Buffalo Bill and William Cody


Buffalo Bill the character was first a fiction created to symbolize the "wild west." William Cody the man became so enraptured with this persona that it began to dominate his life and his work. It was Cody who, in his autobiography, placed Buffalo Bill in the company of Daniel Boone, Kit Carson, and Davy Crockett. William Cody was a real person, however, with a history of his own, and he was a man devoted to pursuits outside of his theatrical enterprise. Just as the Wild West Show reduced a vast region with an infinite number of complex racial, cultural, economic, geopgraphic, and ecological issues to a common archetypal myth, Cody's life as a showman reduced him to the legendary character of Buffalo Bill. Nevertheless, the complexities of the west remained unsettled, and Cody's life outside the show encompassed ambitions and failures not apparent in Cody the showman.

Part of this inscrutability derives from Cody's relentless desire to become Buffalo Bill. As we have seen, fact and fiction intertwined so tightly in the Wild West Show that the two became indistinguishable from one another. This same blending spilled over into Cody's personal life as his real identity became confused with the character of Buffalo Bill. One problem is that Cody so aggressively promoted his enterprise that he was almost always "on stage" as Buffalo Bill. In New York, San Franciso, Chicago, and Europe, Cody's savvy for publicity essentially required that he maintain his character anywhere he went. In his day, he was a national hero, a role model, and a living legend. Slipping out of character or dashing the public's expectations of him might have led to the ruin of his empire, or so it seems Cody believed. Buffalo Bill represented the quintessential American through his embodiment of frontier values and all the raw independence, freedom, and self-sufficiency included in wild west virtues. As the nation become increasingly industrial and as waves of immigrants descended on American shores, Buffalo Bill became the very symbol of the American spirit. Cody recognized the burden he carried, but relished the responsibility of shouldering it. Still, there was more to Cody than his legend, and in fact, his Wild West Show was to Cody a source of capital to finance the many other ventures he initiated.

Outside of the entertainment industry, Cody's most significant project was that of developing the town of Cody, Wyoming. In Cody's scouting days, he grew enamored of the land in Big Horn Basin. In 1895, Cody began to establish his eponymous town, and his approach to development was remarkably similar to the making of the Wild West Show. Cody possessed a broad, comprehesive, and inventive vision for his community. He imagined a utopian western metropolis where old west values and emergent modern technology and prosperity would coexist in a new "White City." Cody's indefatigable pursuit of his envisioned ideal was indeed impressive. He hustled, lobbied, and wheeled-and-dealed anyone who could help him achieve his goal. He had organized financing to dig three canals to irrigate the land using the Shoshone River. When his initial efforts to raise the two million dollars necessary for its completion failed, he hounded his friend Teddy Roosevelt for support. By 1904, the Department of Interior initiated the Shoshone Reclamation Act, and by 1910, two dams were in operation, and 16,200 acres were under irrigation.

In personal letters to his friend C.L. Hinkle, a member of the Wyoming State Land Board, Cody demonstrates the extent of his vision of the town. Excerpted below are some passages from these letters which illustrate Cody's inexhaustible energy. The letters appear in The Business of Being Buffalo Bill: The Selected Letters of William F. Cody, 1879-1917(1988, Praeger, New York), and I have quoted them as they appear in the book. Much of the biographical information I include was gathered from Blackstone's book. For further reading, see especially the first section entitled "Letters," pp. 1-84.

One of Cody's many projects was to institute a Military College in Cody. The original location for the college was to be in Colorado, but through Cody's influence, he was able to convince the command to move it to Wyoming.

April 15th, 1901.

...Now Hinkle. Some time ago I filed in the names of Charles DeMarris and my self-on the waters of the hot springs near Cody. Will you please examine these filings and give me the particulars regarding same. this is very important for me to know at once as I am doing something that will be of great interest to the state I have incorporated a company of which I am President which will be known as-

Cody Military College International Academy of Rough Riders

to teach young men all branches of Miliary Science it's taking like wild fire-our company will commence the permanent construction of the barracks in June and will establish a military camp in tents at once...

Another of Cody's goals was to take advantage of nearby Hot Springs to build a hotel and resort. Cody the town was already being promoted in the show with the slogan: "Take the Burlington Northern to the Big Horn Basin." His eventual goal was to link Cody with Yellowstone National Park via an auto and stage line, and he worked arduously to ready the region for the inevitable influx of tourists.

April 27th 1901.

My Dear Hinkle:-
Thanks for finding out about those hot springs near Cody. Now what I want to know is what the state proposes to do with them. You know I am working hard to establish a Military college in our state and it will be a great advertisement for the state. And as I was the first man to make application to the state for those mineral waters I should be considdered...Please find out what I can do to get use of those springs.

And let me know at once.
Very truly yours
W.F. Cody

PS. Telegraph me if the town sections is allright now.
P.S. Hinkle fix this business up for me and I will make it allright with you. I want to get control of those springs.

May 17th, 1901.

My Dear Hinkle:-
Your favor of the 15th before me...I will make application for 130,000 gallons of the different waters per day from those springs for the use of the Military College and for my hotel and for bathing and shipping purposes. I think that the water should be shipped all over the country as soon as the railroad gets there. It will advertise the state...This amount of water will be only comparatively a drop taken from the immense flow of those springs and I wont be injuring anyone in taking it. Instead I will be benifiting the people and advertising the State.
Very truly yours,
W.F. Cody

The Wild West made a final European tour in 1903. The tour was arranged by James Bailey of Barnum and Bailey Circus so that the Wild West's kickoff show in Europe would be concurrent with Barnum & Bailey's return from their European tour. This move was a brilliant partnership in terms of logisitcs because the shows could exchange their show trains and other equipment and thereby lessen practical complications posed by transportation arrangements. The timing of this exchange also eliminated competition between the two shows for U.S. audiences. Despite overseeing the tour, Cody continued to manage and promote the development of Northern Wyoming.

Hull, England
July 2d 1904

My Dear Hinckle
Thanks for your favor. Am sorry our Govenor did not get the nomination. But such is life. I compliment you on your deserved promotion...Have commensed building a hotel near our old hunting camp at mouth of middle fork. And will add forty more rooms to the Irma. Also getting my coal mine in to shape to ship coal. That dear old country eats up my money faster than I can make it...

1907 marked a turning point for Cody and his Wild West Show. Financially, the enterprise began to falter. James Bailey had invested in half of the show, but after his death, his estate couldn't provide enough capital to keep the show up to Cody's standards. The long tours on the road began to take their toll on Cody, and an apparent homesickness for his ranch in Big Horn Basin crept into him. He managed to overcome financial problems, but it was a narrow escape, and money woes plagued him for the rest of his life. In 1910, he began a series of Farewell tours, after which he intended to retire to Wyoming. Cody's empire slowly crumbled during the last ten years of his life. The Farewell tours took nearly three seasons to complete, and troubles befell the show constantly. Cody had overextended himself financially with bad investments, and keeping the show running and managing activities in Big Horn proved too much. His marriage had ended in 1905 and he and Louisa Frederici had been entangled in a lengthy lawsuit. His health and his spirit suffered, but in Buffalo Bill fashion, he suffered in private, and pushed on with new projects to pay his debts. He merged the Wild West with the Sells-Floto Circus and established a motion picture company. As this letter to friend and hunting companion E.E. "Buck" Arbuckle indicates, Cody's problems only worsened.

Dear Buck
Say. This is the allfired darkest summer to stay in the road I ever seen. Once in a while I think we struck a plain trail then I loose it again. and I don't know where I am going. in about two weeks write me again. and see if I have picked up a trail I can hang to.

By 1916, Cody's health was in sharp decline, perhaps aggravated by ongoing legal battles, contract disputes, and financial troubles too insurmountable to conquer. Cody remained idealistic and hopeful to the end, always on the lookout for a new investment opportunity. But with no credit and no significant income, his prospects were not good. When word of his ill health went public, the Cody family was flooded with letters and telegrams from a worried nation. Cody was dearly loved and respected by many. A few of the telegrams below express the sympathy shared by millions when news of Cody's death in Denver on January 10, 1917, made the headlines.

Washington, DC
Dear Friend Bill am appealing to the Celestial court to revise the medical jurys decision hoping nerve will and constitution may steer you off the trail over Great Divide and let you camp for years yet on the banks of the rippling Shoshone. Stay with them. How Koolah old pal.
John M. Burke

Burke was the Press Agent for Buffalo Bill's Wild West. Burke idolized Cody and is responsible for much of the existent literature glorifying Cody's life. Cody received this telegram the day before his death. Burke sent another the following day.

Washington, DC
A heart weeps with you in sympathy which also loses a rugged ideal idol in the death of dear Bill Cody.
John M. Burke

White House, Washington
Jan. 10, 1917
May I not express my sincere sympathy with you in the death of Colonel Cody.
Woodrow Wilson

Pine Ridge, SD
January 12, 1917
The Oglala Sioux Indians of Pine Ridge, South Dakota, in council assembled, resolve that expression of deepest sympathy be extended by their committee in behalf of all the Oglalas, to the wife, relatives, and friends of the late William F. Cody for the loss they have suffered; that these people who have endured may know that the Oglalas found in Buffalo Bill a warm and lasting friend; that our hearts are sad from the heavy burden of his passing, lightening only in the belief of our meeting before the presence of our Wakan Tanka in the great hunting ground.
Attest:
Chief Jack Red Cloud

and a fitting conclusion excerpted from an official Resolution in Memoriam from the State Legislature of California:

"Whereas, the State of California desires to express its appreciation of the courage and fearlessness of this, our last frontiersman, whose life stands forth in the establishment and foundation of our western country; and

Whereas, in his death that romantic and stirring chapter in our national history that began with Daniel Boone is forever closed..."

Sacramento, California: January 18, 1917.

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