Buffalo Bill from Prairie to Palace

Article excerpt

Burke, John M. Buffalo Bill front Prairie to Palace. Edited by Chris Dixon. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012, 367 pp. $24.95.

The budding international romance with the American West - snow-capped mountains, prairies streaming with buffalo, tough cowboys and treacherous Indians -blossomed in the years after the Civil War, even as events in the West were still unfolding. The result was an instant outpouring of dime novels, tall tales and larger-than-life heroes, none larger than William F. Cody.

Cody's outsized fame was no accident. His youthful adventures as a cowboy, wagon master, scout, buffalo hunter, Pony Express rider and Indian fighter made Cody an ideal candidate for frontier celebrity, which he exploited for decades with his famous Wild West show. Handsome and charismatic, Cody was also ably - if not reliably - mythologized by his manager and press agent, the ever-loyal John "Arizona" Burke, who published this hagiography in 1893 to secure the legend of the man known as Buffalo Bill.

Cody was born in 1 846 in a log cabin, Burke writes, and grew up on a Kansas ranch. At age ten, he signed on with the freighting firm of Majors & Russell, which paid him $50 in half-dollar coins. He felt himself a millionaire, Burke says, and gave his mother - of course! - every dollar. Burke also claims that Cody killed his first Indian at age eleven while herding cattle, becoming famous, in Burke's words, "as the youngest Indian killer on record." In fact, Cody had a convoluted relationship with Native Americans. He had Indian friends as a boy, but as a scout for the army, Cody killed many Indians, including a Cheyenne named Yellow Hair in 1876, an incident that became known as the "first scalp for Custer." Not surprisingly, Burke justifies these killings. The Indians "were the victims of legitimate warfare," he writes, and Cody was simply doing his duty, an "effective instrument" of civilization.

Later, as a showman, Cody hired dozens of Sioux, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Pawnee, and other warriors for his Wild West show, where he paid them to reenact some of his famous exploits. Cody treated them well, it seems, and proudly presented them to European dignitaries and royalty, including William Gladstone, Queen Victoria, and Pope Leo XIII. Burke himself makes sweeping generalizations about Indians. "The Indian," he writes, "is proud, sensitive, quick-tempered, easily wounded, easily excited; but though utterly unforgiving, he never broods. This is the whole secret of his happiness."

Burke's narrative valorizes and authenticates the vigorous, manly world of Cody and other frontiersmen. This explains Burke's nonbiographical chapters on cowboys, shooting and riding, where he praises the "riders of the world" such as Bedouins and Cossacks. This also explains a chapter of testimonials from Cody's many army friends. General Phil Sheridan, for example, writes that Cody "was a cool, brave man, with unimpeachable character. …