Saturday, February 27, 2016

FEBRUARY 26 = Buffalo Bill is Born

"Buffalo Bill's had a lot of critics; they often criticize him for being a showman. He was a showman.  That's what he did.  He was the greatest showman of the 19'th century.  But he was a true figure in western history as well. He was recognized as a scout of consummate skill by people who knew: Sheridan, Custer, Carr. These soldiers couldn't be fooled. Buffalo Bill was the real thing. He was a frontiersman, a scout and a showman.  And at each job he was superb. But at being a showman he was the very best of all."  - Dr. Paul Hutton, Historian

"He was very modest and unassuming.  I did not know for a long time how good a title he had to the appellation, 'Buffalo Bill'.  He is a natural gentleman in his manners as well as in character and has none of the roughness of the typical frontiersman... his temper and disposition are so good that no one has reason to quarrel with him."  - General Eugene A. Carr, U.S. Army

On today's date in 1846 William Frederick "Buffalo Bill" Cody was born in La Claire Iowa.  This man as stated above by one who studied him, and one who knew him was a most remarkable mix of traits to be found among the wild and colorful characters who populated America's "Old West", and would go on to create some of the most enduring legends out of that life - which he had lived himself.

William Cody's Early Life

William, or "Will" as he was called was one of five girls and two boys born to Issac and Mary Anne Cody. In 1864, the Codys staked a claim on the Kansas frontier during the time of pro and anti-slavery troubles there. Cody's father was anti-slavery, which made him the target of
much violence. Early on in his life, Cody learned to ride, rope and shoot. By the time Will was 11 (right), both his father and older brother were dead, so in order to support his family, young Will took a job with a freighting firm as a wagon train messenger. it was during this time that he said he killed his first Indian.  And he was also befriended by an older rider, "Wild Bill" Hicock, with whom he would be friends his whole life.  In 1860 the company Cody worked for founded the Pony Express, for which he made the longest single ride at age 14.

William Cody Marries and Becomes "Buffalo Bill"

From 1863 to 1865 Cody served with the 7'th Kansas Cavalry. Shortly after his discharge he met and fell passionately in love with Louisa Frederici, and married her in 1866. It proved to be a tempestuous marriage which lasted 50 years of long separations. Nevertheless they would have five children together.  Cody tried to be a hotel manager in 1867, but his restless spirit rebelled at such sedentary employment and
he went off to the west wherein he acquired a contract to hunt Buffalo to provide food for the workers on the Kansas Pacific Railroad. Between 1867 and 1868. Cody is purported to have killed 4,282 Buffalo for the KPRR (above). Hence the famous nickname. It is important to note that Cody only killed for food, and did not take part in the mass killings of the hide hunters which nearly obliterated the species.

Buffalo Bill - Army Scout

In May of 1868, with the Railroad having been completed, Cody once again took up employment with the U.S. Army during the Indian Wars. In this capacity he was expert. Says Gen. Carr: "His eye sight is better than a good field glass; he is the best trailer I ever heard of; and also the best judge of the 'lay of country', that is he is able to tell what kind of country is ahead, so as to know how to act. He is a perfect judge of distance, and always ready to tell correctly how many miles it is to water or to any place, or how many miles have been marched." Of course this put Cody in the thick of some of the fiercest Indian combat of that era. And his courage won him the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Buffalo Bill the Showman

Of course this was the era when all sorts of cheap fiction was being written (below) about the exploits of western heroes such as Buffalo Bill and his friend Wild Bill Hicock.  And in 1869, dime novelist Ned Buntline began pumping out countless pages of books and plays fictionalizing the amazing  stories of Wild Bill to an adoring public. In New York in 1872 "Buffalo Bill, King of the Border Men", based on
Buntline's stories was playing to sold-out houses. Cody attended a performance and when word got out that the real Buffalo Bill was there, and he stood up the audience went wild. Cody was initially reluctant, but when Buntline began offering him $500.00 a week to play himself on the stage, Cody realized that he could make far more money playing himself as a scout than he could in actually being one.  So on Dec. 18, 1872, "Scouts of the Prarie" opened in Chicago with Cody playing himself, and fellow frontiersman Jack Omohundro. Buntline wrote a script which was largely forgotten as Cody and Omohundro just came on stage and started telling stories of their adventures.  The play was a huge success with the public.

Buffalo Bill's Wild West

Cody soon formed his own acting company touring the U.S. with
Omohundro and Wild Bill Hicock on a version of their Chicago show, but keeping summers off to scout for the army.  But in 1874 he retired from scouting altogether, and his troupe toured successfully for a decade.  But Cody wanted a bigger show, saying: "One cannot transport the prairie to the boarded stage and still keep within the mileage limits." In 1882, Cody organized a Fourth of July celebration in North Platte Nebraska. Later known as the "Old Glory Blowout," this featured demonstrations of  horsemanship and the cowboy culture.

Cody paired with actor/manager Nate Salsbury in 1884 to form Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. This was a huge production which played as a circus of old west history and culture before circus sized crowds. The show would always start with a parade of featured groups and performers from all over the world. It would go on to include feats of marksmanship from such well known personalities as Annie Oakley. Calamity Jane was featured.  Sitting Bull himself along with 20 of his braves took part in re-enactments of Indian attacks on Wagon Trains. Performers would also take part in re-enactments of Pony Express rides, and Stagecoach Robberies.  Audiences were thrilled with these portrayals of living history which they had previously only read
about right before their eyes. For over thirty years Buffalo Bill's Wild West toured all over America, and eventually Europe playing for huge audiences in every major country on that continent, and in front of all of the monarchs of the day, including Queen Victoria, Kaiser William II, and the Pope. By the turn of the century Buffalo Bill was the most famous American in Europe.

Buffalo Bill's Wild West Comes to an End

As the 19'th Century gave way to the 20'th Century, and moving pictures became the most popular form of entertainment, Cody actually filmed many of his shows. But clearly the day of its great popularity had passed.  Cody, who was growing ill eventually was unable to keep up with his debts. On November 11, 1916, Buffalo Bill played his last show.  On January 10, 1917 William "Buffalo Bill" Cody died at his sister's home in Denver, Colorado. Buffalo Bill's Wild West melded many of the facts and indeed some of the actual participants, such as himself in the history of America's old west with the legends which developed to take the place of the facts, when the actual days of the old west passed into history. Its portrayal of the west of both history and historical myth has long since gone on to become an enduring part of America's cultural history.


"The Great West" Edited by Charles Neider, Bonanza Books, 1958

"The Real West - Cowboys and Outlaws" - the History Channel, 1993

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