A Catholic connection to Buffalo Bill

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Barb Arland-Fye
“Buffalo Bill” Cody rides by a crowd during an event in LeClaire.

By Barb Arland-Fye
Editor

Arland-Fye

“Buffalo Bill” Cody waved at us as he rode his horse across a grass field converted into a show arena for the “Best of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World” in LeClaire.

My husband Steve serves as board president for the Buffalo Bill Museum in LeClaire, which organized the event, and encouraged me to attend.

The captivating and humor-laden show transported us back to the late 1800s when William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody entertained crowds across the U.S. and in Europe. We watched reenactors in period costumes demonstrate amazing marksmanship, horseback riding skills and acrobatics, and engage in hilarious showdowns — including one in which a posse of women frightened off a villain. The reenactor portraying Buffalo Bill jokingly referred to celebrating his 178th birthday. He looked remarkably well preserved!

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The Wild West show took place on the east side of Cody Elementary, named after the legendary showman who died in 1917 in Denver, Colorado. After the show, my son Patrick and I toured the reenactors’ “Boomtown” to the west of the school. We visited with Brett Peckosh of the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, area, who sat outside his teepee, welcoming visitors to look at and touch the furnishings, equipment, drums and artwork inside.

Buffalo Bill is our town’s claim to fame because he was born just outside of LeClaire and moved with his family into our city’s limits where he began his schooling. However, the family moved to Kansas when young William was 7 years old, according to a biography on the Scott County website.

My online searches led to fascinating details about Buffalo Bill’s connection to the Catholic Church. While performing in Italy, he had an audience with Pope Leo XIII at the Vatican in 1890, according to Aleteia, an online publication that provides a Christian vision of the world.

Cody requested the audience, which the Vatican rejected initially — perhaps because of the size of his entourage. Later, he and some of his companions “were allowed to attend the Pontiff’s entrance into the Sala Ducale, as the pope was taken into the Sistine Chapel” (Aleteia 1-13-17, referencing an article by Marco Roncalli in Avvenire). The Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave in Denver “still preserves the gifts the Pontiff gave Buffalo Bill and his companions: rosaries and medals of his pontificate” (https://tinyurl.com/5vbterj8).

“Buffalo Bill Cody was, more or less, evangelized by the Indians who were part of his Wild West show,” according to American Catholic History. One of the most famous people of his day, he was “a legitimate Western scout, a natural showman, and a man of principle and action.” He and wife, Louisa, shared a long marriage and had four children, two of whom died in childhood. While Cody resisted his sister’s years-long encouragement to become a Christian, through the “intervention of friends who were Catholic, he was baptized by a Catholic priest in Denver the day before he died in 1917” (https://tinyurl.com/5n779dua).

Over time, Buffalo Bill became an advocate for “American Indians’ civil rights and worked to set up meetings for tribal representatives to meet with presidents and other politicians,” the Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave reports. Perhaps that advocacy, his friendships with Catholics and his audience with Pope Leo XIII made a lasting impression that led the showman to the Catholic Church on his final day on this earth.

(Contact Editor Barb Arland-Fye at arland-fye@davenportdiocese.org)


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