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Buffalo Bill Cody: A Legend in His Own Time, and in Ours

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
January 11, 2023 3:01 am

Buffalo Bill Cody: A Legend in His Own Time, and in Ours

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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January 11, 2023 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, the NFL team in Buffalo, New York, was named after him. But if you caught Paul Newman’s Cody in Robert Altman’s 1976 film, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, you might think Cody was a drunk, a coward, a liar and a con man. Here to tell the real story is Roger McGrath.

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What up?

It's Dramos. You may know me from the recap on LATV. Now I've got my own podcast, Life as a Gringo, coming to you every Tuesday and Thursday. We'll be talking real and unapologetic about all things life, Latin culture and everything in between from someone who's never quite fit in.

Listen to Life as a Gringo on the iHeartRadio app or wherever you get your podcasts. Brought to you by State Farm. Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there. The last time the economy looked this bad, the stock market tanked. The economy collapsed and inflation hit record highs. But at the same time, the price of gold shot up 1300%. It could happen again, but can you afford to miss what could be the biggest gold and silver boom of our generation? Call 855-512-GOLD to protect your retirement savings and you could get up to $10,000 in free silver.

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Learn more about the science behind the weight loss at This is Lee Habib and this is Our American Stories. And we tell stories about everything here on this show.

And history and the American West, well, they're two of our favorite subjects and they collide with this story. Buffalo Bill Cody died in 1917 and throughout the 1950s, Americans saw heroic versions of the Cody story on the silver screen. So was Buffalo Bill a real-life hero or was he a fake?

You're about to find out. Here to tell the story is Roger McGrath. McGrath is the author of Gunfighters, Highwomen, and Vigilantes, a U.S. Marine and former history professor at UCLA. McGrath has appeared on numerous History Channel documentaries and he is a regular contributor for us here at Our American Stories.

Here's McGrath. Most people today have an image only of the old white-haired showman, Buffalo Bill Cody. They know little or nothing about his early life, his life on the American frontier that shaped him and made him legendary long before he created Buffalo Bill's Wild West show. At age 11, Bill Cody went to work full-time for a freighting company after his father had died.

Young Cody was riding for the Pony Express by age 14. And at age 17, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, serving in the Civil War for more than two years. He then served as a scout for the Army in the Indian Wars on the High Plains. He took a leave of absence, Don Buffalo, to feed the construction crews of the Kansas Pacific Railroad.

His wildly successful hunts not only supplied the crews with tons of meat, but also earned him his nickname. William F. Cody is born in 1846 on a farm near the town of LeClaire in Iowa Territory. His father, Isaac, is from Canada and his mother from New Jersey. In 1854, the family moved to Kansas Territory, then known as Bleeding Kansas, for the violence between anti-slavery and pro-slavery settlers. Isaac Cody becomes one of the leaders of the anti-slavery settlers. After one of his fiery speeches, a pro-slavery ruffian stabs him with a bowie knife.

Isaac survives, but his health is permanently damaged. And in 1857, after leading a group of anti-slavery settlers from Ohio to Kansas, he dies. With a family in dire financial straits, Bill Cody gets a job with Russell, Majors, and Waddell Freighting Company.

Upon securing the job, he signs the company oath, which states, I agree not to use profane language, not to get drunk, not to gamble, not to treat animals cruelly, not to do anything else that is incompatible with the conduct of a gentleman. The eleven-year-old boy first serves as a messenger, riding between company headquarters at Fort Leavenworth and various freight trains. After a couple of months, Cody begins working as a wrangler, taking care of the company's horses and other stock. He also joins a freight train bound for Fort Carney in Nebraska territory, a distance of some 330 miles one way, and a 40-day round trip.

Indian attacks are feared, but none materialize. However, a Buffalo stampede takes the train by surprise, and Cody impresses everyone with his presence of mind and quick actions. When the train finally returns home to Fort Leavenworth, Cody is paid a man's wages. He takes the money home to his mother, his five sisters.

Think of him as their hero. Cody's greatest adventure with the freighting company begins in the summer of 1857. The company is given the contract to carry freight for the U.S. Army, which is sending a 2,500-man force to Utah to control Brigham Young and his colony of Mormons.

What becomes known as the Utah or Mormon War is essentially a result of conflict between territorial governor Brigham Young and federally appointed non-Mormon territorial officials. After proving his medal on the wagon train to Fort Carney, Cody is able to go on this much longer and more dangerous trip. The train is led by two veterans of freighting on the High Plains, the brothers Frank and Bill McCarthy. The McCarthy's warn of possible Indian attacks once the train is west of Fort Carney. Near the confluence of Plum Creek and the South Platte River, a band of Sioux warriors sweep down on the wagon train. The teamsters drive off the Sioux with rifle fire, but several Sioux return at night to steal horses. Cody spies one, takes careful aim, and fires.

The warrior tumbles down an embankment and splashes into the river, dead. The 11-year-old Cody is on the second wagon train, this one led by Lewis Simpson when he meets Wild Bill Hickok. Hickok is nine years older than Cody and already has a reputation as an honorary character. During a meal break, one of the other teamsters bullies the young Cody and whacks him across the face. Cody retaliates by throwing a pot of hot coffee into the teamsters face.

The teamster reacts instantly. Cody describes what happens in his autobiography. He sprang from me with the ferocity of a tiger and would undoubtedly have torn me to pieces had it not been for the timely interference of my newfound friend, Wild Bill, who knocked the man down. As soon as he recovered himself, he demanded of Wild Bill what business it was of his that he should put in his oar. It's my business to protect that boy or anybody else from being unmercifully abused, kicked, and cuffed, and I'll whip any man who tries it on, said Wild Bill. And if you ever lay a hand on that boy, little of Biddley there, I'll give you such a pounding that you won't get over it for a month of Sundays.

From that time forward, Wild Bill was my protector and intimate friend, and the friendship thus begun continued until his death. And you've been listening to Roger McGrath tell the story of Buffalo Bill Cody. More of the story here on Our American Stories. Give a little. Give a lot. Help us keep the great American stories coming.

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Toyota. Let's go places. And we continue with our American stories. We return where we left off with 11-year-old Bill Cody working on a wagon train and befriending wild Bill Hickok.

Let's continue with McGrath. This wagon train doesn't suffer any Indian attacks, but instead it's attacked and captured by a Mormon cavalry militia led by Lott Smith. Wagon Master Simpson agrees to surrender only if the Teamsters are left with their guns so they won't be defenseless against Indians, and with one wagon of supplies so they won't starve.

Militia Commander Smith agrees. He has his men loot the wagons of all food and ammunition they can carry on horseback, and then sets the wagons ablaze. Cody and the others are now forced to hike their way 60 miles to Fort Bridger, where they spend the winter. Cody turns 12 in February 1858 while still at the fort.

In the spring, they hike nearly a thousand miles back to Fort Leavenworth, arriving in July. Cody spends the rest of the summer at Fort Laramie. Kit Carson and Jim Bridger are there also, both legendary mountain men and scouts. They regale Cody with tales of their mountain man days and school him in frontier skills.

They also teach him the Indian sign language of the plains. Cody also learns enough of the Sioux language to converse with Sioux at the fort. Late in the winter of 1859, Cody begins a return trip with a Lewis Simpson led wagon train from Fort Laramie to Fort Leavenworth.

There are three groups of wagons, each group about a day apart. Cody's with Simpson in the third group. Simpson wants to contact the second group and he, his assistant wagon master George Wood and Bill Cody ride ahead on mules. They cover about seven miles of ground before spying a band of more than three dozen Sioux warriors coming their way. Since the Teamsters are without cover and their mules cannot possibly outrun the Sioux horses, Cody reckons his time has come.

He's 13 years old. But Simpson orders a dismount, arranges the mules in a triangle and then shoots them to death. Using the dead mules as cover, the three Teamsters rest their rifles on the backs of the animals, take careful aim and begin firing at the onrushing Sioux. The whites are all cracked shots and three Sioux are knocked off their horses and hit the ground dead. The other warriors break off their charge and retreat to a safe distance. Wood is wounded in the shoulder, but he's not out of action.

Simpson and Cody are unscathed. The Indians now set fire to the prairie grass, hoping to burn out the Teamsters, but the grass is too short to cause a real conflagration. Failing with fire, the Indians charge again. The Teamsters let their rifles roar, causing the second charge to collapse. The Indians regroup, prepare for another charge, probably thinking the Teamsters must now be out of ammunition or nearly so. Simpson, Wood and Cody are down to one round each and there are still three dozen Sioux intent on taking their scalps. As Cody later says, unless help came, it was only a question of time till it was all over.

Help does come. The third wagon train catches up with three beleaguered Teamsters. From a safe distance, the Indians fire a last volley of arrows and bullets and ride for the horizon. In 1859, Russell, Majors and Waddell begin thinking of launching a horseback express service from Missouri to the West Coast. Early in 1860, they begin gathering riders and horses and building stations along a 1900 mile route from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California. It's going to be both financially risky and risky for the riders. The company's newspaper ad reads, Wanted, young, skinny, wiry fellows, not over 18, must be expert riders willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.

Wages $25 a week. At the age of 14, Bill Cody becomes a Pony Express rider. His home station is in Wyoming, and he has one of the most dangerous stretches of the entire 1900 mile route. Riders usually go no more than 100 miles, changing horses at stations about 15 miles apart. On one of his runs, Cody takes off westbound with a mail pouch from the Red Buttes station. Changing horses at half a dozen stations along the way, Cody reaches the station at three crossings where he is supposed to hand off the pouch to a fresh rider.

The rider, though, has been killed. Cody grabs a fresh horse and pushes on several stations down the line to the Rocky Ridge station and hands off the pouch to another rider. Cody has ridden nonstop 161 miles. Cody has no time to rest because an eastbound rider arrives at Rocky Ridge at the end of his stretch. Cody takes a mail pouch and gallops off. He changes horses nine times before arriving at Red Buttes. He's in the saddle for 322 miles. Only two riders in Pony Express history ever ride farther. The Pony Express is perhaps the most colorful experiment in the history of mail service the world has ever seen, but its days are numbered. Telegraph lines reach the West Coast by October 1861, and the Pony Express is out of business.

Bill Cody is out of a job. A civil war has erupted, and the 15-year-old immediately thinks of enlisting in the Union Army. His mother is suffering with tuberculosis, though, and he returns to the family farm to help the family.

He does join a volunteer regiment, the 9th Kansas Cavalry, for temporary service as a scout. He spends part of the spring and summer in 1862 patrolling the San Fe Trail and fighting Kiowa and Comanche, who are attacking wagon trains and pioneer homesteads. Cody's mother dies of TB late November 1863. Cody is devastated by the loss.

His mother had been the rock of the family ever since the father died six years earlier. For two months, Cody tries to drown his sorrow in whiskey and admits to probably being drunk when he and some of his drinking companions join the 7th Kansas Cavalry. He's one week shy of his 18th birthday. By June 1864, the 7th Kansas is in Tennessee fighting Confederates. In July, the 7th is in Mississippi and fighting the Battle of Tupelo against the greatest of the Confederate cavalry generals, Nathan Bedford Forrest. Cody is serving as a scout. The 7th Kansas pursues the Confederates through Missouri and into Arkansas, with Cody scouting well in advance of the regiment. During the pursuit of the Confederates, Cody encounters his old friend from his freight wagon days while Bill Hickok also serving as a scout. As Cody tells it, they're both dressed as Confederates to ease their scouting in the staunchly pro-southern portion of Missouri they are now in. When Cody stops at a farmhouse for something to eat, he finds Hickok in the kitchen with a plate of bread and a glass of milk. In September 1865, Bill Cody is mustered out of service. He then serves briefly as a civilian scout for General Sherman, who is inspecting his new command in the West. Cody then becomes a stagecoach driver on a route that runs from Nebraska through Wyoming. Whenever he can, he visits St. Louis to see a girl he met during the Civil War. She is Louisa Federici from an old and prominent French family. They're married in March 1866.

When we come back, more of this remarkable story, here on Our American Stories. And use code TIMER. New customers can bet $5 on the NFL and get $200 in free bets instantly. That's promo code TIMER only at DraftKings Sportsbook.

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Eligibility and terms at slash FootballTerms. The last time the economy looked this bad, the stock market tanked. The economy collapsed and inflation hit record highs. But at the same time, the price of gold shot up 1300%. It could happen again, but can you afford to miss what could be the biggest gold and silver boom of our generation? Call 855-512-GOLD to protect your retirement savings and you could get up to $10,000 in free silver.

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Toyota. Let's Go Places. And we return to our American stories. When we left off, Bill Cody had just married a young and prominent French woman from St. Louis in March of 1866.

Let's return to Roger McGrath. One of the commanders he scouts for is Lieutenant Colonel George Custer. Custer is highly pleased with Cody's scouting. And Cody admires and respects Custer as a man and as an officer. Meanwhile, the Kansas Pacific Railroad is building across western Kansas. And it needs a local source of food for its construction crews. Famous for his marksmanship, Bill Cody is hired to hunt buffalo at the princely sum of $500 a month.

Equivalent to $50,000 today. Cody will have to hire helpers to butcher the buffalo and drive wagons. But he will still reap enormous profits. The pay is high because of Cody's reputation.

And also because the work is highly dangerous. Bands of Indian warriors are everywhere on the plains of western Kansas. And a buffalo hunter with a helper or two have a good chance of dying. From 1867 to 1868, Cody kills more than 4,000 buffalo. And the construction crews of the Kansas Pacific Railroad are well fed. Cody not only makes big bucks, but he also earns a nickname that will be his for life. The railroad workers sing a jingle. Buffalo Bill, Buffalo Bill.

Never missed and never will. Always aims and shoots to kill. And the company pays his Buffalo Bill. By August, 1868, Bill Cody is back serving as a scout for the army. And much of the time, he's working with his old pal, Hickock. Now it's Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill scouting together in the high plains.

It's good they are because several bands of Kiowa, Comanche, Arapaho, and Cheyenne are on the warpath, wreaking havoc across the southern plains. Bill Cody is 22 years old. Cody's service during the next two years is scouting, dairying dew, Indian fighting, and hunting.

Add more to his legend. Edward Judson, who writes under the name Ned Buntline, knows a good story when he sees one. In his travels to the west, he spends time with the army and with Cody. Late in December, 1869, he starts writing a serial for the New York Weekly titled Buffalo Bill, King of the Border Men.

Part fact based on the actual exploits of Bill Cody and part fiction, the weekly stories enthrall not only New Yorkers, but readers of dozens of other newspapers which carry the serial. Buffalo Bill Cody becomes a household name, and Cody becomes a national hero. Despite his fame, Cody continues to scout for the army and is cited for conspicuous and gallant conduct. He also leads hunting expeditions for wealthy Easterners and European noblemen.

They all write glowing reports about the skill and courage of the colorful frontiersman. In February, 1872, Cody takes a leave from scouting duties and with General Sheridan's approval, makes a trip to the east. Cody is treated as a celebrity.

Everywhere he goes in the most prominent men's clubs in New York and Philadelphia are eager to make him a member. By April, 1872, Cody is back on the high plains scouting for the army. In a display of his tracking skills, he leads a detachment of seven cavalrymen to the camp of an Indian raiding party who have dozens of stolen horses and several fresh scalps of settlers. Cody takes the Indians by surprise and kills one before they flee, keeping everything behind but the horses they are riding and the weapons in their hands. Cody gives chase, and the cavalrymen follow. During the chase, a bullet creases Cody's scalp, but he continues his pursuit.

He closes on the rearmost Indians and kills two of them. The action earns Cody the Medal of Honor. Cody is now lured to the east again, and that butt line is organized in a theatrical production, The Scouts of the Plains, and he convinces Cody to star in it.

For the next four years, Cody appears on stage to play Buffalo Bill at the packed theaters. However, in June, 1876, General Sheridan prevails upon Cody to return to the 5th Cavalry for the campaign against the Sioux and Cheyenne, who have bolted the reservation. Cody is with the 5th when the regiment receives word that Custer and 200 men of his command have been massacred. Cody is shocked by the death of a man and officer he greatly respected. Cody suddenly has an opportunity for some measure of revenge, and the officer is looking through binoculars and spies a courier racing towards the 5th's position with seven Indians chasing him. Cody is alerted, and taking a handful of troopers with him, he gallops into the charging Indians.

Cody takes the lead Indian for himself. The Indian is Yellow Hair, a name other warriors have given him because dangling from his belt is the blonde hair of a settler he has scalped. Yellow Hair is no ordinary warrior, but the son of Chief Cutnose.

Yellow Hair's magnificent war bonnet indicates he is a veteran of many battles. Cody and Yellow Hair fire at each other almost at the same time. Yellow Hair's bullet misses Cody, but Cody punches a hole in Yellow Hair's leg and digs into the Indian's horse. Both rider and horse go down. At the same time, Cody's horse stumbles in a prairie dog hole. He leaps to the ground and closes on Yellow Hair.

Again, both fire at almost the same time. Yellow Hair's bullet misses Cody. Cody's shot drills Yellow Hair in the head, killing him instantly. Cody races up to his dead foe and scalps him.

Newspapers call it the first scalp for Custer. Cody is soon back on the stage and will organize his Wild West show within a few years. As the years go by, people begin to think of Buffalo Bill Cody more as a flammoyant showman and less of what he really is, a frontiersman who began making a name for himself at age 11 and actually did all the things portrayed and dramatized in his shows. Earl Roosevelt said it best in calling Bill Cody, the most renowned of those men, steel food and iron-nerved, whose daring opened the West to settlement and civilization. He embodied those traits of courage, strength, and self-reliant hardihood, which are vital to the well-being of the nation. And great job, as always, to Greg Hengler on the production. And a special thanks, as always, to Roger McGrath.

He's the author of Gunfighters, Highwaymen, and Vigilantes, Violence on the Frontier. We bring you these stories because, well, they happened. And not happened, like, forever ago, but up until, really, the 19th century and its end, life was very different. And life had been very different for centuries before that, mostly in agrarian country. We were just beginning to become an industrial power.

Electricity would occur, running water. But these men lived in a different time, and we loved bringing you their stories. And always, we have historians who never judge these men and women out of context. And at 11 years old, doing the work he did, just plain crazy.

The story of Buffalo Bill Cody, here on Our American Stories. Legendary billionaire investor Carl Icahn is sounding the alarm. He's warning we cannot cure red-hot inflation, and the worst is yet to come.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-01-11 04:31:22 / 2023-01-11 04:42:55 / 12

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