Ian Neligh has won many state and national journalism awards for his writing and reporting, including first place for online in-depth reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists and first place for investigative reporting from the Colorado Press Association. He has also won numerous awards for his humorous writing. As a journalist, Neligh has flown airplanes, been dog sledding, horseback riding, run with burros, dressed up as mascots, taken part in Civil War reenactments — but generally not at the same time.
He developed his passion for storytelling growing up in Colorado where around the family dinner table he learned a good story must be captivating — and, if possible, hilarious.
The following is an excerpt from “Spurred West.”
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
2020 Colorado Authors League finalist for Historical or Biographical Nonfiction
It was an old gas station somewhere between Cody and Casper, Wyoming, filled with things that had sharp teeth. Through the distorted lens of childhood memory I recall it being dimly lit inside, packed full of taxidermied rattlesnakes, coyotes, and other predators pried from the dark corners of the West. Shelf after shelf contained some new and wondrous curiosity: snakeskin boots with fanged rattlesnake heads still attached, scorpions on cowboy hat bands, snarling dead animals—the store felt wild.
Driving through Wyoming from Colorado to Yellowstone National Park was a regular pilgrimage for my family, and the strange little store in the middle of nowhere was a guaranteed stop along the way. From the walls hung stuffed heads of the incomprehensibly strange Jackalope, that enduring Western myth (and joke) about a jackrabbit with horns. The store also had giant containers of water, beef stew, coffee, crackers, and a massive barrel full of pickled eggs—everything necessary for a day of rugged adventure in the wilderness. I don’t know if I ever saw the store’s owner, but if I did he must have been a bear of a man, with a thick beard, a booming laugh, and maybe a hint of something menacing in his eyes; the kind of man who would cheerfully resort to cannibalism rather than go on a vegan diet.
One year, for no discernible reason, we stopped visiting the strange little store in the middle of the Wyoming shortgrass prairie. But that didn’t keep my imagination from traveling down those dim aisles packed with their monstrous cargo. The massive knives with bone handles behind the counter, jackets constructed of fur and bear claws; all these things only grew in my imagination with each passing year until I didn’t know if it had been real or not. To me, it was a piece of the Wild West.
It wasn’t until I was an adult returning on a trip home one year that I remembered to ask about the store, realizing with a start that it had once existed outside of my childhood fantasy. It was then my parents told me it had mysteriously burned to the ground many years ago and no longer existed. But it did remain firmly in my memories, and it became wilder with each passing year.
As a journalist working in the Rockies, I’d often seen the relics of the Old West, that time between the end of the Civil War and the late nineteenth century. Ghost towns, abandoned gold mines, and derelict forts still haunt the lonely places between the valleys and mountain passes. I’ve known people who discovered old six-shooters while out panning for gold, or a stash of vintage weapons hidden in a cave behind their house.
The Old West had a specific time and geographic location, and its remnants litter the landscape today like memorials to a time gone but not forgotten. The Wild West, on the other hand, was part real and part imaginary. It was where steely-eyed gunslingers traveled from town to town, bandits robbed stagecoaches, and cowboys rescued damsels in distress. It was a world created by those who hungered for tales of adventure, and by authors who were happy to provide them to their audiences. Some of it was real, but much was exaggerated. The real West was filled with farmers, ranchers, and miners, people whose lives were grown from the soil, scraped from the rock and pulled down from the mountains. Those stories were smaller and more difficult, and Americans didn’t want those stories. They wanted heroes and villains.
Dime novels made legends of real-life characters like Wild Bill Hickok and Billy the Kid. Some even straddled the shifting line between the two Wests, like William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, who did his best to educate the world on his version of the real West while further perpetuating the myth of the other. As the gun smoke and dust eventually settled over the era, the Wild West lived on in books, movies, and the limitless borderlands of our thoughts. Time replaced the Old West with the new, but I wanted to know how much was real and what was still left, if there were still traces of the original hiding in the corners of the vanished frontier beyond just imagination. I spent a year searching for the answer, interviewing gunslingers, bounty hunters, bare-knuckle boxers, treasure hunters, brand inspectors, and more to compare them to their historic counterparts. I found the spirit of the Wild West lives on much as it did over a hundred years ago, but sometimes it evolved into something new. It is still wild, dangerous, and unpredictable. And sometimes, every once in a while, it has sharp teeth.
FORGING THE WILD WEST
It was pandemonium. Thousands of people began to pour into the City of Rochester, New York, on the morning of August 12, 1895. The staggering influx of passengers took the railway companies by surprise; it was the most business they’d seen in years. Families entered the city by the wagonload, and before nine in the morning the streets were filled to brimming.
Town leaders tried to anticipate the crowds and prepare Rochester’s own trolley car system, but it utterly failed. It was soon discovered the passenger cars couldn’t meet the staggering demand. By all accounts, the city’s new arrivals were all heading in the same direction. Their destination was one of the city’s parks where a stadium was constructed the day before.
“Forty thousand people passed through the canvas entrance; and at both performances it was necessary to close the gates and deny admission to several thousand people for the good and sufficient reason that there was absolutely no place to put them without inconveniencing the many thousands who had obtained seats,” said one reporter witnessing the spectacle.
The anticipation from those lucky enough to secure a seat in the stadium must have been unbelievable. What they were about to see was famous on both sides of the Atlantic and had amazed audiences since 1883. A massive spotlight shone in the arena, and night became day. Soon they would see a show like none other. There would be cowboys, Native Americans, horseback soldiers from around the world, breathtaking historical reenactments, sometimes with those who took part in the actual battles. The evening would showcase the best trick shooting, riding, and other wonders brought to them by a cast of five hundred exceptionally talented people. For that one evening, the audience would get a thrilling glance into the Wild West.
A man with an unmistakable Van Dyke beard and shoulder-length hair and wearing a buckskin jacket galloped out into the arena. To the thousands of onlookers, he needed no introduction. He was a true celebrity of the time, his face gracing numerous action-packed dime novels. The man removed his cowboy hat, saluting the audience by holding it to one side in a flourish, and exclaimed, “Ladies and gentlemen, permit me to introduce to you a congress of the rough riders of the world.”
Buffalo Bill and His Wild West Show
For William “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s Wild West show, it was one of the best attended shows of the season. Awestruck crowds watched the thrilling retelling of the Pony Express, witnessed an attack on a stagecoach, followed a buffalo hunt, and viewed a siege on a lonely wagon train as it crossed the plains. Soon the air was thick with gun smoke and dust, but always the iconic figure of Cody was recognizable on horseback by the cheering crowds as he was never far from the action.
Despite hardships both of the economic and physical variety, Cody’s Wild West show had persevered for the past twelve years and would for another eighteen, outlasting a host of feeble attempts by others to cash in on the Wild West craze. Cody was a natural and none could match his showmanship.
For Cody, the arena was his canvas. He painted a vivid portrayal of the vanishing American West using those who had lived it as his medium. It was not, however, an entirely accurate depiction, despite his attempts at realism. But for his audience, none of that really mattered. After all, Cody wasn’t recreating the Old West but the Wild West. This was a frontier of cowboys, bulldoggers, trick shots, and bucking bronc riders.
“What a magnificent show it was from beginning to end; and how happily were blended the two elements of entertainment and instruction,” one newspaper writer recalled. “Volumes of the most graphic descriptive literature could not convey to the mind a fractional part of the clearness and vivid incisiveness of the scenes depicted in the Wild West arena.”
It was a West filled with exaggerated and violent reenactments, the often simplistic portrayals of Native Americans and their conflict with white settlers. And always it was about Buffalo Bill who came riding in to save the day. With some variation Cody brought this story from town to town, from Great Britain to Europe and back again. It was his interpretation of the frontier that became cemented in the imaginations of generations to come. It became the template for the myth of the Old West.
“For a few brief hours the vanishing west is visible to the citizens of Little Rock,” one reporter in Arkansas said after the Wild West show rumbled through town. “In a few brief years the men and the deeds who wrested from the wilderness the splendid empire stretching from the Mississippi to the Sierra Nevada Mountains, will have passed into tradition, but today they came into view, a splendid living panorama, and the central figure of all was the magnificent figure of W.F. Cody, still riding with the grace of a centaur, still shooting with the unerring aim which made his very name a terror to the Indians, but his thinning locks and the touch of silver which time is adding with a kindly hand are a reminder of the other changes which are fast effacing in the great domain, which he has seen spring from the wilderness, the old landmarks and the old faces which are vanishing into history.”
Cody had taken his fame as an army scout and his reputation as a prolific buffalo hunter to unheard-of levels of celebrity, which included novels, plays, and ludicrous stories based on the exaggerated, or outright fictional, events of his life. Cody had managed to turn himself into a legend and, for a time, audiences just couldn’t get enough.
“And last of all the center of this glittering spectacle, comes Buffalo Bill, that unique, picturesque personality, without a precedent, without a successor, the single product of an era,” one writer gushed. “Who is Buffalo Bill? Col. W.F. Cody, late chief of the Government scouts of the United States. What is Buffalo Bill? The most popular, fascinating figure in America to-day, one of the most graceful and expert horsemen in the world.”
Cody’s performance for the City of Rochester in 1895 was a roaring success, but dark clouds loomed on the horizon for the performer. Just the year before, his credentials and the right even to call himself “Buffalo Bill” were called into question.