Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the summer 2018 edition of The Telegraph's former Revisited magazine.
The times were ripe for a worldwide celebrity to rise from the forks of the Platte.
The Civil War was over. Union Pacific track gangs had crossed the North Platte River, wintered there and left an infant town behind. Already in place were telegraph lines that had sliced coast-to-coast communication from days to seconds.
The lands of the emigrant trails would soon yield the enduring images of the “Old West” as depicted by an Army scout who reported for duty at Fort McPherson on May 20, 1869, 10 days after the transcontinental railroad that gave birth to North Platte was finished in Utah.
Already noted for his shooting prowess in supplying Kansas Pacific tracklayers with bison meat, 23-year-old William Frederick Cody would make his home base in Lincoln County for 44 years.
His new neighbors would follow his journey to fame in the newspapers of Buffalo Bill’s new hometown.
Kansas newspapers had given Cody his nickname before his arrival at the fort near present-day Maxwell with his young wife, Louisa, the late Nellie Snyder Yost wrote in her 1979 biography “Buffalo Bill: His Family, Friends, Fame, Failures and Fortunes.”
Soon after he reported, Cody was credited with killing Cheyenne “Dog Soldier” Tall Bull during the Battle of Summit Springs on July 11, 1869, south of present-day Sterling, Colorado. Back at Fort McPherson, Cody met a temperance lecturer, E.Z.C. Judson, who wrote newspaper serials under the pen name of Ned Buntline.
By December 1869, Buntline’s “Buffalo Bill, the King of Border Men” — the first of many serials and dime novels loosely based on Cody’s life — was appearing in the New York Weekly.
In winter 1872, Cody led the Grand Duke Alexis, son of Russian Czar Alexander I, in a nationally publicized buffalo hunt south of North Platte. Then he took his first bow on a New York stage after attending a melodrama based on Buntline’s “Border Men” saga.
The North Platte Democrat of Sept. 11, 1872, supplies what appears to be Cody’s first surviving notice in a hometown newspaper. The sheet had “mentioned Mr. Cody’s arrival in town en route to Cheyenne, for the purpose of making arrangements to hunt with Mr. Knox, who so valiantly wrote to the Omaha Herald that he would accept Buffalo Bill’s challenge.” The first name of Knox, who “treated the matter as a huge joke” when Cody arrived, is unknown.
As 1872 ended, Yost wrote, Cody quit the Army and went to Chicago to play himself in a touring “Buffalo Bill” melodrama. He would often come back, but never for long.
During his first show-business decade, Cody acted through the winters and visited Louisa and their family in Rochester, New York (where three Cody children are buried). Summers usually found him back on the Plains, bolstering his legend.
Cody, fellow scout “Texas Jack” Omohundro and gunslinger James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok “drew an immense audience at Wieting opera house last evening,” said a Syracuse (New York) Courier review reprinted by the North Platte Enterprise on March 21, 1874. “The piece is very exciting … and at times the applause is fairly deafening …”
When Cody came home for two weeks, the Enterprise’s July 25 issue trumpeted: “There is scarcely a man, woman or child residing in Lincoln county but what has heard of Hon. W.F. Cody, alias ‘Buffalo Bill,’ the former intrepid scout and hunter of this vicinity ... As Bill expresses it, they have made ‘heaps of money’ …”
Now heaps of publicity beckoned. Gold had been found in the Black Hills of present-day South Dakota, and the Army rehired Cody to help restrain Lakota fighters furious at violations of treaty promises to leave their sacred hills alone.
North Platte newspapers closely followed Cody’s journeys before and after the destruction of Lt. Col. George A. Custer’s command in the June 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn. Three weeks after the battle, they said Buffalo Bill had slain and scalped the Lakota fighter Yellow Hand in the Battle of Warbonnet Creek near present-day Harrison. Cody, who received the Medal of Honor, would herald this in his Wild West Show as the “first scalp for Custer.”
In the 1870s, Cody was helping Pawnee Scout leader Maj. Frank North develop the pair’s sprawling cattle ranch north of town. He was also sharpening his shooting, using glass balls as targets at North Platte’s 1878 Fourth of July celebration and preparing to challenge Dr. W.F. Carver, the “champion shot of the world.”
And he was leading his own acting troupe. He described his experiences in a letter from Sharon, Pennsylvania, that the North Platte Western Nebraskian published on Nov. 15, 1879.
“In the theatrical business,” he wrote, “one meets with many funny people, and beholds many ridiculous scenes, while to study human nature, there is no better school.” His Buffalo Bill Combination “has proven the most successful business I have ever known,” and he had played “to the largest houses ever known” at the Cincinnati Opera House.
Indoor theaters would prove too small for Buffalo Bill’s dramatic imaginings.
Surviving early North Platte papers offer little about the Cody-led “Old Glory Blowout” of July 4, 1882, though the 1-year-old Telegraph’s June 15 edition carried a summons signed by Cody and 16 others to “arrange programme” for the town’s Independence Day celebration.
But the Omaha Daily Bee got wind of the event and sent a reporter to check it out. A “regular street parade,” featuring a band, Civil War veterans, “a number of Sunday-school children and a long line of citizens and visitors in carriages,” headed north at 10:30 a.m. from the railroad to the “race track” at present-day Cody Park, according to the Bee’s July 7 edition.
“Hon. W.F. Cody acted as marshal of the day,” it said. “Mr. Cody was resplendent in a suit of white corduroy pants, black velvet coat of military cut, etc., and was strikingly handsome.”
The day-long festivities included “speaking and singing,” running and horse races, fireworks and a ball. Rancher M.C. Keith, namesake of neighboring Keith County and grandfather of future Gov. Keith Neville, “had four or five buffalo, one with a calf, which he turned loose, and one of the boys lassoed and rode an animal for which he received $25,” the Bee reported. “After this a Texas steer was turned loose, which was also lassoed and ridden to its great disgust.”
It's this event that North Platte considers the genesis of rodeo and Cody’s Wild West Show.
On May 12, 1883, the Western Nebraskian reported that trick-shot artist Carver, “after spending two or three days at Mr. Cody’s country seat, went down to Omaha Sunday evening (May 6) to assist in rounding up that part of the Great West there congregating.”
The rest, Yost wrote, loaded onto a UP train and headed east. After a single, chaotic rehearsal in Columbus, “The Wild West, Hon. W.F. Cody and Dr. W.F. Carver’s Rocky Mountain and Prairie Exhibition” opened in Omaha on May 17.
The rest, as they say, is Old West and show-business history.
Cody’s Scout’s Rest Ranch ensured he kept one toe in North Platte. So did Louisa Cody, who lived at the ranch or in town with their daughters Arta and Irma and sought to protect their growing fortune from his free-spending habits.
Cody gave up his winter acting tours shortly after presenting “his mammoth combination,” including “King of the Cowboys” Buck Taylor, to 800 people at Lloyd’s Opera House on Feb. 20, 1886. “The company is a strong combination of excellent actors and present (Cody’s show) ‘The Prairie Waif’ with happy effect,” the Lincoln County Tribune wrote Feb. 27. “Mr. Cody is on his way to California and … expects to return to ‘the states’ by the first of May.”
He did, but he soon left again. Buffalo Bill and his show were to play New York City, summering at Long Island’s Ernestina Park and wintering at Madison Square Garden.
“There seems little doubt now but that our townsman, Hon. W.F. Cody, is the greatest showman on earth,” the Tribune declared on Aug. 19, 1886, “if judged by the number of people who go to see his show and their enthusiasm over the excellence of his entertainment; and there is no other fair standard to go by.”
When Cody returned briefly on Oct. 6, North Platte threw him a banquet at the Union Pacific Hotel. Not only was he “known to more people by sight than any man living,” wrote the Tribune, but “he has not forgotten the fair city of the plains in which he first conceived the idea of presenting to the world a realistic and true representation of western life.”
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, the talk of America, was about to become the talk of Europe.
The year 1887 was Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee, and a British syndicate had booked Cody’s spectacular to perform twice daily for six months. The Wild West sailed from New York on March 25, 1887, with its leader appointed “Col. W.F. Cody” by Nebraska Gov. John Thayer to promote his town, county and state at the London Exposition near the show grounds.
A pair of fine boots, crafted by North Platte’s John Neary, soon crossed the Atlantic. On June 11, the Tribune ran a letter saying: “London, May 28, 1887. My Dear Neary: The boots have been received and I am more than pleased with them. I am rushed to death over here, but as soon as I get time will write you a good letter. Yours truly, W.F. Cody.”
The Wild West had performed for Victoria on May 11. It would do so again on June 20, Yost wrote, with Buffalo Bill personally driving several “crowned heads of Europe” inside the Deadwood stagecoach during his Indian actors’ mock attack.
Cody kept crisscrossing his homeland with his show, then took it to Europe’s mainland. In summer 1893, the Wild West camped next door to the Chicago World’s Fair, playing to thousands who wanted to see both.
On the fair’s “Nebraska Day” June 8, Bill Sweeney’s Cowboy Band entertained some 15,000 people outside Nebraska’s exhibition hall. At 11:30 a.m., The Telegraph wrote, “a great blare of brass” heralded the Wild West parade:
“Soon after a familiar form in a white buckskin coat and cavalry boots, with flowing iron gray hair and a handsome sombrero on his head, mounted on a prancing bay charger, galloped down the line, and as the great concourse recognized the familiar form of Colonel W.F. Cody, it sent up a yell that went hurling into the avenues down along the lagoons.”
As North Platte sought a Nebraska irrigation fair during drought-plagued 1896, Cody promised to bring his show to the host city. His hometown won, and on Oct. 12, the Wild West performed for 10,000 that afternoon and 5,000 more that evening on the west end of Scout’s Rest Ranch.
Some 20,000 to 25,000 people had crowded into town for the shows and the Wild West parade down South Spruce Street (later Dewey), The Telegraph reported. “At the hour of going to press, we are informed that an immense crowd is in attendance at the afternoon performance. This is as it should be. The Telegraph salutes you, Col. Cody.”
The Wild West’s return on Sept. 10, 1898, again drew thousands. “Annie Oakley is the greatest female shot in the world,” The Telegraph wrote. As for Cody, “The marksmanship at full speed of the handsome hero of the plains still remains a wonder. Mr. Cody was at his best. … His friends are never forgotten when he returns to his home …”
But North Platte would see him only rarely after the century turned. Cody had founded the town of Cody, Wyoming, at the eastern gateway to Yellowstone National Park, and was unwisely investing in speculative mines. Both claimed much of his offseasons.
Then America’s worldwide celebrity plunged into a full-blown celebrity scandal.
Cody sued Louisa for divorce in March 1904, claiming she had tried to poison him and otherwise acted against his best interests. North Platte’s Independent Democrat and Era retorted on Feb. 23, 1905: “From the evidence it appears that wine and women have been the famous scout’s worst enemies and Mrs. Cody has suffered in proportion.”
That day’s weekly Telegraph featured “the celebrated divorce case of Cody vs. Cody” in Cheyenne, including Buffalo Bill’s appearance on the witness stand and “very racy and damaging allegations” that he often had been intoxicated and carried on extramarital affairs — even, one witness claimed, with Queen Victoria herself.
The trial judge struck that claim from the record, but he also denied the divorce. With Louisa triumphant, the Era expressed her neighbors’ hope that “when the world-renowned ‘Buffalo Bill’ tires of globe-trotting … he may return to North Platte and spend his declining years with his old-time friends and the wife whose fidelity is worth more than the applause of the world.”
But Cody didn’t reconcile with Louisa or North Platte until after he got off a UP train the night of March 25, 1910, and found several hundred people waiting with open arms. It was his first visit in six years.
“As the train entered the west yards the band began to play,” The Telegraph wrote, “and as soon as it stopped, the crowd cheered lustily. The colonel stepped off a coach near the rear end of the train and, lifting his hat from his head, bowed his thanks from the platform.”
North Platte gave Cody a reception at the Keith Theatre before he left for Madison Square Garden to open an intended two-year farewell tour. On Aug. 19, 1911, the Wild West performed before 16,000 in a large tent west of downtown North Platte. Another 3,000 were turned away.
After his farewell tour, a grateful Cody declared, “I shall again come to you to make this my home among my old friends and neighbors whom I have known so long and so well.”
Alas, no. Sheriff’s deputies would seize the troubled Wild West’s assets in Denver on July 21, 1913, and Denver Post owner Bill Tammen, who had lent Cody money, enforced an agreement that Cody tour with Tammen’s Sells-Floto Circus the next two seasons.
This show brought Cody to North Platte on June 28, 1915. “When the old west began passing,” he said, “I looked around for a suitable place in which to make my home. North Platte was my choice after years of observation over the entire west. And I still think the town is the best.”
When Cody was buried on June 3, 1917 (five months after his Jan. 10 death), it was atop Lookout Mountain, west of Denver, at a burial site paid for by Tammen. But it could well be said that Cody’s soul returned to the birthplace of his Wild West.
As his burial month ended, North Platte threw a five-day “Semi-Centennial Celebration” marking the golden anniversaries of Buffalo Bill’s adopted city and state. It resembled the future Nebraskaland Days, which would settle in North Platte a half-century later.
“North Platte possesses one first-class booster and good friend in the person of Col. W.F. Cody, ‘Buffalo Bill,’” The Telegraph wrote after his final visit. “And the friendliness is reciprocated by the people of the town.”
A century has passed, but the words remain true.