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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

What became the most well-known collaboration of the two legendary frontiersmen took place on the stage, including in New York City. In 1873, Hickok was out of a job, having finished up as marshal of Abilene, Kansas. Buffalo Bill had won the Medal of Honor the previous year for valor in action against the Plains Indians, but with a wife and young children, Cody wanted a safer occupation. His friend Ned Buntline wrote a play titled Scouts of the Plains that would have Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill, and a pal named Texas Jack sit around a campfire and swap tales of their adventures on the frontier. At first, Hickok was glad for the work and, when the play proved popular, the steady paycheck. They took the play on tour around the country, including Broadway. But after a while, Hickok thought play-acting was silly. Sometimes out of boredom, he’d take his pistols and shoot out the stage lights.

Cody was not pleased with such unpredictable and destructive behavior, especially when payment for damage came out of his pocket. He and Texas Jack ad-libbed when Hickok went blank onstage or gagged on Buntline’s dialogue. When they realized that Hickok gave a more natural and compliant performance after a few shots of whiskey, they encouraged imbibing before the curtain went up—until one night. One scene had Wild Bill, Texas Jack, and Buffalo Bill passing around a bottle as they sat at a campfire offering stories about adventures on the Great Plains. Fed up with the iced tea the bottle contained, Hickok suddenly spit it out and shouted, “You must think I’m the worst fool east of the Rockies that I can’t tell whiskey from cold tea!” He then called offstage for someone to bring him a bottle of real whiskey.

The audience cheered in agreement. A bottle was produced, and Wild Bill took a long pull and then told a story as casually as if he’d been sitting at a gaming table in an Abilene saloon. That was the good news. The bad news was from that night on, Hickok wanted whiskey before and during each performance. His acting became even more unpredictable, and during his scenes with Pale Dove, according to Cody, Hickok “grew fonder of the heroine onstage than the script stipulated.”

Hickok left the stage for good and returned west. Soon, Cody would leave too and return to being an Army scout, though years later his Wild West Show would become very popular in the United States and Europe. The two friends would meet one more time, in the summer of 1876, when Hickok was leading a group of prospectors and settlers into South Dakota from Cheyenne, Wyoming. 

It had to have been a solemn parting, with Wild Bill and Buffalo Bill wondering if each would see the other again.

During the caravan’s journey, Wild Bill Hickok had one more opportunity to encounter his friend Buffalo Bill Cody, who had left the stage and been pressed back into scouting because of the war with the Plains tribes. The paths of Hickok and Cody intersected at Sage Creek in eastern Wyoming. There was no beer-drinking frivolity for the old friends this time, though. Hickok was on a personal mission to Deadwood, and Cody and the cavalry troopers were in search of hostile Indians in the wake of the Little Bighorn massacre of Custer and his men. They may have indulged in a sip of whiskey while wishing each other safe and productive travels. It had to have been a solemn parting, with Wild Bill and Buffalo Bill wondering if each would see the other again.

As most of us know, it was in Deadwood, South Dakota that Wild Bill Hickok was murdered by the coward Jack McCall. No one mourned his death more than Buffalo Bill Cody. To read more about the frontier adventures of both men, make sure to throw a lasso around my book Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier's First Gunfighter. 

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