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Inventing the West

Besides being a prolific dime-novelist, Ned Buntline was also a fair talent-spotter. He saw right away that the young army scout Bill Cody had theatrical potential. For one thing, Cody had an easy way with grandees. In the late 1860s he began to be called on to organize celebrity hunts—killing buffalo was then the rage. When the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia showed up in the West in 1872, expecting to shoot a buffalo, Cody’s skills were indispensable, the Grand Duke being, to put it mildly, no marksman. By some accounts the Grand Duke was so myopic that he shot two or three horses before they could get him pointed toward the buffalo. Cody’s own account of this awkward hunt was of course more discreet, but he does admit that he had to lend the Grand Duke his best horse and his favorite rifle (called Lucrezia Borgia) and do everything but pull the trigger for him before a buffalo could be induced to fall—and he may even have pulled the trigger.

The Grand Duke showed up in January. Before the year was out Buntline had Cody and a fellow army scout named Texas Jack Omohundro on the stage in Chicago, in a play called Scouts of the Prairie. When the action faltered Buntline enlivened things by delivering temperance lectures. The reviews were scathing, and yet people came. Where else, after all, could they see real scouts playing actors playing unreal scouts? For the next few years Cody, and sometimes Texas Jack too, commuted between their summer jobs with the army and their winter work as thespians.

Then Custer fell and Cody rushed off to help avenge him, almost immediately stumbling into some of the best publicity of his whole career, his famous “duel” with the Cheyenne warrior Hay-o-wei, or Yellow Hair (usually mistranslated as Yellow Hand). This occurred on July 17, 1876—about three weeks after the Little Bighorn. Even with a Hinman collator it would not be easy to sort out the numerous versions of this “duel.” Various others who were in the field that day felt that they might have been the one to kill Yellow Hair. Probably Cody shot him—certainly he scalped him, taking the famous “first scalp for Custer”—the last, too, for a while.

Cody, whose touch with women was never as sure as his touch with horses, promptly sent this grisly trophy to his wife, Louisa, from whom he was mostly absent and usually estranged. Thanks to some miracle of the nineteenth-century mail, the scalp reached Mrs. Cody before she even knew that Yellow Hair was dead, or, for that matter, that he had ever lived.

Matters never really improved between Bill and Louisa. Some years later, after his first triumphs in Europe, Cody foolishly sued her for divorce, and lost. It was revealed in depositions that the woman Mrs. Cody was most jealous of was Queen Victoria—an eligible widow, after all. The Queen didn’t seem to be that charmed by Cody, but she did admire an Indian named Red Shirt, who gets mentioned in her diary. For a time Cody conducted an expensive flirtation with an actress named Katherine Clemmons, who soon married Jay Gould’s son. Memory of this frustration caused Cody to declare that he would rather manage a million Indians than one soubrette.


When he died, Annie Oakley, whom Cody always called Little Missie (despite the fact that she was, for fifty years, a married woman), had this to say:

I traveled with him for seventeen years. There were thousands of men in the outfit during that time, Comanches, cowboys, Cossacks, Arabs, and every kind of person. And the whole time we were one great family loyal to one man. His words were better than most contracts. Personally I never had a contract with the show once I started. It would have been superfluous.

Kit Carson said of his own autobiography that he thought the folks who wrote it down had “laid it on a leetle thick,” and Little Missie was certainly laying it on a “leetle thick” here. She did have contracts and her relations with the Colonel, as she called him, were not always serene. Not long before the big European tour Cody—with his usual flawed comprehension of women—presented Annie with a rival, a chubby fifteen-year-old California markswoman named Lillian Smith. Annie Oakley immediately lopped six years off her own age, and later performed for a season with Cody’s sometime partner, sometime rival Pawnee Bill (Gordon Lillie).

Few of Cody’s managers or business partners would have agreed with Little Missie about the quality of his word, either—if only because he could rarely remember very accurately what he had agreed to. The selection of his business correspondence, The Business of Being Buffalo Bill, edited by Sarah Blackstone suggested that his attention to contractual details was likely, at best, to be momentary. Few of the letters are more than a paragraph long. The troupe he managed was enormous, with sometimes as many as seven hundred people and lots of animals. It took fifty railroad cars to transport them. Like most show business troupes, Buffalo Bill’s had good seasons and not-so-good seasons. By the 1890s, when Wild West shows were at the height of their popularity, there were two or three dozen troupes large and small wandering around America—and the world. When Henry Adams and his friend John Lafarge set out on their big trip to the South Seas in 1890 they shared their boat with a Wild West troupe bound for Australia. The field was never Cody’s alone.

Usually, though, Cody had the most Indians. For all his overstated prowess as an Indian fighter Cody, in the main, liked Indians and a good many Indians respected him. Like many another old scout he may have realized that at bottom he had more in common with the Indians than he did with the dandies and the swells. In 1872, with the Plains wars by no means over, Cody persuaded Spotted Tail, leader of the Brulé Sioux and uncle of Crazy Horse, to bring some warriors and cut up a little for the Grand Duke Alexis. From the first he used Indians in the Wild West shows, and he sometimes had to fight the Department of the Interior to do it. The government didn’t want Indians to get to show off. The never predictable Sioux historian Vine Deloria Jr. thinks it was a good thing for Indians to be in the Wild West shows: it beat staying home and being harassed by the government. The question of their participation has now been thoroughly studied, both by Joy Kasson and by L.G. Moses in Wild West Shows and the Images of American Indians, 1883-1933.4

When Cody took his troupe to England for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887, he took ninety-seven Indians with him, including Black Elk, the Sioux visionary, who mentioned that Queen Victoria’s hand was little and soft. He also said that Pawhuska (Cody) had a great heart. Sitting Bull was a harder case. Cody called him “peevish”—one of his few understatements—and managed to keep him with the Wild West show only one year, 1885. When Sitting Bull left Cody gave him a horse and a hat, both of which he kept until his death, five years later.

From the mid-1880s into the new century, Cody, despite persistent rivals such as Doc Carver and Pawnee Bill, was probably the most prominent purveyor of Western “traditions.” Custer had flamed out in 1876, his death being his most glorious career move, though, for his troops, it was just death. In the Eighties Theodore Roosevelt produced his Winning of the West, as romantic a history as one could want. The West pretty much had been won by then, if “won” is the right word. Roosevelt was also just completing his three-year flirtation with ranching in the Dakotas—in Mornings on Horseback David McCullough reckons that T.R. was actually in the West only a little more than a year.5 A while later, when he got ready to make war on Spain, T.R. borrowed the concept of Rough Riders from Cody’s show, and Cody responded by promptly reenacting the Battle of San Juan Hill.

William F. Cody’s “invention,” begun with a nudge from Ned Buntline and developed with the help of his long-suffering assistants Nate Salsbury and John Burke, was to take the kind of pageants current in Barnum and others and focus them on the West, the winning of which thus came to seem a triumphant national venture. The audiences not only bought it, they loved it, at least as long as Cody was there himself, on his white horse. What his career proved is that there is almost no limit to how far a man can go in America if he looks good on a horse; and Buffalo Bill looked so good on a horse that it was almost as if the animal had been created just for him to ride. T.R. by contrast never looked good on a horse—on a horse he just looked impatient. He looked a little better with a gun, particularly if he happened to be standing by a large dead animal which he had just killed.

Like Mark Twain and Ulysses S. Grant, Cody was a fool with money. He sunk a bunch of it into something called White Beaver’s Laugh Cream, the Great Lung Healer, an herbal remedy which arrived on the market roughly a century too soon. The movie camera finally arrived—Annie Oakley went before it in 1894—but it didn’t really improve matters for Cody. He invested much money, time, and energy in an “authentic” Western called The Indian Wars (1913) which flopped. In 1916 he was forced to seek employment with the Miller Brothers, owners of the famous 100,000 acre 101 Ranch in Oklahoma, who for some years—1905 to 1925 particularly—ran a successful Wild West show in addition to their cattle business. In 1916 the Millers were recovering from a bit of bad timing: an attempted tour of Europe in the fall of 1914. They got to England and promptly had almost all their livestock requisitioned by the British; a lot of half-broken Mexican cow ponies that the Millers had bought on the cheap in Mexico saw service in France. Somehow the Millers got everybody home, including, even, a band of Oglala Sioux who had been farmed out to a circus and happened to be in Germany when war broke out. With Buffalo Bill on board the Millers tried to run a tour under a rather labored title: “Buffalo Bill (Himself) and the 101 Ranch Wild West Combined with the Military Pageant of Preparedness.”

The whole story of the Millers and the 101 Ranch—at one point they employed Tom Mix, and Will Rogers enjoyed dropping by—has been well told by Michael Wallis in The Real Wild West. He gives a good account of another of the Millers’ foreign imbroglios, this one in Mexico City. The Millers bet that their star cowboy, the black bulldogging champion Bill Pickett, could hold his own for five minutes with a fighting bull named Frijoles Chiquitos. Pickett won the bet for his bosses, staying in the ring with Frijoles Chiquitos for thirty-eight minutes, seven and a half of which were spent clinging to the animal’s horns.

As far as the bull and the bull-dogger went, the contest was a stand-off: Pickett couldn’t throw the bull and the bull couldn’t gore Pickett. But the crowd, outraged by this insult to their bull, all but rioted. Pickett was eventually conked by a bottle thrown from the stands, but all escaped. Even Bill Pickett’s favorite horse, Spradley, who had been gored in the fracas, survived, thanks to the mysterious intervention of an old Mexican man who wandered up and thrust a red bandana deep into Spradley’s wound, curing him almost immediately. Bill Pickett, at the time, was earning eight dollars a week and board for putting himself and Spradley to this trouble.

When William F. Cody died, in 1917, he proved not to have been able to control even his own corpse. He had chosen a burial spot in Cody, Wyoming, but his current partner, Harry Tammen, the Denver newspaperman, either bullied or bamboozled the grieving Louisa and had the Last of the Great Scouts put to rest on Lookout Mountain, near Denver.


Annie Oakley (Phoebe Ann Moses—or Mosey) grew up poor in rural Ohio, shot game to feed her family, shot game to sell, was pressed into a shooting contest with a touring sharpshooter named Frank Butler, beat him, married him, stayed with him for fifty years, and died three weeks before he did in 1926.

When Annie Oakley and Frank Butler offered themselves to Cody the Colonel was dubious. His fortunes were at a low ebb, and shooting acts abounded. But he gave Annie Oakley a chance. She walked out in Louisville before 17,000 people and was hired immediately. Nate Salsbury, Cody’s tight-fisted manager, who did not spend lavishly and who rarely highlighted performers, happened to watch Annie rehearse and promptly ordered seven thousand dollars’ worth of posters and billboard art.

Annie Oakley more than justified the expense. Sitting Bull, normally a taciturn fellow, saw her shoot in Minnesota and could not contain himself. Watanya cicilia, he called her, his Little Sure Shot. Small, reserved, Quakerish, she seemed to live on the lemonade Buffalo Bill dispensed free to all hands. In London she demolished protocol by shaking hands with Princess Alexandra. She shook hands with Alexandra’s husband, the Prince of Wales, too, though, like his mother the Queen, she strongly disapproved of his behavior with the ladies. In France the Parisians were glacially indifferent to buffalo, Indians, cowboys, and Cody—Annie Oakley melted them so thoroughly that she had to go through her act five times before she could escape. In Germany she likened Bismarck to a mastiff.

In 1901 she was almost killed in a train wreck. Annie claimed that it was the wreck that caused her long auburn hair to turn white overnight; skeptics said her hair turned white because she left it in hot water too long while at a spa. She continued to shoot into the 1920s. In her last years she looked rather like Nancy Astor. Will Rogers visited her not long before her death and pronounced her the perfect woman. Probably not until Billie Jean King and the rise of women’s tennis had a female outdoor performer held the attention of so many people. She became part of the “invention” that is the West by winning her way with a gun: a man’s thing, the very thing, in fact, that had won the West itself.

As the frontier closed odd liaisons formed and strange dislocations occurred. Sitting Bull, in the last year of his life, took Katherine Weldon, a gentlewoman from Brooklyn, into his home on the Standing Rock reservation. Indian agent James McLaughlin, who disliked and distrusted Sitting Bull, assured his superiors that the relationship wasn’t “criminal,” but he may have been wrong.

Will Rogers saw Buffalo Bill’s Wild West in Chicago in 1893 and was fascinated by the trick roping of Vicente Oropeza. Back home, young Will began to practice with the rope, but his first best chance to perform came in South Africa where, just after the Boer War, he had gone to deliver a load of Argentine livestock. The impresario who hired him was Texas Jack Jr., the namesake of Buffalo Bill’s old scouting crony, Texas Jack Omohundro. Young Rogers, soon to be so famous, performed some of his first rope tricks for an audience that—according to his biographer Ben Yagoda—at one point included Mohandas Gandhi, then a lawyer in Johannesburg.

Later, when he was the best-paid performer at Twentieth Century Fox, Rogers lived on his ranch in Pacific Palisades, entertaining such immortals as Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, and, one evening, Will Durant; the historian of civilization was happy to report to his wife Ariel that he had been picked up in a “nifty Cadillac.” Around this time Will Rogers made a remark that goes straight to the heart of the selling of the West: “The more you do anything that don’t look like advertising the better advertising it is.”

In my view the main reason the Old West became so enormously popular as entertainment was that the great engines of the media were well stoked before the actual settling was even half completed. Consider Billy the Kid. In real terms he was a minor outlaw: many did worse. But the name was catchy and the media was ready; Billy’s bibliography now exceeds five thousand items, and they are still coming.

If we apply Professor Hobsbawm’s notion of invariance to the invented traditions of the Old West, we might conclude that only the pulpers and the advertising men have held a strict course. John Ford, in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, varied the formula, a little. Clint Eastwood, in Unforgiven, finally varied the formula, a little. But Louis L’Amour, through one hundred and twenty books, held to his formula as tightly as Bill Pickett held to the deadly horns of Frijoles Chiquitos. And so do the Marlboro ads: always the same horses, the same hills, the same ropes, the same handsome guys.

William F. Cody’s frantic efforts, toward the end of his life, to make an “authentic” Western about the Indian wars may have been a sad effort to grasp again, somehow, the reality that had been there when he was young. The old man of sixty-seven rescalped for the camera the Cheyenne Hay-o-wei, whom he had really scalped in July of 1876. Cody had by then spent more than forty years peddling illusions about the West, and now he wanted the reality back so that Americans who would never see a free Indian could know what the winning of the West had “really” been like. But the killing of Hay-o-wei itself happened because of the sunburst of publicity generated by Custer’s death. The papers wanted more, and they wanted it soon. When Cody did it again for the cameras, thirty-seven years later, the venture flopped. By that time it was Cody himself, not the American audiences, who wanted the reality back. Americans, now as then, were perfectly happy with the illusion—only, if you would please, try not to let the advertising show.

  1. 4

    University of New Mexico Press, 1996.

  2. 5

    Simon and Schuster, 1981.

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