Magazine article USA TODAY

Buffalo Bill: The American West Incarnate. (USA Yesterday)

Magazine article USA TODAY

Buffalo Bill: The American West Incarnate. (USA Yesterday)

Article excerpt

HIS NAME was William Frederick Cody, but he also was known as the Honorable W.F. Cody, as well as Col. William Cody. Yet, the world knew him best simply as Buffalo Bill.

For Americans and Europeans, he was the icon of the frontier American West, embodying all the realism, romanticism, and mythology that went with it. He brought the West's savagery to civilization and civilization to savagery. Cody was familiar with the elite of the western military, such as Generals Philip Sheridan, George Armstrong Custer, Nelson A. Miles, George Forsyth, and Eugene Carr, serving as Chief of Scouts for the latter. All paid him homage as a tracker, scout, hunter, fighter, dispatch rider, raconteur, bon vivant, and gentleman. His bravery won for him the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Cody fought and killed Indians (Tall Bull and Yellow Hair) and befriended others, including Sitting Bull, Spotted Tail, Iron Tail, Lone Wolf, Black Elk, and Short Bull. In the political arena, he knew Pres. Teddy Roosevelt, himself a rancher in the North Dakota Badlands near Medora. As a man, Cody emulated Roosevelt's ideals of the sporting and strenuous life. Buffalo Bill played command performances before kings and queens of Europe, as well as gathering his troupe for an appearance before Pope Leo XIII in the Vatican's Saint Peter's Square.

Lionized in hundreds of dime novels and later in movies by actors such as Joel McCrea and Charlton Heston, Cody's international popularity spanned decades. The city that leads into the East Entrance to Yellowstone National Park was founded by him and bears his name--Cody, Wyo. It is both a tourist town and a center for scholars with its Buffalo Bill Historical Center.

A showman, but not always a successful business entrepreneur, Cody was a drinker of repute and sometime womanizer. A soft touch for helping others, he wound up his life deep in debt and died in 1917. His burial at Lookout Mountain, Colo., just west of Denver, was attended by about 25,000 mourners.

Yet, despite such information and accolades, we are uncertain about many things in the life of Buffalo Bill. In fact, he had his debunkers, and a number of today's historical revisionists regard him as a liar, fraud, and cheat. Nonetheless, they admit that, in his time, he was the doyen of the western world. The life of this hero and showman embodies the desire for history to become myth and myth to become history.

There can be no question that Buffalo Bill was a legendary character in the dictionary definition of that term--i.e., "a romanticized and popularized myth of modern times." The name Cody is still a popular one for boys today. He spanned the age of the 19th-century Indian Wars to that of 20th-century movies and automobiles. Cody was active in both epochs.

Cody was born in LeClair, Iowa (near Davenport), in 1846, and the family moved near Ft. Leavenworth in Kansas, a staging point for the nation in its westward movement. Horses, mules, and oxen were gathered there by the thousands awaiting assignment. For the ambitious, work always was available, and the death of Cody's father in 1857 made it imperative that his son bring home money. Cody was employed variously as an ox team driver for 50 cents a day and served as a messenger for the firm Russell, Majors, and Wadell, which later founded the famous Pony Express. However, theirs was an ill-fated venture that lost $100,000 and became defunct within 18 months. Its demise came as a result of the new telegraph service across the West that was connected coast-to coast on Oct. 24, 1861.

Whether Cody worked for the Pony Express is a controversial point, but the probability is that he was one of its riders. Legend has it that he once covered 300 miles in a little over 21 hours, using 20 horses. He was an expert horseman and rode ramrod straight in the saddle, always in firm control of his mount.

While he was still a youngster, Cody gained experience as an assistant wagon master on a trip to Ft. …

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