Here is a photo that has always touched me; so much so that a copy hangs on the wall over my desk. It is of frontiersman, scout, Pony Express Rider and showman William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody (1846-1917) in a tent on the grounds of his Wild West Show, telling yarns to his little pards.
By all reports, Cody was a lovely man. He never refused an old friend, a hard luck story, or a child. Cody was extremely open-handed, friendly and willing to take care of others (except, perhaps, his wife, Louisa).
You may remember that we have previously covered the story of cowboy artist Daniel Cody Muller (1889-1976), who was born in Choteau, Montana. Muller’s father was killed by a horse when the artist was nine years old, and he was soon after adopted by Buffalo Bill. In his memoir, Muller writes of the 18 years he spent with Cody and of his time on both the Cody ranch and working the Wild West shows. The Cody in Muller’s memoir is a warm-hearted man of deep compassion and sympathy. Muller would not be Cody’s only unofficially-adopted child: he also raised Johnny Baker (1869-1931), a sharpshooter with the Wild West, as his own son, and his love for children was nearly legendary. Indeed, in a tumultuous life of adventure, fame and cowboy-high-spirits, the sole tragedy of Cody’s life seems to be the loss of his son, Kit Carson Cody (1870-1876) to scarlet fever.
To get a flavor of the real man, there is a story that during the 1915 season, when Cody no longer owned the Wild West and was working for the Sells-Floto circus, the show was menaced by a flash flood in Fort Madison, Iowa. Most of the show’s four hundred crew fled the scene, leaving the aged and infirm Buffalo Bill to rescue women and children with the help of five crew members. Also while working for Sells-Floto, he would later grow enraged when he learned that executives had advertised a twenty-five cent admission fee and charged fifty cents at the door. Not long after, Cody pulled his gun on the owners and demanded out of his contract.
In more than 15 years of reading obsessively about the Old West, there are only two figures who I desperately wished to have met: cowboy artist Charlie Russell (1864-1926) and Cody. And when I picture him in my mind’s eye, it is more often in photos like the above rather than imagining him in his more perilous endeavors.
Though today’s photo was obviously staged, look at the avuncular Cody in full Wild West regalia, head slightly bowed so the sun catches his oversized Stetson and glistening white beard. The camera catches him mid-story, holding what appears to be a piece of Native American embroidery. Though the little girls are dressed in white and organdy pinafores, things are rough in the back area of the Wild West Show. This is a place for play and fun and myth. As usual, Bill is making time for everyone.
I cannot help but think of later photos of other Western Icons surrounded by children. A quick search on the Internet would yield photos of Tom Mix, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy surrounded by children – but, as usual, Cody got there first. I believe that it was he that created and fostered the myth of the Western Hero as the friend of childhood, a trope that has been with us for over 100 years.
Take a moment and imagine ourselves back there. We’ve seen the Wild West (or are about to), and sneak behind to the performer’s tents. There is the great man himself, impossibly tall and romantic in his colorful western clothes. He beckons us over and we sit, while he unfolds a tale of Western Adventure, of days gone by and pioneer adventure. We listen as he talks, his aged voice rich and dramatic, and the whole pageantry of the West opens before us. And we know that once that great voice and great heart are stilled, the West will really be gone forever.