Buffalo Bill Cody: Where is the Wild West showman really buried?

Posted: Sunday, January 12, 2003

GOLDEN, Colo. -- High on a mountain overlooking Denver and the Great Plains lies the body of a Wild West icon.

Or maybe not

Some people say Buffalo Bill Cody is buried in Cody, Wyo., a town he founded, while others say he's in North Platte, Neb., where he spent many years.

But most believe he is under a large gravestone atop Lookout Mountain, about 30 minutes west of Denver.

Each year almost a half-million people visit the grave, also the final resting place of Buffalo Bill's wife, Louisa Maud. A 3-foot wrought-iron fence surrounds the site, which doesn't deter people from throwing coins onto the grave for good luck.

About 65,000 visitors a year tour the nearby Buffalo Bill Memorial Museum to view exhibits detailing the life of the famed buffalo hunter and showman.

The museum was founded shortly after Buffalo Bill's death in 1917 by his foster son Johnny Baker, who also started the nearby gift shop and restaurant. The menu appropriately includes buffalo burgers.

Exhibits feature Indian artifacts, Old West art and firearms and intricate costumes Buffalo Bill wore during the Wild West show that made him internationally famous.

The show was an outdoor spectacle, employing hundreds of people and using buffalo, elk, horses, cattle and other animals. It began in 1882 and toured the United States and Europe for more than two decades.

''They had full trains that they'd use, like circuses today,'' says museum director Steve Friesen said.

The show made the American West fascinating to the uninitiated. Some say it fathered the modern rodeo and even helped improve relations between the United States and England.

What seems to fascinate people the most about Buffalo Bill is his death Jan. 10, 1917. He was buried that June, which prompted rumors about the location of his body.

''There's a couple of different legends,'' says Juti Winchester, curator of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody.

''What supposedly happened was some folks from Cody, including the local undertaker, went down to Denver and stole the body and brought it back here. That was supposed to have happened between January and June,'' Winchester says.

''First of all, I discount that completely,'' she said. ''The truth of it is, he had an open casket funeral, and I'm sure if he wasn't there, someone would have said something.''

Buffalo Bill's wife, close friends, the priest who administered his last rites and even the inscription on the gravestone say he wanted to be buried between Colorado's Eastern Plains and the Rocky Mountains.

''He told them he liked the view,'' Friesen says.

Visitors can get a similar view from an observation deck to the left of the museum. Looking east, the high-rises of downtown Denver stand in sharp contrast to the flat, endless plains. To the west are rugged snow-topped peaks and forest-covered mountains.

Buffalo Bill was born in Iowa as William Frederick Cody on Feb. 26, 1846. He grew up in Kansas and by age 11 was driving wagons across the Great Plains. He later mined for gold in Colorado, rode in the Pony Express and scouted for the Army.

He officially earned his nickname after winning a daylong hunting competition with a man who also claimed the name, Friesen says.

Soon, Buffalo Bill became the subject of newspaper articles and dime novels, which often exaggerated or simply made-up stories about the man and the Wild West.

Buffalo Bill became so famous that while in New York, he saw a play about himself. Realizing that money could be made, he took on his own persona and began a show about the American West.

''The critics hate it and the audience loves it,'' Friesen says. ''Buffalo Bill wasn't much of an actor, but he was very personable.''

Buffalo Bill's legacy has also brought controversy, especially stories of mass buffalo hunting and relations with American Indians. Friesen, who calls such critics ''the politically correct but historically confused,'' say the stories sometimes overshadow who Buffalo Bill really was.

Buffalo Bill, Friesen says, supported the rights of Indians and women, whom he believed deserved the same pay as others doing the same job. When buffalo herds dwindled, he denounced hunting the animals.

Perhaps most important, Friesen says, is what Buffalo Bill did for American-English relations. ''When the show went to England in 1887, it was part of an effort for England and America to reconcile,'' he said.

The museum highlights these lesser known stories of Buffalo Bill and may put some of the rumors to rest.

Except for the one about the grave.

''That's the number one question from visitors. Is Buffalo Bill really buried here?'' Friesen says. ''He is. He's here.''

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