Museum curator will take big picture look at legendary frontiersman and showman

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FARMINGTON — Not normally one to eschew the importance of facts, Jeffrey Richardson nevertheless is relatively dismissive of them when it comes to assessing the legacy of Buffalo Bill Cody, the legendary frontiersman and showman who will be the subject of a lecture by Richardson on Saturday at the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park.

"As is the case with so many figures from the American West, fact and fiction have become intertwined with him," said Richardson, the museum's curator and developer of its Curator's Choice Lecture Series. "It's not so important to get down to the bare facts of who he was if the bare facts make you lose sight of the larger picture of who he was."

And there's plenty in the larger picture to chew over when it comes to Cody. Richardson doesn't hesitate to name Cody as one of the five most significant figures in the history of the American West.

"There are very few individuals who really shaped the time and place they were a part of like Buffalo Bill Cody," Richardson said, adding that while other larger-than-life Western personalities like John Wayne were entirely the product of Hollywood myth making, Cody walked the talk.

"Buffalo Bill lived those experiences — not all of them, but most of them, anyway — and that's what made him so unique," he said.

 

Cody's life as a Pony Express rider, Army scout and buffalo hunter lent a degree of authenticity to his later exploits as the leader of a traveling Wild West show, the role that brought him international fame. Richardson plans to cover both those eras.

"He really did distinguish himself on the American frontier," Richardson said. "I want to talk about that and talk about why he created some of the myths he did. … He embellished what was already a very impressive résumé."

Richardson said there is a fair amount of evidence to suggest that Cody was a natural born showman well before he took to the road with his traveling crew of entertainers.

"Even out on the frontier, he would regale people with tales of his exploits," he said, explaining that Cody later honed those skills through a stint in stage productions, mostly portraying himself, that lasted approximately 10 years.

One of the elements that made Buffalo Bill's Wild West so popular was its use of Native American performers. Though the show frequently presented them in the worst stereotypical fashion – attacking wagon trains or a settler's cabin – Richardson said Cody's treatment of the Native Americans who worked for him was considered progressive for that era.

"It was one of the best-paid and most respectable jobs a Native American could have at the turn of the century," Richardson said of the roles available in Buffalo Bill's Wild West.

 

Richardson said Cody was very much a product of his time, and there were numerous contradictions in the way he spoke about and treated Native Americans, so he does not advocate for the idea of elevating Cody to sainthood. But he noted that Vine Deloria Jr., the late Lakota historian, activist and author of the seminal 1969 book "Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto," spoke positively about Cody's treatment of and relationship with the Native Americans he employed, claiming Cody presented them with opportunities that were otherwise unavailable to them.

Richardson said even though Cody's traveling show was hardly a realistic portrayal of Western life, he doesn't doubt the showman's desire to expose audiences far and wide to the things he loved about the region, especially as they slipped away.

 

"He wanted to preserve that, and he was cognizant of the changes caused by the new era that was dawning," Richardson said.

Even though he was a businessman, Richardson maintains Cody was interested in much more than simply exploiting the West. There remain places in Europe where a horse culture exists to this day because of the interest ginned up a century ago when Cody's traveling show visited, he said.

"He truly did appreciate the American West and wanted to preserve that for the world – all the while making a profit," Richardson said.

"The Wild West of Buffalo Bill" will be presented at 3 p.m. Saturday at the museum, 3041 E. Main St. Admission is free. Call 505-599-1174.

Mike Easterling is the night editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.

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