American Heroes, Myth and Reality

By Marshall W. Fishwick | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 8 Prince of the Plains: Buffalo Bill

'"Caesar and Cicero shall bow
And ancient warriors famous
Before the myrtle-wreathed brow
Of Buffalo Williamus"

--Anonymous ballad

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

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