An Interview with Jeremy Johnston: The Papers of Buffalo Bill Cody

May 17, 2012 by

Buffalo Bill Cody

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Jeremy, I understand that you are involved with ” The Papers of William F. Cody ” ( known to most Americans as ” Buffalo Bill.” How did this come about?

I am the Managing Editor of The Papers of William F. Cody. Previously, I taught American history at Northwest College in Powell, Wyoming, a position I held for over 15 years. As a native of Wyoming, I grew up next-door to the Buffalo Bill Historical Center and I was always interested in William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s historical legacy. In fact, my dad’s side of the family homesteaded in Cody, Wyoming, in the 1890s and early 1900s. My great-great grandfather John B. Goff worked for William F. Cody as a manager of Wapiti Inn, located half-way between Cody and Yellowstone National Park. This was shortly after Goff guided Theodore Roosevelt on a hunting trip near Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

My interest in local history, including Buffalo Bill, began at a very early age as I listened to grandparents and great-grandparents talk about my family’s past, especially when it came to stories about Buffalo Bill and Theodore Roosevelt. When I was offered a position of Associate Editor of the Papers of William F. Cody to study his role in developing the Bighorn Basin, I jumped at the opportunity. Little did I know that a few months later I would be offered the position of managing the entire project when director Kurt Graham left for another position.

2) Now, where exactly are you located and what would one find at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center?

We are located in Cody, Wyoming, fifty-miles from the east entrance of Yellowstone National Park. We’re are on the western edge of the Bighorn Basin. A group of local citizens from Cody, Wyoming, formed the Buffalo Bill Memorial Association in 1917 to memorialize the life and times of the town’s favorite son and namesake, William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody. In 1927, the first Buffalo Bill Museum opened in Cody. Since that time, the Board of Trustees has expanded the mission and concept of the original museum into more than 300,000 square feet with five museums, a research library, and a fellowship program, known collectively as the Buffalo Bill Historical Center.

The Center attracts regional, national, and international visitors en route to and from Yellowstone. Guided by our mission statement – “Through our ideas, collections, and programs, the Buffalo Bill Historical Center educates and entertains worldwide audiences about the past, present, and future of the American West” – the Historical Center also serves the local community of Cody, Park County, and the Big Horn Basin. In 2011 more than 172,000 people visited the Historical Center in person. Programs are provided for a diverse audience of walk-in and online visitors–children, adults, families, schools, scholars, and international visitors. Educational programs including artist-led workshops for children and adults; artist, historian and scientist-in-residency programs; gallery demonstrations; hands-on activities; classes; and lectures, all of which attract an average of 23,500 visitors each year. Annual programs focus on western themes, Plains Indian cultures, art, and natural history, and attract approximately 9,000 people annually. Last year, outreach programs served 12,000 schoolchildren and adults, while school tours and programs reached nearly 8,000 youth.

3) Many Americans have made a lasting impact on our culture. Could you discuss some of Buffalo Bill’s contributions?

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West popularized the image of the American Western frontier to an international audience. Buffalo Bill is the reason many American and European kids grew up playing cowboys and Indians. He is the reason westerns became such a popular genre of American literature and film. One should not think Cody’s performances were make-believe stories of frontier life; he strove to portray an entertaining and accurate tableau of historical events. Although many of these events were rare or unusual occurrences, Cody made them the dominant stereotypical image of the American West. For example, violent battles between cowboys and Indians were extremely rare. Most encounters between cowboys and Indians did not result in a violent encounter and many American Indian nations were confined on reservations during the heyday of the cattle-drives from Texas; however, Cody reenacted these scenes nightly, making them a powerful image that came to typify frontier life. This image became a staple not only in other Wild West Shows, but it also frequently appeared on the silver screen in numerous western films and western novels written by the likes of Zane Grey and Louis Lamour.

4) Please forgive my ignorance, but did William Cody write any books or articles ? Or letters ?

Cody wrote a number of autobiographies detailing his life in the American West and his rise as a showman and western developer. Cody also wrote a number of magazine articles pertaining to a variety of subjects ranging from wildlife conservation to famous hunting parties on the Great Plains. He was also a prodigious letter writer. Unfortunately, many of these letters are scattered across the globe in both private and public collections. Using our digital archive, we provide the most complete collection of Cody’s writings, allowing users to see the wide range of Cody’s interests.

5) What exactly would one find in your collection?

Cody Archive contains Cody’s personal correspondence, written articles and books, in addition to Wild West memorabilia such as posters and programs. Cody was also one of most photographed individuals of his time, and many of these images will appear on the digital archive. We also provide access to material written by Cody’s contemporaries, such as his publicist John Burke and Charles Eldridge Griffin. The memoirs by Burke and Griffin are available in our print series published through University of Nebraska Press. http://www.nebraskapress.unl.edu/Catalog/ProductSearch.aspx?ExtendedSearch=false&SearchOnLoad=true&rhl=The+Papers+of+William+F.+%22Buffalo+Bill%22+Cody&sf=ss=The+Papers+of+William+F.+%22Buffalo+Bill%22+Cody

6) Many historians revel in what is termed primary sources- how would you describe your collection?

Our collection provides a wide variety of primary resources: letters, posters, photographs, artwork, articles, books, business records, scrapbooks, programs, route-books, maps, etc. This wide-range of material benefits K-12 students and educators. It will also benefit the most serious scholar studying William F. Cody’s impact in shaping American culture and perceptions of the American frontier.

7) Are any important documents available on line or can they be sent via pdf ?

You can see the documents at www.codyarchive.org We continue working with a number of associate editors and the Center for Research in the Digital Humanities at the University of Nebraska in adding more material. The archive will continue to grow during the next few years.

8) Briefly, could you give us the time period in which Buffalo Bill was most noticed or made the greatest impact?

Cody was born in 1846 near LaClaire, Iowa. His early years were spent in the American West working as a freighter, bison hunter, and scout. In 1869, the first dime-novel with Cody as the hero appeared, making him an international celebrity allowing him to recreate his adventures in the American West on stage and through his Wild West exhibition.

In 1887, he appeared before Queen Victoria and became an instant international luminary. Due to bad investments and a troubled marriage his image was somewhat tarnished in the early 20th century. Despite his well-publicized human fallacies and weaknesses, even after his death in 1917 he continues to remain a common household name and an international celebrity.

9) What have I neglected to ask ?

The Papers of William F. Cody is truly an international endeavor. Here is a link to our staff and editors: http://codyarchive.org/staff/ We have researchers locating and examining archival material from Cody, Wyoming, to Rome, Italy!

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