November 23rd, 2009


The True Tale of Bison William

I’ve just finished reading The Life of Hon. William F. Cody / Known As / Buffalo Bill / The Famous Hunter, Scout and Guide / An Autobiography, and very enjoyable it was too.

I’m not a great fan of the Western, and nearly didn’t pick this up off the second-hand bookstall, but second thoughts as to its suitability as source material made me have another look. I’m glad I did.

This edition of the autobiography covers less than half his life, as it was first published when he was 33, and perhaps his greatest fame still lay ahead; but it was already a pretty full life compared to some of the folk writing their autobiographies today, and probably contains the episodes of greatest interest.

It’s a great tale well told, though a bit thought-provoking to a modern reader too. Life is cheap, and some aspects of society deeply unpleasant. Bill’s father is knifed then hounded murderously by his neighbours for the views he expresses when asked; he’s considered treacherously liberal for being anti-slavery, even although he’s for an exclusively white state. The persecution continues until his  death from illness a few years later. Bill himself kills his first Indian* at age 11, and makes no bones of scalping Native Americans when they’re killed, or “lifting their hair”. Killings over card games do take place.

The edition I read has a modern (1978) foreword that considers how credible the tale is and whether it was really written by Bill himself or ghost-written. The general conclusion seems to be that it really is Buffalo Bill’s own writing, and that while it may not be a completely reliable account, this early edition is more true than not. (Later editions include embroidered material that may have been added by the publishers.) Some events recounted in the early edition that were once considered doubtful have been subsequently confirmed by independent documentary evidence, and Bill doesn’t always portray himself in the best light: admitting to pocketing a fine when a Justice of the Peace, for example; being unreliable in drink; or shooting his mule when within sight of his destination, at least partly in revenge because it had run away from him.

In role-playing terms, Buffalo Bill is clearly a player character. Reading of his early exploits tracking or evading Indians reminded me of the hobgoblins and the “golden horde” in New Jerusalem, the first role playing game I took part in. In less “heroic” form, there’s an incident in a battle where Bill spots an Indian riding a horse that he admires; so he sneaks forward to pick the owner off and is later given the horse by the soldier who caught it. Oh dear, I thought. I can see a player character doing exactly that.

It’s odd to think though, that the sort of behaviour that would prompt a bit of head-shaking and teeth-sucking in a game, and possible longer term consequences, depending on the GM, is not apparently considered very reprehensible or shameful in real life less than 150 years ago. To be fair, it was a hostile situation and the Native American would no doubt have been a target anyway; but the naked cupidity is a little shocking.

One thing that seems a little shocking now but probably shouldn’t is the number of buffalo slain; although 36 buffalo in a short ride may seem like a lot, it’s not so excessive when you’re shooting to feed an army. There is a reason that the buffalo is now scarce, but it’s not all Buffalo Bill’s fault; and as far as Native Americans are concerned, he seems to have been more inclined to treat them as fellow human beings than many of his contemporaries.

It was also a surprise to discover that Rome was not built in a day. It took a month; and then it took three days to fall when Bill and his partner refused to cut the railway company agent into the town they had founded. He set up a competing town a mile away, and spread the word that that was where the railway would pass by. The town that springs up overnight when oil is struck in Tintin in America is an exaggeration; but not so much as you might think!

Historical culture-shock aside, this is a good read and I’d unreservedly recommend it if you come across it as I did, for £2.50. I’d even recommend paying a bit more than that if you want the comfort of a paper copy. The author has an effective and engaging writing style – he tells a good yarn – and he doesn’t take himself too seriously; I didn’t think of “Bison William” myself!

On Project Gutenberg you can find the edition I read (sadly without illustrations), or a later, "revised" edition with some illustrations. You can also find a print copy like mine on Amazon, with many illustrations.

* No intent to offend any Native Americans who may happen to read this by my use of the period term.