By far the biggest year-round attraction in Cody is the superb Buffalo Bill Historical Center at 720 Sheridan Ave (March to mid-April & Nov daily 10am–5pm; second half of April and mid-Sept to Oct daily 8am–5pm; May to mid-Sept daily till 6pm; Dec–Feb Thurs–Sun 10am–5pm; $15; t 307/587-4771, w www.bbhc.org). Home to the nation’s most comprehensive collection of Western Americana, and never afraid to shatter prevailing myths about the West and its peoples, the centre comprises five distinct museums, all of which are accessed via a common entrance hall.
The much-mythologized exploits of William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody, born in Iowa in 1846, began at the age of just eleven, when the murder of his father forced him to take a job on a wagon train. An early escape from ambush brought Cody fame as the “Youngest Indian Slayer of the Plains”; four years later, he became the youngest rider on the Pony Express, averaging a blazing 15mph on his leg of the legendary mail route. After a stint fighting for the Union in the Civil War, Cody found work – and a lifelong nickname – supplying buffalo meat to workers laying the transcontinental railroad. He claimed to have killed over 4200 animals in just eighteen months, before rejoining the army in 1868 as its chief scout.
By the 1870s, exaggerated accounts of Cody’s adventures were appearing back east in the “dime novels” of Ned Buntline, and with the Indian Wars all but over he took to guiding Yankee and European gentry on buffalo hunts; the theatrical productions he laid on for his rich guests developed into his world-famous Wild West Show. First staged in 1883, these spectacular outdoor carnivals usually consisted of a re-enactment of an Indian battle such as Custer’s Last Stand (featuring Sioux who had been present at Little Bighorn), trick riders, buffalo, clowns and exhibition shooting and riding by the man himself. A tremendous logistical operation, the show spent ten of its thirty years in Europe. Dressed in the finest silks and sporting a well-groomed goatee, Cody stayed in the grandest hotels and dined with heads of state; Queen Victoria was so enthusiastic in her admiration that rumours circulated of an affair between them.
Later in life, a mellower Cody played down his past activities, to the point of urging the government to respect all Native American treaties and put an end to the wanton slaughter of buffalo and game. Although the Wild West Show was reckoned to have brought in as much as one million dollars per year, many of his investments failed badly, and, in January 1915, a penniless 69-year-old Buffalo Bill died at his sister’s home in Denver. His grave can be found atop Lookout Mountain, outside Golden, Colorado.