Our world was so full of his stories that there was no room for our own
In the sun-streaked barroom of the Irma Hotel on the main street of Cody, Wyoming, late one afternoon in June, I made a big mistake. “What’s on tap?” I asked. The lanky waitress with the long blond hair looked at my wife and me as if we were fugitives from another planet, which I guess we were. “We only have bottles,” she said, as if she were explaining something to a three-year-old. After she had plunked the beer down on our table, I whispered to my wife, “I guess we better not ask for glasses.”
We had come to cowboy country to see the home of Buffalo Bill Cody. Well, not home exactly. Buffalo Bill was born in Iowa and only settled in these parts after a long life of adventure and showmanship. But Cody was his project. He and some partners founded the town in 1896. Bill owned a ranch nearby and tried his best to develop farming and tourism in the area. Judging by the number of dusty pickups and the size of the steaks, Cody takes its cowboy heritage seriously. It is located about an hour’s drive east of Yellowstone National Park, where we had spent the day admiring the geysers, so we were plenty thirsty.
Buffalo Bill built the Irma Hotel in 1902 and named it for his youngest daughter. It has a broad veranda and a gift shop where the smell of leather hats and boots is intoxicating. Every evening at 6:00 during tourist season, actors stage a gunfight on the street outside. The centrepiece of the hotel saloon is a curved cherrywood bar, presented to Bill by one of his biggest fans, Queen Victoria. (It was rumoured that the queen and the cowboy had a thing going at one time.) The afternoon we were there, showing ourselves to be ignorant of local customs, the barroom was filled with cowboys wearing suspenders, boots, ten-gallon hats and bushy mustaches. It felt like the set for a B western—I was tempted to call our waitress Miss Kitty but caught myself in time, recognizing that this would be a second faux pas.
Aside from the Irma Hotel (which advertises itself as “a place fancy enough for royalty and plain enough for cowboys and cowgirls”), the other big attraction in town is the Buffalo Bill Historical Center. The next morning we pushed through its wide doors to explore the life of Bill. And what a crowded life it was. By age fourteen he had already been an ox-team driver and a Pony Express rider. From there he graduated to prospector, guide, buffalo hunter, Civil War scout and Indian killer. His exploits could fill many books, which they did: Bill’s life provided the raw material for 1,700 dime novels.
During the 1880s, Bill launched his Wild West extravaganza, a combination rodeo and circus that featured pony races, sharpshooting, rope tricks and the re-enactment of historical events such as stagecoach holdups and Indian battles. It took eighteen train cars to take the performers and their animals on tour. Along with Oakley, the show featured appearances by Sitting Bull, “the phenomenal boy shot, Johnny Baker,” the Cowboy Band, a large herd of bison and a posse of other western celebrities. Even Canada’s own Gabriel Dumont went to work for Bill as a crack shot after the defeat of the second Riel rebellion. When the show toured Europe, kings, queens and emperors came to have a look. It was said that by 1900, Buffalo Bill was the most famous person in the world, making him probably the first global show-biz celebrity. People were starved for information about the American West, and Bill was happy to provide it in the form of historical fantasies acted out by the cowboys and Indians who had actually lived the life. In the process he turned himself into the embodiment of the frontier ideal. And Cody is his monument.
As we toured the museum, I realized that for a Canadian the American Wild West is a very familiar place. The stagecoaches, the six-guns, the Indian headdresses, the sheriff’s silver star: these glass cases contained my childhood. Back in the 1950s when I was growing up, Canada had no myth-making media of its own to speak of: no television, no movies, no comic books. We swallowed the American images whole, and most of these images, at least as they pertained to the West, were created by Buffalo Bill. Either we assumed that our West was the same as his—full of Indian killing and stagecoach robbing—or we were vaguely disappointed that it wasn’t. Our world was so full of his stories that there was no room for our own.
Judging by the number of people flowing through his museum, Buffalo Bill is still the most popular “historian” of the West, both ours and theirs. Looking at the assembled artifacts, I realized that our imaginations are still shaped by his presentation of Indians, history and the western landscape. Canadians are still trying to find our own images, our own stories, that have been obscured by Bill and the entertainment empire that fed on his career.