For me, the most fascinating part of Buffalo Bill’s life is the time frame that it spanned. In his later years, Buffalo Bill found that the only way to perpetuate the memory of the life that he had lived was to make a show of it. Can you imagine? Allow it to ruminate: the way that he made a living and his daily lifestyle had become completely extinct in his lifetime, and Americans were so far removed from his earlier lifestyle that it became an amusement to them. At least that is what I was left musing after visiting his ranch in North Platte.
William F. Cody was born in Iowa in 1846, and his family later moved to Kansas. After his father died, Cody took a job at the age of 11 as a messenger and then tried his luck in the Pikes Peak gold rush. By age 14, Cody was a rider for the Pony Express. Cody later served with the Union Army during the Civil War and was married in 1866, a year after his discharge.
After a string of jobs that he was not successful in, Cody was called West again. In 1867, Cody took a job supplying railroad workers with meat. Thus editing his name in the record books to “Buffalo Bill Cody” for killing 4,280 buffalo in 18 months. Cody also worked as a scout with the Army, and is credited with acquiring the first scalp for Custer. As a scout and hunter, he was very popular and befriended many of the famous (or infamous) people of the time such as Wild Bill Hickok.
In 1883, Buffalo Bill (at the age of 37) formed his first Wild West Show and began touring the U.S. and eventually Europe. In 1886, he built his “Scout’s Rest Ranch” in North Platte, Nebraska as a place to relax between show tours.
We were able to visit his ranch residence, a beautiful building that would make anyone feel at home. They did have a short video and some exhibits inside, along with some of the original décor.
We also visited his barn, which housed many of the horses for the show. The building features the ace of spades at the top, which was Annie Oakley’s trademark trick, as well as gunstock rafters that can be seen at the eave of the roof.
They also had a cabin that he used with his partners in a ranch operation in Nebraska. (It was originally located near the Dismal River, but has since been moved to the ranch property for preservation.)
Buffalo Bill is another bit of the West that is part real and part legend. Sorting through his life is fascinating and yet a stark reminder of how fleeting the Wild West really was, and how so many lifestyles were left behind in that era. This is particularly evident when you read about the Indians who were involved in the Wild West Show. There is no record of how they felt. Some sources do say that Buffalo Bill felt regret about his earlier buffalo slaughtering days, and that he was very respectful of Indians. Others do not have such a high opinion of him. I will leave you with the photo from an exhibit in the house of Chief Iron Tail, a survivor of the Battle of the Little Big Horn (1876) and the Battle of Wounded Knee (1890) and a participant in the show. This image has stuck with me.