By Edward T. O’Donnell
One hundred thirty-one years ago, on Nov. 25, 1869, Americans were introduced to a new hero. On that day the New York Weekly published the first installment of a new series: "Buffalo Bill, King of the Border Men." Author Ned Buntline, the paper explained, had gone west in search of an authentic hero and found him in the person of a 24-year-old Irish American named William Cody. It was the beginning of an American legend and a career that would last more than three decades.
Born the fourth of eight children in Scott County, Iowa, in 1845, Cody left school at age 12 when his father died. He tried his hand at trapping and prospecting before joining the Pony Express at 14. He served as a scout and soldier in the Union Army during the Civil War. He took up buffalo hunting in 1867 to supply meat to the Kansas Pacific Railroad. He killed more than 4,000 of the enormous creatures, earning himself the nickname "Buffalo Bill." In 1868 he joined the Fifth Cavalry as a civilian scout, a job that brought him many violent encounters with Sioux and Cheyenne warriors, including one where he shot and killed the Cheyenne chief Tall Bull.
Buntline heard of these exploits and sought out this authentic representative of western manliness and heroism. His original story in the New York Weekly was republished as a dime novel. When it sold well, Buntline wrote another. And then another. With no trademark laws to stop them, other authors began churning out their own Buffalo Bill dime novels (eventually 3,000 were published). Cody’s reputation grew accordingly, though he earned no royalties from it.
That changed after he visited New York City in 1872. He arrived as a celebrity and enjoyed every minute of it. But what really caught his attention was seeing himself portrayed on stage. He told Buntline he’d like to give it a try, so the writer dashed off a show entitled "The Scouts of the Prairie." Cody played the lead and was an instant hit. An exceptional shot, scout and rider, he turned out to be an even better showman.
He bought a ranch in Nebraska with his earnings and spent the next decade dabbling in show biz and making public appearances. Slowly he formed an idea for a spectacular touring show that would combine theater, circus and rodeo for audiences starved for the legends and lore of the fast disappearing West.
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The result was The Wild West (Cody never called it a "show"). It debuted in Omaha in May 1883 and proved a winner. Cody took it on the road and town after town brought out capacity crowds. The Wild West grew more elaborate every year, eventually topping out at 400 horses and 650 cowboys, Indians, musicians, and support staff. They thrilled audiences with huge reenactments of cattle drives and clashes between Indians and cowboys. Over time Cody added big name stars like Annie Oakley and Sitting Bull. Cody attributed much of his success to the work of his P.R. man and fellow Irish American John M. Burke.
At the height of his career, Cody was an international media superstar on a par with Garth Brooks or Tiger Woods. He toured every major U.S. city and in Europe. His fame brought him riches — an estimated $1 million a year in revenue — and a steady stream of endorsements for products like Winchester rifles and Stetson hats.
Unfortunately, Cody blew every penny on high living and poor investments. Dire financial straits forced him to keep performing long after his skills and popularity had faded. He died in Colorado in 1917 at the age of 72.
The character of Buffalo Bill lived on for decades in several films. But in the 1960s and ’70s, Cody came under harsh criticism from environmentalists and Native American rights activists, who depicted him as a ruthless exterminator of the buffalo and glorifier of Indian conquest. In recent years, however, he’s made a comeback. Numerous television shows and books have been produced, along with a revival of his traveling extravaganza, The Wild West. It seems safe to say that the legend of William "Buffalo Bill" Cody will live on for as long as Americans maintain an interest in the Old West.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
Nov. 22, 1963: Belfast-born writer C.S. Lewis dies.
Nov. 22, 1963: President John F. Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas.
Nov. 23, 1867: Three Fenians are executed for their alleged role in a prison escape that resulted in the death of a guard. The story of the "Manchester Martyrs" inspired T.D. Sullivan to write the popular song "God Save Ireland."
Nov. 25, 1952: George Meany becomes president of the American Federation of Labor.
Nov. 25, 1864: Confederate spy Robert Kennedy and several others unsuccessfully attempt to burn New York City during the Civil War.
Nov. 22, 1865: Famed Klondike miner Micky (Mici) MacGowan born in Cloghaneely, Co. Donegal.
Nov. 23, 1841: Tammany Hall "Boss" Richard Croker born in Clonakilty, Co. Cork.
Nov. 23, 1859: Outlaw William H. "Billy the Kid" Bonney born in New York City.
Nov. 25, 1925: Leader of American conservatives William F. Buckley born in New York City.
Nov. 25, 1960: The don of President John Kennedy, John Kennedy, Jr., born in Washington, D.C.
Readers may reach Edward T. O’Donnell at odonnell@PastWise.com.