Editor’s Introduction to The Life of Hon. William F. Cody, Known as Buffalo Bill

The Life of Hon William F CodyIntroduction

A promotional poster from 1900 superimposes the larger-than-life image of William Cody’s head and shoulders on the side of a running buffalo. It includes the simple pronouncement: “I Am Coming.”[1. According to Joy Kasson this image “shows the power of Cody’s identification with the buffalo and suggests some of the ways in which the Wild West offered its audiences memories of American nature that could be balanced against the claims of progress” (235). Paul Fees refers to the same image in the American Experience documentary Buffalo Bill to suggest the level of Cody’s celebrity at the turn of the century.] The focal point of the advertisement is Cody’s face; the semi-profile wears a calm but commanding expression, staring into the middle distance with a long gray mustache and beard to match the flowing hair that pours out from under a gray Stetson. By the turn of the century, the visual association of Cody with the buffalo was almost redundant. Although he went by his birth name his entire life, he was known to the majority of the public as “Buffalo Bill.” And, while the lithography of the poster faithfully represents the person of Cody, it also presents the persona (the Latin root means “mask”) of Buffalo Bill. That persona was the product of years of careful shaping by Cody and his business associates whose image-making took the form of dime novels, newspaper stories, stage melodramas and, of course, the traveling Wild West exhibition. By 1900 Cody had toured the United States and Europe for nearly two decades; he had performed before Queen Victoria and paraded royalty in his Deadwood stagecoach; he had upstaged the Chicago World’s fair, bringing some four million guests to his own exhibition outside the fairgrounds; he had been the subject of countless dime novels and his media machine had inaugurated a new era in mass culture marketing. By century’s end millions could identify Cody by his face alone, meaning that millions could read the message encoded in the image of Buffalo Bill and assign to it a sweeping narrative that places the American frontier at the center of civilization’s progress.

The Life of Hon. William F. Cody, Known as Buffalo Bill is the story of what came before, of the events and experiences that provided the foundation for an image of the American West that would go national and then global in the decades that followed its publication. William Cody’s story dramatizes the invention of Buffalo Bill and the relationship between his public and private selves as the author saw them. Along the way we learn how the narrative of frontier and civilization evolved into Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, one of the most popular traveling
exhibitions in entertainment history. Written when Cody was thirty-three years old, The Life recounts his early childhood removal with his family to Kansas Territory, where his father,
Isaac Cody, hoped to homestead. It details the deep personal consequences of the “slavery question,” which would leave his family fatherless and destitute. From the moment of his father’s death, when Cody was just eleven years old, his autobiography recounts a classic American narrative of self-making with a central focus on a life of work. From teamster to trapper, to Buffalo hunter, Army scout, guide, and Indian fighter, Cody’s life is a succession of jobs that lead cumulatively to the persona he put forth on both stage and showground for over forty years and across two continents.

Cody’s autobiography joined him with contemporaries Frederick Jackson Turner and Teddy Roosevelt in transforming the American frontier into what Richard Slotkin describes as “a
mythic space [that] began to outweigh its importance as a real place.” For these men the frontier became “a set of symbols that constituted an explanation of history.”[2. ] The pages of Cody’s autobiography draw repeatedly on a frontier iconography that was well-established when he wrote it. The images of Indian fights, buffalo hunting, and the Pony Express reflect popular conceptions of the West. And yet, Cody also anchors his broader popular history in the life of the plains as he experienced it. It is this movement between the personal and the mythic, between plain facts and tall tales—between William F. Cody and Buffalo Bill—that gives this narrative its fascination and its power.

Cody’s West

William Cody’s seventy-one years were a time of accelerating change in America, and he found himself in the midst of many of the era’s most defining events. Like the ever-shifting boundary
of the American frontier, Cody’s life was characterized by frenetic movement. Among the genres it draws upon, his story is a travel narrative that takes us to a dizzying number of frontier locations. Cody’s travel chapters convey the sheer openness that overwhelmed many of the early settlers to the region; much of Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, and South
Dakota lacked geographic markers such as mountain ranges or a coastline, and human settlement was so sparse that Cody could ride for days without encountering any sign of civilization. Although Cody never seems to be lost, GPS-dependent twenty-first-century readers might find their sense of location challenged by the wide-ranging journeys that Cody undertook
to explore, hunt, and scout the Great Plains. Like the physical map of the plains, the political map reflected the dynamism of the mid-nineteenth-century frontier. The federal government
officially opened Kansas and Nebraska for settlement in 1854; they became states in 1861 and 1868, respectively. Cody grew up in a place and period that, like Cody himself, was in the process of self-creation. Communities could appear practically overnight and, as Cody would learn from painful experience, in some cases disappear just as quickly.

The phenomenon of westward expansion marked every aspect of Cody’s life. In his narrative’s opening chapters Cody registers a level of disorientation in the period following passage
of the Nebraska-Kansas Act. The law opened the territories for new settlement, it advanced the prospects of the Transcontinental Railroad, and it brought the slavery debate to the western
frontier. The Cody family would find their own lives profoundly influenced by all of these factors. While the local population was exploding (white settlers increased by more than ten-fold in the year following passage of the act), nearby Leavenworth was also the throughway to virtually all points west. Although westward migration had declined from its Gold Rush peak in
1849 and 1850, thousands continued to pass through on the Mormon and California Trails en route to the Rocky Mountains and the west coast. Early in his narrative Cody captures his childhood wonder at the sensory chaos of one of the great westbound wagon trains with “wild” cattle, fifteen yokes to a wagon, and the “bull-whips sounding like gun-shots.”[3. ] The Codys found themselves among “rough people” as they tried to negotiate a social and economic environment in constant flux. His family would never find its footing.

The challenges of economic and social transition were subsumed in violent political conflict as the principle of popular sovereignty was applied to the slavery question. Cody’s childhood
Kansas was made up of homesteads and communities organized along ideological lines. The region was polarized between Free Staters and settlers, primarily from Missouri, who sought to make Kansas a slave state. The upheaval and violence that rocked 1850s Kansas came to a head in 1861 with the Civil War. Although Cody would eventually enlist and serve as a conventional soldier in the Union Army, he first joined a militia group known as the Jayhawkers and later the Red Legs. These guerillas relied on the sale of looted goods to support their enterprise as they fought against pro-slavery militias in Kansas and Missouri. The mixture of revenge and economic opportunism motivating this war on the margins tended to obscure the more clearly defined political imperatives of the national conflict. Even anti-slavery Kansans questioned the Jayhawkers, seeing their motives and means as contributing to a general culture of lawlessness. Cody’s mother intervened as a voice of conscience, convincing him to abandon the “jay-hawking enterprise” and urging him to acknowledge, at least indirectly, that “it was neither honorable nor right.”[4. ] Cody’s paramilitary career, though short-lived, exemplifies the sometimes morally gray environment of midcentury frontier life.

The Civil War ended the sectional strife over national union, but military conflict remained a dominant fact of life in the territories. With the end of the war, many Americans saw the
Plains Indians as the only remaining check on the fulfillment of their Manifest Destiny: the continued expansion of white settlements to the Pacific coast. To address this challenge the
United States redeployed its military; those Union soldiers not left to occupy the South were sent west to “pacify” the Plains tribes. The Indian wars continued over the next two decades
and ended with the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890. While sectional conflict brought suffering and hardship to Cody, the U.S. conflict with Plains Indians would provide him, directly
and indirectly, with a livelihood for the remainder of his life. By the early 1870s Cody had participated in numerous pitched battles with Cheyenne and Sioux fighters primarily in his role
as a military scout.

Cody’s scouting career also corresponded with the rise of a mass culture industry that could popularize his alter ego as a dime novel hero. The first novel to feature Buffalo Bill was
published serially in 1869. Buffalo Bill, the King of the Border Men was written by Edward Zane Carroll Judson under the pen name “Ned Buntline.” A story of adventure and revenge in
which Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickok team up to defeat a gang of “border ruffians,” the novel, which was serialized in New York Weekly, initiated the process of making Buffalo Bill a household name. The mass production and distribution of Buffalo Bill published works, along with a series of popular touring melodramas that began in 1872, prepared the way for the Wild West exhibition. By the time Buffalo Bill’s Wild West began touring in 1883, Cody’s brand was well-established. His legend continued to expand with the emergent myth-making machinery of commercial capitalism, and he remained at the forefront of marketing innovation through much of his life.

Working the Frontier

Cody’s working life began at age ten herding cattle for the freighting firm of Majors and Russell (and later Waddell). In key ways this first job established the trajectory for the remainder of his career: it was a nomadic life that put him on horseback. Upon his father’s death in 1857, Cody “determined to follow the plains” as a means of supporting himself and his family.[5. ] He
worked for government freighters in various capacities off and on for the next seven years, by which time he was a thoroughly experienced plainsman. He cultivated his skills as a horseman,
hunter, and tracker, and these talents were in ample demand in the rapidly developing economy of frontier Kansas.

Cody, like his father, was an indefatigable entrepreneur. He tried unsuccessfully to found a town and manage an inn, both counterintuitive given his acknowledged “restless” tendencies.
The two occupations in which he excelled also had the most direct bearing upon his future celebrity: buffalo hunter and military scout. Both activities placed him within the two
principle prongs of the country’s empire-building enterprise: the extension of the railroad and the Indian Wars. Cody was involved in the work that inspired his nickname for a mere
eighteen months. Beginning in 1868 he was hired by a railroad contractor to hunt buffalo as food for the 1,200 workers laying track across Kansas. He later claimed to have killed 4,280
buffalo during that span while developing a reputation as a uniquely skilled marksman from horseback. That reputation was amplified by Cody’s participation in a “buffalo-killing contest”
against a rival hunter named Billy Comstock. At stake was five hundred dollars, bragging rights to the “championship of the world” (as one promotional bill allegedly declared), and, possibly, the right to use the name “Buffalo Bill.” Cody, atop a horse named Brigham and carrying a .50-caliber needle gun named “Lucretia Borgia,” claimed victory with 69 kills. The action took place, according to Cody, before a crowd of spectators, including military men from the nearby post who had sponsored the event and tourists from St. Louis. Cody’s version of the contest foreshadows the fusion of frontier experience and performance that eventually defined his career: here was an opportunity to exhibit authentic frontier skills before a rapt audience. In this moment the reader sees Cody the showman for the first time claiming to have “raised the excitement” among the spectators to a “fever heat” by choosing to ride to victory without saddle or bridle.[6. ]

Cody anchors his mythology in buffalo hunting, but his alter ego depended to a much greater extent on his encounters with Plains Indians. In the autobiography Cody first assumes the title “Indian killer” in 1857, at the age of eleven. It is the originating moment in his path to celebrity. On his first journey across the plains as a cattle-herder, Cody’s group is beset by Natives and he saves the others from ambush by shooting an attacker. “From that time forward, I became a hero and an Indian killer.”[7. ] This simple declaration establishes the central rhetorical pattern that shapes the remainder of his personal narrative: the confrontation with Indians as the gold standard of frontier heroism. Cody cites an account of the incident in a Leavenworth newspaper that describes him as “the youngest Indian slayer on the plains.”[8. ] Cody infuses the experience with a consciousness-shaping power: “I am candid enough to admit that I felt very much elated over this notoriety. Again and again I read with eager interest the long and sensational account of our adventure.”[9. ] Though one might look for a sense of irony in these reflections, Cody consistently depicts Indian killing as a heroic tableau throughout his autobiography. He reiterates various versions of this primal scene and threads the heroic strand through each phase of his career, most notably with his accounts of the killings of the Indian chiefs Tall Bull and Yellow Hair.

Buffalo Bill was a product of war, and William Cody found ways to commercialize his experience in war like no American before or since. The adversarial phase of Cody’s relationship to the Plains Indians culminated during the Great Sioux War in 1876. It was the army’s largest military effort since the end of the Civil War, with the conflict spreading over 120,000 miles of western territory and lasting fourteen months.[10. ] The sensation caused by news of General Custer’s defeat at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in late June afforded Cody the ideal platform to stage his most climactic performance of frontier heroism. His
participation in the Skirmish at Warbonnet Creek the following month, in which he killed and scalped a Cheyenne chief named Yellow Hair, blurred the lines between Cody’s life as a
scout and his stage persona. Having embarked on the expedition in full theater costume, Cody ensured that his version of the event was published in newspapers. He also commissioned a play, titled The Red Right Hand; or, Buffalo Bill’s First Scalp for Custer. In production by the end of that year, the play featured a reenactment in which Cody brandished actual relics from the
incident, including his enemy’s scalp. Cody’s opportunism drew upon Custer’s celebrity to enhance his own, while providing him with the raw materials to substantiate his claim as the
most genuine frontiersman on the American stage.

Cody’s stories of Indian combat reinforce the authenticity of his narrative but depended heavily on many accepted conventions of popular culture. As an army scout Cody was directly
involved in numerous combat situations, and yet his depiction of those experiences follows a familiar pattern. His frequent encounters tend to be sudden, preceded by little or no context
and followed by fight or chase scenes in which Cody extols the virtues of his horse and displays a special cunning that allow him to triumph or escape. The affinities with stock dime novel plots are unmistakable. Cody parrots the most clichéd language, crowing after one episode in particular, that he and his companions have killed “five ‘good’ Indians, that is[,] dead ones.”[11. ] These one-dimensional renderings of a military and cultural foe belong to a long tradition in frontier writing that began with the earliest Puritan accounts of confrontations with Native peoples. Descriptions of unprovoked attacks on innocent settlers galvanized readers’ sympathies and helped justify the colonizing mission of early European immigrants.[12. ] By eliding the broader context of territorial issues, treaty violations, and white provocations, Cody concentrates the narrative lens on himself and his reactions to an innately hostile environment.

While simple oppositions govern much of the text, Cody’s relationship with Natives is not exclusively adversarial. Trading with the Kickapoo tribe of eastern Kansas provided his father
with an economic foothold when the family first arrived in the territory. William Cody writes that he was “much interested” to meet a “real live Indian,” and that he spent time among
the Kickapoo, “looking about and studying their habits.”[13. ] He even suggests that his primary playmates in Kansas were the Indian boys whose language he learned and who taught him
to shoot with a bow and arrow.[14. ] Cody represents himself as an ethnographer, studying the native language and customs of these “friendly Indians.” Trade and intercultural exploration
became the basis for peaceful social relations in this earliest episode. The scene culminates in a “grand barbecue” hosted by Isaac Cody and attended by two hundred Kickapoos, who treat the white settlers to a performance of one of their “grand fantastic war dances.”[15. ] In the end Cody recollects that the Indians “returned to their homes well satisfied.” The episode
initiates a secondary theme in Cody’s depiction of the Indians that provides a subtext for combat scenes as well: exhibition. Later, Cody concludes his account of the 1869 battle of Summit Springs, in which U.S. Army and Pawnee scout battalions attacked and looted a Cheyenne village, with an appraisal of the “curiosities” amounting to “enough to start twenty museums.”[16. ] This preservationist impulse—Cody as curator—literally at the scene of destruction is one of many ironies that typify his own view of Manifest Destiny, and American expansionism more generally. Cody would later incorporate these adversarial and
ethnographic themes into the structure of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West by simultaneously staging battles such as “Custer’s Last Stand” and the Indian encampment outside the arena, which
allowed guests to wander through the authentic reproduction of an Indian village before and after the performance.

Cody’s autobiography also emphasizes the role of male mentors in shaping his identity. His impulse to imitate these figures, beginning with his cousin Horace Billings, seems to
inspire his development at key stages of his career. Billings offers Cody one of his first experiences in what he calls “practical education,” which he contrasts favorably against his brief
episodes of formal instruction. Billings embodies the ideal of the restless and independent cowboy, and his horsemanship inspires Cody’s first statement of personal ambition: he vows
“to become as skillful a horseman” as his “magnificent looking” cousin.[17. ] Cody’s early hero worship anticipates his most formative relationship—his friendship with Wild Bill Hickok—
which inspires his ascendance to mainstream middle-class entertainer. Cody makes much of this association, presenting Hickok as a friend, protector, and mentor from early adolescence.
Early in the narrative Cody casts Hickok as a romantic hero through his version of an encounter with an outlaw gang. Cody emphasizes his affinities with Hickok to such a degree that it seems a natural fit when the two eventually perform together in a touring Western melodrama. But Hickok’s rough edges, including habitual gambling and brawling, undercut his career as a performer, and Cody appears genteel by contrast, a more acceptable, and, ultimately, marketable, version of frontier manhood.[18. ]

Cody’s Auto-American-Biography[19. ]

After attending a performance of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West in
1884, Mark Twain wrote Cody a letter:

I have seen your Wild West show two days in succession,
and have enjoyed it thoroughly. It brought vividly
back the breezy wild life of the Great Plains and the
Rocky Mountains, and stirred me like a war-song. Down
to its smallest details, the show is genuine . . . it is
wholly free from sham and insincerity and the effects
produced upon me by its spectacles were identical to
those wrought upon me a long time ago by the same
spectacles on the frontier.[20. ]

Twain’s enthusiasm for the Wild West reflects his sense of shared experience with Cody as well as a deep nostalgia. He had left his home state of Missouri in 1861 to travel and work in the West. After a failed attempt at mining, he worked as a newspaper writer in Nevada and California. Twain’s time on the frontier provided the material for one of his earliest works, the semi-autobiographical Roughing It (1872), and a number of short stories.[21. ] Cody and his associates immediately saw to it that Twain’s admiring words were reprinted in the newspaper
and incorporated into the show’s ongoing publicity machine. It was the kind of authorization that was essential to the show’s carefully cultivated image; Wild West marketing materials consistently shunned the word “show” in favor of “exhibition” to both distance it from lowbrow entertainments and emphasize its educational value. Twain’s imprimatur could be viewed as a sign of arrival for a performance that first took formal shape in the autobiography. Both the Wild West and The Life consist of narratives that depend on the seamless conjunction of
original and reproduction, the paradox of authentic imitation. The appeal of the Buffalo Bill mythology depended on a vivid sense of realism and an ability to convince readers and live
audiences that it represented lived experience. Both print and performance stretched images of frontier life across the broadest possible canvas by offering those images as representative
of an essentially American experience. At the end of his letter, Twain gestures to this possibility when he urges Cody to take the Wild West to Europe, where he might counter British claims
about the derivative nature of American culture by presenting something that is “purely and distinctly American.” Cody, citing the “repeated suggestions of prominent persons of America”
as inspiration, proved Twain right in 1887, when he took the exhibition to London and enjoyed one of the most celebrated and lucrative runs of his career.[22. ]

Mark Twain’s intense nostalgia for the “breezy wild life of the Great Plains” points to another pervasive theme found in the autobiography: the preservation, through narrative, of a
vanishing way of life. Twain precisely identifies Cody’s formula for success in suggesting that the Wild West embodies an aspect of American life that is both exceptional and ephemeral.
Twain was familiar with this dynamic as a founder of American literary regionalism. The regional writing that flourished during the last third of the nineteenth century emphasized local
culture through distinct dialect, landscape, and folkways. The 1879 edition of The Life was illustrated by True Williams, who provided the art for a number of Twain’s novels. Both the visual and verbal portraits in Cody’s narrative reflect American regionalism’s interest in the ways that material conditions shape individual and communal identity. In his account of his “Boy Days in Kansas” Cody recalls the heady period of early land settlement in Kansas. He describes Missouri emigrants rushing over the border to stake land with whisky bottles—first
drinking the whisky and then driving their bottles into the ground to mark their claims. Cody peppers his narrative with such concrete details that vividly evoke the frontier experience.

Like Cody’s entertainment career, this “local color” writing depended on a contradiction in terms: a modern mass culture system of production, distribution, and consumption and an appreciation for the local culture threatened by the homogenizing influence of that very system. Cody’s autobiography, and later his Wild West, exemplifies this logic in the countless ways it foregrounds a distinct culture of the plains. The narrative points to this dynamic directly in the account of his buffalo-hunting work for the Kansas railroad workers. When the Codys first arrived in Kansas Territory the United States contained some twenty thousand miles of railroad track, primarily in the eastern states. As he reached adulthood, railroad building accelerated and pushed west, eventually covering nearly half a million miles of American landscape at the peak of Cody’s career. While in Cody’s story the railroad signifies progress and mobility, it also serves as a stark reminder that coming changes will render obsolete many aspects of plains life he celebrates.

The “Introductory” to the first edition of the autobiography offers this description from the book’s publisher, Frank Bliss: “The life and adventures of Hon. William F. Cody—Buffalo
Bill—as told by himself, make up a narrative which reads more like a romance than reality.”[23. ] Bliss claims that “in many respects” the work “will prove a valuable contribution to the
records of our Western frontier history.”[24. ] He goes on to promote The Life for its high adventure while insisting the story is based on Cody’s lived experience. That promise (and disclaimer) of documentary truth mixed with sensationalism sheds light on the version of the frontier mythology that Cody formalized with his autobiography. The narrative’s blend of romance and realism interweaves material details with a standardized adventure script that was fast becoming the primary grist in a fledgling American popular culture. Even as it played to popular taste, the autobiography was Cody’s most systematic and complete attempt to assemble the various parts of his past in the service of his present public identity. By 1879 Cody was working on the stage and no longer having genuine frontier experiences. The
Life is a formal summation, a codification of authentic frontier selfhood, and therefore a platform from which to pursue the next phase of his career, one that would complete the transition from original frontiersman to onstage simulator.

William Cody’s construction of an American “type” began with a successful use of established genres. The autobiography places Cody within the longest-standing and richest tradition
in American literary culture. In what would eventually be the standard for all American autobiographies to come, Benjamin Franklin opens his memoir with a striking remark when he
compares his actual life to his life story. Franklin tells the reader that, “the Thing most like living one’s Life over again, seems to be the Recollection of that Life; and to make that Recollection as
durable as possible, the putting it down in Writing.”[25. ] Franklin acknowledges that he hopes to recount a life “fit to be imitated.” He suggests that if he had the chance he would choose to live his life over again, reserving the option to “correct” some errors in the second edition. Being denied the opportunity, he settles for the next best thing: the recollection. Franklin’s comparison of his actual self to his created persona reflects on the nature of all life writing. Franklin and popular nineteenth-century autobiographers such as Frederick Douglass and P. T. Barnum were engaged in crafting their own versions of American citizenship and manhood. As a cultural project, subsequent autobiographies may rework Franklin’s typology but they continue to place the self at the center of a representative American story. In The Life Cody imagines himself from the raw materials of his memory while also drawing on the context of the mid-century frontier to give his experiences historical significance. Like Franklin, Cody offers a surrogate of himself, a performance-in-writing that aims foremost to create the impression of authenticity.

Although Franklin’s work, first published in 1818, casts a long shadow over the nineteenth century, a more immediate and perhaps more kindred story can be found in Barnum’s
bestselling Life of P. T. Barnum, published in 1854. Both Barnum and Cody aptly begin their autobiographies with the metaphor of birth as entrance onto a stage. Though Barnum was a generation older than Cody, the men’s careers ran parallel and, at times, directly converged, as they worked to shape an emerging mass culture. Like Cody, Barnum wrote his autobiography
at a relatively young age (Barnum was forty-five, Cody was thirty-three) and, like Cody’s, Barnum’s Life promoted a public persona that advanced a larger business enterprise. Whereas
Franklin’s narrative provides moral instruction, offering maxims in the wake of his lapses—“nothing [is] useful which [is] not honest”—and attributing success to conscientious application of social virtues, Barnum candidly recounts questionable behavior without a similar didactic framework.[26. ] His portrait of the American Dream’s darker side shows him thriving in a culture of deception. Cody’s autobiography navigates a middle ground between Franklin’s moralism and Barnum’s parody to produce a narrative uniquely suited to late nineteenth-century American sensibilities. Like his predecessors, he candidly acknowledges his failings but identifies them with the culture of the frontier. He counters indecorous images of brawling and
drunkenness by displaying the frontier virtues of friendship, loyalty, and bravery, demonstrating these qualities through competition. In essence the autobiography is a series of dramatic set pieces that pit Cody against a variety of opponents. On the one hand he triumphs over civilization’s putative enemies through battles with Indians and confrontations with outlaws; on the other he bests his peers through contests such as hunting, shooting, and horseracing. Each incident adds to Cody’s bona fides as a frontiersman while at the same time evoking the larger story of America’s westward development as a quest for national identity.

A prominent Victorian biographer once stated that autobiography is valuable “in proportion to the amount of misrepresentation it contains.”[27. ] The excesses of Cody’s self-dramatization
offer as much insight into the man and his context as the “factual” details do. Cody operates securely within the American autobiographical tradition by fashioning an archetype out of
his individual and composite experience. Consequently, some events in the narrative may never have happened, others likely happened to someone else, while still others that occurred are either exaggerated or understated. In recent years Cody’s biographers have attempted to reconcile Cody’s narrative with the historical record, noting the moments when he takes license
with his life story. A close examination has shown, for instance, that Cody’s claim that he worked for the Pony Express is questionable. Some of the most sensational episodes in the
narrative, including encounters with Mormon “Danites” and Indians on the warpath while lying helpless with a broken leg, are also suspect.[28. ] Cody’s style in relating these incidents echoes
the language and structure of the popular dime novels which had made his heroic exploits their subject for nearly a decade before he began writing his actual story. Cody’s adoption of the stilted dialogue and rhetorical flourish characteristic of these westerns to recount some of his more exotic episodes is one indicator that he is drawing on frontier experiences beyond his
own. In one of his most dramatic encounters, the dual with Yellow Hair, Cody’s version seems more akin to the account in his stage melodrama, The Red Right Hand, or Buffalo Bill’s
First Scalp for Custer, which he commissioned and performed in 1876 after his participation in the events it purported to be dramatizing.[29. ] Cody’s incorporation of popular genres enables
him to use a narrative vocabulary already understood by a large readership while at the same time making his story more broadly representative. The autobiography incorporates the expected conventions of dime novels and stage melodramas but also adds a new dimension of realism to the rapidly expanding Buffalo Bill mythology.

The investigative work conducted by Cody scholars is important to a historical understanding of Cody the man. It reveals a dynamic, established early in his career, in which Cody’s individual
experience and the larger life of his community become fused. In one sense his autobiography, like all life writing, is a creative act, a work of imagination. As he attempts to give shape
and meaning to his experiences, he inevitably prioritizes some events over others; he finds significance in events he may not have appreciated at the time; and he presents himself as the
central character in a panorama that touches many elements of a broader cultural history.

Cody’s version of his life expresses a double vision, or an attempt to interpret his particular past as a representative American experience. He assigns cultural significance to personal
experience as far as his understanding allows and in the process offers a form of living American history. For all its excesses, though, Cody’s life story nevertheless demonstrates his intimate understanding of the frontier he so successfully mythologized. Indeed, to paraphrase the first edition’s publisher, without his “real” life as fuel he could never have produced the “romance” he shared with millions. Every word of the autobiography offers insight into William F. Cody the man while also providing singular access to Buffalo Bill the image and phenomenon. In this sense the autobiography is as much about the future as it
is about the past. It establishes who Cody would be, as a public figure, for the rest of his life and for generations of Americans and Europeans who came to interpret American history and
the American West through the lens of Buffalo Bill.


William F. Cody, The Life of Hon. William F. Cody, Known as Buffalo Bill. Edited and with an introduction by Frank Christianson (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011).


Leave a Reply