Buffalo Bill papers project gears up 5-17-07

- More than a century ago, Buffalo Bill Cody took Wyoming to the world with his Wild West show.

His trick-roping cowboys, stern-faced Indian chiefs and exotic animal displays made Cody a top celebrity in East Coast cities and European capitals alike. With his ever-present hat and distinctive goatee, Cody hobnobbed with kings and presidents as one of the best known U.S. citizens of his day.

Now Wyoming itself is gearing up to scour the world for all traces of the showman's correspondence and papers to compile the definitive historical reference work on its most famous ambassador.

“I truly believe that Buffalo Bill was an epic character in Wyoming's history, especially northwest Wyoming, and America's history,” said Rep. Colin Simpson, R-Cody.

Simpson pushed through legislation this spring to put up $300,000 in state money to kick off the Buffalo Bill papers project.

The Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, which boasts world-class exhibits of historic firearms and western art, is working to raise funds to match the state's investment in the Cody papers project.

Kurt Graham, a curator at the historical center, said he expects the project ultimately will take several years and employ a staff of perhaps half a dozen historians and researchers.

When the work is completed, Graham said it will go far beyond a mere compendium of letters. Rather, he said, it will be carefully annotated to explain the significance of what Cody wrote, who he was writing to, who wrote to him, and how those papers fit into the historical fabric of his day.

The terms of the state expenditure specify that the publication must be available online, and also in a printed edition that will be presented to libraries at the University of Wyoming and the state's community colleges.

“I'm thrilled to be a part of this and to have seen this take off because this is the business that I think we as historians should be in, and that is preserving the past,” Graham said. “If we don't gather these materials and publish them, that's just part of our story that will never be told. We would be the poorer for it.”

Graham said he's confident that the state's investment will give the Cody papers project the standing it needs to secure federal grant money and other support to make it a world-class piece of historical research. Similar projects have collected the papers of American presidents and other important figures.

“You've got to remember that William Cody is not just interesting because he was this flamboyant guy,” Graham said. “He's interesting because he provides us this window into late 19th Century and early 20th Century society.”

Milward Simpson is director of the Wyoming Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources and Rep. Simpson's cousin. His agency is in charge of administering the state money for the project and will prepare the contract retaining the Buffalo Bill Historical Center.

“This project is important because it - at long last, finally - provides funding for a level of research that's equal to its subject and the importance of that subject in Wyoming and its history,” Milward Simpson said.

Simpson said Buffalo Bill is as important to Wyoming and its history as Benjamin Franklin is to Philadelphia.

“He shaped the West and so much of what we value in ourselves and in Wyoming,” Milward Simpson said. “It's very gratifying that the Legislature has at long last actually invested in, and put their stamp of approval on, Buffalo Bill and our history.”

According to a biography prepared by the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody was born in Iowa in 1846. He rode for the Pony Express before serving as a Union cavalry scout in the Civil War. After the war, he began hunting bison for railroad crews and later was awarded the Medal of Honor for his service as a scout during the Indian Wars.

An expert marksman, Cody worked as a hunting guide taking dignitaries such as Grand Duke Alexis of Russia into the field. The dime novels of the day began glamorizing his exploits. In 1883, he created Buffalo Bill's Wild West - the show that he led for the next 30 years.

Cody was responsible for founding the city that bears his name in northwestern Wyoming and he developed the irrigation system that allowed agricultural development of Big Horn Basin. His historic Irma Hotel, named after his daughter, still stands. He died in Colorado in 1917 and is buried there.