Distant Relationship

CHAUTAUQUA – Despite a common interest in the American West, evidence does not support the belief that Theodore Roosevelt and Buffalo Bill were friends.

Jeremy Johnston, curator of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West located in Cody, Wyoming, spoke at the Hall of Philosophy in the Chautauqua Institution on Saturday. Johnston’s main focus was to discuss his findings about the personal, professional and public relationship between Roosevelt and Col. William Frederick Cody, commonly known as Buffalo Bill.

To begin, Johnston discussed his ancestor, John B. Goff, and re-told Goff’s tale of being a hunting guide for Roosevelt. Specifically, Johnston said that in 1901, the hunting group had trapped a cougar, but to get a decent shot at the animal, Roosevelt had to take the shot upside down hanging off a ledge, while Goff held his feet. As the story goes, Roosevelt hit the cougar directly between the eyes.

According to Johnston, the vast majority of writings about Buffalo Bill include mention of Roosevelt, but few writings about or by Roosevelt, who was a prolific writer, included Buffalo Bill.

To prove his point, Johnston shared that out of nearly 200,000 letters that have been collected from Roosevelt, only 12 mention Buffalo Bill – starkly contrasted by roughly 50-100 letters which represent his correspondence with or about another individual who Roosevelt occasionally hunted with. The letters by Roosevelt that were addressed to Buffalo Bill speak only to their professional relationship.

Evidence suggests that Buffalo Bill made attempts to reach out to Roosevelt, who was uninterested in a personal relationship with Buffalo Bill. Roosevelt did at one time request a favor from Buffalo Bill – for him to publicly support the Forestry Service, which Buffalo Bill did – but was unwilling to return the favor when Buffalo Bill made multiple requests for favors, including for Roosevelt to stop a governmental development project in the Bighorn Basin, Wyoming, that would depreciated his investment there.

“This was the first case of Westerners versus the federal government that started at Bighorn,” Johnston said, adding that Buffalo Bill operated on a “first-come, first-serve” basis, while the government was attempting to share the greatest good with the greatest amount of people.

Although both Roosevelt and Buffalo Bill shared a common interest in the American West, their differences were, at the most basic level, based on class. While Buffalo Bill appealed to the working class, Roosevelt was active in middle and upper class circles. Johnston explain that the two shared similar goals – and both were Freemasons – but they had enough differences to keep them from becoming close.

One dispute between the two was over the term “rough riders,” which is generally associated with Roosevelt. According to Johnston, Buffalo Bill had been using the phrase for years before Roosevelt mentioned it during an interview, at which time it became a household term. Johnston believes that although it was not publicly stated, Buffalo Bill felt that he deserved credit for the term.

Johnston suggested that Roosevelt was unimpressed by the Buffalo Bill Wild West, which Johnston said did not include the term “show,” most likely because Roosevelt believed it to be an inaccurate representation.

“It was a never a show to Buffalo Bill,” Johnston said. “It was always an educational experience – a unique combination of drama and authenticity acted by people who were actually there (in the Wild West).”

To conclude, Johnston suggested that although Buffalo Bill and Roosevelt were not close and did not always agree with each other, both needed a polished image, be it for ticket sales or political support. Because of this, almost nothing negative was said or published about the other by either individual.

To learn more about the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, visit www.centerofthewest.org.