American History

What Did Buffalo Bill Really Think About Utah Pioneers?

Eventually, he stopped seeing the Saints as the villainous polygamists portrayed in his plays and dime novels.

William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody had an interesting trajectory in his relationship with Latter-day Saints. At first, he was antagonistic to them, commonly using Brigham Young and his coreligionists as villains in his performances. As time went on, he became impressed with their ability to irrigate and settle the American West and worked to settle the arid Big Horn Basin in Wyoming. In this interview, Brent M. Rogers discusses the life of Buffalo Bill and his relationship with Latter-day Saints.

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Learn more in the new book by Brent M. Rogers, Buffalo Bill and the Mormons.

The book cover of Buffalo Bill and the Mormons by Joseph Smith Papers historian Brent Rogers
Buffalo Bill and the Mormons tells the fascinating story of interactions between William F. Cody and Latter-day Saints.

Who was Buffalo Bill Cody?

William F. Cody worked as a buffalo hunter for the Kansas Pacific Railroad where he earned the moniker that stuck with him the rest of his life: “Buffalo Bill.”

He grew up on the American Great Plains. William F. Cody was born in Iowa before he and his family moved to Kansas, where he grew up as a product of the Plains environment. At the youthful age of 11, he worked for an overland freighting company out of Leavenworth, Kansas after his father died.

William then became a soldier in the Civil War, and eventually worked as a buffalo hunter for the Kansas Pacific Railroad. He went on to serve as a scout for the U.S. Army during the Indian Wars of the West, and also led buffalo hunts on the plains.

His exploits caught the attention of Ned Buntline, an influential dime novelist who wrote about Cody. Buntline began to mythologize Cody, and wrote dime novels about him, including a stage play—a western drama called The Scouts of the Prairie—in which both Cody and Buntline acted. Buffalo Bill served as an army scout in the summer and an actor in the winter.

Buffalo Bill Cody enjoyed the spotlight and grew in his acting abilities as he performed on the stage for more than a decade. His performances gave a glimpse into the most dramatic episodes of western life. His performances played well to an American culture that was growing increasingly interested in the “Wild West.”

Learn more about Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show.

As his legend and notoriety grew, Cody moved his performance into a larger arena creating what he became best known for: Buffalo Bill’s Wild West—a touring attraction that brought scenes of the Wild West to audiences all over the United States and eventually to Europe.

Evidence suggests that Cody invented the story.

The success of this show made Cody a famous celebrity, perhaps even the most recognized American figure of his day. As he saw more financial success from his Wild West extravaganza, Buffalo Bill engaged in a variety of business ventures outside of show business, notably the founding and development of the Big Horn Basin town of Cody in Northwest Wyoming.

Ultimately, Buffalo Bill came to be considered the archetype western American man. He was a famous entertainer, entrepreneur, and, for a time, a politician.

Where was Buffalo Bill from?

All over the West really. Cody was born in LeClaire, Iowa before his family moved to Kansas, where he spent most of his youth. He moved with the army as an Indian scout thereafter and he and his wife, Louisa, eventually settled in North Platte, Nebraska.

Buffalo Bill later helped found the town of Cody, Wyoming. He was always on the move. He became a world traveler, but was a western man through and through.

How likely is it that Buffalo Bill Cody was involved in the 1857 Utah Expedition?

Ample evidence suggests that Cody invented the story of his presence during the Utah War, perhaps borrowing whole cloth from an old trail guide and teamster named John Y. Nelson.

There was a lucrative market for sensational stories about Mormons.

While his autobiographical account (told in 1879) corresponded with actual events, inconsistencies in the timeline of his events in the summer of 1857 make it improbable that Cody went to Utah with the wagon train supplying the U.S. Army during the Utah War.

Interestingly, Buffalo Bill Cody demonstrated a deep commitment to telling his supposed adventures (whether fact or fiction) in the Utah War. For example, when Buffalo Bill met with a Latter-day Saint contingent in Wyoming’s Big Horn Basin in February 1900, he elaborated on his time with the army supply train in 1857–58.

A photograph of Buffalo Bill Cody with Latter-day Saints at the Big River Basin.
Latter-day Saint settlers traveling to the Big Horn Basin, pictured here having just crossed Kemmerer Bridge, Wyoming, April 1900. Courtesy of the Church History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City.

To his religious visitors Cody reportedly recounted “his career with General Albert Sydney Johnston, who led the army to Utah in 1857.”

According to the account of that meeting, Cody described himself as “a herdboy,” for the supply train, and when he was asked if the army actually suffered much for food, Cody laughingly replied:

We had mule meat and it took one man on each side to hold the mule up while another killed him.

Buffalo Bill Cody

His telling of his supposed time with the army’s supply train had become an entrenched part of his identity by 1900. Though unlikely that he traveled to Utah in 1857, his commitment to the story he told in his autobiography is admirable.

The big question for me, then, was: If Cody did not travel to Utah, why did he manufacture, peddle, and commit to this story?

The answer to this important question can be found in my book.

Why were Latter-day Saints often used as stock villains?

Latter-day Saints were seen as a group of religious deviants. They were not viewed as mainstream Christian, they practiced plural marriage (an abhorred practice in nineteenth-century America), and they had a large population at the crossroads of the American West.

Furthermore, Latter-day Saints were portrayed as a violent group. They were perceived as being willing to kidnap women to hold them in sexual slavery and to kill anyone who stood in their way.

Mid-nineteenth-century writers drummed up fictitious stories using formulaic narratives of their own creation full of titillating escapades involving Mormon polygamy and Danite pursuers. There was a lucrative market for such sensational stories about Mormons that gave writers and cultural influencers a financial boost. Because they were seen as deviant, Latter-day Saints were easy targets.

Buffalo Bill’s early relationship with Latter-day Saints was largely based on this perception. Cody’s early experiences and the overwhelmingly negative portrayal of Latter-day Saints in American culture of the 1850s through the 1880s shaped his worldview.

That was the world he grew up in and he like many others took the perception of the Latter-day Saints at face value. His performances perpetuated a negative stereotype, and he gained notoriety and economic success from anti-Mormon tropes.

Why did Cody’s visit to Utah Territory in 1892 change his views of the Latter-day Saints?

Buffalo Bill’s ties with actual Latter-day Saints emerged in the 1890s. To that point, his ties were only to the aforementioned image of Mormonism. That changed in 1892 when a Latter-day Saint named Junius Wells organized and led Buffalo Bill Cody and some of his friends on trip through the Grand Canyon and up to Salt Lake City, where Buffalo Bill met with leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for the first time.

This is a relationship-altering trip for both Cody and the Saints. Buffalo Bill gets to see, meet, and interact with Latter-day Saints in their own homes. In other words, Cody, for perhaps the first time, was in close proximity with real, actual believing members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1892.

He got to know his guide Junius Wells and they built a good rapport that lasted for decades. He had the opportunity to stay in Latter-day Saint homes to eat dinner with them, pray with them, and converse with them. This proximity and opportunity to observe and interact changed Buffalo Bill’s perception of Latter-day Saints.

Immediately after this trip he began offering words of high praise for the Saints. The timing of his 1892 visit came just two years after The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints proclaimed the end of future polygamous marriages. And in that short of a time, Cody stopped seeing the Saints as the villainous polygamists portrayed in his plays and dime novels. They were now, in Cody’s words, “good, law-abiding Americans.”

Buffalo Bill saw Latter-day Saints as industrious individuals and families who were making good lives in the arid West.

By 1898, Buffalo Bill said,

The possibilities of the new region I have no fears are as grand as any which have followed other pioneers in the older Western States. We have only to look at what the Mormons have done in the great Salt Lake Valley, which at the time of its settlement was the most desolate of deserts; they have made it blossom as the rose, and today there is no more prosperous and wealthy state on the continent, taking into consideration all the circumstances, than Utah.

Buffalo Bill Cody

Cody, like many Americans, had accepted the Latter-day Saint characterization of the work they accomplished in the Great Basin.

How did Latter-day Saints use the Chicago World Fair of 1893 to shape how they were viewed?

The faith group’s participation in the international exposition was geared toward combating preconceived notions about them, their beliefs, and their contributions to the American expansion narrative.

When Wilford Woodruff spoke at the fair on September 8, 1893, he did so “not in his capacity of President of the Mormon Church, but as a Pioneer,” according to George Q. Cannon. Woodruff concentrated his remarks on his faith’s role in conquering the intermountain West and making it a place for American families.

The Saints were intent on demonstrating their Americanness and their foundational role (through industriousness, intelligence, and self-reliance) in the colonization of the American West.

The Saints staked their claim to being counted among the nation’s foremost pioneers. Wilford Woodruff’s message only vocalized the powerful representations Latter-day Saints were making in Chicago during the world’s fair.

Following decades of rhetoric and portrayals of Latter-day Saints as anti-American others, they wanted to be seen as American as Uncle Sam. They took control of their own public relations, representation, and image making thereby creating a wave of positive publicity coming out of the Windy City.

What led Buffalo Bill to establish Cody, Wyoming?

Buffalo Bill was smitten with the allure and grandeur of the Big Horn Basin after he first visited in 1894. Off the Shoshone River, near the western edge of the basin, William Cody saw the place he hoped to build the next great metropolis of the West: a town he would name Cody, Wyoming.

Buffalo Bill began using the fortune he had amassed as an internationally known entertainer to promote and develop the land to bring settlers to the Big Horn Basin. Cody claimed that the impetus for his “extraordinarily successful and popular” Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World exhibition was to generate profits and capital necessary for “agricultural and commercial development.”

With his funds and those of some friends, Buffalo Bill invested in the Big Horn Basin to “reclaim a vast territory, establish a city, and lead whole communities to prosperity.”

In thinly veiled and racially charged language, Buffalo Bill viewed himself as a “great public benefactor” for white Americans in his “efforts to provide cheap and fruitful homes for toiling millions” and reclaim the land “from savage hands.” In northwest Wyoming, Cody wanted to develop his version of a pioneer’s paradise.

Why were Latter-day Saints interested in settling the Big Horn Basin?

Northwest Wyoming appeared to be a natural extension for Latter-day Saint colonization, which, by 1900, had extended from southern California to eastern Idaho and southwestern Wyoming, with settlements ranging from northern Mexico to southern Canada.

This land was a pioneer’s paradise.

Despite the displays of Utah’s abundance at the Chicago World’s Fair, the national economic depression of the 1890s hit the Great Basin Saints hard—especially those agriculturists who saw their products’ prices plummet.

Growing families and the continuing immigration of new Latter-day Saint converts created an unfavorable economic climate in Utah, wherein too many people were looking for too few jobs, and there was not enough land for those who wanted to farm.

Latter-day Saint leaders increasingly looked for new economic opportunities. At the turn of the twentieth century, they did not have to look far for additional land, however, as their neighbor to the northeast, Wyoming, had an ample supply.

How did giving land and water rights benefit both Buffalo Bill and the Latter-day Saints?

As the 1890s drew to a close, William F. Cody needed some pioneers to reclaim the hinterlands of northwest Wyoming and turn that space into the pioneer’s paradise he so desired. His town was struggling. He needed a settled population of cheap laborers willing to build essential infrastructure to demonstrate the potential of the basin.

The Latter-day Saints fit the bill. They had become known as hardworking and had developed an archetype for irrigation. He needed water and settlers and had little of either. Cody and the Saints’ mutual interest was in the development of the Big Horn Basin.

It is not known what conversations or events had taken place, but, by the time of the Saints’ arrival in February 1900, William F. Cody was prepared to give the religious group what they wanted.

According to accounts by Charles A. Welch and his son, Frederick Arza Welch, at this meeting “Mr. Cody agreed to relinquish both land and water rights to us if we could build a canal to irrigate the land.”

Cody apparently said,

I have secured a permit to irrigate nearly all of the lands on the North side of the Shoshone River, from Eagles nest to the Big Horn River, but if the Mormons want to build a canal and irrigate the land down lower on the River I will relinquish both land and water to them, for if they will do this I know they are the kind of people who will do what they agree to do.

Buffalo Bill Cody

According to this same account, Cody later told his business partner, Nate Salsbury, “I have dreamed that I would live to see this country developed into a great agriculture region and now the Mormons will fulfill my dream.”

For the Saints, it provided unencumbered land and water rights to begin a thriving settlement for hundreds of families.

How did Abraham Woodruff contribute to the Big Horn Basin?

In the summer of 1899, a young, energetic, and handsome apostle named Abraham Owen Woodruff, set his sights on the Big Horn Basin. In July 1899 Woodruff received authorization from then Church President Lorenzo Snow to travel to the Big Horn Basin to organize wards and “attend to whatever business may come up.”

Woodruff—the son of former Latter-day Saint President Wilford Woodruff—was only twenty-four years old when his father ordained him an apostle in 1896. Abraham was the youngest member of that quorum, the church’s second-highest governing body.

Abraham was born to Wilford, and his plural wife Emma Smith Woodruff. He grew up working on the family farm, fishing, and hunting. As an apostle, Abraham, traveled throughout Utah, Wyoming, Canada, and Mexico to oversee units of the church.

While in the Big Horn Basin that summer, Abraham noticed the plentiful game and observed that the land was “of fine quality” and “can easily be irrigated” from the Shoshone River. There were suitable tracts of land to support thousands of people on either side of the river.

He had reached the same conclusion about the land that Buffalo Bill Cody had: this land was a pioneer’s paradise with immense potential.

President Snow eventually appointed Woodruff the colonization agent for the church, making him a committee of one to carry out measures to help Latter-day Saint settlers colonize new areas, including Wyoming’s Big Horn Basin. He became the organizing and administrative force behind the Latter-day Saint settlement of the Big Horn Basin.

Where was Buffalo Bill buried?

Buffalo Bill’s grave is on Lookout Mountain in Golden, Colorado. He died on January 10, 1917, at the home of his sister, Mary Cody Decker, in Denver, Colorado.

The gravesite of Buffalo Bill.
Buffalo Bill’s gravesite is located in Golden, Colorado.

How does a temple in Cody, Wyoming bring the story full circle?

The temple is an important symbol in the story of Buffalo Bill and the Latter-day Saints. The sacred space where believers could participate in religious rituals was a symbol of a sinister people in Cody’s stage place and dime novels. But as their relationship evolved, Buffalo Bill came to understand the temple as a monument to Latter-day Saint faith, industry, and perseverance.

The announcement—and eventual construction—of the Latter-day Saint temple in Cody’s town brings the story of Buffalo Bill and the Mormons full circle because it will forever unite them.

A photograph of Buffalo Bill's Wild West performers in front of the Salt Lake Temple in 1902.
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West performers in front of the Salt Lake Temple, August 1902. Object 1D 70.0304, Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave, Golden, Colorado.

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About the interview participant

Brent M. Rogers is a historian and the managing historian for the Joseph Smith Papers. He received a BA with honors in history from San Diego State University, an MA in public history from California State University, Sacramento, and a PhD in nineteenth-century United States history from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. He is the author of Unpopular Sovereignty: Mormons and the Federal Management of Early Utah Territory (Nebraska, 2017), winner of the 2018 Charles Redd Center–Phi Alpha Theta Book Award for the Best Book on the American West, and the coeditor of Contingent Citizens: Shifting Perceptions of Latter-day Saints in American Political Culture.

Further Reading

Buffalo Bill Resources

By Chad Nielsen

Biotech professional. Armchair historian. Latter-day Saint.

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