I first discovered the Childhood of Famous Americans Series in September of last year. I began collecting them and now own seven of the one hundred eighty-three books. Childhood of Famous Americans focuses on precisely that gap which is most often neglected in biographies; the younger years. It recounts what the habits, pleasures, and struggles of these men and women were when they were children. It explains to young readers why they later held to certain values and fought for what they did. It tells of the times they acted bravely and were rewarded; it also tells of when they got into mischief and were soundly chastised for it. All in all it demonstrates the principle that what is pursued in childhood and how it is pursued often sets the course for a man’s entire life.
Before reading this book I had a rather vague idea that Buffalo Bill was a man who pretended to be a cowboy and traveled around the United States with an overblown western act. Now I know the true man.
Buffalo Bill was born William Frederick Cody on February 26, 1846. When Bill was seven years old, his father Isaac Cody moved their family to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas Territory where Bill’s father set up a trading post and sold merchandise to Indians and gold seekers. Between trading and guarding their goods and making sure that they didn’t unintentionally offend an Indian chief, they were kept very busy. It was during this time that Bill’s love for the prairie began to develop. His love was heightened when his cousin Horace Billings, a trapper, took Bill under his wing and began teaching him how to track, trap, and scout.
But Bill’s life was not all happiness. A gang of horse thieves began terrorizing the area. Jealous of Mr. Cody’s trade, they sought to drive the Cody family out by destroying their crops and stealing their livestock. When this didn’t work, they sought to kill Mr. Cody and wounded him badly. Mr. Cody never fully recovered and died a short while later. Bill, now eleven, became the primary provider for his family.
He earned money escorting wagon trains west, herding cattle in the day and standing guard over camp at night. It was on one of these expeditions that he met the legendary Kit Carson. Carson took a liking to Bill and finished the education that Horace Billings had begun. He taught Bill how to communicate with Indians using sign language. He also instructed him in the highly useful skill of identifying and interpreting the noises of the prairie. From different soldiers and cavalrymen, Bill learned sharp-shooting and riding.
Throughout the remainder of his life Bill used these talents that he had learned as a boy. He would go on to be a rider for the Pony Express, a hunter for the Kansas Pacific Railroad, and ‘Chief of Scouts’ for the Fifth Cavalry of the United States Army. He later founded the immensely popular ‘Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show’ which toured the U.S. many times, aweing their audiences with daredevil performances. Bill even appeared before Queen Victoria in London. His show was a smashing success.
Since this was a ‘fictionalized biography’ (i.e. some of the stories and their dialogue were invented) it’s hard to know which parts are 100% historical. There are parts of the story I could praise – Bill’s willing obedience to his mother, his dedication to studies, etc. – but I’ll stick with what I know was true. And that is this.
In this book (and in the West in general) boys weren’t treated as incompetent milksops. Their physical abilities were admittedly limited, but they were never taught to think of themselves as lacking responsibility. Young boys were allowed to mingle with the men, bolstering their spirits and strengthening their sinews. Boys were encouraged – nay, demanded – to be men. In this way they grew into stronger characters than if they had been allowed to have ‘easy’ childhoods – though, out West, this was not even a possibility!
Once when Bill is sick his Indian friends bring a medicine man to treat him. He dances around the room shaking bone-rattles, but demons/evil spirits are never mentioned.
Bill and his friends trespass on a neighbor’s property and steal nuts.
Believing his life to be in danger, Bill slips away and joins a wagon train without telling his mother. (He sends news to her through his friends).
Conclusion. Buffalo Bill will be enjoyed by all children, but especially by the children who love western stories.
Review © 2012 Laura Verret