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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 76

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This is the grave of William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody

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Born in 1846 in frontier Iowa, the family moved to Kansas in 1853, where Cody’s father became involved in the Bleeding Kansas conflict, on the side of the abolitionists. He gave a speech and then was stabbed twice by a slavery advocate. In 1857, he traveled to Cleveland to gather anti-slavery advocates to come to Kansas, but ill and not recovered from his stabbing, he died on the trip. This forced young Bill to go to work, at first on wagon trains and then as a scout helping guide the Army to Utah where a Mormon revolt was feared. He claimed to kill his first Indian on this trip, but who really knows. Forgive me if I’m not trusting Buffalo Bill’s autobiography as the purest distillation of truth.

In 1860, Cody, still only 14, moved to Colorado to mine gold. But on the way, he joined the Pony Express and found work with it. He wanted to join the Union Army in 1861, but was too young. He worked with a freight caravan delivering supplies to Fort Laramie until 1863, when he was old enough to volunteer. He served as a teamster with the 7th Kansas Calvary. He was discharged at the end of the war but then reenlisted in 1868 after working for the Kansas Pacific Railroad. By this time, he western experience was becoming extremely valuable and he as named chief of scouts. He was a scout both in the U.S. military’s genocidal campaigns against Native Americans and for hunting parties of rich men. He also shot bison to feed the military and then the Kansas Pacific workers. He killed about 4200 bison in 1867 and 1868 and earned his name “Buffalo Bill.”

In 1869, Cody is just this guy. He’s 23 years old and has worked his whole life. He isn’t really exceptional in any way. But eastern readers and Europeans were increasingly fascinated by the American West. The romance around western conquest was just getting under way. And those readers needed heroes. That year, a writer named Ned Buntline met Cody and then made up a bunch of stories about him to feed the eastern dime novel market. This made Cody famous. Cody himself was happy to take advantage. In 1872, he started taking to the stage to capitalize on his fame, ridiculous as said fame was. Other western “heroes’ joined him over the next few years, such as Wild Bill Hickok. There they reenacted supposed events such as Cody killing Indians. By most accounts, the quality of the acting was atrocious, but the American public didn’t care and the shows sold out everywhere. In 1882, this evolved into Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, his classic act. For decades he toured the U.S. and Europe. Show performers like Annie Oakley became famous on his tours. After the subjugation of the Lakota, Sitting Bull joined briefly as well, reenacting the conquest of his people and his way of life for a little money and food. This is almost the most depressing thing imaginable. Anyway, Cody became famous and he became rich. In 1895, he founded the town of Cody, Wyoming and bought a huge ranch nearby. He hoped to take advantage of the growing tourist traffic into Yellowstone and the town indeed became prosperous for that reason, as it remains today. It wasn’t until the 1900s that the show’s popularity began to wane; finally Cody could no longer pay the bills and the show was foreclosed upon in 1908.

By this time, Cody had a pretty severe drinking problem but he was useful to others. He moved to Denver, where he was kept by local elites to trot out for various events in exchange for booze. He wasn’t poor yet, but his fortune had dwindled to about $100,000, which is about 1.8 million today. But it was a fraction of what he had twenty years earlier. He died in Denver in 1917.

Buffalo Bill wanted to be buried in Cody, Wyoming, which he founded. But Colorado wasn’t about that have that. There was more money to be made of the corpse. He was buried on top of Lookout Mountain, near Golden, overlooking the Plains. Stories were made up that he wanted to this. Then to make sure Wyoming didn’t steal the corpse, they parked a tank next to the grave.

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Then in 1948, after the American Legion in Cody offered $10,000 to anyone who brought his body back to Wyoming, the Colorado National Guard stood armed watch over the grave. There are people in Wyoming who believe to this day that he was secretly buried there.

Of course Buffalo Bill has been portrayed in film and television only about a zillion times. He’s been played by Paul Newman, Roy Rogers, Charlton Heston, Joel McCrea, Peter Coyote, Stephen Baldwin, and J.K. Simmons, among many others. And naturally enough, he appeared in at least 22 early silent films.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the Buffalo Bills is the stupidest name in the history of professional sports, as Cody had no connection with the city except for performing a few times there.

Buffalo Bill Cody is buried at Lookout Mountain, Golden, Colorado.

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