They Came Here to Die
Their names are used as shorthand for the iconic archetypes of the American frontier: Kit Carson, the dauntless mountain man; Doc Holliday, the stylish gambler and gunslinger; Buffalo Bill Cody, the embodiment of cowboys-and-Indians mythology. Mention one of these names and most people think: “Old West.” They probably don’t immediately think: “Colorado.” But perhaps they should.
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(This story originally appeared in the September/October 2012 issue of Colorado Life Magazine)
Not only did Buffalo Bill Cody, Doc Holliday and Kit Carson all live here for various stretches, they each died here – and Cody and Holliday have made our state their final resting place.
BUFFALO BILL CODY
Perhaps more than any other single person, William Frederick Cody is responsible for the popular culture image of the Wild West. The real-life cowboys and Indians of his traveling show, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, toured the United States and Europe for 30 years.
“He taught the whole world to play cowboys and Indians,” said Tom Noel, history professor at the University of Colorado-Denver. “He personifies that shoot’em-up, Wild West approach that America is still notorious for.”
Cody was a hunter and scout before he became a showman. Born in Iowa in 1846, his family moved to Kansas in 1853. At 13, he made his first extended stay in Colorado to prospect for gold near Black Hawk and then worked briefly as a Pony Express rider near Julesburg. Cody earned his nickname as a buffalo hunter for the Kansas Pacific Railroad, killing a reputed 4,280 buffalo in a 17-month span.
He spent the next few years as an army scout, with his most important action coming in 1869 at Summit Springs, near Sterling. Cody was with a contingent of Pawnee indian scouts who rode ahead of the U.S. cavalry in pursuit of the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers. Led by the scouts, the cavalry caught the Dog Soldier village by surprise and killed a number of its best warriors.
Just a few weeks later, at Fort Sedgwick near Julesburg, Cody met dime-novelist Ned Buntline, who turned Cody into the hero of his next novel. The book became a hit play, which drew Cody to the stage for first time in 1872. He toured with his stage show for a decade before turning it a much bigger production in 1883, complete with live horses and buffalo, and a cast of hundreds.
The Wild West show’s 30-year run came to an end in Denver in 1913. Denver Post owner harry Tammen had loaned Cody money, and when he couldn’t immediately pay it off, Cody’s show was seized and sold off. Cody was compelled to join Tammen’s Sells-Floto Circus for the next year, then did a stint with another western show before retiring.
Cody’s health was failing when he came to Denver in late 1916 to visit his sister. He went to Glenwood Springs for the curative waters there, but he returned to his sister’s house in Denver to get his affairs in order after being told he didn’t have long to live. Cody died in Denver on Jan. 10, 1917. “Let my show go on,” were reported to be his last words.
His casket was placed in the rotunda of the state capitol building, where 25,000 filed by. Cody was buried at the top of lookout mountain in Golden, with a spectacular view of the plains he loved. The location of Cody’s grave has sparked controversy. The city of Cody, Wyo., which he helped found, has argued he wanted to be buried there, and North Platte, Neb., where he lived much of his life, has also made a case for his grave. But Cody’s family was clear that Lookout Mountain was his choice, and to deter potential grave robbers, 20 tons of concrete and steel beams were placed on top of his grave.
The city of Denver operates the Buffalo Bill Museum near his grave, which tells his story through artifacts owned by Cody, including the Stetson hat he wore at his last performance.