Buffalo Bill’s legacy lives on
William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody has been dead for nearly 90 years. You might think this simple distance of time would cloak him in obscurity. You would be wrong.Two separate costume parties were held in metro Denver earlier this year to commemorate the life of the frontiersman and showman, and on Feb. 26, the 160th anniversary of his birth, a steady stream of visitors milled past his grave and through an adjoining museum atop Lookout Mountain. June will bring yet another ceremony, this one to commemorate his burial – under 10 feet of concrete, supposedly to deter thievery by boosters from Cody, Wyo., who believed they had a better claim to his body.A usual venue for the costume party is the Buckhorn Exchange, Denver’s oldest continuously operating restaurant, and a place where Cody, as Buffalo Bill fans usually call him, is supposed to have drank – often. In addition to various Bills, the bar has hosted various other costumed frontier re-enactors: U.S. cavalrymen; flinty-eyed gamblers; and to add symbolic confusion, sometimes even a dead-ringer for John Wayne.Golden’s Buffalo Rose had the livelier action this year. Characters ranging from Abraham Lincoln to Theodore Roosevelt showed, but ironically, just one Buffalo Bill: a Cody in his younger, sleeker days.Cody had many roles in his life. Born in Iowa, he grew up in a Kansas but became part of the great immigration into Colorado. He whacked mules, trapped for fur, and panned for gold, also earning a reputation for derring-do as a young Pony Express rider. His role after the Civil War was as an Indian fighter, first in Colorado at the Battle of Summit Springs, and then in Nebraska, to avenge Custer’s demise. Between times, he killed plenty of bison.Soon, the reality and the myth of Buffalo Bill began to merge. He became an in-the-flesh stage superstar fresh from the frontier while also becoming a hero of dime novels. He leveraged that fame into the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World. What seems odd today, in this age of Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter, is how much Buffalo Bill remains a mythic figure. Susan Koenig, who works at the Denver Metro Visitors Bureau, reports dozens of letters each week from children around the country wanting to know about horses in the street, cowboys and Indians. Buffalo Bill is somewhere in that continuing image of the West.And not just children seem drawn to Buffalo Bill. On the free-admission day honoring Cody’s birthday, the crowd at the Lookout Mountain Museum including a wide mix of visitors.They were greeted with “Hello folks, thanks for coming to my birthday party,” from Ralph Melfi, Colorado’s reigning Buffalo Bill copycat. “I’m a 160 years old, but I don’t feel a day over 40.”Among those posing for a photo with Melfi was Gabriela D. de Mendoza, who is originally from Cuauhtémoc, Chihuahua, a place geographically similar to Colorado and, for that matter, closer to Denver than is Chicago.Growing up, she said, she heard stories of Buffalo Bill.”We have this image of Buffalo Bill sitting on a horse, riding fast, hunting buffalo, and fighting,” she explained.Her answer surprised me. Was she not aware of Buffalo Bill’s role as an agent of Manifest Destiny, the spread of white Americans across the West? She was, and she was OK with it. “He came and he took what he had to take and began a kind of evolution,” she responded.”Buffalo Bill has taught us that immigrants are good, because they bring many things,” she said cheerily, before her voice flared in anger: “Tell that to that Tancredo,” she spurted, referring to Colorado’s Tom Tancredo, the most strident and prominent congressional supporter of stringent immigration controls. This spring, tens of thousands of people have rallied at Denver immigration marches. I’m wondering if among them was someone who might, like Buffalo Bill in the 19th century, become a mythic figure of the 21st century immigration into the American West.Freelance writer Allen Best lives in Arvada and reports on a variety of Western issues.Vail, Colorado
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