Buffalo Bill Cody – The Real Deal

Just a block from our campground in Cody was the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, so John and I and Jay walked there on Sunday for a tour. The Center is actually five museums – Buffalo Bill, Whitney Gallery of Western Art, Yellowstone, Plains Indian Peoples and Firearms. We spent about four hours in the museums, regrouping for lunch at the on site cafe. If you ever get a chance to visit, don’t miss this world class offering. This blog article will just give you a taste…

Photograph, 1873, L to R: Eugene Overton, Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill Cody, Texas Jack Omohundro, Elisha Green (all frontier scouts).

The Buffalo Bill museum was my favourite and it contained an astonishing collection of his personal possessions and other historic items including photographs and I was enthralled with his story. The museum displays provided the following interesting details of his life.

Cody earned his nickname ‘Buffalo Bill’ from his skill as a hunter. In 1868 he earned a whopping $500 a month supplying meat to workers on the Kansas-Pacific Railway. Guiding wealthy European and American sportsment on western hunts provided substantial extra income and contributed to his fame.

Cody's Buffalo coat and stetson hat (1880) and his ivory handled bowie knife (1860).

Cody became one of the US army’s finest and best known scouts. Military reports credit his knowledge of western terrain, his marksmanship, his courage and endurance and his understanding of the Indian for his success. Most scouts and guides were hired for short periods of time, usually for single expeditions, but Cody was continuously employed from 1868 to 1872.

Buffalo hide coat with beaver trim (1871) and engraved nickel and gold plated Remington rifle (1866), both belonging to Buffalo Bill Cody.

In 1873, Cody formed the Wild West performing troupe that included Wild Bill Hickok and Texas Jack Omohundro, to re-enact Cody’s frontier adventures. He appeared in theatres spring through fall and returned to scouting for the army in the summers. Audiences and newspapermen saw these men as the real thing, not actors, so the melodramas provided a foundation for the wild west myth.

Across Europe and America, the Wild West trains carried the show, its tents and equipment, to thousands of towns and cities. During one period, this army of performers and crew numbered more than 600, all of whom were fed three hot meals a day prepared on portable ranges more than 20 feet long. The show carried and cared for 500 head of livestock, including bison. Up to 80 Indians at a time performed in the troupe.

Lithographed posters such as this one were the principle means of show-business advertising in the 1800's. A one-sheet poster was usually 28" by 42". The Wild West show spent as much as $100,000 per season on posters.

As the Wild West toured the country, two train cars of advance men travelled one and two weeks ahead of the show, to arrange permits and licences, to buy provisions for the staff and feed for the livestock, to publicize and rent advertising space, and to paste up thousands of posters.

24-sheet lithograph printed 1898, Cincinatti. This is made of 24 separate lithographed sheets, pasted together into two large panels and would have been posted on the side of a barn or on a billboard fence called a 'hoarding'.

The show probably purchased over 1,000 copies of this billboard poster for the 1898 season at about $4 each and spent another $4 to install each billboard. In total the Wild West show used a half million poster sheets per year. Boy did they know how to market their business!

Photograph of Annie Oakley (1860-1926) the famous markswoman who starred in the Wild West from 1885 to 1901. Chief Sitting Bull called her 'Little Sure Shot'.

By 1901, more than one billion words had been printed about Cody. In the days before television, weekly ‘pulp’ magazines printed fictional adventure stories that used his face and name but little else that was true. And the legend lives on today!

Selection of period books and magazines featuring Buffalo Bill

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