Buffalo Bill Fact vs. Fiction

LiveAuctionTalk.com:  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Brian Lebel.

Buffalo Bill sits around the campfire swapping stories with other cowboys and drinking whiskey.  He calls himself a juvenile delinquent of the Plains in his youth, stealing apples and running away from home after stabbing a schoolmate in a fight over a childhood sweetheart. 

I find frequent conflicts with the statements of those who in writing his life have made facts subservient to wild exaggeration, just as many romances have done while soberly pretending to record the incidents in my own life,
— Buffalo Bill

How much of his tale is actually true is anyone’s guess. 

But that’s what Buffalo Bill talks about in “The Life of the Hon. William F. Cody Known as Buffalo Bill,” the first 1879 dime-store novel championing his life.  He’s listed as the author but some historians say maybe not.   

Buffalo Bill was one of the biggest heroes in 19th century dime-store novels, the beginnings of mass-market paperbacks.

“I felt only as a man can feel who is roaming over the prairies of the far West, well-armed, and mounted on a fleet and gallant steed,” he said.

Bill says he made many friends on the Plains but the most important was Wild Bill Hickok.  Bill was 11-years-old at the time and Hickok was 20.  He describes the two as drinking large amount of tanglefoot (whiskey) and engaging in lots of gambling, fistfights, and shootings.     

Hickok eventually toured with Buffalo Bill’s troupe and supposedly took pride in shooting blanks at the feet of the extras hired to play Indians.  He liked watching them jump all over the stage from the burns. 

They say Buffalo Bill rarely read what was written about him and signed books without checking their contents for accuracy. Mostly he left inflating his ego to other authors. 

One historian who contributed big time to the myths around Buffalo Bill was James William Buel.  His book “Heroes of the Plains” is recognized as being full of fabrications and errors pumping up the tales of Buffalo Bill and Hickok. He describes Bill’s famous Pony Express ride as the longest in history even though Bill denied that in his autobiography.        

Buffalo Bill had this to say about Kit Carson’s legacy.

“I find frequent conflicts with the statements of those who in writing his life have made facts subservient to wild exaggeration, just as many romances have done while soberly pretending to record the incidents in my own life,” he said.    

So there it is.  How many Wild West stories were fact and how many were fiction is anybody’s guess. It’s hard to untangle it all.

Even so, Buffalo Bill rises up from the ashes as a tough, adventurous plainsman even though all his supposed feats are not that believable.

“Frontiersmen good and bad, gunmen as well as inspired prophets of the future, have been my camp companions. Thus, I know the country of which I am about to write as few men now living have known it,” he said.  He’s probably right.

If the sale of dime-store novels about Buffalo Bill are any indication, the tales about his escapades made for great late-night reading.

On Jan. 20, Old West Events featured a selection of vintage Buffalo Bill items in its auction.

Here are some current values.

Buffalo Bill

Archive; relating to Buffalo Bill; handwritten letters from Buffalo Bill as well as letters from friends and relatives; autograph book; copies of his other various books;  $5,310.

Poster; lithograph; Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show; showing Native American with buckskins and feather headdress holding a shield; French poster printed by Imp. Chaix 20 Rue Bergere, Paris; 36 by 30 inches framed;  $3,245.    

Poster; lithograph; Chief Iron Tail with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show; colorful image; belied to be the model for the Indian head nickel; The Inquirer Job Printing co., 38 by 30 inches framed;  $6,490.

Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her LiveAuctionTalk.com website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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