What the True Story of Buffalo Bill Reveals About the Myth of the Wild West

Buffalo Bill is fighting a fierce battle on the main stage. His scouts and he are engaged in fierce battle against a group of Cheyenne warriors. As the Cheyenne, who are terrifying and powerful, seem to have the upper hand, the audience waits with bated breath. But just when it seems all hope is lost, Buffalo Bill—dressed in an elegant black velvet, lace-trimmed, Mexican vaquero suit—takes aim at the Cheyenne war chief Yellow Hand and fires. The Cheyenne have been defeated after their chief was shot to death. Buffalo Bill walks over to Yellow Hand’s lifeless body, takes out his knife, and removes Yellow Hand’s scalp. Buffalo Bill proudly lifts his scalp into the air. “For Custer!” he declares. Wild applause and cheers erupt from the crowd. “For Custer!” they cry. In Buffalo Bill’s stage show The red right handOderCuster: The First ScalpYellow Hand’s scalping was an act in justice.
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The story of Buffalo Bill’s scalping of Yellow Hand would become a part of a mythology—a story that William F. Cody largely invented, just as he had invented his own legend and the “Wild West.”

For his skill at killing buffalo, Cody earned the nickname Buffalo Bill. Cody first hunted buffalo to eat. Hunting buffalo was popular because they were abundant all over the country. Sport but Cody was obscenely prolific in killing—claiming to have shot dead 4,280 buffalo in just 18 monthsHe was a. His job was to slaughter buffalo for railroad workers. The work quickly became more than just killing buffalo, it was also about killing Indians.

The American colonizers sought to extend their territories westward through the construction of railroads during the middle- to late 19th centuries. They came across Native Americans who lived there for hundreds of years. Prime railway territory is often prime grazing terrain. The Sioux also hunted in these areas, which made it a rich source of valuable resources such gold. De facto, the U.S. declared war on Native Americans wherever they were standing between them and America’s westward expansion. The United States attacked Native people in every way it could—fighting combatants on the battlefield, killing women and children in their homes, spreading disease, forcing relocation—nothing was off limits. Yet, Native people fought for their land and did so well.

In 1869, facing a protracted battle with Native tribes like the Sioux, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Phillip Sheridan as commanding general of the army and asked him to help solve the “Indian Problem” once and for all. Sheridan reached for the advice of William Tecumseh Sherman after he had been a distinguished Civil War veteran with his scorched-earth tactics. Sherman noticed that Native people would fight for the land where buffalo were present. Sherman’s advice to Sheridan was simple: remove the buffalo in order to remove the Indian.

Cody, a highly skilled hunter had earned a good reputation and he began to work at Sheridan killing buffalo. From all parts of the country, people boarded trains heading west to hunt buffalo using.50-caliber guns from train windows. They killed thousands of buffalo a day, leaving the animals’ lifeless bodies where they fell on the plains to rot. Wealthy and powerful men from the East Coast and even Europe rode west to join in on the fun, guided by “Buffalo Bill” Cody.

Cody was first to see fame when he traveled along with wealthy journalists in documenting newspaper hunts across the nation. Cody began to partner with dime-store authors and started commissioning plays that told his tales. Soon, Cody was regularly traveling back and forth—east to star in stage shows, and then back west to continue the wholesale slaughter of buffalo.

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Cody, a famous hunter who popularized buffalo hunting, and many others joined the slaughter. They discovered that as buffalo numbers decreased they needed to move further west. After the mass slaughter of buffalo, excitement began to fade. Cody now a celebrity sought greater fame, and found it in the battlefield. An experienced scout with the U.S. Army, he signed on to join in the Plains Wars in 1876, announcing from the stage of one of his shows that he was leaving “play acting” in search of the “real thing.” He packed his costume and went off to war.

A little more than a month later, Cody joined 5th Cavalry of southern Wyoming. In pursuit of the two U.S. military couriers, a small Cheyenne band was spotted headed west. Cody received permission from his superiors for him to lead a small number of fighters against the warriors. Cody put aside the heavy, rough clothes that most of his cavalry were wearing and changed into his new costume. Cody rode in red velvet trousers and a silk shirt with silver buttons. It was a short fight that lasted only minutes. But after Cody killed Cheyenne warrior Hay-o-wei, whose name means “Yellow Hair,” Cody scalped the dead warrior and took his warbonnet and weapons as trophies. According to Cody, he thrust the scalp in the air and shouted, “The first scalp for Custer!” Nobody else at the skirmish remembered him doing that. None of the warriors that the men fought had been at the battle of Little Big Horn, known as Custer’s Last Stand, or had likely ever encountered the revered General George Armstrong Custer. Within a week of his killing Yellow Hair, exaggerated stories of Cody’s bravery under fire began to reach the newspapers.

Cody returned to the theatre a few months later, leaving the cavalry just a few months before he killed Yellow Hair. Cody donned the exact same attire he wore to battle every night in order to perform a highly dramatized rendition of the killing. Cody changed the name of Yellow Hair to Yellow Hand and was elevated to the rank of chief rather than simple warrior. While newspapers denounced this blatant glorifying of violence, theatergoers flocked to the theatre to witness Cody waving the Yellow Hand’s scalp in triumph.

Cody went on to create more productions that showcased the violence of masculinity in the West, which led to his 1883 debut with the most well-known show. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World

The timing of Cody’s Wild WestPerfect. White men from the United States and England began to fret about the young men they had too easily. Their wealth and comfort made them soft. These softenings could pose a problem for the United States as it fights to keep the land that was stolen from Native American people. It was more than a political call to white Americans for physical power.

Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders Circus Poster
Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG/Getty ImagesBuffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders Circus Poster

Cody’s Wild WestThe show had everything white men seeking power and glory wanted. The show featured white men who were courageous and noble. They bravely fought off wild animals. “Indians,” even when Cody allowed them to be something less than mindless killing machines, were seen as great relics of the past, conquered by the superiority of white men. These boys became men, and the lure of Western adventure never faded. They decided to make their own tales of dominance in the physical world.

Cody grew his show to a large stage. Real Native warriors were hired to portray the Native warriors. He would add gunslingers to the troupe, as well as cowboys. Eventually he would add “Zulu warriors,” Mexican “vaqueros,” Turks, and dozens of other “exotic” performances. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West became the most popular show in America, and he became one of the wealthiest and most famous entertainers in the world. Wild Bill Hickok and Buffalo Bill Cody were among the dimestore-novel heros that inspired a whole generation of white young men to go west looking for their Manifest Destiny.

Cody tried to raise the Wild West’s reputation as the show gained popularity. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West was not a “show”—it was, according to Cody, an educational event. It was part of living history. The people of the world would soon follow. Wild WestIt is important to enjoy learning as well as entertaining. His project was lauded for its educational potential and legitimacy. We all know the exaggerated, racist stories about white American male bravery, leadership and righteous victories. They are a major part of American History.

Following decades of success, Wild West was eventually done in by financial mismanagement, Cody’s drinking habits, and the rising popularity of movie theaters. Cody, 70 years old, died Jan. 10, 1917. Cody is remembered today as an American West icon: A soldier, showman, wildlife conservationist and friend to the Indian. This reputation was earned deliberately by Cody. Cody became more comfortable talking with Native Americans who were part of his show and less with his scalping routine that launched him. Never to be seen again, the Yellow Hair warbonnet and scalp were taken off their stage-side display.

Cody was eventually against Native American scalping. The massacre of buffalo which gave Cody his name would be a regrettable event. While the great buffalo hunt featuring live bison would always be a prominent part of Cody’s show, he began to speak out against the buffalo hunting that he had popularized. The most brutal privilege of white male privilege is perhaps the ability to live long enough for others to see the horror you caused.

This article was adapted from MEDIOCRE. The Dangerous Legacy of White Male AmericaIjeoma Oluo is now available in paperback through Seal Press. Seal Press is an imprint under Hachette Book Group. Copyright © 2021 by Ijeoma Oluo.


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