Buffalo Bill
"Remember son, the last thing a man wants to do is the last thing that he does."
Buffalo Bill and the Indians, Robert Altman 1976

Jesse JamesLong Riders
Dime NovelBritish edition

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Buffalo Bill

Buffalo Bill didn’t quite create his own myth but he certainly nurtured it and enabled it to grow, fuelled by his ambition and the panache which he developed as a performer and an entrepreneur.

Born William Frederick Cody in Scott County, Iowa in the year 1846, so successful was the myth he created that he was to be eulogised by President Theodore Roosevelt as being “an American of the Americans” before Buffalo Bill’s death in 1917. When the family moved to Kansas his father became embroiled in a political argument between the Slave State and the Free State parties was stabbed and died as a result of infection some time later. As a result of this Will sought employment and was taken on as messenger for the Major’s and Russell Freight Company which was moving supply trains across the plains to supply the army.

When the Kansas –Pacific Railroad was extended in 1867 onto the Plains Cody gained the job of supplying the workers with buffalo meat. So successful was he at his job that he claimed to have killed 4,682 buffaloes in eight months, so when the Kansas –Pacific Railroad reached its destination, Sheridan, his nickname was in place, and the legend had begun.

Cody now enlisted as a scout for the Fifth Cavalry led by General Eugene Carr and served in the army from 1868 to 1872. Carr was ordered by General Phillip Sheridan to rescue two German women who had been captured by Cheyenne raiders on the Solomon River. In fact the military’s undeclared purpose at this time was to hound allegedly hostile (ie all) native Americans by killing them wherever found and destroying ponies and possessions, as Custer attempted at the Washita River until he realised warriors were on their way and made a run for it. Secretly, this mission was aggressively punitive, for Carr was told by Sheridan that the women had already suffered a fate worse than death, thereby taking away the need for stealth and/or negotiation. Indeed one of the women was killed by a Cheyenne woman with an axe, while the other received a gunshot wound from which she recovered. The fact that these were the only white casualties yet 52 Cheyenne dog soldiers were killed indicates that this so-called battle was a one sided affair. As usual when a village was attacked the native Americans involved were chiefly concerned with the safety of their families and covering their retreat rather than actively attacking their attackers. This engagement or more properly, massacre, was known by the cavalry as the Battle of Summit Springs.

Buffalo Bill later actually used a re-enactment of this event to entertain audiences in his “exhibition” as he preferred to call his Wild West Show. It gave him the material to use and added an edge because he could justly claim it was a re-enactment of an event he had witnessed, even though it could not have borne any relation to it and the excitement would have to be pumped up. It was Buffalo Bill who had shot the Cheyenne chief Tall Bull clean out of the saddle. Similarly the legend was created by Dime Novelist Ned Buntline as his stories were given more credibility by the fact that Buffalo Bill did exist. Ned himself toured round the west gathering stories, all harebrained to a greater or lesser extent, upon which to base the lurid plots of his creations. Buffalo Bill, the King of the Border Men, was to be the first of these imaginative works.

At first he marvelled at the idea of being portrayed dramatically, and declined the offer of appearing as himself. Buntline persuaded him into an acting career initially, but the business side of Buffalo Bill soon realised that he was the draw and that Buntline was an unnecessary drain on the finances. He then spent 11 seasons in the theatre, but combined this with summers spent on the Great Plains, all the time stoking up his reputation, real but mostly imagined. Continuing to perform duties as an army scout made it more real for the audiences. Buffalo Bill was shrewd enough to realise that alternating between these roles blurred the distinction between the drama and the life it was supposed to reflect. The immediacy of the events portrayed enabled them to be perceived as authentic.

Once such event helped Cody to dream up another reconstruction, the Battle of Warbonnet Creek, July 17 1886. Not only was his behaviour somewhat reckless but it showed a cunning acumen in building a legend which would propel him to commercial success. The so called battle was really a non event because the Fifth Cavalry, now led by Colonel Wesley Merritt, failed to engage Cheyenne who had allegedly left the Red Cloud agency to join the Cheyenne and Lakota who had defeated Custer at the Little Big Horn. Seemingly Buffalo Bill joined the Fifth with a view to enhancing his reputation and claimed to have shot and killed the only casualty of the “battle”, Yellow Hair, who happened to be the son of a “very important” chief. Then, Buffalo Bill stooped down over the body of Yellow Hair and removed his scalp, held it aloft and shouted “The first scalp for Custer”. So exciting was the event that he dramatised it later in 1876 and recreated it in his “exhibition”, which opened in 1883 in Omaha, Nebraska.

In 1885, the Buffalo Bill Cody Wild West Show main attractions were Sitting Bull and Annie Oakley and its ticket sales reached a stunning $100,000 . The following year it travelled across the Atlantic to England for the Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee. The entourage included 18 buffaloes, 181 horses, 10 elk, 4 donkeys, 5 longhorn Texan steers, 2 deer and a Deadwood Concord stagecoach. The “exhibition” featured a buffalo hunt with real buffaloes, an Indian attack on the Deadwood stage with real Indians, a Pony Express ride, and at the climax, a tableau presentation of Custer’s Last Stand in which some Lakota who allegedly fought in the battle played a part. A willing audience was treated to a live spectacular which they readily accepted as a visual representation of “what really happened”. Like the dime novel before it, it brought the myth of the West of the ‘New World’ into the consciousness of the ‘Old’.

It was only natural that early motion pictures would repeat the myths that Cody had created. He really had become a legend in his own time, so the movie makers could not resist climbing on board. Cody hardly had to be persuaded to promote himself, and starred in silent movies of 1898 and 1912. Later renditions starred Roy Rogers (1940), Charlton Heston (1953) and Clayton Blackmore aka The Lone Ranger (1952), whose film rejoiced in the wonderful title : “ Buffalo Bill in Tomahawk Territory”.

The easiest thing to find out about the 1944 epic directed by William Wellman and starring Joel McCrea and Maureen O’Hara is that during a fight with a bad guy early in the film Buffalo Bill starts off wearing a hat, appears without it, regains it, loses it again and finally finishes the fight wearing the hat. The hat loss is not a result of the actions of Bill’s adversary. We can assume that the continuity director went on to greater things. The film itself, like Cody’s life, was loosely based on the truth, and despite good acting performances is unlikely to be of interest to anyone other than devotees of the genre.

44 films have been based on the legend in some way, and many have enhanced it, if that is the right word. The 1964 film appropriately starred Gordon Scott who made his name as Tarzan, and this film re-enacted themes developed in the Wild West Show. The so called battle of War Bonnet Creek became a massive face off between the two sides, decided by an individual fight between Yellow Hand and Cody, with the latter shooting the former (possibly true), before ceremoniously removing his scalp and delivering the famous ‘immortal’ “first scalp for Custer” line. (unlikely)

By far the most interesting and imaginative interpretation starred Paul Newman in 1976. “Buffalo Bill and The Indians, Or Sitting Bull's History Lesson”, directed by Robert Altman, was an ambitious film which set out to explore the myth rather than just retell it. Whether it worked or not depends on what you were expecting and whether you can sustain your attention during a film, which while not lacking in direction, tends to lack a plot which could make it seem incoherent. Nevertheless the humour helps it along and by the end it’s not just Sitting Bull who receives the history lesson.

The durability of the myth is reflected in that it has been the subject of a TV series in 1955 and even resuscitated as a theatrical production in 2000. Buffalo Bill may be long gone, but the myth most certainly lives on. It is a perfect example of how a myth of the West began with a degree of factual foundation as the basis for dime novel fictional accounts, and then became more and more developed as they were embraced by the new media, films, radio and television which looked for sensational material on which to base their stories.

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© Chris Smallbone March 2006