally a derogatory term), live "buffalo" (a staged hunt was part of the show), elk, cattle, horses. Real guns were used and he had sharpshooters, including Annie Oakley for a time. They acted out stage holdups, pony express rides, and Indian battles, climaxing with a reenactment of Custer's Last Stand complete with some Lakotas who had actually been there. For a while, he had Sitting Bull (billed as "the slayer of General Custer") as a part of the show.
It was hugely successful and he made a great deal of money (which was subsequently mismanaged forcing him to continue performing despite his wish to retire). The show went to England in 1887 where they were part of Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee (the Queen, herself, attended). Building on the popularity, the show toured in Europe two years later.
Cody was once again called into service in 1890, during the Ghost Dance uprisings. Some of the Indians from the show were helpful in pacification and they went to Wounded Knee to help restore order following the massacre.
In 1908 he combined with another showPawnee Bill's Far Eastduring which he did two years of farewell tours. But money was tight and Cody had to take a $20,000 loan from a Harry Tammen of Denver in 1912 to keep the show financed. Unfortunately for him, his troupe was playing in Denver at the time the loan came due. The show was seized in lieu of payment and Tammen would not extend the loan. The show was auctioned off and Tammen made Cody appear in his circus (which likely was the whole point of the loan in the first place).
Somehow he managed to get enough money together to form a small film company (W. F. Cody Historical Pictures Company) which filmed a reenactment of Wounded Knee in 1914. The film was a failure. In 1915, he was able to leave the circus but had to continue to play in wild west shows in order to remain financially afloat.
Cody died on 10 January 1917 and was buried at Lookout Mountain in Colorado.
Despite his relationship with the Indians as far as scouting for the army and taking part in battles (as well as what amounts to exploitation, in many ways, though the show), Cody was far from an Indian hater like his former commander General Philip Sheridan and many other cavalry members. He did have a respect for their customs and traditions and in 1885, said of Little Big Horn:
The defeat of Custer was not a massacre. the Indians were being pursued by skilled fighters with orders to kill. For centuries they had been hounded from the Atlantic to the Pacific and back again. They had wives and little ones to protect and they were fighting for their existence.
He paid the Indians who worked for him a decent wage (interestingly, he also paid women comparable wages for comparable work). He made contracts with them and made sure they fully understood them before signing. He once said "in nine cases out of ten where there is trouble between white men and Indians, it will be found that the white man is responsible. Indians expect a man to keep his word. They can't understand how a man can lie." During the tours, Indians were afforded the same freedoms as the other performers.
That said, he was making money off them and their heritage and was well aware of it. During the uprisings following the Ghost Dance movement when asked if he would fight, he said he wasn't sure, that "it might not look exactly right for me to do so, for I have made a fortune out of them, but if they go shedding innocent blood, I mayif I can be of any servicego up there." As many, even those who had the best intentions, he took a sort "paternal" patronization toward them: "Indians are as easily controlled as children but you must keep your promises to the letter." And:
I really think they enjoy this sort of life. But they are a queer, uncivilized crowd. Watch them eat. You see they can use a knife and fork and spoon in a rude, imitative way, but when they go back home, they will be happier eating with their fingers.
While he clearly had an amount of respect and appreciation for the Indians, it can't be used to whitewash the other aspects (the Indians of the reenactments were the stereotypical savages for the most part). Even though the show may have softened certain attitudes toward the Indians and actually taught some people of their culture, the thought of the once-proud Sitting Bull relegated to being an exhibit in a traveling show put on chiefly for the amusement of the spectators is a difficult image to reconcile.
(Sources: www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/people/a_c/cody.htm, http://spacr.state.wy.us/cr/archives/buffalob.htm., www.buffalobill.org/history.htm, http://members.aol.com/_ht_a/Gibson0817/buffalo.htm, http://dave.burrell.net//cody.html, http://www.thevision.net/lhaney/yhair.htm)