Studying American History: Buffalo Bill and the Wild West

From a lecture series presented by Professor Patrick Allitt, Ph.D.

Images of the Wild West have long held a treasured place in Americans’ conception of their own nation, and few people did more to nourish them than William Cody, known later as “Buffalo Bill”. Singled out by eastern writers and editors as an ideal example of western manliness when he was only 23, he became the subject of hundreds of books, poems, plays, and exaggerated news stories.

Image of Buffalo Bills Wild West
Buffalo Bills Wild West, 1890

Born in Iowa in 1846, he moved with his family to the Kansas frontier in 1853. He was very poorly educated in the formal sense, but early on, he learned the range of skills that would make him one of the great outdoorsmen. When he was only 11, he was working as a cattle driver, and as a teenager, he rode for the Pony Express. During these years, he met several of the prewar generation of western legends—people like Jim Bridger and Kit Carson.

Learn more: Buffalo Bill Cody and the Myth of the West

Photo of Private William Frederick Cody, Medal of Honor recipient
Private William Frederick Cody, Medal of Honor recipient

He worked periodically as a teamster for the Denver gold rush. He served without distinction in the Kansas regiments of the Union Army, and later on embroidered the story to imply that he had a highly distinguished war record, which we know in fact to have been untrue. Still, it is true that, after the war, he showed exceptional gifts as a scout, and his knowledge of the Kansas Plains country made him very useful in the Indian campaigns immediately after the Civil War. General Sheridan promoted him to become chief of scouts of the Fifth Cavalry, in a succession of campaigns in the late 1860s and early 1870s.

The Transcontinental Railroad and 4,280 Buffalo

In the late 1860s, the first transcontinental railroad was built. Because huge work crews were going out on this job, they needed to be fed, so the Kansas Pacific commissioned William Cody to provide 12 buffalo per day. With a high-powered Springfield rifle, Cody could easily bring down far more than 12. He claimed that he killed 4,280 buffalo in 18 months of service. This may well have been true. In the days when Indians on horseback had been shooting at buffaloes, it had taken enormous skill to hunt buffalo. Buffalo hunting meant riding alongside the animal and firing arrows repeatedly into it, until it fell down. But with high-powered guns, it became a very routine matter. Cody said he once killed 16 of them in one afternoon, as part of a shooting contest.

Image of "Buffalo Bill," nicknamed after his contract to supply Kansas Pacific Railroad workers with buffalo meat
“Buffalo Bill,” nicknamed after his contract to supply Kansas Pacific Railroad workers with buffalo meat

He grew his hair and his moustache very, very long and adopted fringed buckskin jackets. Already in his early 20s, he started cultivating the image of himself as someone extraordinary. He claimed to have grown his long hair in defiance of the Indians’ scalping tradition. George Armstrong Custer (General Custer) did the same thing. The hair became one of his distinguishing trademarks.

Learn more: Building the Transcontinental Railroads

Buffalo Bill’s Big Break

Image of Ned Buntline
Ned Buntline

The great break for Buffalo Bill came when he met the journalist Ned Buntline in 1869 at an army camp. Buntline at once took a great liking to Bill’s appearance, swagger, and his ability to tell stories about his life on the frontier. Buntline himself was a Connecticut Yankee. He had become the author of dime novels—cheap books turned out very quickly and full of lurid adventure.

Buntline was looking around for a new hero to update the Boone, Crockett, and Carson literary tradition. After meeting Buffalo Bill, he decided that this was the man. So his first book about him was called Buffalo Bill: King of the Border Men, and he attributed to William Cody exploits that in fact various other people had really done—for example, the killing of Chief Tall Bull.

Cody hadn’t even been on the expedition that led to this chief’s death. The actual killer was a man named Major Frank North. Later on, Frank North worked in Cody’s show and became his partner on a ranch. But during the show, Cody would be depicted as doing this killing, which North himself had actually done. It must have been a very strange sensation for him—nightly reenacting the killing, with Cody rather than himself defeating the chief in single combat.

Learn more: Struggles of the Plains Indians

Another writer named Prentiss Ingraham, who called himself “Colonel” Prentiss Ingraham, wrote 203 Buffalo Bill novels in the period between 1873 and 1900—more novels about him than about any other western figure, mostly completely imaginary. They were sometimes loosely based on events in Cody’s own life and the lives of other frontiersmen, as he gathered western lore.

Dinosaur Hunters, the New York Herald, and Winston Churchill’s Mother

Because of these books, the name Buffalo Bill started to spread back East, and he was still only in his mid-20s—still a young man. So when the railroad made the Great Plains accessible, and when groups of eastern businessmen and visiting dignitaries developed a fashion for coming out West to go hunting and to see the great sites, they wanted to hire Buffalo Bill as their guide. In the 1870s, he made a good living at this.

Picture of a Newspaper caricature of the Grand Duke's buffalo hunt
Newspaper caricature of the Grand Duke’s buffalo hunt

One of his famous expeditions was in 1870 with Professor Othniel Marsh, whom he conducted to the Big Horn Basin in search of dinosaur fossils. Marsh made a series of skeleton discoveries very important to identifying several of the dinosaur species, and Cody was his guide. On another expedition, Cody guided James Gordon Bennett, the editor of the New York Herald; Leonard Jerome, whose daughter Jenny was later to be the mother of Winston Churchill; and various other millionaires on a hunting expedition in 1871.

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The New York Herald itself ran plenty of stories about the expedition and did what it could to extend the legendary quality of this guide. The son of the czar of Russia, the Grand Duke Alexis, came out in 1872 and said he wanted to hunt some buffalo on the Great Plains. Once again, it was Cody who escorted him on a buffalo hunt. They arranged for a group of friendly Indians to come along and to put on shows for them, and to dance, and to have shooting displays. Duke Alexis gave Cody a massive fur coat in gratitude for his work as a guide.

William Cody Visits New York City

Buffalo Bill, ca 1875

Then Cody went to New York City to visit some of the people he had hosted previously, and they looked after him on a very successful visit. He was introduced at parties and lionized by everybody he met there as the living embodiment of the Wild West.

It is important to remember that during this development of the mystique of the West, only a tiny, tiny percentage of Americans actually went there. And for nearly all of them, this was only something that they had heard about happening somewhere else. Cody was in the unusual position of being in contact with both sides.

Learn more: Mythology of the American West

He was recalled to the army from New York in 1873 into a real Indian campaign, during which he won the Congressional Medal of Honor in a campaign against the Sioux. This is one of those moments when the reality and the myth begin to mix up. He helped a column of the Third Cavalry, led by General Joseph Reynolds, to locate the enemy, and then he led an attack. I want to emphasize that his bravery and his coolness under fire were real. He did have some of the qualities that made him an appropriate person about whom to tell stories of this kind.

Keep Reading:
American Bison: A Story of Near Extinction and Conservation
The Conestoga Wagon: The Road Westward

From the Lecture Series: The American Identity
Taught by Professor Patrick Allitt,Ph.D.