February 26, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
Happy Birthday, Buffalo Bill.
No one did more to shape our concept of the American West than William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody, the hunter, would-be cowboy, and showman whose traveling revue, “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World,” helped create the dime-novel image of frontier life that persists to this day. Cowboys, injuns, tipis, headdresses, firewater, peace pipes, weathered wide-brimmed hats, fearless feats of derring-do, stagecoach heists, impossibly accurate gunplay, bucolic campfires, tremulous harmonicas, bareback rides across windswept prairies, vast herds of grazing bison, virile stallions, lawless lands, hootin’, hollerin’, spectoratin’—the whole whooping metaverse came straight out of Bill’s fringed leather pockets. Today, his story exists in a kind of liminal space between history, mythos, and stagecraft; no one really knows what’s true and what isn’t. But however he lived, the dude gave us the Western, and he reminds of simpler times. He staked his massive celebrity on the speed with which he could dispatch a herd of buffalo—think about that.
These illustrations pay fitting tribute to the Buffalo Bill zeitgeist: its bumptious individualism, its rugged sense of adventure, and, yes, its racial insensitivity. Except where noted, they come from the first of his two autobiographies, 1879’s The Life and Adventures of Buffalo Bill, and from Buffalo Bill Stories, “a weekly publication devoted to border history” from the early twentieth century. As bigoted as some of these images are, though, it’s worth noting that Bill hired many Native Americans to tour in his troupe—“show Indians,” as they were pejoratively known—and he shared in their horror as the West he knew was tamed, subdivided, denatured, and “civilized.” Quoth Wikipedia: “He called [Indians] ‘the former foe, present friend, the American,’ and once said, ‘Every Indian outbreak that I have ever known has resulted from broken promises and broken treaties by the government.’”