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Fitting the Bill

Published on -6/14/2012, 7:49 AM

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Fitting the Bill

I read with great interest in Reader Forum the letter of Thomas C. Boone on May 13 concerning the "true story of William Frederick Cody -- '

'Buffalo Bill' ...."

I applaud Mr. Boone for his standing up for what is right and honorable. The study of history is an attempt to learn the unvarnished truth behind events; not an opportunity to rewrite the facts to support falsehoods.

Nevertheless, in his zeal to defend Cody, Mr. Boone allowed some errors to enter into his account. Please allow me the opportunity to set the record straight.

In November 1867, William Mathewson (later a Wichita resident), famous at the time on the Santa Fe Trail as "Buffalo Bill," was hired to come to Hays to lead a hunting party. The resulting publicity in Kansas newspapers about the Mathewson hunt caused quite a sensation. Photographs of Mathewson and Cody show a marked similarity in appearance between the two hunters.

Cody was a popular man in Hays (in 1867 to 1868 as a guide and hunter). During one post-hunt celebration in James C. Still's Santa Fe Restaurant on Fort Street, Cody's friends humorously dubbed him "Buffalo Bill." Cody wrote in his autobiography the nickname was given to him as a joke but said he was never ashamed of wearing it. Throughout his lifetime, Cody always acknowledged that Mathewson was the original Kansas "Buffalo Bill." (The nickname, however, is rather generic. Many other men before Mathewson and Cody were known in other parts of the United States as "Buffalo Bill.")

In the spring of 1868, Cody left Hays for the end-of-the-tracks.

He had a contract to hunt buffalo meat for two of the subcontractors who were grading the roadbed ahead of the tracklaying crews.

The scout employed at Fort Wallace in 1868 was William Averill Comstock. Comstock was already famous on the frontier as Will Comstock. There is a story that Comstock was nicknamed "Medicine Bill" for cutting off the finger of a man who was snake-bit, but it lacks confirmation. Comstock, though, was never known as "Buffalo Bill."

Will Comstock already had a reputation as a hunter. Will Cody was quickly developing a reputation as a hunter as well. Naturally, the officers at Fort Wallace turned the whole matter into a contest to see which man was the better hunter.

In his 1879 autobiography, Cody stated his contest with Comstock took place near Monument, the end-of-the-tracks town in what is now Logan County. He also claimed that a large excursion party came from as far away as St. Louis to witness the contest.

Cody's version of the contest doesn't hold up to scrutiny. An examination of all available Kansas newspapers in towns along the UPRW, ED at the time, as well as a careful reading of St. Louis editions, located no mention of the excursion party as reported by Cody. Secondly, Cody only claimed that the contest took place near Monument as that was as far as any excursion party could have traveled by rail at the time.

It makes no sense that officers at Fort Wallace would travel by horseback all the way east to Monument simply to hold a sporting event when buffalo were readily available in the vicinity of the post. The Cody-Comstock constest, therefore, did not actually take place near Monument, but presumably somewhere in Wallace County, instead.

In the 1920s, Kansas writer F.M. Lockard wrote an account of the Cody-Comstock buffalo hunting contest. In his version of the event, Lockard claimed the hunt was to decide which man was entitled to be known as "Buffalo Bill." This was, however, a detail added by Lockard to the story and was entirely fictional.

Ironically, Lockard's made-up "fact" that the contest was to decide who was entitled to "Buffalo Bill" is the sole basis for Oakley's claim that Logan County is where Cody got his nickname. To accept Oakley's version of "history," one has to ignore numerous statements by Cody that Hays was where he received the nickname "Buffalo Bill."

James D. Drees

Hays

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