Presenting Buffalo Bill: The Man Who Invented the Wild West


“...‘Bungalow Bill’ was written about a guy in Maharishi’s meditation camp who took a short break to go shoot a few poor tigers, and then came back to commune with God. There used to be a character called Jungle Jim and I combined him with Buffalo Bill. It’s sort of a teenage social comment song…”

-- John Lennon, 1980

“Always a good storyteller, Bill regaled [dime novelist Ned] Buntline with tales of his frontier adventures--harrowing fights, exciting buffalo hunts, and danger-fraught wagon train crossings.

“Buntline had found his hero. By the time he returned to New York City, his head was stuffed with blood-and-thunder stories. Just four months later, the serialized story ‘Buffalo Bill, the King of Border Men’ appeared in a New York newspaper. Advertised as the ‘wildest and truest story’ Buntline had ever written, it was pure fiction.

“In Buntline’s tale, Buffalo Bill--along with gunslinger and lawman Wild Bill Hickok-- rescues his mother and sisters from a gang of murderous renegades. Bill’s character is established as sort of a western action hero…

“Almost overnight, Buffalo Bill became one of the best-known figures of the Wild West. The story’s timing was perfect. Readers back east were looking for a white western hero. Newspapers vividly reported the campaigns against the American Indian, and the building of both the transcontinental railroad and the telegraph made the frontier feel close. Longing for a western hero, easterners quickly fell under Buffalo Bill’s spell. They bought up Buntline’s story and begged for more.

“They got it. ‘Buffalo Bill, the King of the Border Men’ was just the first of seventeen hundred stories written about Cody during his lifetime.”

Fact or fiction? The real thing or fool’s gold? In PRESENTING BUFFALO BILL, author Candace Fleming has done an extraordinary job of researching and crafting a first-rate biography of William “Buffalo Bill” Cody. Fleming tells an  exciting, horrific, American history tale. The story never loses its momentum, despite sidebars giving evidence that many parts of the traditionally-told Buffalo Bill story (created mostly by Cody, himself) are not true.

Anticipating an expose, I was prepared to despise the showman who helped destroy the West and then made loads of money by organizing Native people, buffalo, elk, and Annie Oakley into a carnival show that he peddled around the country and the world.

Instead, I came away with a sense that Buffalo Bill was more a bit actor, rather than a driving force, in America’s dark history. The real villains were businessmen, slavers, and those holding political power in Washington, D.C.

There are three parts of Fleming’s story that I find particularly memorable. The first involves the large part of Cody’s childhood spent in pre-Civil War Kansas Territory. When Congress opened this territory to settlement, the country was stalemated over the issue of slavery. Congress left it up to the settlers to decide whether or not slaves would be permitted. The territory was essentially a war zone.  Armed white men poured in from Missouri hoping to make loads of extra money if slavery got the green light. They were largely scoundrels who were willing to do anything to get their way, including murdering the opposition.  Another group of white people from the North were opposed to slavery. Moved by personal conscience and philosophy, they weren’t so driven to kill their opposition. And then, as with William Cody’s father, some white settlers just didn’t want Black people living in the neighborhood, enslaved or not. William Cody’s childhood in the Kansas Territory was often a real horror story.

The second part of the story that stopped me in my tracks begins with Fleming recounting the way that Native people were mistreated, cheated, cheated again, and butchered, as the white man’s greed led to thievery, inhumane policies, and genocide. The author does an excellent job of summarizing the repeated betrayals as Native people are squeezed and slaughtered into submission. Then I read this:

“After defeating Custer, Sitting Bull and his people had fled into Canada. From there the chief had watched as tribe after tribe lost the struggle to remain free. By 1881, almost all the Great Plains American Indians had been forced onto reservations. That same year, Sitting Bull and his band--starving, their hunting grounds depleted--had no choice but to join them. Surrendering to U.S. soldiers, Sitting Bull spent nineteen months imprisoned at Fort Randall before being allowed to live with his family and other Sioux at the Standing Rock Agency (or reservation) in the Dakota Territory.”

That’s right. Standing Rock where, in 2016, economic interests have once again led to betrayal of Native people. Standing Rock where, just this week, police have employed rubber bullets, tear gas, mace canisters, and water cannons to drive the current generation into submission.

Finally, Fleming’s portrayal of Buffalo Bill, the man, is filled with complexities and contradictions. Young William Cody was the old West’s equivalent of a child prodigy. Had his father not been a casualty of pro-slavery attackers, William Cody might have benefited from some schooling. Instead, he had to grow up fast. In the long run, Buffalo Bill ended up trapped in an unhappy marriage and outliving most of his children. He was a remarkable showman but an abysmal businessman, steadily losing every bit of the fortune that he made on his show. And for all the legendary stories about him fighting Native people, he was arguably more honorable in his dealings with them than most anyone in America. What a story! As we head into Thanksgiving and Black Friday, I’ll no doubt have my mind on Standing Rock and Sitting Bull, rather than Plymouth Rock and Myles Standish.

288 pages     978-1596437630    Ages 11 and up

Richie Partington, MLIS, California USA

See more of his recommendations:  Richie's Picks <>

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