The West’s Favorite Son Rode the Santa Fe Trail


Description: Buffalo Bill Cody wearing decorated jacket and hat, 1890 [B-290, Courtesy Denver Public Library Western History Department]

The West’s Favorite Son Rode the Santa Fe Trail

By: Kellen Cutsforth

After its construction in 1821 by politician and freighter William Becknell, the Santa Fe Trail has seen its fair share of travelers over its 200-year existence. From 1822 to 1880, the trail was one of the most important commercial routes in the country.

Santa Fe Trail [Courtesy Denver Public Library Western History Department]Wagon train on the Santa Fe Trail, 1844 [Z-192, Courtesy Denver Public Library Western History Department]

During that sixty-year period, perhaps the most famous person to set foot on the trail did so in the mid-1860’s. William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody the great scout, bison hunter, and showman found himself on the Santa Fe Trail.

While growing up in Kansas, Cody eventually worked as a scout for the 9th Kansas Volunteers in expeditions against the Kiowa and Comanche tribes. As a young boy and desperately needing the work, Cody looked for employment in between his scouting expeditions.

Buffalo Bill Cody, 1890 [Z-3604, Courtesy Denver Public Library Western History Department]Buffalo Bill Cody, 1890 [Z-3604, Courtesy Denver Public Library Western History Department]

One of his jobs was carrying dispatches between Fort Lyon, Colorado, and Fort Larned, Kansas. As a swift horseman, Buffalo Bill kept the communications flowing between these two most important military forts on the Santa Fe Trail.

Much later in life, on June 20, 1914, Buffalo Bill came to La Junta, Colorado. After bad financial dealings, Bill had lost his Wild West and was forced to work for Harry Tammen, owner of the Sells-Floto Circus.

Sells-Floto Buffalo Bill Circus Warpath special edition program, 1914 [Courtesy Denver Public Library Western History Department]Sells-Floto Buffalo Bill Circus Warpath special edition program, 1914 [Courtesy Denver Public Library Western History Department]

Harry Tammen with his dog Mox, 1924 [Courtesy Denver Public Library Western History Department]Harry Tammen with his dog Mox, 1924 [Courtesy Denver Public Library Western History Department]

Tammen, who also owned the Denver Post newspaper, had Bill ride out on horseback to salute the crowd before every show. This would be one of Cody’s last performances before he died in 1917 at the age of seventy.

Buffalo Bill waves his hat while on horseback, 1899 [NS-543, Courtesy Denver Public Library Western History Department]Buffalo Bill waves his hat while on horseback, 1899 [NS-543, Courtesy Denver Public Library Western History Department]

Interestingly, before the great scout and showman passed, he returned to an area near the Santa Fe Trail and Bent’s Old Fort. The trail he rode in his youth as a boy.

To explore more stories of the Santa Fe Trail, attend the Bicentennial Santa Fe Trail Symposium in La Junta this September. For more information: 2021 Bicentennial of the Santa Fe Trail

Follow SECO News on the Santa Fe Trail: http://seconews.org/santa-fe-trail/