The Real Buffalo Bill

BACK TRACKS C

May 19, 1991|By Carleton Jones

It has taken more than a century, but it's gotten done. That is the disentangling of the real William F. Cody (Buffalo Bill) from stratified layers of legend and outright lies concocted in more than 200 old biographies.

The picture of the Wild West hero that emerges from moderbiographies is that of a born showman, an incredibly healthy person and one born to a life in the open air.

Much of this humble history has long been buried behind the flashy facade of Wild West fancy -- the bouncy caricature of the musical "Annie Get Your Gun," and the lurid and hair-raising exploits that never happened but were fed as gospel to generations of American boys and girls.

The stories even shocked the subject: The pulp writers, said Cody, "told of deeds we had never done and could never hope to master, of talents he [Cody] did not possess and noble sentiments of which he did not boast." Despite this modest disclaimer (and Cody was rarely modest, especially in his advertising), there really were certain big-league realities about William F. Cody.

He had, indeed, been a skilled and competent plains scout, working through the late 1860s as an agent for one of the two or three greatest American cavalrymen -- Philip Sheridan. It was Cody who rode to Fort Hays, Kan., to warn the general of a pending uprising that loomed within the Kiowa-Comanche tribes, that small but fierce Plains Indian nation which paraded through the Indian territories at will and raided into Texas.

After receiving Cody's warning, Sheridan called the chiefs together at Fort Sill, Okla., and read them the riot act. Almost 40 years later, shortly before his death, Buffalo Bill, probably on a filming expedition, returned to southern Oklahoma near the site of the conference and posed near Cache Creek in the company of W. H. Quinette, the famous Indian trader.

One of Sheridan's officers wrote: "Bill Cody, one of the best shots on the Plains, keeps us well supplied with plenty of buffalo and deer. He gets $60 per month and a splendid mule to ride and is one of the most contented and happy men I ever met."

In the 1880s, Buffalo Bill would launch his Wild West Show overseas. Those shows were probably the leading force (along with Ned Buntline's dime novels about Cody and others) in shaping the cowboy legend of the West.

There would be three decades of touring, with and without Pawnee Bill, Annie Oakley and squads of real Indians. Queen Victoria saw the show and so did her son, Edward VII, who presented Cody with a diamond pin shaped with the three feathers of the prince of Wales and bearing the prince's motto: "I serve."

In the 1880s Cody also played Madison Square Garden before 1 million spectators over an 18-month run. Six million people paid to see his show at the 1893 World's Columbia Exposition. It took between 50 and 60 railroad cars to move his company.

Toward the end, the audiences fell away. One of his last Baltimore shows played the park lot at Eastern Avenue and 15th Street in 1913. By late 1916, he was a very sick man burdened with a cutthroat management and only a fraction of the entourage of his golden 19th century days.

After he died in January 1917, a friendly observer said, "He was a boy who never grew up, but in spite of the many lives he lived, he was no drifter." There was a "special magic about him," said Baltimorean Howard Wells McComas, who ran away to join the show early in the 1900s.

When the rodeo came to town and the gallant old bird of 70 mounted his white Arabian, galloped into the arena, reared up and raised his hat, everyone cheered. *

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