Buffalo Bill Cody: The Man Behind the Legend

Buffalo Bill Cody: The Man Behind the Legend

Robert A. Carter (2000)
Overview | A fascinating look into a time when communication took days, weeks, and months, while Indians still exercised their sovereign freedom, and the West was still wild. William Cody, a.k.a. Buffalo Bill, was one of the most prominent people to traverse the West prior to the turn of the 20th century. He brought the West East to “civilized” folk. At almost 500 pages, it is a hefty undertaking to delve into the biographical history presented here (personally,  I found it a bit long, but have never read a 500 page historical biography straight through before either). Carter focuses on interesting highlights in the life of William Cody which helps to keep the storyline moving along.
The Good | If you enjoy historical rabbit trails, this is a great book. Carter weaves in contemporary history into the biography giving the work a good feel for the time period as the reader gains a wealth of background information. The author seems to treat William Cody in a fair and impartial manner regarding both his positive and negative character traits. The book moves very realistically and chronological through his life and paints the sobering picture of the once famous man at the end of his life after his fame had come and gone.
The Bad | If you don’t enjoy historical rabbit trails, this book is not for you. For example, the second chapter is almost entirely about the Pony Express, and while interesting, is a tad excessive as very little is mentioned of Buffalo Bill since his connection with the Pony Express was very minor. The chapters are all rather long, prompting this reader to feel like the chapters should have ended well before the conclusion of each chapter was actually reached. When Carter does raise background issues, it is often disjointed with no smooth visual or grammatical transitions between the primary and the secondary elements within the book. The end of the book seemed to drag on as if extending the books length might breath life back into the man it was written about.
The Theological | There were two particular areas that stood out theologically within Will Cody’s family. First was when Cody’s daughter Orra died in 1883 and his wife Louisa stated that “if it was not for the hope of heaven and again meeting there” her affliction would have been far greater (p. 255). A reasonable assumption made by most persons, as the majority would fall under the auspices of Christianity, during this time. While this does not give an indication as to the depth of her or her families spirituality, it does evidence that it was a part of life.
The second was when Cody almost lost his entire show in one stroke when the steamer they were traveling on sunk in February in 1885. All hands were saved but it was nearly a complete loss of all the animals and props they were traveling with. Cody states that “God, Christ, and the devil” were against him and that there “is no heaven-if so it can be damned” (p. 266). These strong words indicate that while “Christian” language can be employed by anyone it often reveals the heart for what it is and and what it is not rather quickly. At this moment of disaster it is obvious that he was not trusting in God’s provision, but rather his inability to provide for himself. It is interesting to contrast the responses of husband and wife and see how the challenges of life provoke completely opposite reactions.
Conclusion | In spite of some of the negative elements, I would recommend this book for those who like Western Americana. The extra background in the book almost makes it a mini history lesson on the late 1800’s, which is fascinating if you have not read extensively in that time frame, but would likely be quite boring for those who have.
As a side note, one of my relatives, William Comstock, is mentioned as challenging Buffalo Bill in a contest to see who could shoot the most buffalo in a day. As you can guess my distant relative lost, and the famous title was ensured for Cody, but not everyone’s ancestors get to be the famous hero.

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