History, Department of


Date of this Version

Summer 2007


Published in GREAT PLAINS QUARTERLY 27 (Summer 2007), pp. 163-175. Copyright 2007 Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska. Used by permission.


Many historical accounts of the restoration of the American bison omit an important piece of that phenomenon. Most historians have focused their attention on two elements: western ranchers who started the earliest private herds and eastern conservationists who raised funds and lobbied for the creation of the first national preserves. However, the perpetuation of the image of buffalo in the hearts and minds of Americans was equally important in the eventual recovery of the species. No one was a more effective popularizer than William F. Cody, despite his belief that bison neither could nor would recover. Buffalo Bill's Wild West exposed millions of North Americans and Europeans to live buffalo; it provided a market for fledgling buffalo ranchers; and, to a lesser degree, the Wild West raised awareness of the precariously low population of American bison. Cody's exhibitions were important beyond the sheer number of people they attracted. The Wild West rose in popularity at the very moment that bison in North America verged on extinction.