Buffalo Bill was writer Ned Buntline’s most enduring creation

November 23, 1869

On this day muck-raking newspaper publisher Edward Zane Carroll Judson, a.k.a. Ned Buntline, created a Western hero for the ages with the publication of his dime novel “Buffalo Bill – The King of the Border Men.” (Right)

 Although an authentic frontiersman, William Frederick Cody was snatched from relative obscurity by Buntline. The author’s first choice for heroic Western icon, Wild Bill Hickok, had rebuffed the offer to star in his fictitious sagas.   Hickok, (right)  scout, gunfighter, gambler and sometime lawman, had already reached semi-legend status.

Buntline  was said to have “discovered” the 23-year-old Cody under a wagon in North Platte, Nebraska, sleeping off several days of heavy drinking and in serious need of a bath.  While Cody often exaggerated his exploits to make a good story, he was in most respects the real deal.  

By the time of his historic hangover in North Platte, he had learned the art of tracking from the king of the mountain men, Jim Bridger, (right) survived a bear attack and battled outlaws on a freight line.  He served as a stage driver and a Pony Express rider, although he may have simply carried messages between stations.  By the tender age of 21, he was already a scout for the Army and held the dubious distinction as the railroad’s most efficient killer of American bison.

As audacious as Cody’s resume was, Buntline’s past appeared only marginally less colorful.  Born in Harpersfield, New York in 1821, he’d run away from home and gone to sea as a cabin boy at age 13. He was commissioned a midshipman in the U.S. Navy at just 17 and served in the Navy for a number of years.   Enlisting in the 1st New York Mounted Rifles during the Civil War, however, he was dishonorably discharged for drunkenness. 

His failure at soldiering was followed by years of failing at publishing. When his “Western Literary Journal” and  the “Monthly Magazine” in Cincinnati began to flounder, he fled to Kentucky to escape creditors.  Turned amateur bounty hunter, he quickly collected a $600 for capturing two fugitive murderers there.  He used the money to fund yet another newspaper, “Buntline’s Own” in Nashville, Tennessee.

That venture failed, as well, after fallout from an affair with a married teenager.   Buntline shot and killed Robert Porterfield, the girl’s outraged husband, in an illegal duel.  Arrested for murder, the outraged husband’s outraged brother then shot and wounded Buntline during the trial.   In the courtroom melee, Buntline took the opportunity to escape.  He was soon recaptured, but once again escaped death.  The rope broke during his scheduled execution.  It was presumed to be a sign from God under Tennessee law    His conviction nullified, Buntline was set free.  In fact, the mishap wasn’t a sign of divine intervention, but the result of tampering by of  Buntline’s buddies who had sabotaged the rope.

Like Buntline himself,  “Buntline’s Own” survived the scandal  became marginally profitable, when he left Tennessee for New York City.  A master at seizing defeat from the jaws of success,  however, he was soon convicted of instigating a deadly riot at Astor Place in 1849.

Artist’s rendering of New York’s Astor Place Riot

He was accused of whipping up anti-immigrant activists, ending in a deadly clash that killed 25 demonstrators and police and injured another 100.  The lethal encounter began as a ridiculous rivalry between Shakespearian actors, American Edwin Forrest (left) and the British William Charles Macready. (Below) In fact, a rival impresario, Isaiah Rynders had helped Buntline gin up trouble with an unlikely coalition of nativists and English-hating Irish immigrants.Astor Place also fell victim to the rampage, closing the following year.  

Buntline was fined $250 and sentenced to a year in prison.  Once released, he went West, writing sensational stories for various publications along the way.  In addition, despite his reputation as a heavy imbiber, he also lectured extensively on temperance.

The acclaim for his dime novel featuring Cody inspired Buntline to write a stage play, “Scouts of the Prairie” and persuaded Cody to star as himself on stage.   Cody returned to scouting for the Army during the summer and
took up treading the boards when the military campaign season ended in the Fall.

The critics savaged the play but audiences loved it.  It was performed dozens of times across the country for years.  In addition, “Scouts of the Prairie” eventually led Cody (left)  to dream up Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Exposition which made him an international celebrity. 

After an exceptionally successful run as a dime novelist, Buntline retired to Stamford, New York, in 1873 at the age of 52 and built a handsome retreat there he named the Eagle’s Nest. Despite the fact that he once had been the highest paid writer in America,when he died in 1884 at 64, the fourth Mrs. Buntline, Anna Fuller Judson, (right) was forced to sell the house to cover her husband’s debts. 

Buntline’s literary career has not suffered from a lack of longevity, however.  Many of his more than 400 serials and dime novels are still in print.  Paperback copies of “Buffalo Bill – The King of the Border Men” sell for about $12.  At the time of this writing, an 1880s era reprint is currently on the market for just under $500. 

Hollywood didn’t forget him either.  The author has been portrayed by actors from Thomas Mitchell of “Gone With The Wind” Tara fame in the 1944 film, “Buffalo Bill” and Burt Lancaster (right) played the role in Robert Altman’s  1976 “Buffalo Bill and the Indians.” 

In between books the writer apparently had time to develop the Colt Buntline Special, a single action Army revolver featuring a 12-inch barrel and removable shoulder stock.  The king of tall tales allegedly commissioned the manufacture of five of the guns and  presented them to lawmen Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Charles Bassett, Bill Tilghman and Neal Brown.  None of the guns have ever surfaced and researchers are still looking to verify the claim. 

Adirondack Experience, formerly Adirondack Museum at Blue Mountain Lake, New York, proves you can venture west out East. The two dozen structures on the grounds of the 121-acre park includes the Ned Buntline Cabin.  The author’s grave site and historic “Eagle’s Nest” is located about three hours south in Stamford, New York.  

Admission to the park is $20 for adults, $18 for seniors, $12 for students with ID and youth 6 to  17 and active military and kids under 5 ore free.  Admission is valid for two visits within a week.  The park is open summer months, only.  Call for dates of the 2020 season.  For more information go to theadkx.org/visiting-the-experience/visitor-information, call 518-352-7311 or write 9097 State Route 30, P.O. Box 99, Blue Mountain Lake, NY 12812.

© Text Only – 2019 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.