Title: Cowboys and Buffalo Bill

Periodical: Time, A Monthly Magazine of Current Topics, Literature, & Art

Date: July 1887

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WHEN Colonel the Hon. William F. Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill, was asked a short time since as to his opinions regarding cowboys, he waxed almost indignant because of the ignorance of the average Englishman concerning those "unique specimens of humanity," as he characterised them. But it is hardly to be expected that English people, or indeed any of the "offsprings of an effete civilisation" (again to quote the redoubtable ex-scout) in this antiquated Eastern world, should have a very high opinion of a class of men of whom they seldom hear, except when their deeds of violence and their wild debaucheries are chronicled in the newspapers of their own country, and are telegraphed to the newspapers of this hemisphere. Said Colonel Cody, "The cowboy is not a blackguard; nay more, he is in nine cases out of ten better than his fellows. He has certain attributes that commend him to creation. He is manly, generous, and brave. He is not merely a creature of impulse, but uses the gifts given him by his Maker with a discretion which might be copied by more of us. I speak after years of study, resulting in a conviction which nothing can shake." Now, without in any way desiring to shake Buffalo Bill's sincere conviction, it is only fair to the Eastern public to say that the principal information they possess concerning the cowboys of Western America has been of a kind calculated to throw considerable doubt upon his statements.

Whenever any mention has been made in English newspapers of these "heroes of the prairie," it has invariably been culled from the newspapers published in the United States, and has, therefore, been relied upon as correct. A drunken frolic in Denver city, or in Kansas city, or in Colorado city, or in Austin, Texas, ending in bloodshed with sudden and violent death to more than two or three people,—these are the usual reports, and always the belligerent and irritating parties have been "cowboys." A train on its way, by Omaha and Utah, to San Francisco, stopped and boarded, the passengers frightened and occasionally robbed or maltreated, and always by "cowboys." A small frontier town nocturnally visited, its inhabitants awakened in affright and made the victims of practical jokes in the way of exhibitions of marvellous skill with revolvers, and always by "cowboys." These and similar reports are the only stories which have hitherto reached Europe delineative of the character and customs of the men of whom Colonel Cody speaks so highly. How, then, is it at all within the bounds of reason to suppose that the "offspring of an effete civilisation" could think other than that the title of "cowboy" was next door to synonymous with "bandit" or "highwayman"?

There are, however, proverbs innumerable which advise mankind not to put absolute reliance upon rumour, and that in every flock of white sheep there are some black ones. It remains for English readers to believe for the future that the stories of cowboys which reach them from the other side of the Atlantic are but rumours, and rumours relating only to the exceptional black sheep in the cowboy flock. But it is also open to remark that the thirty or more fine-looking specimens of humanity brought over to Kensington by Colonel Cody, and exhibited as samples of the genus he so highly extols, are exceptions to the rule as white sheep out of a black flock. Buffalo Bill and his troupe have been exhibiting nearly all over the United States for now many years. His company has had time and opportunity in plenty to achieve some of the polish which is part and parcel of the "effete civilisation" he refers to so contemptuously. And besides, to be honest, in a conversation held a short time since by the writer of this article with a non-commissioned officer of the Life Guards, [1] the statement was made that at the Agricultural Hall, [2] Islington, at the many military exhibitions held there during past years, nearly all of the tricks and equestrian performances done by Buffalo Bill and his troupe were regular items in the entertainment. English people have long been accustomed to recognise in the people of the Western continent a race of renowned showmen; how are they to know that Buffalo Bill is not a Cowboy Barnum, with a troupe of clever professional actors, acrobats, and equestrians?

The writer is perfectly aware that, in making this question a suggestion, he lays himself open to a charge of scepticism which almost amounts to inhospitality; but it appears to him to be one which would arise very naturally in the mind of any English person who is capable of propounding an argument, or of wishing for definite information upon any given subject. A country whose showmen have produced woolly horses and petrified men whose politicians scruple not to bid for popular favour by backing theories which they hold in detestation when applied to their own individual case, whose merchants have put upon the market wooden nutmegs, [3] sawdust hams, [4] chemically manufactured eggs and oysters, is surely capable also of sending over to England circus cowboys and side-show Indians, with concocted "records" and trained horses. And, moreover, no Englishman should be held uncharitable for asking that the incredulity natural to an "offspring of an effete civilisation" should receive abundant and positive dissolution.

Without possessing the same intimate knowledge boasted by Colonel Cody, without having devoted quite so long a period to the study as he has given it, a residence of several years in the United States, large part of which was spent in the western regions, enables the present writer to make a few practical observations about a race of men whose deeds have rendered them renowned throughout the world. The simplest-minded English farm-hand can hardly, at the present day, be under the impression that the "cows" tended by the "cowboys" of Western America are the same soft-eyed, meek creatures we are accustomed to think of by that name, and that at milking time they all turn their quiet faces homewards with mildly melodious "moos," asking to be relieved of their lactiferous burden. Driven out in vast herds into the boundless prairies to find their own pasturage, the cattle which are the charge of the "cowboys" are but little less wild and fierce than their congener, the buffalo, that is native to the country. The cowboy's duty is to keep the herd together, to fetch in stragglers, to drive the herd to its pasturage, to fetch it back to the ranch, to catch each animal at "marking time," to spend his days and nights in the open, in constant watchfulness over the safety of his charges, whose enemies are innumerable, and in unremitting vigilance concerning his own individual safety. There are wild animals, there are desperate thieves, even at this day there are inimical Indians; and besides these constant objects of suspicion, the cowboy has to provide himself with food and sustenance during his prolonged absence from the haunts of civilisation. His existence is one of never-ending circumspection; he is exposed to constant dangers, and he is out in all weathers. He takes the rough with the smooth, and gets very little of the latter. Everlastingly on horseback, and that generally on the back of absolutely unbroken horses, he is an expert of the most adroit kind in catching, training, and riding the wild mustangs and bronchos of the prairies. Having hardly any other toy except their revolver, it becomes a plaything in their hands, in the use of which it is hardly possible that any human beings can excel them. For many months at a time they are exiles from all social restraint, completely dependent upon their own resources for life, health, and amusement, and all their surroundings are replete with the wildest kind of adventure; it is hardly unnatural that these men eventually develop into rebels against the restraints of civilisation. So rare are their visits to cities and city usages, that they kick against the pricks that would hold in check the ebullition of their spirits. Then, again, the inhabitants of the frontier cities are themselves not the most refined people in the world. They are principally recently arrived immigrants, or pioneer settlers. They rejoice in the free, happy-go-lucky natures of the cowboys, and, regardless of the fact that many months of abstention is not calculated to strengthen the brain against the insidious effects of intoxicants, show them more spirituous hospitality than they are able to stand. Then "when the whisky is in" the curb is gripped between teeth, and the cowboys prove themselves as expert at "bucking" as do the bronchos they love to subdue, with this difference—that they always throw their riders.

Cowboys as a class, however, merit all the encomiums showered on them by Buffalo Bill. There is hardly one who would descend to a mean action with malice aforethought, and they hold it a sacred duty to relieve the earth of the burden of any who would. They are not a highly remunerated class, but any one of them would give his last cent in aid of the suffering, without ever inquiring into the cause. Some one suffers; it is a man's duty to relieve it if possible. That is the cowboy's style of argument. The cowboy is hardy, brave to rashness, generous to excess, utterly incapable of meanness; and these virtues constitute him a hero wherever he is known, and fully atone for his vices, extravagances, and eccentricities.

Among people living in the frontier towns in the western states, the stories of the deeds of cowboys are innumerable, and they mostly tend to show their bravery and their nobility in glowing colours. That was a cowboy who, when on the road home from a "marking" with his chum, found they were pursued by wolves. They had barely time to ride into a small shed at the foot of a hill which was used for a cattle refuge, when the wolves were upon them. And then the cowboy saw that there was a hole in the door, large enough to admit a couple of the fierce beasts that were thirsting for their blood. Without a moment's hesitation he fired his pistol at the head already thrust through the opening, and then down on to his knees and blocked the broken panel with his chest, holding it there until the wolves, tired of waiting, sought other victims! That was a cowboy who miraculously saved the life of a little child that was playing on the prairie near its father's ranch just as the great herd of cattle was being driven headlong and pêle-mêle into the stockyard. She, pretty innocent, all ignorant of the terrible death that seemed imminent to the terrified mother who stood watching the on-coming herd, was quietly picking prairie-flowers, and holding them out delightedly, trying to entice her mother to join her. Suddenly a cowboy perceived her danger; never heeding the possibility of his own destruction, he gave a wild whoop, and, at racehorse speed, headed off the herd, just stooping in his saddle as he passed the child, to lift her up in his arms and carry her to her mother, who stood in a stupor of fear watching the great herd trampling and roaring over the very spot where her darling had a moment before been playing.

Such stories might be multiplied to thousands, but these are enough (even if space admitted of more, which it does not) to show that after all Colonel Cody's praise was not altogether undeserved; that the race of men he admires so much, and of which he himself is no mean example, are indeed a race worthy to be studied, and possessing attributes which make them worthy recipients of approval and honour—when in their own proper element and surroundings. Whether the same should be accorded them for their inability to conform to the rules of civilisation when they enter its confines, is another question which Buffalo Bill does not raise.


Note 1: Also known as the Queen's or King's Guard, these troops guard the residences of the British Royal Family. [back]

Note 2: The Royal Agricultural Hall, opened in 1862, was designed for the exhibition of livestock and agricultural equipment. [back]

Note 3: Refers to the fraudulent practice of selling carved wooden nutmegs in place of the authentic article. [back]

Note 4: May refer to a tailor's or pressing ham, a ham-shaped cushion (often stuffed with sawdust) that is used in pressing garments. [back]

Note 5: HAL FALOAF is unknown; possibly a pseudonym "half a loaf." [back]

Title: Cowboys and Buffalo Bill

Periodical: Time, A Monthly Magazine of Current Topics, Literature, & Art

Date: July 1887

Topic: Buffalo Bill's Wild West in Britain

Keywords: American bison American civilization American frontier American Indians American newspapers Cattle herding Civilization Cowboys European newspapers Firearms Historical reenactments Horsemanship Horsemen and horsewomen Horses Kensington (London, England) Mustang Pioneers Railroads Revolvers Train robberies United States--Geography Wild horses

People: Barnum, P. T. (Phineas Taylor), 1810-1891

Place: San Francisco (Calif.)

Sponsor: This project is supported in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Geraldine W. & Robert J. Dellenback Foundation.

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