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Buffalo Bill's British Wild West
By Alan Gallop
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Alan Gallop
All rights reserved.
Act One Scene One
ENTER BUFFALO BILL
Strike the tent! The sun has risen,
Not a vapour streaks the dawn,
And the frosted prairie brightens
To the eastward, far and wan.
Prime afresh the trusty rifle,
Sharpen well the hunting spear,
For the frozen earth is trembling,
And the noise of hoofs I hear.
'Buffalo Hunting Song' from More Adventures with Buffalo Bill
THE GENUINE ARTICLE – WILLIAM F. CODY'S BIRTH AND BOYHOOD – A HOSTILE INDIAN ENCOUNTER – BOY WONDER OF THE PONY EXPRESS – 'A DISSOLUTE AND RECKLESS LIFE' – STAGECOACH DRIVER – MISS LOUISA FREDERICI – HEADING WEST WITH 'WILD BILL' HICKOCK – GEORGE ARMSTRONG CUSTER – ROME IS (ALMOST) BUILT IN A DAY – BUFFALO HUNTING FOR THE KANSAS PACIFIC RAILROAD – CHIEF OF SCOUTS – THE BUFFALO BILL 'LOOK'
The man known to millions as 'Buffalo Bill' was a genuine western article. He was named William Frederick Cody and born near the Mississippi in LeClair, Scott County, Iowa, on 26 February 1846 to Isaac and Mary Ann Cody. Will, as he was known to his pioneering parents, was the couple's fourth child. Four more followed. The first six years of his life were spent on his parents' farm, 'Napsinekee Place' – an American Indian name.
When Will was seven, the family moved to LeClair itself before Isaac took them across the plains to the unsettled territory of Kansas, where Congress had allowed permanent settlement in Indian territory. They travelled in horse-drawn prairie schooner wagons and a carriage. The family claimed land in the Salt Creek Valley, near Fort Leavenworth, where young Will saw 'vast numbers of white-covered wagons' pushing on even further west towards Utah and California.
Isaac traded with Kickapoo Indians, helped survey new towns and encouraged abolitionist settlers to move to Kansas to start new lives. His outspoken anti-slavery sentiments made him an enemy of pro-slavery vigilantes. While addressing a public meeting at a Kansas general store in 1854, he was wounded in the lung during a knife attack by a pro-slavery fanatic.
The Cody home became a refuge for freedom-loving emigrants, who filled up the family house and pitched their tents in its garden. In 1857, a severe outbreak of measles and scarlet fever killed four guests. In a bid to help, Isaac ran from one tent to another in freezing rain, doing what he could to assist the sick. He caught a severe chill which, combined with after-effects from earlier injuries, eventually killed him.
Mary Ann was now left alone to raise seven children – older brother Samuel having died after a riding accident at the age of 12 in 1852. At age 11, Will became head of the Cody household and its main breadwinner. Young Will learned to ride farm horses and by age eight he owned two ponies – 'Dolly' and 'Prince' – which his father had bought during an expedition in which the young child had his first experience camping out, sleeping under the stars and meeting native Indians who came into camp to trade furs for clothing, tobacco and sugar.
Many years later in his first autobiography, Will wrote: 'All of these incidents were full of excitement and romance to my youthful mind ... and which no doubt had a great influence on shaping my course in future years. My love of hunting and scouting, and life on the plains generally, was the result of my early surroundings.' By this time, Will's education had consisted of primitive schooling, which had taught him the basics of writing and reading, but little else. By age 11, his formal education was over for good when it fell to him to support his family by getting a job.
Mary Ann persuaded the overland freighting firm of Russell, Majors and Waddell to give her son work as a messenger carrying dispatches from the Leavenworth office to the fort three miles away. Spotting his potential and ability to handle a horse, Will's employers gave him more important duties to perform, paying the boy a grown man's wages 'because he can ride a pony just as well as any man can'. He was paid $40 each month to herd cattle following wagons rolling west.
Will had his first encounter with hostile Indians before he was age 12 and claimed to have killed one in a moonlight attack on his wagon train. He could now handle a gun like a marksman. Two years later he was the 'boy wonder' of the Pony Express, an elite band of daring horsemen who sped mail between Missouri and California in ten days. Will's first route was a 45-mile stretch from Julesburg, where he would ride 15 miles non-stop before exchanging his horse for a fresh one and riding onwards to the next relay station.
Two months later, he was assigned a 116-mile run between Red Buttes on the North Platte to the Three Crossings of the Sweetwater River in Nebraska – dangerous Indian country. One day Will rode into Three Crossings to find his relief rider had been killed in a drunken fight. As no replacement was available, he climbed back into the saddle, rode a further 76 miles to the Pony Express station at Rocky Ridge where he passed on westbound mail and received eastbound shipments to take back to Red Buttes. The round trip was 384 miles, achieved in 21 hours and 30 minutes – the longest Pony Express journey ever made by one rider before the new telegraph service brought the operation to an abrupt halt in 1861 after less than two years.
Will had now become Bill – or Billy – to his friends, who included the famous scouts Jim Bridger and Kit Carson and fellow Pony Express rider James Butler (later 'Wild Bill') Hickock. He remained Will to his family, to whom he returned in 1861 when his mother became ill. She died of consumption shortly afterwards. Will and sister Julia were at her side.
The two oldest Cody children were given the task of bringing up the remaining siblings, aided by Al Goodman whom Julia had married shortly before her mother's death. Julia and Al became guardians of the remaining children, although for the rest of Will's life, Julia became his 'mother-sister', and they remained in touch, even when separated by thousands of miles.
In his own words, Will now 'entered upon a dissolute and reckless life – to my shame be it said – and associated with gamblers, drunkards, and bad characters generally ... and was becoming a hard case.'
Will had promised his mother that he would never join the United States Army while she was alive, but within days of her death and 'under the influence of bad whisky, I awoke to find myself a soldier with the Seventh Kansas. I did not remember how or when I had enlisted, but I saw I was in for it, and that it would not do for me to endeavour to back out.'
His 18-month spell as a soldier during the closing months of the Civil War was not distinguished, despite claims that he served as a spy gathering intelligence for the Union cause and 'skirmishing around the country with the rest of the army' as a private soldier.
Once out of uniform in 1865, 19-year-old Bill Cody became a stagecoach driver on a route between Kearney and Plum Creek. He had also: 'Made up my mind to capture the heart of Miss Louisa Frederici, whom I greatly admired and in whose charming society I spent many a pleasant hour. ... Her lovely face, her gentle disposition and her graceful manners won my admiration and love; and I was not slow in declaring my sentiments to her.'
Bill met Louisa – Lulu – while working as a hospital orderly in St Louis earlier in the year. The daughter of an immigrant from Europe, Lulu had been educated by nuns and had become a fine dressmaker. Her background and temperament were very different from the 20-year-old former cattle drover, Pony Express rider, and self-confessed 'hard case' now knocking on her parents' door in St Louis!
The couple were married in March 1866 after Bill had obtained written permission from Julia and Al Goodman and given Lulu an assurance that he would quit the plains and settle into a quiet life. He later reflected: 'From that time to this I have always thought that I have made a most fortunate choice for a life partner'. There would be later times when Buffalo Bill Cody would feel differently about the lady who had just become Mrs Cody.
Lulu and Bill's marriage was not made in heaven – as the new bride was soon to discover when, an hour after their wedding, they left St Louis by steamboat to live at Julia and Al Goodman's ranch upriver in Salt Creek Valley, Kansas. This would be Lulu's first taste of country life, and she made it clear that she did not care for it.
Bill and Lulu rented a large house, which they turned into a hotel, called the Golden Rule. Reasoning behind the name was never clear, but Bill considered himself a good landlord who knew how to run a hotel, even if his own golden rule was to throw drinking parties for friends every night, dishing out free whisky and rarely charging money for rooms.
His sister Helen wrote later: 'Will radiated hospitality, and his reputation as a lover of his fellow man got so widely abroad that travellers without money and without price would go miles out of their way to put up at his tavern. Socially he was an irreproachable landlord; financially his shortcomings were deplorable.'
The newly-weds gave up the hotel business after six months. 'It proved too tame employment for me,' claimed Bill. 'And again I sighed for the freedom of the plains. Believing that I could make more money out West on the frontier than I could at Salt Creek Valley, I sold out the Golden Rule and started alone for Saline, Kansas, which was then the end of the track of the Kansas Pacific Railway, which was at that time being built across the plains.'
Bill kissed newly pregnant Lulu goodbye and headed west. Lulu stayed with other Cody family members before returning to her parents in St Louis, her first separation from Bill, who for the rest of his life never spent more than six months at a time at home with his wife.
On the way out west, Bill ran into old friend 'Wild Bill' Hickock, who was scouting for the government. He told Bill that more scouts were needed to help the US Army police the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Sioux and Comanche Indians who were resisting attempts to drive a railway track across their territory and onwards towards the Pacific. Bill followed Hickock to Fort Ellsworth, 'where I had no difficulty in obtaining employment'.
That winter Bill scouted the Great Plains for the army and the following spring had his first encounter with the army's most celebrated, courageous, impulsive and vain army officer – General George Armstrong Custer, who at age 23 was the Union army's youngest general and famed for his daring raids behind Confederate army lines.
Custer needed a guide to escort him and ten others across 65 miles of prairie to Fort Larned and Bill Cody was given the job. The journey was made successfully and Custer offered the young scout more work whenever he wanted it. They became firm friends, although it would be some time before Bill could take up Custer's offer. Hunting work for the railway, snaking its way across mountains and prairies at the rate of two miles a day, beckoned.
On the journey to the Kansas Pacific railhead, Bill learned of new towns springing up like mushrooms along the railway route. A man called William Rose told the young scout about a town he was thinking of laying out in a prime location to the west of Big Creek, near Fort Hays. The railroad company planned to lay tracks on its route towards California and build a depot complete with locomotive sheds, repair workshops and creating jobs for hundreds of labourers. Rose invited Bill to become a partner in the enterprise and: 'Thinking it would be a grand thing to be half-owner of a town, I at once accepted his proposition.' Once it was completed and populated, Cody and Rose planned to open a saloon and general store, make a mountain of money and enjoy an easy life.
'We gave the new town the old and historical name of Rome', wrote Bill, 'and as a "starter" donated lots to anyone who would build on them, but reserved corner lots and others which were best located for ourselves.'
Bill sent for Lulu and shortly after arriving from St Louis, she gave birth to a daughter they called Arta. The Cody family lived in hastily built quarters at the rear of the Cody & Rose general store, which was taking shape just as hastily as the town itself.
The ancient city of Rome was not built in a day, but the new frontier railway depot town with the same name 'sprang up as if by magic, and in less than one month we had two hundred frame and log houses, three or four stores, several saloons and one good hotel. Rose and I already considered ourselves millionaires and thought we had the world by the tail', recalled Bill.
And so they had – until the Kansas Pacific Railroad got to hear about it. Angry at not being invited to become partners in the scheme, the railroad management announced they would build their own depot town, Hays City, a mile away from Rome. 'A ruinous stampede from our place was the result', remembered Bill. 'People who had built in Rome came to the conclusion that they had built in the wrong place; they began pulling down their buildings and moving them over to Hays City, and in less than three days our flourishing city had dwindled down to the little store that Rose and I built. ... Three days before, we had considered ourselves millionaires; on that morning we looked around and saw that we were reduced to the ragged edge of poverty. ... Thus ends the brief history of the "Rise, Decline and Fall" of modern Rome.'
Lulu – pregnant again – and baby Arta were packed off back to St Louis while Bill reluctantly put his idea of becoming a millionaire on hold for the time being. Many more new business ideas and 'get-rich-quick schemes' would follow in later years. Some would be wildly successful. Others were glorious failures. But for the time being he reverted to his original plan of working as a hunter of fresh meat to feed an army of 1,200 track layers, graders, section hands and engineers slowly pushing the railway line west. Every day, construction gangs needed to be fed huge quantities of cheap, fresh meat and the vast buffalo herds roaming the plains over which the railway crossed provided the diet. The only problem was the 'very troublesome' Indians who made it difficult for railwaymen to get the quantities of meat required day after day.
Bill was hired for $500 per month to hunt and kill not less than 12 buffalo each day. Only the hindquarters and rump were to be brought back to camp. Because of the close proximity of Indian camps, this was considered dangerous work and buffalo hunters were expected to ride five to ten miles away from the railway track to locate herds. Only one other man driving a wagon could go along on the daily hunt for meat.
'It was at this time that the very appropriate name of "Buffalo Bill" was conferred upon me by the road-hands. It has stuck to me ever since, and I have never been ashamed of it,' Bill later wrote about this period in his life.
During his employment as a hunter for the railroad company – a period of less than eighteen months – Bill claimed to have shot 4,280 buffalo – 69 in one afternoon. He said that the best way of bringing the massive animals down was to ride his horse, Brigham, to the right front of a herd, shoot down the leaders with his 50-calibre Springfield rifle (nicknamed Lucretia Borgia), and crowd their followers to the left until they began to run in a circle, when he would kill all the animals required.
While the railroad companies were laying tracks between Nebraska and the Pacific, anything between 40 and 60 million buffalo roamed the plains of the United States and Canada. Indians depended on the herds for their existence, not just for food and clothing but also for hides to build their tepees, sinews for threads, horns and bones for tools and buffalo dung for fuel. The railway was responsible for buffalo destruction on a massive scale, bringing the species close to extinction, using it as a source of food for labourers and later as a means of transporting hunters and eastern-based sportsmen out west to kill them for the heads and hides. The railway also became an economical way of shipping hides east for fashionable fur hats and coats, horns for buttons and bones to manufacture fertiliser.
Excerpted from Buffalo Bill's British Wild West by Alan Gallop. Copyright © 2013 Alan Gallop. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
A Very British Affair,
Scene One Enter Buffalo Bill,
Scene Two Dime Novel Hero, Actor and 'The First Scalp for Custer',
Scene Three The Wild West, The Partners & 'Little Sure Shot',
Scene One Eastward Ho!,
Scene Two 'The Yankeeries', 'Buffalo Billeries' & 'The Scalperies',
Scene Three 'By Royal Command',
Scene Four Heading North,
Scene One Doing Europe,
Scene Two The Buffalo Bill Express,
Scene One Positively, Definitely and Perhaps the Final Farewell,
Scene One The Last Round-up,
Scene Two Postscripts and Curtain Call,
Round-up of Buffalo Bill's British Wild West Tours 1887–1904,