Prince of the Plains: Buffalo Bill
In no American do myth and reality clash more sharply than in Buffalo Bill Cody. He lived in two worlds at once and he tamed the Wild West sufficiently to bring it indoors. Glass balls supplanted eyeballs as scout's targets. The Western mirage found a permanent home in that verdant part of the imagination where buffaloes will always roam.
Long before a toupee was fitted to his balding leonine head, Cody was the Prince of the Plains. Could anyone imagine a more adventurous or satisfying life than his? Wherever he went, he made history. When he entered the arena on his white charger and said, "Ladies and gentlemen, permit me to introduce to you a Congress of Rough Riders of the World," spectators tingled. Children idolized him. Presidents, czars, kings, and potentates (according to his well-oiled legend) befriended him. Even Queen Victoria was entranced, and saluted the American flag at his show. Everywhere the name of Buffalo Bill was magic, for he personified the American dream.
But triumph turned to ashes in his handsome mouth. For years he dwelt in the shadows just outside the floodlights of sham hero worship. He knew what it was to be alone on the bone-haunted plains; in a creaking railroad ear clicking off endless miles; in foreign lands. Women doted on him, but his own wife sought a
divorce. Men promised to devote their lives to him, but stayed only long enough to fleece him. Sick children improved at his touch. His only son died in his arms.
Galloping forward on his white horse, Cody looked as free as the air. Actually he was putty in the hands of shrewder men. Despite his large income and success, he finally petitioned the Federal government for the $10 monthly Congressional medalholders' dole. Toward the end he had to perform daily to avoid bankruptcy, going through every show with the persistent fear of death in the arena. Here was poverty in opulence, despair in hollow triumph: the fulfillment of the American nightmare.
Born in Scott County, Iowa, in 1846, William Frederick Cody was the son of a farmer. When his father died of pneumonia in 1857, the young lad became the head of the family and went to work as an office boy on horseback for Russell and Majors. During the Civil War he was a jay-hawker who stole horses from slave owners, and a private in the Seventh Kansas Cavalry. 1 After marrying Louisa Frederici in 1866, he was employed by the Goddard Brothers to hunt buffaloes for construction crews of the Kansas Pacific Railroad. After eight months at this Cody claimed he had bagged 4,280 buffaloes. The legend of "Buffalo Bill" began to grow.
Vivacious and popular, Cody was greeted as he rode through camp by such ditties as:
"Buffalo Bill, Buffalo Bill,
Never missed and never will;
Always aims and shoots to kill,
And the company pays his buffalo bill."
Whether Cody surpassed other buffalo hunters is something else again. Charles Jesse Jones ("Buffalo Jones"), for example, outshone and outshot him without half trying. This Plains adventurer found our buffalo hunting so tame that he went after muskoxen in the Arctic. There he hunted in temperatures of 50* below zero, was attacked by wolves, encountered hydrophobia among his animals, and beat off carnivorous insects. Yet who has ever heard of "Buffalo Jones"? No one but the buffaloes.
When construction work stopped, the buffalo market collapsed and Cody was out of work. He turned to civilian scouting for the Army and saw service under Generals Sheridan and Carr. By 1873 there was no further need of his specialty. The full-time plains career of America's best-known plainsman came to an abrupt end when he was in his early twenties.
Bill Cody reversed Horace Greeley's famous dictum. Eastward he went, taking the buffalo legend with him, searching for a job as coachman or fire engine driver. By the turn of the century he had become the hero of the plains by courtesy of Eastern huzzahs.
Nature had superbly fitted Cody for the heroic role. No one could have looked his role better than he. He towered over ordinary mortals, as had Washington and Lincoln; was fond of white horses, as were Alexander and Napoleon; and had a massive Olympian head, like Lee and Jefferson. Best of all, he had no inhibitions about believing Cody stories or about carrying them into his daily life. His was a world of naive wonder. He never learned to differentiate between what had happened in his life and what had been invented. To him myths were reality.
Cody's principal hero-makers were Ned Buntline, Prentiss Ingraham, and John Burke. Also helpful were Nate Salesbury, Texas Jack Omohundro, Dexter Fellows, Courtney Ryley Cooper, and Johnnie Baker. To them belongs credit for making Buffalo Bill the most highly publicized figure in Western history. What they did was not easy; no one should underestimate their endeavors. More spectacular men had to be outdistanced. Mountains had to be made out of molehills.
But let us not do Bill Cody an injustice. He had, after all, demonstrated that he was a virile fellow before he turned from the outdoor bison to the indoor Elks. For good and sufficient reasons Phil Sheridan, Wild Bill Hickok, and Frank North considered him one of their kind. The Wild West he domesticated for show purposes was basically authentic. The ballyhoo came up out of the East.
Mistaking Cody's later veneer for his true character, some have scoffed at him unfairly. Herbert Blake maintained that " Cody was not a great scout, not a great shot, and not an Injun fighter. He never killed an Injun in his entire career." In Irving Berlin's musical, Annie Get Your Gun, Buffalo Bill acted like a harmless blowhard. What the debunkers overlook is that what Cody was, not what he did, made him famous. His sense of timing was superb. He knew just when a grand gesture was fit and proper.
During an 1876 Baltimore performance, he received a telegram from General Sheridan saying the Sioux were on the war path. Would Cody return immediately to service as a scout with the United States Army? To put the question was to answer it. Without waiting for his cue, Cody dashed on stage, read the message, and announced he was through playing at war. The crowd roared as he dramatically departed for the station. When he arrived in Cheyenne, Wyoming, he was still wearing his theatrical black velvet suit with gold lace and silver buttons; and it was thus he joined the Fifth U. S. Cavalry.
Buffalo Bill "took the first scalp for Custer" and avenged his slaughter--or so the American public came to believe. Did Cody actually kill Chief Tall Bull or (as some intimate) was the tall bull in Cody's story? Conflicting versions make interesting but confusing reading. The New York World credited a Lieutenant Hayes with the Chief's death. In Cody's autobiography he claimed to have fired the fatal shot at 400 yards. Subsequent accounts had the Scout sneaking ever closer. By the time True Tales was published, the distance was down to 30 yards. When Cody decided to re-enact "with historical accuracy" the killing in his show, he disposed of Tall Bull with a knife.
Meanwhile his fellow campaigner Lute North swore under oath that his brother Frank North had killed the Indian. "I asked Frank why he didn't correct Cody, but he just laughed and said he wasn't in show business," Lute explained. Cody never tired of citing a newspaper account of the Tall Bull adventure which ended "Among those killed was the noted chief Tall Bull, killed by Cody, Chief of Scouts." The first nine words had actually appeared in the New York Herald, but not the last six.
Whether or not Buffalo Bill really did scalp Custer's slayer, he undoubtedly carried a scalp around with him for years afterwards. An exasperated army officer offered him $50 to get rid of the grisly trophy. Never a man to treat money lightly, Cody agreed, and mailed it off to his wife. Her tart reply indicated little appreciation of the historical value in the upper portion of what might have been Tall Bull, or of the claims of her husband.
"Will Cody, don't you ever send me another Indian scalp as long as you live," she said.
"I'll do better than that," he replied. "I'll never scalp another Injun!" He never did--except, of course, in dime novels and the imagination of the world.
Cody didn't need new scalps to win friends and influence audiences; showmanship sufficed. Everything about him impressed and delighted his contemporaries. Reputedly a man's man, he cultivated a rich line of rhythmical profanity. Maledictions rolled from his lips like liquor from a jug--and the jug itself was not an object from which Bill was estranged. He was so drunk when he enlisted for the Civil War that he evidently didn't know what he was doing. The Western habit of taking a snort of whiskey before breakfast he found "more refreshing than brushing the teeth." Yet no amount of liquor could keep him from stirring the heart of Indian squaw or European lady alike. They loved him drunk or sober.
As the amount consumed during shows increased, his manager made Bill sign a contract restricting himself to ten glasses of whiskey a day. Clutching his dry throat, and noting that the contract said nothing about the glasses' size, he bought ten huge beer seidels. The next audience, in Denver, guessed as much. Cody swung his lasso with such telling effect that he had to his credit that afternoon three calves, seven Indians, a lemonade vendor, and the Mayor's wife.
No ceremony was so solemn as to take Bill's mind off the bottle. Called upon to perform a marriage ceremony, he ad libbed briefly before reaching the climactic line: "Whom God and Buffalo Bill have joined let no man put asunder. Let's have a drink."
Men more subtle and sober than Bill made him a paragon. Richard Walsh's well-documented biography tells the story of Cody's rise. 2 The men most responsible for it, Buntline, Ingraham, and Burke, form the greatest pressbox infield in the major league of American reputations. No account of Clio's hero-makers can ignore them.
Ned Buntline was, in an age of screwballs, an amazing character. Author of at least four hundred novels during his hectic lifetime (once he wrote a 60,000-word thriller in a week), he never invented a fictional character who lived a more incredible life than his own. 3 Born in Harpersfield, New York, in 1821, Buntline's real name was Edward Zane Judson. His father was an author and hero-maker in his own right. In addition to biographies of George Washington and Patrick Henry, the elder Judson wrote Sages and Heroes of the American Revolution.
Appointed a midshipman by Van Buren in 1838, young Edward soon showed what kind of chap he was. In a single day he challenged thirteen midshipmen to duels, fought seven, marked four opponents for life, and emerged unscratched. Next he participated in a Seminole Indian war, from which he returned telling how he had killed a large jaguar with his hands. Back in Paducah, Kentucky, he began a magazine called Ned Buntline's Own, employing the pen name he used thereafter.
In Eddyville, Kentucky, he captured two murderers single. handed and unarmed. Afterwards he himself killed William Porterfield, who had been rash enough to accuse Buntline of committing adultery with his wife. The citizens of Nashville thereupon lynched Ned and strung him to a tree. The rope broke. The Sheriff took Buntline back to jail, presumably to die. Ned had other plans. "I hasten to tell you I am worth ten men yet," he wrote a friend. "I expect to leave here for New York in three or four days." He had not yet begun to fight.
In the East he enjoyed double nuptial bliss, keeping one wife, Kate, in Westchester County, and another, Lovanche, in New York City. While commuting between homes he wrote Ned Buntline's Own. A leader in the 1849 Astor Place riot, in which 21 persons were killed, he was confined for a year on Blackwell's Island. This provided the opportunity to write a new series of novels. When released he was brought home on admirers' shoulders and honored with a torchlight parade. A prime mover in the Know-Nothing Party, Ned got so involved in political intrigue that he had to flee to the Adirondacks in 1856. Accepting his setback stoically, he proceeded to acquire a new home and wife there.
Soon the drums of civil war were beating. Buntline could never resist drums. As a member of the First New York Mounted Rifles, he was enlisted, promoted to sergeant, and dismissed from the service after a furlough which entailed, among other things, attempted marriage. During his subsequent month's confinement at Fort Hamilton he turned out two novels, then headed west looking for new adventure and fresh copy. At Fort McPherson he encountered a handsome young scout whom he decided to re-name "Buffalo Bill" and to feature in dime thrillers. A new American hero was the result.
Cody's autobiography tells how Buntline looked that first day: "He was stoutly built, and wore a blue military coat. On the left breast were pinned about twenty gold medals and badges of secret societies. I told Major Brown he looked like a soldier--but what a good mark to shoot at on the left breast!" Of all the decorations, the one the Scout coveted most had George Washington's head on a gold shield with two American flags crossed above it. Cody invited Ned to ride his fiery horse, Powder Face. Seeing how well he rode, Bill proposed that he help scout for Indians. "I was to deliver a temperance lecture tonight," Buntline said, taking a drink; "but no lecture for me when there is a prospect of a fight!"
Buntline did not invent the nickname he gave his new friend. Even if he did not know of Cody's prowess as a buffalo killer (and it is hard to imagine that Cody kept it a dark secret), he probably chose it as one already popular on the frontier. The New York Weekly announced in December, 1869, that Buntline had completed a novel on Buffalo Bill: The King of the Border Men.
Its hero was a literary descendant of that first historic Western hero, Daniel Boone. That is to say, he was modelled on the Leatherstocking whom James Fenimore Cooper popularized. With Leatherstocking's garb and skills, Buffalo Bill was better fitted for Kentucky than Kansas. Buntline was more concerned with what his readers wanted than with what plainsmen actually did. He went to Cooper rather than to nature for details.
Buntline's hero was not hampered by facts. Cody admitted he had arrived at Summit Springs, where Tall Bull met his death, four hours after the fighting. The German woman whom the Indians had captured, Mrs. Weichel, was safe long before then. Not so in the dime novel. There, Buffalo Bill arrived just as the Indian Chief was bringing down the tomahawk for the death blow.
Coming on at a full gallop, he grabbed the reins with one hand, drew his pistol and shot Tall Bull between the eyes with the other, and raised his star-spangled sombrero in a gentlemanly flourish to the rescued lady--presumably with a third hand.
This magnificent description was merely the beginning of Buntline's service to Cody. So impressed was be with his protege that he persuaded him to enter the theater. Buntline would write the play, and Cody would be the star. "Texas Jack" Omohundro (who hailed from Virginia) and Bill came east in December, 1876. Buntline had neglected to hire a cast, rent a theater, or write a play. While Cody and Omohundro rounded up extras on the Chicago streets, Ned procured a theater and started writing a suitable piece. Four hours later The Scouts of the Plains was completed and hotel bellhops were copying parts. Reporting on the play, and the conditions under which it was written, one vitriolic reviewer asked why it had taken so long to write; but most of them liked it anyway.
The man for whom buffaloes held no fear trembled when confronted with the footlights. Not so Buntline, who was so confident he could carry off his own part that he didn't bother to write out his lines. The Indians were to capture Cody and prepare for a meal of roast Buffalo Bill. "Texas Jack" and Buntline would save him from the burning stake and shout, "Now come on, you Redskins!" The trio would then avenge themselves on the newlyhired extras until all had died an excruciating death, and the audience was choking with smoke and emotion. They choked all right. From the moment Buntline rescued the utterly speechless Cody by asking, "Where have you been lately, Bill?" until the last Indian died, spectators cheered and applauded the West-brought-indoors. Buntline later wrote such sequels as Buffalo Bill, Buffalo Bill's Best Shot, and Buffalo Bill's Last Victory. With a man like this to dream up adventures, what chance had Cody to remain a mere mortal?