Judge Gray: The Living Lessons of Buffalo Bill

The Functional Libertarian
September 1, 2013

Recently I was blessed to be able to go with a wrangler on a horseback and fly fishing trip up to the Beartooth Mountains on the Wyoming/Montana border. To be able to stay in gorgeous natural places that haven’t changed for centuries, and knowing that they will be the same centuries from now, was truly inspiring.

But before we arrived safely in the hands of the wrangler, we visited the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming, and it is truly a world-class institution. In fact, if you have not taken your family to this genuinely interesting place, you are really missing out.

The Center is divided into five separate museums, and they specialize in the Plains Indians, Western Art, Firearms, Natural History, and, of course, Buffalo Bill. One of the features that was especially fascinating to me was the exhibit of the sculptures depicting Teddy Roosevelt, and others, by Alexander Phimister Proctor. And another unique work that really got my attention was a sculpture of a tumbleweed. Imagine constructing a mold for something as small as the branches of tumbleweed, and then seamlessly welding all of the pieces together. Really an amazing work.

But the true center of attraction was the museum about Buffalo Bill. In fact, I was so taken by his story that I bought and read a book about him. It is entitled “The Lives and Legends of Buffalo Bill,” by Don Russell. And it is aptly titled, because this man did lead numbers of different lives, and has numbers of legends – many of which are even true.

Generally the “Wild West” in our nation’s history lasted only about 30 years, from 1863 to 1893, and William Frederick Cody, who lived from 1846 to 1917, probably best represents it. During his varied life, he was a wagonmaster, Civil War soldier, Army scout (for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor), Pony Express rider, rancher, hotel owner, and, of course, a showman.

From experiencing his museum, and reading Don Russell’s book, I have derived eight living lessons from the lives of this truly interesting man, and I thought you would be interested in them.

The first lesson is the importance of developing skills and a work ethic. From childhood “Willie” strove to master the skills of roping, riding, driving wagons and shooting, because having skills was how a person could get ahead. The skills may have changed for most of us today, but the lesson remains firm.

Second, the best way to have friends is to be a friend, and that is what William Cody was to many people for a lifetime.

The third lesson was to treat your wife (or husband) well. For years Cody ignored his wife while he was out on the plains. She eventually divorced him, only to get re-married to him later in life. But she was always faithful to him, and eventually him to her. In fact, he learned that this is one of the most important parts of life.

Fourth, everyone is human. Cody started his career feeling that every Indian was his enemy, and he killed many of them during various wars and skirmishes. But, as time went on, he learned the lesson that Indians are people too. In fact, he went to great lengths during his Western shows to demonstrate how Indians lived with their families just like everyone else, and to argue that every Indian uprising was first caused by our government breaking its promises. In addition, Cody also stood up for women’s rights, as well as those of the Arabs and Mexicans who were part of his shows, making sure that all of those performers were paid equally for equal work.

Fifth, Cody came to recognize the importance of conservation. Yes, while working for the Kansas Pacific Railroad, Cody earned the nickname of “Buffalo Bill” by killing thousands of buffalos (actually they were bisons) to feed the railroad’s workers. But, as his life went on, Cody became horrified at the slaughter of these animals as they approached extinction, and he was vocal in his opposition. One of the tangible ways he assisted in promoting that conservation was to advocate the use of hunting seasons.

For many years, during the non-summer months, Cody ran and starred in what he called his Buffalo Bill Combination show. By doing this he increased his lasting fame worldwide, and also made lots of money. It was not only his name that filled the seats, but also other living legends like Sitting Bull, Johnny “The Cowboy Kid” Baker and Annie Oakley. In looking at a map of the places he performed, I was amazed to see that they included places like Santa Ana and Santa Barbara, as well as much of Western Europe. He even entertained Queen Victoria in London.

During one of these tours he discovered that he was spending over $100,000 per year in advertising. So Cody decided to economize and reduce that spending, relying instead upon his name and fame to fill the seats. But when he did that, his revenue plummeted. So lesson number six is that even with someone with a name and fame like Buffalo Bill, advertising still is essential.

Lesson number seven is that nobody is an expert in everything. Even though William Cody was exceptionally skilled at many things, including being a natural at showmanship, at the end of his life he was almost broke. Why? Because he felt that since he was talented in so many things, he must also have a good touch at investing – and he didn’t. As a result, Cody lost much of his wealth. So take the lesson from Buffalo Bill: know your strengths, and then find good people who have expertise where you don’t, and put your trust in those people.

Finally, lesson number eight is a tough one. People everywhere need heroes, and being in the limelight can be exciting. But that fame also brings many responsibilities. Ask Lance Armstrong, Barry Bonds or Richard Nixon, because the higher pedestal you are on, the longer the fall back to earth can be. William Cody took his fame seriously, and continues all the way until today to be on a pedestal. But he realized how precarious that position can be, and showed real care in not letting us down.

So for all of these lessons from William F. Cody I am both appreciative and grateful. And I hope you are as well.


James P. Gray is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the composer of the high school musical revue “Americans All,” and the 2012 Libertarian candidate for Vice President, along with Governor Gary Johnson as the candidate for President. Judge Gray can be contacted at JimPGray@sbcglobal.net.

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