Buffalo Bill: Scout, Showman, Visionary

by Steve Friesen, Fulcrum Publishing, Golden, Colo., 2010, $22.95.

 William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody died in Denver, Colo., on January 10, 1917. By anyone’s measure, the 70-year-old had led an adventurous life, trying his hand as trapper, prospector and perhaps Pony Express rider before finding his stride as an Army scout, a buffalo hunter and, of course, as the world-famous Wild West showman, reenacting his exploits for crowds worldwide. Almost as soon as his obituary hit the papers, family and friends set to squabbling—over his assets, over his public legacy, even over his body. Folks in Cody, Wyo., had assumed Bill would be buried in the namesake town he helped found, and they produced a will in his handwriting to back their “claim.” But Bill’s widow, Julia, insisted it was his deathbed wish to be buried atop Lookout Mountain, west of Denver, and she produced a later will naming her as executor.

Cody was one of America’s earliest and best-known celebrities, and tens of thousands of people turned out for his funeral. Among the mourners was his foster son, Johnny Baker, who had met the legendary Buffalo Bill as an awestruck 9-year-old back in 1878. Cody, who had recently lost his own young son, Kit, took the boy under his wing. When the Wild West debuted in 1883, Baker signed on and was soon performing as the sharpshooting “Cowboy Kid.” In later years he oversaw the arena for Cody, who once wrote to Baker, “No father ever had a son more loving and faithful. You have done as much to make the Wild West what it is as I have myself.”

To honor his foster father, Baker built a museum up by his gravesite, naming it Pahaska Tepee after Buffalo Bill’s hunting lodge near Yellowstone. Stocking it with Wild West memorabilia, artifacts and personal belongings culled from family and friends, Baker opened the museum on Memorial Day 1921. And though its fortunes have waxed and waned through the years—as had Cody’s —the Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave [www.buffalobill.org] remains open to visitors atop Lookout Mountain. In this book, museum director Steve Friesen highlights its collection and offers a Cody retrospective.

Baker intended the museum as a shrine to Cody, a fact Friesen readily concedes: “Objects associated with saints and other legendary individuals were revered as relics and displayed in treasuries at cathedrals throughout Europe….Similarly, Denver’s Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave on Lookout Mountain offers relics from William F. Cody and his contemporaries.” Expect a fair dose of fawning, then, in this de facto guidebook to the museum. Friesen makes passing mention of darker episodes in Cody’s past, including months as a vengeful Kansas Jayhawker and his failures as a businessman and husband, but this is a book about celebrity—what drove Cody to seek it, how he achieved it and how it took on a life of its own, propelling Buffalo Bill into a brand-name still recognized today.

With that understood, the book is just plain fun, filled with full-color images of iconic Wild West posters and props, portraits of Cody from age 11 literally to the grave, photos of his cast and famous friends, and all manner of Buffalo Bill souvenirs, costumes and heirlooms, including the Medal of Honor he earned during the Indian wars.

 

Originally published in the April 2011 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here