August 19, 2013
When most people today hear the name ‘Buffalo’ Bill Cody they think of a quaint and old-fashioned wild west show that featured trick shooting and riding. But Cody was a real life hero, a prolific buffalo hunter as well as a trail guide and scout for the US cavalry during the Indian wars. His shows included mock battles based on true events in which he himself had participated, events whose politically incorrect nature would be shocking to contemporary mainstream sensibilities. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show was immensely popular during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and Cody’s exploits were also the subject of books, paintings and magazines. The celebration of Cody’s career as an Indian fighter was the celebration of the American triumph over savagery, a triumph that was seen as glorious and just.
Two of the most prominent events from Cody’s life that were reenacted for entertainment were the Battle of Summit Springs (1869) and the Battle of Warbonnet Creek (1876).
The Battle of Summit Springs was a real life example of the quintessential feat of frontier chivalry: the rescue of white women from savage Indians. Cody was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroic defeat of Chief Tall Bull and the recovery of captured whites at Summit Springs, and the event became a popular routine in the Wild West Show as well as the inspiration for works of art:
At the Battle of Warbonnet Creek Cody killed and scalped the Indian chief Yellow Hair, an incident that became known as The First Scalp for Custer. The Battle took place less than a month after the vicious slaughter of American forces at Custer’s Last Stand. After scalping his foe, Cody proudly displayed the scalp and headdress to cheering white soldiers. Shortly after the event, Cody went back east and performed in shows where he reenacted this act of revenge in front of an enthusiastic audience. The episode was also reproduced in numerous paintings and illustrations.
The real Old West was not quaint or cutesy. The westward movement of the pioneers was a brutal experience that defined the American character. This march of white Christian civilization into the wilderness of a new continent was carried out with a code of honor that demanded the protection of white womanhood and vengeance for fallen white brothers. Unless we begin to live by this same code of honor, our people will disappear from the land conquered by our ancestors.