Memory and Myth at the Buffalo Bill Museum

By Dickinson, Greg; Ott, Brian L. et al. | Western Journal of Communication, April 2005 | Go to article overview

Memory and Myth at the Buffalo Bill Museum


Dickinson, Greg, Ott, Brian L., Aoki, Eric, Western Journal of Communication


Introduction

The story of the American frontier is a foundational myth. It both reveals how Americans view themselves as 'Americans' and informs the actions they take on a local and global stage (Slotkin, 1992, p. 10). Like all national (hi)stories, it is a dynamic myth, adapting to the demands of an age and the psychological needs of those who would tell the story as their own. It is a story that first began to be told in the eighteenth century, and one that took on particular importance in the late nineteenth century when Frederick Jackson Turner (1994) first read his paper, 'The Significance of the Frontier in American History', to an audience of nearly 200 historians gathered in Chicago during the World's Columbian Exhibition:

   Up to our own day American history has been in large degree the
   history of colonization of the Great West. The existence of an
   area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance
   of American settlement westward, explain American development.
   (p. 31)

But it was another figure of that time, William Frederick 'Buffalo Bill' Cody, who popularized the story of the frontier. Born in Iowa territory in 1846, William Cody was many things--a frontiersman, civilian scout, Pony Express rider and hunting guide. He did not become a well-known public figure, however, until the early 1870s when pulp novelist Ned Buntline transformed Cody into the legendary hero, Buffalo Bill. The dime novel press was a key force in fostering national and international interest in the West (Kasson, 2000, p. 201), and 'More dime store novels were written about "Buffalo Bill" than any other western character' (Sorg, 1998, p. xiii). Had Buffalo Bill remained merely a colorful character in dime novel fiction, then the history of the West may have been remembered very differently than it was for much of the twentieth century.

But Cody was an entrepreneur. Recognizing the public's appetite for narratives of western settlement, especially those involving clashes with Indian 'savages', he embraced the image of Buffalo Bill and 're-created himself as a walking icon' (White, 1994, p. 11). In 1883, Cody launched a carnivalesque arena show known as Buffalo Bill's Wild West, which blended his life experiences with the exploits of his mythic alter ego, Buffalo Bill, into a master narrative of the frontier. 'Fact' and 'fiction' became indistinguishable (Slotkin, 1992, pp. 81-82). Although the images of the frontier it presented were highly selective, dramatized, and romanticized, 'the Wild West ... seemed like an invitation into living history' (Buffalo Bill Museum, 1995, p. 31). A renowned storyteller and showman, Cody 'never referred to his Wild West as a show' (White, 1994, p. 7), and audiences in the United States and Europe saw the Wild West as a serious attempt to tell the history of the West (Slotkin, 1992, pp. 67-68). By the time it ended its run in 1913, 'Buffalo Bill was the most famous American of his time' (Tompkins, 1992, p. 179) and he 'typified the Wild West to more people in more parts of the world than any other person' (Lamar, 1977, p. 230).

In telling the story of the frontier, Buffalo Bill's Wild West 'defined the quintessential American hero' (Buffalo Bill Museum, 1995, p. 28) and brought 'the essence of the American West to the world' (Treasures, 1992, p. 8). With its dramatic images of untamed lands and cowboy heroes, frontier mythology is distinctly Anglo and 'American' in character, for as Will Wright (2001) asserts, the White 'cowboy represents the American idea, not just American history' (p. 2). Over the past half century, both the stories of the frontier and the key sites in which those stories are told have changed, but the frontier myth has remained a vital part of US national identity (Wright, p. 10). To gain a richer understanding of how the frontier myth is constructed in contemporary US culture, we turn to the Buffalo Bill Historical Center (BBHC) and more particularly the Buffalo Bill Museum (BBM). …

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