Museum of Northwest Colorado: Buffalo Bill’s legacy
The drama and myths of the Old West, as we think of it today, began in part due to the flamboyant showmanship of a westerner himself, Buffalo Bill Cody. Born in 1846 to a staunch abolitionist, William Cody left home at an early age to earn a living after the sudden death of his father. By age 12, he already had been involved in the Utah War and had gone on to join the Pony Express. He tried to sign up for military service in the Civil War but was turned away because of his young age. He spent the war years freighting goods and after the war served as an Army scout.
William earned his nickname during his tenure as a buffalo hunter for the railroad and the U.S. Army.
During his hunts to provide meat for the railroad workers and for soldiers, his accurate shots hit the mark so consistently that he earned the nickname Buffalo Bill. His fame spread as he enthusiastically tried his hand at all the adventures the West had to offer a spirited and apparently fearless young man. By 1869, his reputation was so widespread that a novel was written about him and a subsequent stage play produced based on the book. Cody was invited to play himself in the production, and thus started his new avocation of showman and actor.
By 1883, Cody no longer could repress his passionate exuberance in the glories of the Western life and he opened his first “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” featuring horsemanship, sharpshooting, rodeo events and re-enactments of historical events. The show was so colossal in scope that it sometimes required as many as 1,200 performers and countless animals. In 1887, the show went overseas and was held at Windsor Castle in England before going on tour in Europe.
The show hit its zenith in 1893, when Cody presented his extravaganza to more than 18,000 visitors at the Chicago World’s Fair. In 1894, a severe recession hit the nation, and Buffalo Bill’s production hit hard times from which it never fully recovered. Pawnee Bill, who ran his own flamboyant circus-style show, teamed up with Cody in 1908 for a combined event, with both men hoping to recoup some of their shows’ previous popularity. That unfortunately did not happen because of several factors, including the advent of the new, wildly popular silent movies, which offered the latest in high-tech entertainment.
The Museum of Northwest Colorado recently acquired a rare promotional poster from that comeback attempt by the two beleaguered showmen. It is on exhibit along with a Buffalo Bill saddle, which was made by Craig saddle maker Fred Ross. Ross, who was Craig’s saddle maker from 1891 to 1905, made the saddle to be used by Cody at the New York Pan American Exhibition of 1901. The saddle was in his estate, which was passed onto his sister upon his death in 1917. The saddle, along with the promotional poster and an intricately engraved saber and sheath that belonged to Cody, are just a small sampling of the intriguing bits of history that can be found at the Museum of Northwest this summer. The museum, located at 590 Yampa Ave., is open Monday through Saturday with free admission.
Mary Pat Dunn is the registrar for the Museum of Northwest Colorado.