Sunday, January 11, 2015

Buffalo Bill and the Invention of the Wild West of the Imagination

The monument without the grave in Cody, Wyoming.

Note:  Once again this is a post that ran away with me.  Too late to get it up yesterday, I am posting it a day late.
On January 10, 1917 a family gathered around the bed of a dying man in Denver, Colorado.  His health had been failing for some time and he was in great pain from renal failure.  His great mane of white hair was soaked with sweat.  The day before a Catholic priest with whom he had become friendly was called to the bedside and the 70 year old allowed himself to be baptized into the church and receive the Last Rights.  When the old plainsman, soldier, hunter, scout, and showman drew his last breath it was international news.  Buffalo Bill was dead.  Coincidently so was the man named William Fredrick Cody.
The funeral arrangements for such an illustrious figure—at the turn of the 20th Century he had been said to be, “the most recognizable human being on earth”—could hardly be simple.  Telegrams of condolences poured into the home of his sister, Mary Decker where his wife Louisa, daughter Irma, and other sisters had gathered from the likes of President Woodrow Wilson, German Kaiser Wilhelm II, members of the British Royal family, and children who had to scrape together carefully counted pennies to pay for each word.
One of the largest assembly spaced in Denver, the Elks Lodge Hall had to be secured for the funeral which was attended by thousands far overflowing the building’s capacity and into the street.  Despite the death bed conversion the service was not a funeral mass, but a Masonic ritual.  The deceased had been an active Mason since 1870 and achieved his 32nd Degree in the Scottish Rite in 1895.  Wyoming Governor John B. Kendrick led the funeral procession which included military honor guards, veteran performers from his famous Wild West shows, and contingents of   Native Americans.  The procession ended at a cemetery where the body was temporarily interred.
More permanent arrangements were somewhat controversial.  Bill had designated Cody, Wyoming, the town he founded on the Shoshone River as the western gate way to Yellowstone Park, as his final resting place in a 1909 will.  Development of the town and his near-by TE Ranch was a project that consumed much of his time—and a good deal of his fortune—over the last 20 years of his life. 
But a superseding 1913 will left the decision on a final resting place to his wife Louisa.  She, other members of the family, and the attending Priest all attested that in his final hours Cody had picked the peak of Lookout Mountain west of Denver in Golden, Colorado as his final resting place.  It was selected, it was said because to the west was the panorama of the Rocky Mountains and to the east the vista of the Great Plains spread out.  Some members of the family living in Cody objected but Louisa prevailed.  He choice may have been influenced by an offer of $10,000 from Colorado to locate the grave there and support for the construction of the grave site and museum.  Cody had lost most of his fortune by the time of his death, so this is not entirely implausible. 
Cody’s body was relocated near the summit on June 3, 1917.  In the mid-‘20’s Cody civic leaders began a long campaign to have the body moved to their town.  By this time the grave was a pilgrimage site for tourists and Cody wanted that trade.   A niece became a spokesperson for the cause.  But it was frustrated at every turn.  In 1948—an economic down-turn year when tourism was dramatically off—Cody residents reportedly raised $10,000 dollars as a reward for anyone who would obtain the body and bring it north.  The Denver American Legion post responded by posting an armed guard at the grave while a new, deeper shaft was blasted into the solid rock and Cody and his wife, who died in 1923, were place at the bottom under tons of freshly poured cement.
Today more than 100,000 people annually still visit the grave site and 65,000 pay the modest fee for admission to the near-by museum
Not that the town of Cody suffers much.  It’s dramatically beautiful setting alone attracts visitors, as does the rich hunting and fishing in the surrounding mountains.  The Buffalo Bill Dam above the city is the reservoir for an irrigation project conceived and started by Cody himself and which became the Federal Government’s first big water reclamation public works project in the 1920’s.
The small city of Cody with less than 10,000 year round residents, may not have a grave site but it does have the magnificent equestrian monument to Buffalo Bill, The Scout executed by famed sculptress Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and dedicated in 1924.  Nearby is the Buffalo Bill Center of the West incorporating 5 museums—the Draper Natural History Museum, the Plains Indian Museum, the Cody Firearms Museum, the Whitney Western Art Museum (home to many works by artists like Fredrick Remington and Charles Russell), and, of course, the Buffalo Bill Museum.
The town maintains a connection to the Wild West show tradition by hosting nightly amateur rodeo completions all summer and the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) sanctioned Cody Stampede is held annually over the July 4th holiday and is one of the premier events on the circuit.
Cody himself still holds a unique place in the American national psyche.  He was both an authentic frontiersman and a bombastic caricature of one.
Cody was born on a farm near Le Claire, Iowa Territory on February 26, 1846.  His father, Isaac, was originally from Toronto Township, Upper Canada and his mother was a Quaker and former school teacher.  Not long after his birth his father rented his Iowa land and the family returned to Toronto Township where the child was educated by his mother and in good local schools.  Unlike the depiction of him in some places, he was not at all illiterate, but quite well educated for a farm boy, and well spoken, almost courtly in his speech and manners.
In 1853 Isaac, an ardent abolitionist sold his Iowa land to finance relocation to Bleeding Kansas hoping to reinforce the anti-slavery population hoping to form a government under the popular sovereignty provisions of the 1850 Kansas-Nebraska Act.  Whether by accident or design the family moved to the pro-slavery stronghold of Fort Leavenworth.  Isaac was assaulted with a bowie knife and nearly killed trying to give a speech in the town.  He frequently had to hide for his life and his family was in constant danger. 
When he recovered from his wounds he went east to recruit new settlers.  In his weakened condition he died on the return trip leaving young Bill an orphan.
He joined Jayhawker band in the virtual civil war battling pro-slavery Bushwhackers died while at the age of 11.  Then he worked as a teamster, joined an expedition against the Mormons during the short lived and nearly bloodless Mormon Wars in Utah in 1857, tried his hand prospecting in a 1859 Colorado gold rush, and answered the call for “skinny, expert riders willing to risk death daily” to ride for the Pony Express during its legendary brief months of operation when he was 14.  

William Fredrick Cody, age 19 at the end of his service in the Union Army during the Civil War.

Too young to join the army, he became a scout for the Kansas Militia in campaigns against the Comanche and Kiowa until he could finally enlist in the Union Army when he turned 17 in 1863.  He served as a teamster and sometimes scout with the 7th Kansas Cavalry and saw action in Missouri and Tennessee.  After the war he served as a civilian scout and dispatch rider for the Army out of Fort Ellsworth, Kansas.
That led, in 1867 to a job as a hunter for the construction crews on the Kansas Pacific Railway.  He provided buffalo meat for the table and helped keep the enormous herds clear of the tracks.  His skill became legendary and in a year and a half of service may have killed over 4,000 bison.  Cody won the exclusive right to the nick-name Buffalo Bill in a one day competition with another hunter, William Comstock.  Cody won the completion with 61 kills to Comstock’s 48.
The hunting job for the first time brought Cody into contact with important men who were not Army officers.  His skill as a marksman and rider and his dashing appearance—he had taken to wearing the fringed-buckskins of Indian hunters, long hair, and a low crowned, wide brimmed sombrero—attracted their attention. Accounts of his exploits began to show up in newspaper articles.  Then he met writer Edward Zane Carroll Judson better known as Ned Buntline who was inspired to create a fictional Buffalo Bill based very loosely on the real hunter.  In 1869 Buntline published Buffalo Bill, The King of Border Men, which began running as a serial in the New York Weekly.  That was so successful that Buntline was soon churning out lurid Buffalo Bill tales in monthly dime novels.

Cody about 1875 as he appeared on stage.
Cody returned to the state annually for the next 11 years in a new production each time. For the 1873-74 season he invited an old friend—Union vet, hide hunter, gambler, and lawman William Butler Hickok better known as Wild Bill.  If Cody and Texas Jack were unpolished as actors, Hickok, who was drunk almost all of the time, could not remember his lines and staggered around the stage.  He was not invited back.
During the run of these shows, Cody broke with Buntline over the use of his name and image.  He continued under his own management, hiring playwrights to craft new shows.  He also took control of the Dime novels and hired Prentiss Ingraham to write most of them.
Cody’s family lived in Rochester, New York while he toured with these shows.  He had married Louisa Frederici shortly after the Civil War and together they had four children, two of whom died and were buried in Rochester.
In the off season, Cody returned to the west every year where he continued to act as a guide for wealthy tourists and dabbled in various business schemes, most of which failed.  After the 1876 massacre of Custer and the 7th Cavalry, Cody was once more called into service as a scout.  During a skirmish at Warbonnet Creek in Nebraska on July 17, 1876 Cody had an alleged “duel” with a Cheyenne warrior named Heova'ehe or Yellow Hair.   Cody was reported to have shot then hand-to-hand combat stabbed and killed the Indian and taken his scalp.  Some witness accounts differed and the press misreported the name of the warrior as Yellow Hand, but the incident became famous as “The first scalp for Custer.”  Cody had the incident written into the script of his next show.
In 1879 Cody attempted to separate himself from the Dime novel character by publishing an autobiography, The Life and Adventures of Buffalo Bill, Col. William Fredrick Cody.  While the book has known errors and not a few exaggerations it is thought to be on the whole a fairly accurate account of his life to that point.  A second auto-biography was undertaken years later with a ghost writer and is riddled with errors because Cody died before he could read the proofs.
Before the 1883 season, Cody scrapped plans for another theater tour.  He had bigger ideas.  That summer working from land he recently purchased on the banks of the North Platte River in Nebraska, he put out a call for experienced riders, cowboys, scouts, as well as Indians promising good wages and a new kind of adventure.  He was assembling a spectacle, a pageant of the West to tour the nation in a circus-like troupe.  The show would begin with a grand entry of all of the performers to stirring music by a large brass band and then feature exhibitions of horsemanship, sharpshooting, cowboy completions—rodeo type events—and was sprinkled with vignettes of pioneer life.  Highlights included a robbery of the Deadwood stage, a reenactment of the Duel with Yellow Hair, and a finale of an Indian raid on a cabin with Bill and the Cavalry riding to the rescue.  It was all thrilling and Cody was sure audiences had never seen anything like it.

Cody and Sitting Bull

In 1885 Cody’s troop included Sitting Bull and a number of Lakota warriors and their families.  Although the show featured the scenes of Indian warfare, Cody hoped that the teepee village erected on the show grounds and open to public visits, would showcase native family life and soften prejudices against them.  He paid his native performers very well and often spent time with them.  His relationship with Sitting Bull would have later repercussions.  Many Sioux, especially members of the Oglala band remained with the show season after season and their descendants still perform around the country doing traditional dances at Pow Wows and rodeos like Cheyenne Frontier Days.
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West was an immediate hit in its initial tours and was expanded and improved every season with new attractions.  By 1886 the show was making Cody rich.  He bought more land near the town of North Platte which he dubbed Scout’s Rest Ranch and built an eighteen-room mansion and a large barn for winter storage of the show’s livestock.
Rather than take the show on the road for the 1886 season he built exhibition grounds on Staten Island, New York where it played from June to October.  That winter he moved indoors with a slightly downsized program to Madison Square Garden then returned to the Island for the next summer.  During this New York stay more than a million people bought tickets to the show including the editors and publishers of all of the major newspapers and magazines who covered the extravaganza lavishly.  It attracted the attention of wealthy elite and of a parade of literary celebrities.  Thomas Edison took time to see the show and when it came time for him to make the first American motion picture with a plot, The Great Train Robbery, he was inspired by the Wild West show. But it also played to children from the slums, including young Jewish immigrants who would go on to largely create an infant movie industry for which westerns would become a staple.  Buffalo Bill and the Wild West were firmly setting an image of the west in the American mind.

Buffalo Bill impressed the ladies of London in 1887.

When the show closed its final Staten Island season, Cody packed it up and loaded it on a ship to England where he engaged to play as part of the American Exhibition which coincided with the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria.  He entertained the Royal family which was so impressed that Prince Edward arranged a second grand Command Performance for the Queen and her Jubilee guests including young Kaiser Wilhelm and most of the crowned heads of Europe.  Young Annie Oakley, Cody’s star attraction, especially dazzled the crowd and later shot a cigarette out of the Kaiser’s lips.  The show played more than 300 performances in London and then visited Manchester and Birmingham before returning to the States in October of 1887.  An estimated 2.5 million people saw these performances.  
It was the first of four European tours before 1892.  He visited the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889 followed by appearances in the south of France, Spain, and Italy where he and members of the troupe were received by Pope Leo XIII at the Vatican.  The 1891 tour began in Germany followed by appearances in the Netherlands, Belgium, and a return to Britain.  In 1892 there was another trip to England and another Command Performance
Back home Cody greatly expanded his show and renamed it Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World.  The new show added representative riding groups from horse cultures around the world—Turks, Argentine Gauchos, Arabs, Mongols and Cossacks.  It also included a U.S. Cavalry unit, Northwest Mounted Police, Indian Lancers, and other mounted military and an expanded group of natives representing several tribes.  The Grand Entry ride of these hundreds of performers was both colorful and impressive.
The new show was designed with the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 in mind.  But Exposition authorities refused Cody’s request for space to perform on the grounds.  Defiantly he bought land nearby and opened up anyway.  Despite the annoyance of the fair who viewed it as competition, the millions of visitors that flooded the city for the Exposition provided more than enough audience for both. After the fair concluded, Cody packed the show up for more tours of American cities.
In 1890 Cody responded to a request by General Nelson A. Miles to come to South Dakota where the Lakota reservations were tense with the spread of the Ghost Dance which was thought to be encouraged by Sitting Bull.  Miles hoped that he could intercede with the old man.  He found Sitting Bull personally friendly, but embittered by White men and hardships on the reservations.  There was nothing Cody could do to stop the Ghost Dancing.  He could not prevent the Wounded Knee Massacre, arriving on the scene with Miles two days after the rampage by the 7th Cavalry as the frozen bodies of the dead were gathered and dumped in slit trenches for burial. 
During the off season of 1895 Cody founded the Wyoming town that he modestly named for himself and its development as a tourist destination, hunting haven, and his TE Ranch occupied much of his time and money over the next several years.
This episode inspired the play Indians by Arthur Kopit and Robert Altman’s film version Buffalo Bill and the Indians staring Paul Newman as Cody who was  portrayed as a bombastic phony.  In real life Cody was deeply shaken by the incident.
Still, on the cusp of a new century Cody was at the peak of his fame.

Then outside Lexington, North Carolina on October 29, 1901, a freight train crashed into one unit of the train carrying Buffalo Bill's show from Charlotte, North Carolina to Danville, Virginia. Annie Oakley was so severely injured that it was thought for a time that she would never walk again, although she did eventually recover and return to the show.  110 horses were killed, including Cody’s two favorite personal mounts.  Also destroyed was a lot of equipment, props and scenery for the show.  It was a financial set back that shook the foundation of Cody’s enterprise.
To recover, Cody took the show to Europe for four more tours from, 1902 to 1906.  In addition to stays in major cities, the show played one night stands in nearly every town in Europe big enough to accommodate them.  By the time the final tour was completed he had penetrated deep into Eastern Europe—Austria, the Balkans, Hungary, Romania, and the Ukraine, Poland, and Bohemia.
Despite the success of the European tours, the costs of mounting the traveling extravaganza in the states, a series of bad investments, and money tied up in his Cody, Wyoming developments put a strain on the show.  He had to fold it after the 1907 season.
The next year he teamed up with his chief rival as Wild West show operator, Pawnee Bill to form the joint Two Bills Show.  But the joint endeavor also struggled and during an appearance in Denver in 1910 the Sherriff foreclosed on the show and sold its assets piecemeal.  An era had ended.

Cody himself was not yet ready to totally abandon show business.  In 1916 he made The Adventures of Buffalo Bill for Chicago’s Essanay studios featuring members of his old shows and a large cast of Indians and soldiers, including General Nelson Miles himself largely focused on the 1890 trip to South Dakota.  The film was released on January 29, 1917 shortly after Cod’s death.  Prints of the film have been lost and only a couple of short clip survived.
Cody would repeatedly show up in films, stage shows, and television in the years since his death notably in Annie Oakley starring Barbara Stanwick in 1935, Cecil B DeMille’s 1936 The Plainsman, the 1944 highly fictionalized bio pic Buffalo Bill starring Joel McCrea opposite Maureen O’Hara, in Young Buffalo Bill staring Roy Rogers at Republic Pictures, the Broadway and film versions of the musical Annie Get Your Gun, and the aforementioned Paul Newman vehicle.  He was either a recurring regular character or was portrayed in individual episodes of too many televisions show to recount.
Buffalo Bill also makes numerous appearances in literature including work by highly respected authors Larry McMurtry and Jerome Charyn. 
Perhaps the best elegy to the old man was written by poet e. e. cummings in 1920 and expressed the ambiguity of his life.
“Buffalo Bill’s”
        who used to
        ride a watersmooth-silver
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat

he was a handsome man
                      and what i want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
Mister Death

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