The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Buffalo Bill Adventures (1869-1912)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The Buffalo Bill Adventures were first written by “Ned Buntline” and debuted in “Buffalo Bill, the King of Border Men” (New York Weekly, Dec 23, 1869). Buffalo Bill went on to appear in at least five hundred stories, by over two dozen authors, in the United States alone, with thousands more appearing across Europe, North Africa, and Russia in the first decades of the twentieth century. “Ned Buntline” was the pen name of Edward Zane Carroll Judson (1821-1886), a journalist, entrepreneur, temperance lecturer and dime novelist. Although he wrote great numbers of story paper stories and urban melodramas, Judson is best-known for the enormous number of dime novels he wrote, especially his westerns involving Buffalo Bill.
The historical “Buffalo Bill,” William Frederick Cody (1846-1917) was a scout and buffalo hunter who lived the life of a frontiersman and cavalry guide for the first thirty years of his life, and lived the life of a showman, proprietor of his Wild West Show, and maintainer of his own legend for the remaining forty-one years of his life.
The fictionalized Buffalo Bill became the most famous cowboy in the world. His adventures were read around the world. However, Buffalo Bill went through two distinct phases of development. In the first phase Buffalo Bill is similar to Davy Crockett (1786-1836) and Kit Carson (1809-1868), all products of the rural frontier. He is shaggy, wears a beard, long hair, and fringed buckskin, and looks like he comes from the backwoods rather than civilization. Although he is, in these years, an honorable man, his morality is that of the conservative settlers of the frontier, and he is loudly opposed to gambling and drinking. He is, of course, an expert marksman, a master of Plains fighting, a skilled surgeon, and has all the other attributes familiar to later readers, but his personality and class status is more closely based on the real-life Buffalo Bill. The fictional Buffalo Bill, during this period, is genteel and honorable, but not well-born enough to marry a woman above his class. He speaks in dialect, and there are more than a few moments that his lack of culture makes him a figure of fun.
It was only in 1879, when Prentiss Ingraham (1843-1904), a mercenary turned dime novel author, began writing his adventures for Beadle and Adams, that Buffalo Bill becomes divorced from reality and becomes a typical dime novel Western cowboy. Ingraham describes him as “a border boy, reared in the shadow of death, an Indian fighter from his tenth year, the hero of hundreds of daring deeds, thrilling adventures and narrow escapes, gentle as a woman, yet savage in battle as a mountain lion.”1 He becomes tall, muscular, and handsome, “Long Rifle,” the killer of buffalo, and “Pa-e-has-ka, the Long Hair.” His diction becomes elevated and theatrical, and the comical elements of his speech and personality are transferred to his friends, Wild Bill Hickok and Texas Jack Omohundro. He remains a product of the frontier but becomes a member of the upper classes. Although he gambles and dresses with a theatrical extravagance, he is always a perfect gentleman, treating women and his opponents honorably. “Ingraham developed the figure away from the hunter model towards a more courtly ‘prince of the plains’ who wore gaudy outfits, no longer spoke in dialect, and exhibited natural nobility as well as extraordinary skill with a gun. Cody was a willing partner in this creation¼”2 Ingraham’s Buffalo Bill is an early version of the parfait knight cowboy that Owen Wister would perfect in The Virginian. Ingraham’s Buffalo Bill is essentially a knight-errant, and his stories are dime novel versions of the chivalric romances. “Unusual situations prevent monotony: Cody encounters a horseman in medieval armor; a detachment of African-American cavalry is being murdered one by one; a recurring villain (such as the Duke of the Dagger) is introduced.”3
But accompanying this refined behavior was an element of vigilantism. This was a post-facto reaction to the rise of the outlaw hero (see: The Deadwood Dick Adventures, The James Brothers Adventures), a trend which by the mid-1880s had been crushed by the establishment. Ingraham’s Buffalo Bill was a safe vigilante, a man who would attack crime and evil but whose allies never threatened the status quo and whose opponents never indicted it. If Buffalo Bill defeated a corrupt official the contemporary audience could be sure that he was an anomaly, and if Buffalo Bill helped union members the striking union men would happily place themselves in the power of their employers. Ingraham’s Buffalo Bill reinforced the status quo, with Bill himself correcting matters for the establishment, rather acting as its opponent.
Although the Buffalo Bill stories were far and away the most popular Western dime novels, both inside the United States and internationally, they were not the first Western dime novels. Western and frontier stories appeared in the dime novels from the very beginning; Ann S. Stephens’ “Malaeska. The Indian Wife of the White Hunter,” published in Beadle’s Dime Novels no. 1 (June 9, 1860)4 and generally recognized as the first dime novel story,5 was a frontier story, one of the subgenres of the dime novel Western,6 and “up until the 1880s, most of the Beadle publications contained frontier and western stories. Many of their publishing competitors also included westerns on their lists of novels.”7
Buffalo Bill’s popularity in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century was significant, but he did not become an international icon until 1905. German publisher Adolf Eichler, who had previously worked as a dime novel editor in the United States, “returned to Germany in 1903 armed with the translation rights to both the Buffalo Bill and Nick Carter series. He began publishing Buffalo Bill for German audiences in 1905 and charged twenty Pfennig per installment.”8 The result was a sensation, and dime novels became the most popular form of commercial literature across Europe, North Africa, and Russia for the next seven years. The wave of dime novels published began to end in 1912, but Buffalo Bill continued to appear in various forms and various countries, with the exception of the war years, up until the start of the Second World War, so that by 1939 he was well-established as a cowboy and frontiersman archetype.
The Buffalo Bill Adventures are little different from standard dime novel stories; even in Europe, they lack the color and imagination of many other dime novels. But they are historically important.
Print: Ned Buntline, Buffalo Bill, the King of the Border Men. Davenport, IA: Hesperian Press, 1987.
1 Prentiss Ingraham, “Buffalo Bill, the Border King. A Story of Daring Deeds,” Buffalo Bill Stories no. 1 (May 18, 1901), qtd. in J. Randolph Cox, The Dime Novel Companion: A Source Book (Westport, CT: Scarecrow Press, 2000), 43.
2 Christine Bold, “Westerns,” in Christine Bold, ed., The Oxford History of Popular Print Culture: U.S. Popular Print Culture, 1860-1920 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 322.
3 Cox, The Dime Novel Companion, 44.
4 “Malaeska” was originally published in Ladies’ Companion in February, March, and April of 1839.
5 There were publications before Malaeska—The Novelette (1857-1870) being the first of four–that functioned as prototypes of the dime novel, but Beadle’s Dime Novels no. 1 was “the first of the Beadle publications of sequentially published fiction in paper covers, which gave the term ‘dime novel’ to American popular culture.” Cox, Dime Novel Companion, 22.
6 “There are six basic types of heroes in the frontier and western story: the backwoodsman, the miner, the outlaw, the plainsman, the cowboy, and the rancher.” Cox, Dime Novel Companion, 111.
7 Cox, Dime Novel Companion, 110-111.
8 Kara L. Ritzheimer, ‘Trash,’ Censorship, and National Identity in Early Twentieth Century Germany (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 31.