MJPL hosts presentation on ‘Buffalo Bill’s Nebraska’

Julie Davis
Nebraska City News-Press

Buffalo Bill Cody once said he “would rather visit” Nebraska City “than almost any other town in the state.”

Guest speaker Jeff Barnes visited the Morton-James Public Library on Sept. 9 to present “Buffalo Bill’s Nebraska,” which offered the audience an introduction to the life of the legendary frontier scout an d founder of the Wild West Show.

Barnes said Cody visited Nebraska City at least five times, beginning in 1855 when he was hired by Alexander Majors to work for his freighting firm.

By 1869, Cody was scouting for the U.S. Army, said Barnes, and was involved in the Battle of Summit Springs in the Colorado Territory. 

About this time, Cody met up with newspaperman and dime novelist Ned Buntline, who began picking Cody’s brain for stories, said Barnes, after Wild Bill Hickok chased Buntline off, calling his dime novel ideas “malarkey.”

In 1872, Cody received a Medal of Honor for his actions as a scout during a skirmish on the South Loup in Nebraska. Barnes said that Medals of Honor were awarded more freely in the 1870s, adding that one soldier received his for “following orders promptly and cheerfully.”

About this same time, Barnes said that Cody served as a guide and a scout for a hunting trip arranged for the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia, who visited Nebraska on a goodwill tour. 

Gen. Phil Sheridan and George Armstrong Custer were also involved in planning and leading the hunt, and Barnes said it was initially Custer who spent a bit of time with the grand duke. 

After Custer was killed in 1876, the story was revised to make Cody the one who spent time with Alexis on the hunt.

After Gen. Sheridan released Cody from his Army scouting duties, Cody went east and stopped in New York City to see a play based on his life, said Barnes. He met up again with Buntline, who hired Cody to perform a in a show called “Scouts of the Prairie.”

For a time, Cody partnered with Hickok in the “Buffalo Bill Combination” Show, but Hickok misbehaved enough during the shows to be released from his contract, said Barnes.

Cody formed his own show in the mid-1870s and performed it in Nebraska City for the first time in 1877 at Hawke’s Opera House on 6th Street near Central Avenue.

Cody was all about publicity for the shows, said Barnes, adding that he bought advertising space in the local papers “by the foot, practically.”

Cody organized the “Old Glory Blowout” for cowboys in North Platte in 1882. More than 1,000 cowboys signed up to take part in the event, which was the beginning of the modern rodeos we enjoy today, said Barnes.

After Cody saw how popular the Blowout was, he determined to take a version of the show national and then international, saying that he wanted to show the country “a thoroughbred Nebraska show.” And the Wild West Show was born.

As he assembled his cast and crew for the show, Cody made sure to pay all members of the show the same scale, said Barnes. He also insisted that the Native American performers remain authentic to their culture, which helped preserve language and traditions in a time when many Native American youth were being sent to Indian schools to assimilate into the white world.

Barnes said that the Wild West Show also helped turn cowboys into heroes in popular culture, and it helped keep the name and story of Custer’s Last Stand in front of audiences for years after the Battle of the Little Bighorn. 

He also helped keep the buffalo alive because he needed some of the animals in his shows, said Barnes.

In 1893, when the World’s Fair in Chicago wouldn’t partner with Cody, Barnes said Cody leased land near the fairgrounds and set up his show so that when fairgoers got off of public transportation, they were at Cody’s Wild West Show instead of the fair.

Barnes said Cody also gave the poor children of Chicago a free day at his show when organizers of the World’s Fair refused a request for a free day at their attraction.  

In 1911, when the citizens of Nebraska City thought Cody was performing his final Wild West Show, ten thousand people showed up in Nebraska City for his performances, said Barnes.

Cody made his final visit to the state of Nebraska in 1915, following that with a limited tour in 1916, which was ahead of his death in January 1917.

Barnes’ presentation was made possible with the assistance of Humanities Nebraska. 

Upcoming events at the Morton-James Public Library include a presentation by Amanda Winkler, “Mollie: The Life and Times of Our First Librarian,” at 7 p.m.  Thursday, Sept. 30, on Mollie Cornutt, the first librarian of the Morton-James Public Library.

The library is located at 923 1st Corso. Call 402-873-5609 for more information. 

Jeff Barnes said Bill Cody was “all about publicity,” and these posters for his Wild West Show demonstrate how Cody marketed his performances to his audiences.
Jeff Barnes said Bill Cody was “all about publicity,” and these posters for his Wild West Show demonstrate how Cody marketed his performances to his audiences.
This poster, shaped like a rifle scabbard, advertises Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show.
Author and speaker Jeff Barnes discussed “Buffalo Bill’s Nebraska” on Thursday, Sept. 9, at the Morton-James Public Library in Nebraska City.