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Mythbuster: Buffalo Bill Cody: Hunter or Celebrity?

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If you, like myself, thought that what made Buffalo Bill Cody famous was the buffalo, you may have been deceived. In researching this project I expected to find articles expressing how great a hunter Buffalo Bill was and how many buffalo he slaughtered, but instead I found an abundance of information on “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West.” This show put on by Buffalo Bill was apparently “for more than thirty years one of the largest, most popular, and successful businesses in the field of commercial entertainment.” (1)

After the Civil War, William F. Cody began hunting buffalo at first to survive. In his own words, Cody described one experience; “Raising [my gun] to my shoulder I fired, and killed the animal first shot. My horse then carried my alongside the next one, not ten feet away, and I dropped him at the next fire. As soon as one buffalo would fall, Brigham would take me so close to the next, that I could almost touch it with my gun. In this manner, I killed eleven buffalo with twelve shots.” (2) Eventually, Cody would be hired to kill twelve buffalo a day to be paid 500 dollars a month. During this period, Cody killed roughly 3,000 buffalo. (2)

Bill’s show business career began on December 17, 1872 with a show called “The Scouts of the Prairie.” (3) Soon, the Buffalo Bill Combination was created that had shows usually featuring Buffalo Bill, Texas Jack, and Wild Bill Hickok. The Buffalo Bill Combination lasted until 1882, at which point Buffalo Bill’s Wild West was started. Because of the show, cowboys became more accepted in American culture, previously being considered heathens with the name cow-boy intended as an insult. The Wild West shows “demonstrated bronco riding, roping, and other skills that would later become part of public rodeos.” (3) It also featured “dramatic narratives such as ‘The Attack on the Deadwood Stagecoach’ and historical re-enactments like ‘Custer’s Last Stand.’” (4)

Buffalo Bill ‘had a great love and concern for people.’ (3) His shows frequently portrayed Indians as ‘The American’ and treated his former foes with respect and dignity. He was a supporter of women’s rights and the women that performed in his show were paid equally with the men. It’s even been said that “the women in the Wild West often out-rode and out-gunned the men.” (3) One famously known woman is Annie Oakley, also known as Little Sure Shot.

Although Buffalo Bill Cody certainly was a great hunter and did his fair share of decreasing the buffalo population in the West in the 1800s, I think it’s fair to say that his work as a show producer and celebrity surpass the title of hunter in his case. His success with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show has gone down in history and has since changed the way that American’s viewed cowboys and cowgirls. William F. Cody may have gotten the name Buffalo Bill from hunting, but kept it because of his increased popularity as a celebrity of the Wild West.

Author: Kelsey Hinchliffe


[1] Kaplan, Amy, and Donald Pease. Cultures of United States Imperialism. US: Duke University Press, 1993. 164.

[2] Russell, Don. The Lives and Legends of Buffalo Bill. OK, US: University of Oklahoma Press, 1960. 87-89.

[3] Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave [http://www.buffalobill.org/history.htm]

[4] Kasson, Joy. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West: Celebrity, Memory, and Popular History. 1st ed. New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 2001. 4-6.

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