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Friendship in the American Frontier: Wild Bill and Buffalo Bill

In our final part of Wild Bill Hickok, we learn about Wild Bill's friendship with Buffalo Bill, two of the most famous characters from the American Frontier. How did this friendship come to be? 

By
Tom Clavin,
Episode #75
image of buffalo bill cody

With William Cody, he was rechristened after the war. Cody had acquired his nickname the year before. A pursuit of several business ventures had panned out as poorly as the hotel venture, so he took to buffalo hunting for the Kansas Pacific Railway. The company had twelve hundred employees working on laying track and related chores, and they had to be fed. There were plenty of buffalo around—estimates at the time were that millions of the beasts roamed the Kansas plains—but a hunter had to be a good shot to kill efficiently and be ready to encounter Indians angered by trespassers on their traditional hunting grounds. Cody had plenty of experience evading and outwitting hostiles, but it was his prowess with a rifle in killing the animals plus the sheer number of kills that had witnesses referring to Cody as “Buffalo Bill.” The name stuck, and for the rest of his life, he would use it to promote whatever enterprise he was involved in, and especially himself.

Remember how Wild Bill saved Cody’s life when that bully tried to attack him? The time came when Cody returned the favor.

In the years after the Civil War, Hickok and Cody became close friends. Their trails crossed out on the prairie as both men served as Army scouts and Indian fighters and chased outlaws together as deputy U.S. marshals. When Cody married, his wife, Louisa, initially feared the tall and slender gunfighter, but Hickok charmed her as he did most women with his modesty and sincerity.

Remember how Wild Bill saved Cody’s life when that bully tried to attack him? The time came when Cody returned the favor. Late in 1868, Wild Bill was scouting for an Army force of 300 men under General William Penrose through the Raton Pass. This trek turned into an ordeal that was almost catastrophic. Snow had fallen regularly at the higher elevations since early November, and that made for slow going to the supply wagons, which kept threatening to slide down the slopes. Sudden squalls blinded the men and their horses, and Hickok struggled to keep everyone on a narrow path worn over the decades by hunters. Frostbite attacked hands and faces. Campfires flickered before being doused by snow or extinguished by gusting winds. Supplies meant to last the entire journey were dwindling. The contingent finally made its way down to the Cimarron River, then turned south toward the Canadian River.

By then, Penrose’s men were frozen and exhausted and starving. The surrounding countryside was barren and bleak and covered with snow and ice.

The only reason why Hickok might have been a little less concerned than the army troopers was he knew who was guiding the Carr column. If anyone could get those men and their supply wagons through, it was Buffalo Bill Cody. When the advance guard reached Polladora Creek, the soldiers set up camp. It made sense to give Carr an opportunity to find them—plus, with their food almost gone and most of their mules now dead, they could not go much farther.

Day after freezing day, the plight of Hickok and the soldiers grew more desperate. A rescue party had been dispatched, but it was slow going. “We followed the trail very easily for the first three days, and then we were caught in Freeze-Out canyon by a fearful snow storm, which compelled us to go into camp for a day,” Cody recalled. “The ground now being covered with snow, we found that it would be almost impossible to follow the trail” left by the advance guard. Carr picked Cody to lead a small contingent of men to try to follow the trail, and the entire column would do its best to keep up.

After a few more days, true starvation loomed. Hickok scanned the white, bleak landscape for any sign of life. Finally, he spotted one . . . and as it grew closer, he realized it was Buffalo Bill at the head of a squadron of troopers leading fifty mules loaded with supplies.

The young man had sure repaid Wild Bill for confronting that bully years before. “The camp presented a pitiful sight, indeed,” Cody observed. “About the first man I saw after reaching the camp was my old, true and tried friend Wild Bill. That night we had a jolly reunion around the camp-fires.”

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