Buffalo Bill as Reported in Newspapers
By Melvin Schulte (Now deceased)
Not all famous people or events made headline news. William F. Cody (Buffalo Bill) and his Wild West Exhibition are prime examples. Although he was one of the most popular men of his day and generated untold column inches of publicity, most of them appeared on the inside pages.
As a dedicated collector of Buffalo Bill memorabilia, I have accumulated over 500 newspaper clippings that relate to his life and legend. It is surprising how his successes and his failures during his lifetime can be followed through them, as well as the ups and downs of his popularity after his death. The following series of events are found reported just in my own collection of clippings and are therefore far from complete.
The earliest is a two column by eleven inch ad from the New York Times of November 16, 1869. It was for the first publication of the first installation of the first Buffalo Bill dime novel -- Buffalo Bill, The King of Border Men -- written by Ned Buntline. The serial was to begin in the December 23 issue of The New York Weekly. Buntline had met young Bill Cody in the fall of that year, and this dime novel story initiated the tremendous interest in Buffalo Bill. (This remains my favorite among all my clippings.)
Buffalo Bill's first stage appearance was in 1872 and his theatrical company toured the next ten years. This period is represented by two ads, one from the Wilkes-Barre Record of the Times (April 26, 1880) for his appearance in "Buffalo Bill at Bay, or The Pearl of the Prairie". and one undated for "Twenty Days, or Buffalo Bill's Pledge", and this time with a band of genuine Sioux Indians.
During his stage career he also continued to act as an army scout during the Indian Wars, and many of these clippings carry reports of Indian battles. The first to mention Buffalo Bill by name is from the New York Herald, September 5, 1876, in a report from General Terry's camp on Powder River while the army was attempting to trap Sitting Bull's band of savages following the Custer massacre. (It erroneously reported that Sitting Bull had fallen in the Battle of Little Big Horn.)
Other interesting clippings about the progress of this campaign follow, then on September 15, 1876, the Chicago Tribune reported that "Wm. F. Cody, alias Buffalo Bill, arrived at the Tremont House, from the Yellowstone Country, enroute to Rochester, New York."
Another article in this same paper states that Buffalo Bill had had a falling out with both Generals Terry and Crook, and had said, "General, I am through with this expedition. Give me my vouchers for services rendered... It is now, and has been for some time, apparent to my mind that neither you nor Crook intend to fight, and you won't let them ... if you will come I will take you to the Indian encampment on the Rosebud in 36 hours."
The same paper, on September 23, quotes Buffalo Bill as saying the troops could not catch the Indians because "...Gen. Crook was afraid of breaking his crockery and otherwise injuring his camp equipage." (It would be interesting to know if the generals responded to these barbs.)
Buffalo Bill started a Wild West Exhibition in 1883 with Doc Carver under the name "Rocky Mountain and Prairie Exhibition". The partners argued and split up, and in 1884 Buffalo Bill teamed up with Salsbury and Bogardus to put the expedition on the road under the name "Buffalo Bill's Wild West". My first newspaper ad for the reactivated Wild West is from the part of that 1884 first season before Bogardus left the show. The name of the newspaper or exact date in unknown.
In 1909 Buffalo Bill and Pawnee Bill joined their two shows under the name "Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Pawnee Bill's Far East", and in 1910 Buffalo Bill's "Farewell Proclamation" appeared in these ads. An ad in the Stockton Evening Mail of October 8, 1910 states that "Buffalo Bill Positively Bids You Good-By". This was followed by similar ads for several years, but he did not actually act out that "Last Good-By" until the show was broke and attached for Sheriff's Sale in July, 1913.
During 1914 and 1915 Buffalo Bill traveled with the Sells Floto Circus, which advertised in the Stockton Daily Evening Herald on May 4, 1914 as "Sells Floto Circus & Buffalo Bill Himself", in which "Col. W. F. Cody (Buffalo Bill) Appears in Parade and Performance." In 1916, the year before his death, he appeared with the Miller Bros. 101 Ranch Shows. The Boston Evening Transcript of June 10, 1916 advertises this show as "Miller and Arlington Wild West Show Co. -- Buffalo Bill (Himself.)"
Newspaper clippings other than advertisements are probably more interesting than the ads. As an example, two unknown newspapers (February 18 and 20, 1894) carried articles describing a fight between Cody and Fred May caused by an argument over a girl (name withheld). May had provoked the fight, and -- "The colonel promptly knocked May down and then also floored one of May's friends who had interfered." May was hustled out and Buffalo Bill was a hero at the hotel, but there was talk of a possible dual which never developed. Just one of Buffalo Bill's many problems.
Many of these clippings are interviews with Buffalo Bill and articles about the appearances of the Wild West Show, but there are too many to detail here.
There are also many articles about his associates. The Washington Post (1914) reported that there had been rumors that Buffalo Bill was dying, but that he had said "I might quote to you from Mark Twain, 'The report of my death is greatly exaggerated.' I have yet a great life work to complete before I pass over the river... I have been supervising the taking of motion pictures.. These start with the opening of the West and come down in well defined periods to the present day. These have been taken for the United States Government and will be preserved in the archives... for the education of future generations." (He completed this task but only portions of this final major undertaking have survived.) The Post continued "Col. Cody is in fine physical condition... full of snap and ginger and straight as an arrow."
But all too soon Buffalo Bill did die on January 30, 1917. His illness, death and funeral plans were reported in many newspapers. My personal favorite, simple but revealing the nation's sense of loss, is a cartoon from the Boston Records of January 15. A young boy is seated at a table, head resting on his arms, with his faithful dog looking on with a sorrowful expression. A picture of Buffalo Bill is on the wall, the "History of the Wild West" is opened on the table, and a newspaper headlined "Buffalo Bill is Dead" is lying on the floor. A simple cartoon tells it all.
A picture of the funeral procession, a description of the tomb and long articles on Buffalo Bill's life depict the end of his career. Finally the death of his widow is reported in a clipping datelined Cody, Wyoming, October 21, 1922. The entire family was now at rest after eventful, sometimes stormy, lives.
"Let my show go on" Buffalo Bill had said. After his death in the same year, his protégé Johnny Baker put together another outdoor show with Jess Willard that lasted just one season. An ad in an April 24 newspaper gives it the title "Jess Willard (Himself in the flesh) and the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show And Circus."
Clippings from the 1920's and 1930's cover a multitude of articles about people who had been associated with Buffalo Bill -- Annie Oakley, Sitting Bull, Wild Bill Hickok, Texas Jack Omohundro, Buffalo Chips, Doc Carver, Pawnee Bill, Capt. Jack Crawford, Frank North, Ned Buntline, and many others. Any many of their deaths were duly reported.
And everyone seemed to want to share in Buffalo Bill's limelight. Reporters who had interviewed him -- plains men, scouts, Indians, and Indian fighters and hunters who claimed his as "pard" or "crony" -- the men who freighted with him -- his playmates and schoolmates when he was a youngster -- his neighbors at any place and time -- performers and other employees of the Wild West Show -- proprietors of boarding houses, hotels and restaurants that had catered to him -- all sorts of ordinary people who simply claimed to be "a friend of Buffalo Bill". Some of these relate little known incidents in his life. Some are long. Some are short. Some are obituaries.
In the middle 1920's there was a rash of proposed memorials and museums to honor Buffalo Bill -- Lookout Mountain, North Platte, Cody, Davenport (Iowa), Omaha, Leavenworth, and others. Some of them were built, others were not, or at least not in the form proposed. The museum at Cody, Wyoming received much attention.
In the late 1920's a trend began to debunk the legendary heroes of the Wild West, Buffalo Bill included.
This was precipitated by the publication of Walsh's book "The Nothing of Buffalo Bill," in 1928 and was reviewed in many newspapers. One such review appeared in the Kansas City Star on December 16, 1928 and was titled "Stripping the Heroic Legendary From Buffalo Bill." "The Famous Exploits Attributed To Him Were But Press Agent Imagination" headlined another long article in the Hardin Tribune, April 5, 1929, but in spite of its title, this one comes strongly to Buffalo Bill's defense. Others put him down calling him a spy, a sham and a pretense among other things -- but others upheld him just as vigorously and the verbal battle went on.
Beginning in the 1920's and continuing to this day the papers gave a lot of space to plays and movies, even light opera, based on Buffalo Bill and his exploits. Interest in Buffalo Bill as evidenced by the newspapers was always alive and well.
The 1930's saw the end of the large outdoor arena extravaganzas that were modeled after Buffalo Bill's Wild West, such as the Miller Bros. 101 Ranch Shows and the short-lived Col. Tim McCoy's Wild West Show. Their financial woes were duly reported in newspapers. Smaller Wild West shows were still on tour, and the "after shows" were still based on the traditions set but the out-dated but not forgotten Wild West exhibitions. Many people were still living who claimed friendship or connections with Buffalo Bill himself but these were getting fewer and many obituaries mentioned these ties. Articles were still being written about the old-timers such as Annie Oakley, Pawnee Bill and the others.
About the same can be said about the clippings from the 1940's to date, except that there is a lot less of the "friendship ties" class. The memories of Buffalo Bill seemed to be less vivid, but never died. But when the centennial year of Buffalo Bill's Wild West came in 1983, the newspapers again exploded with stories about him and his exhibition and about the many centennial celebrations and shows. Buffalo Bill was again in the limelight.
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