Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Guidebook Takes Readers on Tour of Buffalo Bill Cody's Life Along Highway 83, and Beyond

A native of Omaha, Nebraska, Jeff Barnes over the past few years has made a name for himself publishing a series of guidebooks on the Old West as well as traveling the Great Plains lecturing on the topic. Forts of the Northern Plains in 2008 came first, and told readers how to locate 51 forts in Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana. Next came The Great Plains Guide to Custer: 85 Forts, Fights and Other Sites in 2011. On February 1, his publisher Stackpole Books will release The Great Plains Guide to Buffalo Bill. William F. “Buffalo Bill Cody” is associated with several sites along Highway 83, not the least of which is his home of about 16 years, Scout’s Rest Ranch in North Platte, Nebraska. Barnes in an email interview explains how the book came about/

SM: Tell us how you began specializing in writing guidebooks centered on Western history?
JB: I’ve always loved visiting the old forts and battlefields of the Indian wars, and had a little checklist to click them off as I did. Every time I stopped to see the Fort Sidney (Nebraska) site, however, it was closed. I first had an idea to create a list for my glove compartment of the sites I hadn’t seen yet, including their hours, directions and contact info, so I wouldn’t make a wasted trip. From that, I thought about making an expanded list for friends who shared my interest, and then it was just a short leap to think it might be a book.

SM: After writing guidebooks about forts of the Northern Plains and Lt. Col. Custer, you chose Buffalo Bill Cody? Why him? Why has he endured as such as popular figure in U.S. history?
JB: Actually, and this will sound goofy, but I was kind of looking for a sign on who to write about next. Buffalo Bill was one of about five topics I was considering, and I thought a 2012 road trip/speaking tour through Kansas might give time to sort it out. One of the stops was in Leavenworth, Kansas, and there on the wall of my motel room was a portrait of — you guessed it — Buffalo Bill. I called my editor the next day.
Bill Cody was a natural extension of the first two books – he was known at the forts and was a Custer contemporary.
I think he’s endured as a popular figure because he did so much to build his brand when he was alive. He was the one who had hundreds of dime novels and books published about himself, who advertised himself and his show and traveled and performed so extensively. He was a romantic figure who presented a very romanticized American West and successfully included himself as a major player in its history.  He used public relations incredibly well, and he was also a very attractive man whose broad Stetson, long hair and distinctive goatee were eye-catching. And he had a name you couldn’t forget either! It’s easily argued that he was the nation’s first superstar.

SM: Scout’s Rest Ranch in North Platte, Nebraska, is of course the most famous site on Highway 83 associated with Cody. What are some others that aren’t as well known? For example, I heard he once ran cattle north of the Dismal River?
Scout's Rest Ranch, North Platte, Nebr. Photos by Stew Magnuson
JB: His ranch on the Dismal with Frank North was farther to the west from Highway 83, about 65 miles to the northwest of North Platte near Tryon.
Easily visible from 83 to the north of Stapleton on the South Loup River, is the unmarked site of the 1872 skirmish with Sioux Indians [Lakotas] that resulted with Cody being awarded the Medal of Honor.
As you pass through Wellfleet, Nebraska, and cross Medicine Creek, you are very near the unknown site of where Cody, Custer, Gen. Phil Sheridan and Grand Duke Alexis of Russia took lunch and changed horses on their way to their campsite of the Grand Buffalo Hunt. That hunt is commemorated by a state historical marker near Red Willow Creek, between Highway 83 and Hayes Center.
 Across the border into Kansas, near the town of Traer [a few miles southwest of Cedar Bluffs] is a landscape formation called Elephant Rock. Cody was also involved with an Indian skirmish there while with the Fifth Cavalry in 1869.

SM: Oakley, Kansas, has a dramatic statue dedicated to Cody. What do we know about his time in that area?
JB: That statue is a commemoration of where Bill Cody “won” the name Buffalo Bill. A few miles west of Oakley on U.S. 40 is a depression in the ground where a supposed buffalo-shooting contest between Cody and Bill Comstock was held in 1868. Both had been nicknamed Buffalo Bill and this contest was to determine who owned the right to the name. Cody, of course, won. The story came out years after the event and after
Buffalo Bill memorial, Oakley, Kansas
Comstock was dead, leading to suspicions the story was created just to support the Buffalo Bill “legend” that was starting to grow. Decades later, broken remains of champagne and beer bottles were found at the site indicating a large number of people had been there to celebrate something!

SM: I’ve heard conflicting accounts of where the first Wild West Show was held. Was it North Platte or Omaha?
JB: Cody put together a show in North Platte in 1882 called the “Old Glory Blow-Out” to celebrate the Fourth of July. Judging from the response, Cody thought it might be something he could put on the road — he organized performers for rehearsals in Columbus, Nebraska, and in May 1883 in Omaha held the first production of the Wild West. So both towns, and maybe even Columbus, can claim being the birthplace.

SM: You have what is for some of us is a dream job traveling the West, checking out historic sites. What is next for you?
JB: I’m not sure. I’m still a freelance writer and have been approached about writing a book or two for an organization here in Nebraska. My publisher would like me to do a narrative on an historical character, yet unspecified, and I’d like to try that. But it will be something that I have a great deal of curiosity about — I can’t write about something I don’t care for. 

The Great Plains Guide to Custer is available at Order HERE.

To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at
 Stew Magnuson (stewmag (a) is the author of Wounded Knee 1973: Still Bleeding: The American Indian Movement, the FBI, and their Fight to Bury the Sins of the Past published by the Now & Then Reader. It is available as an eBook on Kindle, Nook, Kobo and iTunes. Buy it in paperback on Amazon or bookstores such as Plains Trading Company Booksellers, in Valentine, Neb., on Highway 83. 


  1. He's a great topic, Buffalo Bill. For me it's about that mingling of showmanship with the authentic western man of action. Even if, as Mari Sandoz seemed to think, his legend was all a lot of hokum, the guy DID drive wagons across the Iowa plains as an 11-year-old; that's good enough for me. I was always fascinated by him. When I was growing up outside London, England, we had autographed photos of him and Annie Oakley on the mantelpiece. They came from my my great-great uncle Captain John Wiltshire (uncle to the grandmother who raised me). Turns out he captained the Mohawk, which brought the Wild West Show back to NYC in 1893. In Oakley's biography (or autobiog) there's a passage recording him sitting down to dinner with her, her husband Frank Butler and P T Barnum in Oakley's new home in New Jersey. I've visited Scouts Rest ranch two or three times. Lovely place. I would also recommend the gravesite outside Denver and the museum/gallery in Cody, Wyoming.

  2. Thank you so much for this interview. I am very much looking forward to Jeff Barnes' new book. And, though I may be prejudiced, I do believe that North Platte is the inspiration for, if not the birthplace of, the Wild West Show! Though by Barnes' account he only actually lived here for 16 years, his association with our area is much longer, dating from his early days at Fort McPherson until the Ranch was sold in the early 1900's. Looking forward to your new book too!

  3. Muriel,
    Thanks for your feedback. Actually, I said this is the house the Codys lived in for 16 years. Jeff knows his association with North Platte goes back further to 1878. Thanks for letting me clarify.

  4. Did you stop at Keystone Gallery between Oakley and Scott City? There you can see relics of the area that are millions of years old, and a lot of cool artwork. I highly recommend it.