In Search of the Real Buffalo Bill

American Icons, People
on February 26, 2006

Buffalo Bill is an American icon, a symbol of frontier adventure as well as the master showman behind the celebrated Wild West shows that brought elements of the frontier to more "civilized" audiences across the United States and Europe beginning in the 1880s. But most people actually know little about this military scout, buffalo hunter, frontier fighter and entrepreneur, says Louis S. Warren, author of the new biography Buffalo Bill’s America: William Cody and the Wild West Show, which separates the man from the myth. Warren, a professor at the University of California-Davis, spoke to American Profile about Cody, born 160 years ago on Feb. 26.

American Profile: Who was the "real" Buffalo Bill?

Louis S. Warren: Insofar as he made the name famous and was the inventor of the Wild West show, William Frederick Cody was the real Buffalo Bill. But even during his life, questions about his identity were legion. Cody and his publicists embellished his considerable frontier achievements, so that you were never quite certain where the real man gave way to his fictions. But it was as much fun to argue about the question of Buffalo Bill’s real identity, as it was to watch him and his cast perform. In that sense, the "real" Buffalo Bill has always been a man who was very much like the West itself—a country half-real, half-imagined.

AP: Why do we still care about Buffalo Bill today?

LW: It’s twofold, I think. Part of it is his classic story of coming from the frontier to worldwide fame. And the Wild West show was such a diverse, optimistic and colorful group of people—the Indians, the cowboys and cowgirls. Both he and the show came to represent America itself.

AP: How do we still see his influence?

LW: He made westward expansion respectable both as entertainment and as history. At the time he began the show, historians talked about the Civil War and the Colonial period, but not westward expansion. There’s a lot of the showiness of modern rodeo, where you have cash prizes for events, that comes out of the Wild West show. Much of what we’d call the Western "look" today can be traced back to Buffalo Bill.

AP: Did we need a person like Buffalo Bill in the late 1800s?

LW: I think so. He was an intuitive performance genius who had a powerful sense of people’s heartfelt desires. And he was always anxious to provide the public—especially the middle class—with what they wanted. When he began the show, there really weren’t places for middle-class people to go out for entertainment. It was a much stuffier world in the 1880s. He launched "family-oriented" entertainment, and called it an "exhibition" to sound educational, to make people feel comfortable with going and being enlightened.

AP: He wasn’t always the most truthful person. Was he a hero or a charlatan?

LW: I don’t think it matters. Cody came from a world of tall-tale tellers, and he took real achievements and events from his own life and spun them together with lots of imaginary accomplishments to create a mythology for himself and for the country. So many of his stories run right along the main arteries of the founding myths of America. While he was constantly embellishing his own accomplishments, his pose allowed so many other people to weave their stories into his—to create new lives and a new West for themselves.

AP: What’s an example of that?

LW: Many of the Indians in the show would not have been able to travel around the United States and Europe without Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. And it would have been much harder to preserve certain elements of their dances and songs at a time when the government was trying to eradicate those forms of cultural expression. He was always interested in reaching across those cultural divides, with Indians and Mexican-Americans and blacks. I don’t know whether that makes him a hero, but it makes his story that much more relevant. It’s a story about real people who helped make the mythology of the West.