When Buffalo Bill Came to Utah

In the spring 2019 issue of Utah Historical Quarterly, Brent M. Rogers explores William “Buffalo Bill” Cody and his checkered relationship with the state of Utah and members of its dominant religion, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Early in his career, Cody profited from negative depictions of Latter-day Saints. But by the turn of the century, he was touting Utah Mormons as ideal settlers of the arid West. What had happened? Cody may have changed his tune, in part, because of associations he developed with prominent members of the LDS church in the 1890s.

We asked Rogers, a historian at the Joseph Smith Papers, to give us a bit of the backstory on this project.  

Utah Historical Quarterly: How did you come to the subject of William “Buffalo Bill” Cody? How does your previous work inform this study?

Brent Rogers: About ten years ago, when I was in graduate school at the University of Nebraska, I got an opportunity to work as a research fellow for the Buffalo Bill Center of the West and its Papers of William F. Cody project. My task was to find, research, and transcribe documents relating to Buffalo Bill’s Congress of Rough Riders of the World. I also helped develop a digital history project on the Rough Riders (a company composed of the various equestrian groups performing in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West), interpreting their significance to William F. Cody and their impact on his performance. Ever since then I have maintained an interest in Buffalo Bill. One of the aspects of his life that was especially fascinating to me was his autobiographical claim that he traveled with a Russell, Majors, and Waddell supply train to Utah in 1857 during the Utah War. My first book, Unpopular Sovereignty: Mormons and the Federal Management of Early Utah Territory, examined the Utah War in the context of national discussions about local versus national sovereignty. As that book was in production and I began thinking about my next project, I initially thought about investigating the memory of the Utah War in the 1870s through the 1890s. As I lined up sources for that topic, to see if there was enough to sustain a project, I re-read Buffalo Bill’s autobiography published in 1877. Now, most scholars who have studied William F. Cody argue that he fabricated his travel to and sojourn in Utah in 1857, so I started to ask myself why he would insert himself into that history. That led me to more questions about Buffalo Bill’s presentation of Latter-day Saints in his early stage performances. As I tried to find more about Latter-day Saints in Buffalo Bill biographies, I found few mentions of them. But in my research, I started to find some dots that hadn’t been connected, which led to more research questions. Fortunately for me some institutions also found the research questions interesting enough to fund my travel to explore archives in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and Illinois (I know that last one seems random, but the Newberry Library’s collection of Burlington Railroad documents yielded some important information). Thanks to funding from the Buffalo Bill Center of the West and the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, my research trips were fruitful as I uncovered many terrific sources. It turns out there is quite a story to tell about the American icon and his history with Latter-day Saints.

UHQ: The central topic of your article is Buffalo Bill’s evolving relationship with Latter-day Saints. Did he have a difficult relationship with any other group of people?

BR: Like his relationship with Latter-day Saints, I would say that Buffalo Bill’s relationships were often complex and multifaceted. Buffalo Bill employed a variety of people of different genders, ethnicities, and races and generally gave them all equal pay for equal work. Cody once said that if a woman could do the same job as a man could, she should receive the same pay.[1] It is unfortunate that more than one hundred years later there are still those that don’t see the wisdom in this thinking on equal pay for equal work. Nevertheless, in his performances, Cody highlighted the talents of women like Annie Oakley, who demonstrated that women could shoot just as well as if not better than men. But Cody had a strained relationship with his own wife Louisa. There were rumors of Cody being unfaithful, and their marital troubles were often headline news. Furthermore, despite his hiring of men of different ethnicities and races to perform in his Congress of Rough Riders of the World, the performance itself was meant to demonstrate white American male superiority. For example, in a portion of the performance called “The Race of Races,” equestrians from all over the world competed, but the shows were fixed so that the white male American cowboy most often came out victorious.

Probably the most interesting and complex relationship Cody had was with American Indians. Buffalo Bill won fame during the Indian Wars of the West by fighting and killing American Indians. His exploits in the Battle of Warbonnet Creek in Nebraska in July 1876, where he dueled with and killed a Cheyenne man named Yellow Hair, became known as the “First Scalp for Custer.” That event generated a great deal of attention that helped catapult Cody’s performing career. Despite his exploits in the Indian Wars, Buffalo Bill later advocated for Native rights and allowed those Native peoples he employed the opportunity to engage in their cultural practices in public and in private. Cody’s progressive views seemed to fly in the face of broader American cultural and governmental efforts to force American Indians to adopt white ways and modernity. In my view, Buffalo Bill’s relationships with different groups of people cannot be reduced to blanket statements. There is so much to Cody that is public persona and perception and then there are his personal or private thoughts and actions. Sometimes the public and private aligned and sometimes they were quite different—situational even—and dependent on the time, venue, or audience. Perhaps one blanket statement can be made though: Buffalo Bill Cody and his relationships were not static, which makes studying those relationships and their contexts all the more exciting.

UHQ: Once Cody became friendlier with the Latter-day Saints, did church leaders revisit the stereotyped depictions of Mormons Cody had made in the 1870s? What about the negative images of them that continued to show up turn-of-the-century dime novels about Buffalo Bill?

BR: Not that I have ascertained. By the turn of the twentieth century, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had engaged in public relations campaigns to combat negative images of the church, but undesirable imagery and damaging perceptions continued to surface, including in the form of Buffalo Bill dime novels. Church leaders appear to have been willing to move on and embrace the friendly overtures that Buffalo Bill had made even if some things associated with him publicly still peddled a negative image. As is briefly noted in the article, it seems that Utahns and Latter-day Saints came so far as to communally forget that Buffalo Bill had ever presented a negative image. A newspaper quoted in the article speaks to this communal forgetting. “In days of old,” an Ogden Standard article proclaimed, “when they were not so well and favorably known and the practice of polygamy created almost universal prejudice against them, the great scout was one of the best friends of the Mormons, and was always ready to praise them for their industry, thrift, sobriety, honesty and other desirable characteristics, as he had observed them during their operations in the course of making the desert blossom as the rose, and establishing the nucleus of our now great and prosperous intermountain empire.”[2] According to this type of thinking, Buffalo Bill had always been a friend to the Latter-day Saints.

UHQ: Is there any indication of how Cody met and began working with prominent Latter-day Saints such as Junius Wells and Abraham O. Woodruff?

BR: Not so much with Junius Wells. His journal for the period begins with the entry “Left with family for Chicago.” He is on a train with his family to go to meet Buffalo Bill. The impetus for the meeting is not mentioned in the journal, and I have not been able to locate any other documentation that provides more information. It is likely that Cody or one of his agents reached out to someone in the church to inform them of the trip that Buffalo Bill and others were planning to take through the Grand Canyon in late 1892. Cody may have asked for a guide or some other assistance while his party traveled through the Great Basin. In any event, Wells was likely appointed by someone in the church to meet with Cody and his agents to determine the logistics and make arrangements for the trip, which was what he eventually did. Wells’s journal demonstrates that. The journal also gives some fascinating details of the trip with Cody.

Much more can be determined about Abraham O. Woodruff’s meeting and experience with Cody. In late December 1899, Buffalo Bill wrote to Charles Kingston, a land agent in Evanston, Wyoming, who served as the Wyoming representative for the church’s interests in that state. Knowing what Latter-day Saints had accomplished in making the Salt Lake Valley “blossom as the rose,” Cody asked if his canal company could do business with the Latter-day Saints. Kingston also received information from George Beck, one of Cody’s partners in the irrigation business, about canal work in Wyoming’s Big Horn Basin. Kingston relayed this information to Abraham O. Woodruff, a member of the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Kingston suggested to Woodruff that Buffalo Bill’s company might want Latter-day Saints to take over the building of canals in the Cody, Wyoming area. Such a prospect intrigued Woodruff. He saw a great financial opportunity not only for individual Latter-day Saints, but also for the church as a corporate body, if they could successfully colonize the Big Horn Basin. Woodruff took this information to the church’s first presidency to gain their support for a new business venture that he would lead.

But first, Woodruff wanted to explore the basin for himself and ensure that it had the potential that Buffalo Bill had been selling. So, in early February 1900, Woodruff and a party of a dozen other Latter-day Saints set out from Utah and met up with Buffalo Bill at Eagle’s Nest, Wyoming, about 15 miles away from the town of Cody, Wyoming. Abraham Woodruff’s exploratory party spent ten days investigating the area and its potential for settlement. Woodruff returned to Salt Lake City on February 18 and made his report to the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Lorenzo Snow, lauding the opportunities for settlers in the Big Horn Basin. From that point forward Woodruff and Cody occasionally corresponded about land matters and water rights.

UHQ: What’s your favorite aspect of this project?

BR: Everything. The whole process of investigation into Buffalo Bill and the Mormons has been exciting and enjoyable. Finding evidence of a chance encounter between Buffalo Bill and Latter-day Saint leaders Wilford Woodruff (Abraham’s father) and George Q. Cannon at the Chicago World’s Fair was special and opened a new line of inquiry about the role of the World’s Fair in their relationship. I also encountered a couple of letters from a Latter-day Saint in England who met Buffalo Bill while Cody was there touring Great Britain in 1903. Those are just a couple of pieces of a large puzzle that I am trying to put together. It really is one of those projects that I can’t stop thinking about and want to keep digging into. I’ll find that aspects of this research will randomly pop into my head while I am doing chores around my house. Thinking about Buffalo Bill and the Mormons makes it seem like doing the dishes goes faster. I only wish that I had more time to devote to writing the book.

UHQ: You indicated that this article is part of a larger book project. What other topics will be in that book?

BR: The book is moving along, even if slowly. The book is a more expansive and a more in-depth investigation upon some of the themes that readers will find in the article on Cody’s evolving relationship with Latter-day Saints. It will be a western story that I hope will provide insights to better understand cultural and political perceptions, image-making, and performance about the West at a time when the American nation grappled with notions of racial and gendered difference within the contexts of reconstruction, nationalization, urbanization, and industrialization. There will be more in the book on the perceptions of polygamy. The intersections of Buffalo Bill and the Mormons promise to illuminate and provide an interesting lens through which to view the larger national effort to eradicate polygamy. The book will also investigate the continuation of polygamy after the church announced its discontinuance in 1890. Polygamy continues to play a key role in this story into the early 1900s. Beyond those topics the book will look at town-building, irrigation, colonization, and development in the West through the Big Horn Basin’s history. The move of a group of Latter-day Saints to northwest Wyoming offers an opportunity to understand reclamation and urbanization efforts there in comparison with other colonization efforts and settlement in the rest of the West.  

[1] “‘Of Women,’ by Col. Cody,” Baltimore Sun, April 3, 1898.

[2] “A Friend in Days of Old,” Ogden Standard, June 10, 1914.