ONE hundred years ago today, one of the most famous men in American history passed away. William Frederick Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill, died from kidney failure at the home of his sister in Denver, Colorado. He was 70 years old.
Tributes poured in from around the world, including messages sent by President Woodrow Wilson and both King George VI and his cousin Kaiser Wilhelm II – despite the latter two being monarchs of nations then at war with each other.
If ever a man was self-made and self-hyped, it was Buffalo Bill. Suffice to say that the death of this man with a genius for publicity was reported in the press around the globe.
Loading article content
Despite being born into a Quaker family and having been baptised a Catholic on his death bed, Buffalo Bill was given a Masonic funeral, having achieved the 32nd degree in the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry more than 20 years previously.
WHERE IS HE BURIED?
THAT’S a story that has lasted almost a century. There is no doubt that Buffalo Bill was officially laid to rest on Lookout Mountain near Golden, Colorado, on June 3, 1917. Some 25,000 people attended the funeral, including his family who had earlier viewed the embalmed body of the self-styled colonel.
In Cody, Wyoming, the town that he founded and modestly named after himself, the story goes that the corpse of Buffalo Bill was replaced as he lay in state in the Denver funeral home and Cody was smuggled back to Cody where he was buried in a secret location on Cedar Mountain.
The story was rubbished right from the start but Cody’s family took no chances, and his tomb at Lookout Mountain was encased in concrete.
To complicate matters, some people in Cody accept that Buffalo Bill is indeed buried in Colorado but they maintain that he always wanted to be buried in Wyoming and they would like their hero’s remains returned to his eponymous town. Some 500 miles apart, the two towns are still arguing about it.
The fact that both locations make a small fortune out of their connection to the great man is entirely coincidental, of course.
DID HE REALY INVENT THE WILD WEST?
DURING his lifetime, Cody happily took the credit for shaping the way that America and the rest of the world viewed 19th century USA. Having been born in Iowa and partly raised in Toronto, Canada, Cody was back in the States in Kansas when his father Isaac was attacked and stabbed because of his outspoken anti-slavery views. The senior Cody never fully recovered from his injuries and died of an infection.
Young William was now forced to earn a living to support his mother. Aged 11, and already an expert horse rider, he got a job carrying messages on wagon trains, before becoming an unofficial scout for the US Army contingent that was sent to Utah to confront Mormon rebels.
During that conflict he spotted a Sioux warrior about to shoot a colleague and without hesitation Cody raised his muzzle-loading rifle and fired, the warrior falling into the creek below.
At the age of 13, the legend of the “Indian Fighter” – a name he created for himself – was under way.
WAS HE ACTUALLY AN INDIAN FIGHTER?
AFTER Utah and by now aged 14, Cody joined the Pony Express, but when the American Civil War broke out he joined the Union side as a supply deliverer before he was eventually allowed to join the 7th Kansas Cavalry at the age of 17.
After the war he earned his nickname as a hunter of bison for the Kansas Pacific Railroad. He was a crack shot and killed literally thousands of bison, or buffalo, as they were erroneously known.
He became chief of scouts for the US Third Cavalry in the Indian Wars of the 1860s and 1870s and was soon a favourite of General Philip Sheridan who realised the benefit of publicising Cody. He really did go hunting with General George Custer and the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia, and three weeks after the Battle of the Little Big Horn and the slaughter of Custer and his men, Cody – who was by then hugely famous with novels and plays already featuring him – claimed the scalp of a Cheyenne warrior, saying that it was the “first one for Custer.” Yet within a few years he would become an advocate for the rights of Native Americans.
SO HOW DID HE BECOME SO FAMOUS AROUND THE WORLD?
IN the early 1880s, Cody realised that he could put on a show dramatising the events in which he had been involved, however tangentially. Thus the Buffalo Bill Wild West – never “Show” at the end – was born.
Massively hyped by Cody, the production was renewed annually and almost permanently toured the USA and then Europe, and everywhere it went, this mixture of staged gunfights and battles with native Americans was hugely popular. Stars of the show included markswoman Annie Oakley (Cody was one of the first employers to give equal pay to women) and genuine Sioux warriors, yet Buffalo Bill was always the biggest name.
Later he would add gauchos from Argentina and specialist horse riders from elsewhere to form the Congress of the Rough Riders of the World.
WHAT’S THE SCOTTISH CONNECTION?
CODY loved to bring his Wild West and Rough Riders to Scotland and particularly Glasgow where 7-8,000 people would gather in a specially constructed arena in the East End. He knew his publicity onions – he famously attended Rangers and Celtic matches, and was introduced to the crowds. His greatest stunt in Scotland was in 1892 when he introduced what he called “genuine African savages” and trained Burmese elephants as special attractions. Glasgow was agog at seeing these new wonders. In all the shows the white folk like himself were shown as heroes civilising – when not killing – the Native Americans, who were always known to him as Red Indians. To a very great extent, therefore, Buffalo Bill’s shows defined the “Wild West” for generations.