I have never properly given William F. Cody his due. Perhaps the very showmanship that made him the most recognizable American celebrity of the late 19th and early 20th Century put me off. Maybe there was just a bit too much bombast in his style for my tastes. I tend to favor grittier and less flamboyant heroes.
But… sitting here in Cody, Wyoming, a town he founded in the 1890s, hosted by the newspaper — The Cody Enterprise — which he founded with his friend Col. John Peake, it seems time to reckon with the old scout.
A Quiet Professional, he was not. That said, the man who became famous as Buffalo Bill was the real deal — a highly capable scout and hunter and a fighting Frontier Partisan who counted coup and won the Medal of Honor for his services. He really did ride with the Pony Express, and he really did earn his monicker as a meat hunter for the Kansas Pacific Railroad. He wielded a an 1866 Allin Conversion Springfield Rifle, caliber .50-70 he called Lucretia Borgia after the wanton daughter of a Renaissance Pope. (There was, in the late 1860s, a popular opera about her based on a Victor Hugo play).
I posted on that rifle here:
And I got to pay her a visit an the Cody Center of the West…
That’s her on the right, with a busted stock. The rifle on the left is an intact Allin Springfield for reference.
The Cody Center of the West has collected a whole bunch of firearms with solid provenance tying them to the scout. Buffalo Bill owned a LOT of very fine rifles in his day.
The pistol on the bottom right in this shot is an 1858 Remington revolver — one of two specimens in the museum that could be a war trophy taken in Cody’s duel with the Cheyenne warrior Yellow Hair in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of the Little Big Horn and the death of Col. George Armstrong Custer.
By the summer of 1876, William F. Cody was a famous actor. Not a very good actor, but a famous actor — who played himself in stage productions written by a penny dreadful scribbler and empresario named Ned Buntline.
When the shocking news of the destruction of Custer and 268 7th cavalry troopers and civilian and Indian scouts on June 25, electrified the nation, Cody abandoned the stage and headed for the plains to take up a position as Chief of Scouts for the 5th Cavalry under Col. Wesley Merritt. He wore his stage costume in the field. There never really would be again a gap between William F. Cody the man and the persona of Buffalo Bill.
American Heritage recounts Cody’s appearance at dawn on July 17 at Warbonnet Creek in northwest Nebraska:
He showed up for work that morning wearing a red silk shirt with puffy sleeves, decorated with silver buttons. His trousers were black velvet, with a silver braid crisscrossing the thighs. He sported an extra-wide leather belt with a large silver buckle, and an oversized beaver-felt hat with a floppy brim. A colleague said he looked more like a fiesta-bound Mexican vaquero than a battle-bound U.S. Army scout.
He was armed with a Winchester 1873 rifle, a Bowie Knife, and presumably a revolver.
Merritt’s command was tasked with patrolling to prevent Cheyenne warriors from the Red Cloud Agency or the Spotted Tail Agency from linking up with the forces of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. At Warbonnet Creek, a force of Cheyenne led by the chief Dull Knife made a move to attack the regiment’s supply wagons. They were apparently unaware that the regiment’s main force was right over the hill.
At Cody’s suggestion, 5th Cav troopers hid in a ravine, then rode to cut the Cheyenne warriors off. Cody and the young warrior Yellow Hair — also flamboyantly dressed for battle — rode hard at each other. A trooper named Chris Madsen — a veteran of the Danish Army and the French Foreign Legion — witnessed the confrontation from a nearby hillock:
“The instant they were face to face, their guns fired,” Madsen recalled in later years. “It seemed like almost one shot … Cody’s bullet went through the Indian’s leg and killed his pinto pony. The Indian’s bullet went wild. Cody’s horse stepped into a prairie dog hole and stumbled, but (Cody) was up in a moment. Kneeling, he took deliberate aim and fired the second shot. An instant before he fired the second shot, the Indian fired at him (again) but missed. Cody’s bullet went through the Indian’s head and ended the battle. Cody went over to the fallen Indian and neatly removed his scalp while the other soldiers gave chase to the Indian’s companions.”
It was a classic piece of personal combat that is reminiscent of medieval battle — like Robert Bruce riding out to cleave Henry De Bohun’s helm and skull with a battle ax at Bannockburn. Like a warrior of old, Cody stripped Yellow Hair for trophies of war — war bonnet, shield, bridle, whip, lance, and other weapons including an 1858 Remington — and sent them along with the scalp to his friend Moses Kerngood, who displayed them in a cigar store window in Rochester, New York.
The Battle of Warbonnet Creek was just a minor skirmish. Yellow Hair was its only casualty. But Cody made the most of this “first scalp for Custer!” He would reenact the scene over and over on stage and in his Wild West Show.
Trophy taking and such aggrandizement are distasteful to modern sensibilities. Hell, they offended some Victorian Age sensibilities in Buffalo Bill’s own time. Such doings are contrary to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. But they persist even today — there’s always an urge for Beowulf to nail Grendel’s arm to the wall of Heorot.
Cody was typical in his frontiersman’s callousness toward Indians — but his outlook evolved over the many years he worked with native peoples in his Wild West Show, and he came to regard them as justified defenders of their homeland and way of life. He would write in his autobiography:
“In concluding, I want to express the hope that the dealings of this Government of ours with the Indians will always be just and fair. They were the inheritors of the land that we live in. They were not capable of developing it, or of really appreciating its possibilities, but they owned it when the White Man came, and the White Man took it away from them. It was natural that they should resist. It was natural that they employed the only means of warfare known to them against those whom they regarded as usurpers. It was our business, as scouts, to be continually on the warpath against them when they committed depredations. But no scout ever hated the Indians in general.”