Sometimes it takes visiting a museum dedicated to another person to realize that you don’t have enough items in your home with your face and name emblazoned on them. For me, that museum was the Buffalo Bill museum. I’ll admit to not knowing much about Buffalo Bill prior to my visit, other than he was shot during a poker game at Deadwood….which wasn’t Buffalo Bill at all, it was Wild Bill, so let’s go ahead and say that I had a baseline knowledge of zero as pertains to Buffalo Bill.
William “Buffalo Bill” Cody was one of the more well-known figures (barring my ignorance) in the American West. He was born in Iowa, and like many Iowans, couldn’t wait to leave*; from there he covered nearly as much land as a person could cover in those days, traveling across the West as a scout, a Pony Express rider, a ’59er, a trapper, a hunter, a showman, and even as a founder of a town. The Buffalo Bill museum was established by his foster son, Johnny Baker, four years after Cody’s death.
I bore that fact in mind as I toured the museum; while every museum of this type has a vested interest in making the subject as appealing as possible, by being opened by his son, there’s an undeniable bias and some potential truth-twisting.
I had visited the restroom prior to entering the museum, and inside each stall was a short Buffalo Bill story. The one in my stall said that Cody was a great believer in women’s rights, had given Susan B. Anthony box seat tickets to his show, and when she arrived, he made a point of bowing to her in front of the entire audience. “Wow, what a great guy!” I thought. But when I saw the bit above about how his family was anti-slavery, and elsewhere in the museum that he was one of the first to call Native Americans “Americans” and recognize their rights as citizens, and that he didn’t even kill that many bison so he can’t be held accountable for their brush with extinction, I began to wonder how it was that he ended up on the right side of history in every major issue of his time. Given the caption of the above illustration, I figured there had to be a first-person account of this incident somewhere, and as it turned out, it’s free on Kindle. Cody’s father was stabbed at a public meeting regarding slavery, but his stance wasn’t quite as noble as the museum depicted:
“Gentlemen and Fellow-citizens: You have called upon me for a speech, and I have accepted your invitation rather against my will, as my views may not accord with the sentiments of the rest of this assembly. My remarks, at this time, will be brief and to the point. The question before us to-day is, shall the territory of Kansas be a free or a slave state. The question of slavery in itself is a broad one, and one which I do not care at this time and place to discuss at length. I apprehend that your motive in calling upon me is to have me express my sentiments in regard to the introduction of slavery into Kansas. I shall gratify your wishes in that respect. I was one of the pioneers of the State of Iowa, and aided in its settlement when it was a territory and helped to organize it as a state.
Gentlemen, I voted that it should be a white state–that negroes, whether free or slave, should never be allowed to locate within its limits; and, gentlemen, I say to you now, and I say it boldly, that I propose to exert all my power in making Kansas the same kind of state as Iowa. I believe in letting slavery remain as it now exists, and I shall always oppose its further extension.”
The autobiography cuts off before his Wild West show days, so a number of my questions are unanswered, but if his own book is to be believed, he certainly did kill a hell of a lot of bison: there’s an account of killing sixty-nine in a day in a killing contest, he attests to killing 4,280 over the course of his 18 month stint with the railroad, and it seemed like every time he spotted a herd, the entire thing was doomed. This isn’t the work of a conservationist, and I don’t know why the museum would attempt to portray him as such. No one is infallible, and I think the truth ultimately serves the public (and his legacy) better. When you see a few small not-quite-truths, it throws everything else that’s actually true (like the Susan B Anthony thing) into question. He was an interesting man, and it seemed like he was the Forrest Gump of his time, having a hand in just about everything of note during that time period–he even helped Marsh during the Bone Wars! There’s really no need to tell any half-truths to make him more compelling. Besides, it’s not like he was otherwise unlikeable from a modern perspective–I particularly enjoyed his bits of self-deprecating humor sprinkled throughout:
“Had the villains captured me they would have undoubtedly put an end to my career, and the public would have never had the pleasure of being bored by this autobiography.”
One of my favorite parts of the museum was the “Kids Cowboy Corral”, where I ignored the “kids” part entirely and tried my hand at lassoing a plastic calf. As it turns out, even when your “mount” and your target aren’t moving, this is really difficult to do, and I only succeeded in roping the calf’s ear. Jason cheated, and placed the lasso around the calf’s neck before taking a seat on the horse. In the Old West, they might’ve stabbed a man for that.
I don’t know why I find having little locks of hair on display so creepy. I just do.
An entire section of the museum was dedicated to Buffalo Bill artwork, and they left it to the viewing public to decide whether each was an example of folk, fine, or funky art.
At the end of the museum, they offer up an area for you to vote on your preferred museum experience–guided tours, audio tours, self-guided, etc. I took one look at the general public’s remarks and became incensed on behalf of the museum.
What are the odds that the majority of these were from one giant illiterate asshole family? Really, you and your shitty children were bored from too much reading? They had two videos, a dress-up station, a place to rope a calf, and a place to touch all sorts of animal pelts that you would probably otherwise never be able to touch. That’s not interactive and entertaining enough? What else do you need? A bank of game consoles so they can play “Grand Theft Stagecoach”? Someone walking around in an anthropomorphic bison costume? Maybe try the water park next time if you can’t handle all the reading at a fucking museum. It really irritates me when a museum that was this well-done gets slammed for not pandering to the lowest common denominator. I walked into the museum knowing nothing about Buffalo Bill, and from all the (gasp) reading I did while there, I left knowing quite a bit and wanting to know more. That’s a success, and I’d be very sorry to see it change format and lose some of the information contained therein.
Buffalo Bill was so immensely popular that multiple states battled over his corpse, each claiming that they should have the right, or that Buffalo Bill had stated his desire to be laid to rest there. Ultimately, he ended up in Golden, and Denver parked a tank near the grave while it was covered with over ten feet of concrete to prevent anyone from stealing the body.
The gift shop had a lot of your standard gift shop crap–snowglobes and t-shirts and pins and generic Colorado/vaguely Western stuff, plus an entire wall of creepy collectible dolls. I would have liked to have seen more Buffalo Bill-specific merchandise, more poster replicas, lasso kits, old West weapon replicas…things that you wouldn’t find at the very next gift shop down the road.
If you have any interest in the Old West and don’t mind doing some reading, the Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave is one of the better museums I’ve seen. It was definitely among my favorite activities on our jam-packed Colorado trip.
*According to a recent (2013) poll, this is a lie, Iowans generally speaking have a lower than average desire to move elsewhere.Damn facts, messing with my hack jokes!