Adventures of Buffalo Bill - William Cody

The Indian Campaigns with the Army

Anyone who will read the history of the United States after the Civil War will come upon a long series of campaigns of the United States army in the West against the American Indians. These Indians, as has already been said, constantly being more and more confined, had now only the great American desert and the Rocky Mountains to live upon. They existed there in enormous numbers. They hunted the almost limitless herds of buffalo and deer. They fought, whenever opportunity offered, whatever white men came upon them. The attempt of the government was to give the Indians certain territories on which they could live in different parts of that country. These territories were called Indian reservations, and some of them still exist; but at that time—that is, between 1870 and 1880—the Indians were still in their native wild civilization, and declined to be limited to these reservations.

They had no desire to become farmers. They wanted to roam over the plains, and hunt, and fish, and live as they were born to live. They could not be made like white men. And hence the result was a series of campaigns which gradually exterminated most of them and killed the spirit of the others. One of these campaigns was the famous fight of General Custer, whose command was practically annihilated in the famous battle of Little Big Horn. Here again the qualities of Cody came into great demand. He was one of the greatest scouts in these Indian campaigns. His experiences, his fights, would number into the hundreds in a short decade. General Sheridan, who was put in command of the troops to quell the Indian uprising, made him the chief of his scouts, and during these years he was constantly at work leading the American troops against the Indians.

Sometime before he had acquired the name which now every boy in this country and almost every boy in the civilized world knows him by—"Buffalo Bill"—and the story of how this name was given to him is well worth the telling.

Cody had always been a great shot—not only an accurate, but a wonderfully quick shooter. This skill and quickness had saved his life many times. When he was not at work at some specific duty he would hunt buffaloes, riding forth over the plains on a horse he had trained to hunt. As a herd of buffaloes—and there were hundreds of them—was seen approaching some camp where Cody was, he would mount his horse, throw the reins on his neck, and sit quietly while the animal ran diagonally toward the herd at full speed, selected of his own will the last of the herd, and worked with all his keen, nervous ability until he brought his rider close alongside the shaggy animal. There is but one spot that is very vulnerable in a buffalo. You may shoot a dozen times and hardly wound him, but if one shot reaches the vital spot, the animal drops dead in his tracks. Again and again the men of the plains have seen Cody start out on his horse and within a few minutes from the firing of the first shot drop ten or a dozen of the wild beasts of the prairie.

The story of how the name of Buffalo Bill came to be given to him by common consent is this: There was a man named William Comstock who had been called by his friends "Buffalo Bill" because he was such a successful buffalo hunter. When he heard that Cody was being called "Buffalo Bill" too, he disputed his right to that title. Cody heard of it, and told some of the officers of the army post that if there was any dispute, he for one was willing to settle it by an actual contest in buffalo killing. Comstock was as game as Cody, and accepted the challenge. And so the plainsmen arranged the contest.

They settled upon a huge tract of prairie near Sheridan, Kansas, and when the appointed day arrived everybody who could reach the spot came to witness the contest. Officers, soldiers, railroadmen, scouts, pioneers, and all the inhabitants of that country gathered in a large crowd. Judges were appointed and the two claimants to the title were on hand. It was an easy matter in those days and in that place to find a herd of buffaloes, so that within an hour after the start they had sighted a herd and started for the hunt.

As soon as the herd was sighted the two men separated, each working on his own account and getting all the buffaloes he could. Cody killed thirty-eight, to twenty-three for Comstock, and the sight of sixty-one buffaloes lying dead upon the plain must have been a wonderful one.

Then they had a gala lunch, and in the afternoon started again. And then the final crowning feat was apparent. In the second contest Cody, in order to leave no doubt of the matter, rode his horse without either saddle or bridle, and even then he killed eighteen to the other's fourteen. From that time on to this day no one has questioned his right to the title of "Buffalo Bill."

It would be impossible here to go into the many episodes that occurred while Bill, under the title of Colonel William F. Cody, was chief of the United States Army Scouts. It is only possible to say that in that capacity he not only made it possible for the United States army to accomplish a work impossible without scouts who had been brought up in that kind of fight, but it is safe to say that if General Custer had had him with him, the frightful massacre of Little Big Horn would never have occurred. But in all that time Buffalo Bill was at work upon his chosen profession, with the exception of a short time when, against his will, he was made a justice of the peace.

There is an interesting and amusing episode told of his short legal career that is worth mentioning briefly here. Shortly after his appointment, which was made because of the necessity of having a justice of the peace at hand in the army post, a couple came to him to be married. He was very much disturbed and embarrassed, scarcely knowing what to do, but he got along all right until the end of the service, and then, to the amazement of the assembled party, he ended all by saying:

"Whom God and Buffalo Bill hath joined together, let no man put asunder."

In the midst of these years of scouting in the Indian fights the great Western scout was always in difficulty as to the management of his financial affairs. He always has said that he was not born a business man. When he had money he spent it like a gentleman, no matter how much it was. Once when he was not busy in Indian campaigning he conceived the idea of representing on the stage certain phases of life on the plains in order to make some money. The first venture took place in Rochester, New York. In order to make the show as realistic as possible, he himself and two other scouts were put into a play written especially for them, and the descriptions of the first performance make an episode in Buffalo Bill's life that must have been as amusing and as extraordinary as the episodes of his life on the plains were exciting and dangerous. The three were stage struck from the time the curtain went up, and all of them forgot their lines. But Buffalo Bill, finding that nothing was going to happen and realizing that the audience were sitting in their seats expecting something to happen, answered the questions put to him by the manager and told a story. That poor manager must have had a bad quarter of an hour. He was also taking part in the piece, and was utterly at a loss what to say or do. Bill told a story of one of his experiences on the plains in his own language. This proving to meet with the approval of the audience, the manager continued asking questions, drawing forth story after story, so that when the play ended the audience felt full of enthusiasm for the extraordinary show, which in reality did not contain one single line of the original drama.

The scheme was not successful, however, and some years later Buffalo Bill got together some friendly Indian chiefs and some frontiersmen and constructed a simple play of the plains which was an immense success. At different times for five years this play—"The Scout of the Plains"—was played in nearly every city of any size in the United States. Frequently it would be having a run in some town when word would come from a commanding officer at a Western army post that the Indians were on the warpath again. Then the play would be closed, and the scouts, with their chief at their head, would hasten to the plains and begin again their real warfare, returning to the sham fights of the play when the real ones were over.

And it was this remarkable success in representing to people in Eastern cities the actual life on the plains that gave Colonel Cody the courage to carry out an idea which had been in his mind for many years—that is, of putting before people a true representation of the different phases of the life in that immense country, thousands of miles in length and width, which existed between 1840 and 1870, and which has now gone forever.