William F. Cody, also known as Buffalo Bill, died in Denver, Colorado on January 10, 1917. One hundred years later, his name adorns a 300,000 square foot museum complex in Cody, Wyoming: The Buffalo Bill Center of the West.
That complex holds a Buffalo Bill Museum, but it also houses a research library and four other Museums, featuring Western Art, Plains Indians, guns, and the wildlife and wild places of the Yellowstone area. What else did the world famous showman leave behind?
There are two things that define Cody, Wyoming: its position as a gateway to Yellowstone National Park, and Old Faithful, which delights tourists from around the world.
And, Buffalo Bill, for whom the town was named. He was considered the most famous man of his time because of his Wild West shows. He toured the world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The Curator of the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, Jeremy Johnston said when Cody died, it was a big deal.
Johnston explained, “William F. Cody’s passing pushed the news of the growing concern about America’s entry into World War I off the front page. And a number of dignitaries, including President Woodrow Wilson expressed condolences to the Cody family after his passing.”
But, what did Cody leave behind, besides the name of a town, a museum complex, and historical notoriety?Johnston said Cody shaped the way we think about the west.
He remarked, “A lot of those iconic images of the American West stem from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. The attack of the stagecoach, the attack of the homesteader cabin. All of these were recreated in the arena, in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. And a lot of Hollywood movies, and later on, television, copied the same images.”
Were those images reflections of the real Wild West? Johnston said Cody was very good at dramatizing history.
He explained, “So he would take authentic events and he would add this element of drama that drew people in, and audiences just loved it. They felt that they were part of the past events that led to the settlement of the American West.”
The antagonists in those recreated events were Indians who lost their homelands to American settlers. The actors in Buffalo Bill’s shows were real Indians.
Johnston remarked, “When you’re watching the Last Stand of the Little Big Horn in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, a number of the Lakota Indians who are re-creating this conflict. They were there that day at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.”
Ironically, several historians, including Johnston, feel Cody helped the Indians who appeared in his shows.
Johnston said, “It’s unfortunate because one of the more popular images of Buffalo Bill Cody is him as an Indian Killer. So the first scalp for Custer, the battle of Summit Springs.”
But Johnston said Cody was an advocate for American Indians peoples and Indian rights as he grew older.
He remarked, “They would travel with him all across the United States. They would travel with him into Europe. And at the same time, they were being paid a pretty decent wage for that time period to recreate their culture in its glory days.”
Cody even risked the ire of the U.S. Government.
Johnston said, “The mission of the United States government was to kill the Indian, save the man: teach them how to farm, ranch, we’ll turn them into Christians, we’ll teach them English. That culture will slowly fade away. And what Buffalo Bill was doing, in fact a lot of the reformers saw him as a threat, was saying, ‘Wait a minute, there’s some value here in this Plains Indian culture.'”
And, a Plains Indian Museum is part of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody. It, and the original Buffalo Bill Museum were the brainchild of his niece, Mary Jester Allen.
Johnston said Allen brought wealthy, influential donors from the East to Northwest Wyoming. In the century after his death, they, and local families eventually created the group of museums she envisioned.
He explained, “She had this great vision of not only a Buffalo Bill Museum, but a museum that would interpret Plains Indian Culture, Firearms. In fact she also had a Natural History museum as part of the Buffalo Bill…”
The Buffalo Bill Center For The West continues to grow and thrive and helps keep Cody’s name alive.