Buffalo Bill and the Taming of his Wild West

Today’s post is by Cody White, archivist at the National Archives at Denver. He is not related to Buffalo Bill.

It is said that nobody can stop progress… and apparently not even William “Buffalo Bill” Cody when in the early 20th century he resorted to relying on his clout with President Theodore Roosevelt to prevent development near a town he helped found. A recent find in the Bureau of Reclamation holdings here in Denver are copies of several letters to President Roosevelt as well as original letters to Roosevelt’s cabinet that sought to stop the creation of what ended up becoming the town of Powell, Wyoming. Throughout the correspondence, Cody’s overreaching complaint echoes the perennial political issue in the American West: access to water.

Writing from New York and Connecticut, as well as Paris, Milan, and Bautzen, Germany while traveling the world with his famed show, Cody’s Wyoming business ventures were never far from his mind. The correspondence starts in 1902 but it isn’t until 1905 that we see the first letter to President Roosevelt. Cody begins by discussing their common “pioneer” heritage and apologizes for missing the inauguration with the “100 Indians” he had hoped to bring along before getting to the main reason for writing: the rumors of a government-sponsored settlement on the Burlington Railway line in northwest Wyoming.

Cody, as he did with the town that bears his name, had a hand in developing the town of Ralston, Wyoming and fretted that the creation of yet another town five miles to the east would hurt the planned settlement of Ralston. The issue was quickly brought to bear on the Secretary of the Interior and so Bureau of Reclamation officials wrote to reassure Cody that there were no plans for a new settlement. Cody followed up the following year with Bureau of Reclamation Chief Engineer Frederick Newell to ensure water access for Ralston from the canal being built before reaching back out to President Roosevelt in August of 1906. In what seems to be his style throughout these letters, Cody began by stating how much he disliked writing to the President with personal matters before continuing on for several pages about his water rights and the possible town site of Powell.

Correspondence from William Cody to Bureau of Reclamation Chief Engineer Frederick Newell, May 4, 1906.

One year later, like clockwork, Cody wrote Roosevelt again bemoaning how his money invested in Ralston would be lost if another town is created nearby, but it appears that the seeds of settlement had already been planted. A train station had been built along with the Bureau of Reclamation construction headquarters for the area, called Camp Colter. Officials once again replied to Cody but this time with a new caveat; no town would be built unless demanded by settlers.

Cody continued to press his case with Roosevelt the following spring but within months of writing, planning for the town of Powell was made official. Cody fired back to the Secretary of the Interior James Garfield that it was from his urging that the Burlington Railway, which had been the impetus for the settlement in the area, had even been built and so essentially the opening of the Big Horn Basin was due almost entirely to him. If Powell was to be built, Cody wrote, there would be “no earthly chance of Ralston ever becoming a town.”

First page of correspondence from William Cody to Secretary of the Interior James Garfield, December 26, 1908.

The tide was going against Cody, however, as local farmers submitted petitions to the Bureau of Reclamation for the new town that would be closer to their homes. Cody seemed to accept the development grudgingly. In the last few letters from him in the file he shifted his focus to ensuring that the creation of Powell didn’t affect the water for Ralston.

Correspondence from William Cody to Secretary of the Interior Richard Ballinger, April 20, 1909.

Shortly thereafter, Powell did become a town, incorporated in 1909, and while it may be argued it did hurt the growth of Ralston, both towns are still in existence today.

All documents and quotations referenced above come from Record Group 115, Records of the Bureau of Reclamation, Entry 3, “General Administrative and Project Records,” boxes 899-912, (NARA Online Identifier 562770).

One thought on “Buffalo Bill and the Taming of his Wild West

  1. Very interesting! If someone asked me to figure where this letter came from I would guess that it was part of the LR for RG 48. Did the Secretary forward it back to the Bureau of Reclamation? Just shows how difficult it is sometimes to track things down when researchers show you a copy with no reference citation.

Comments are closed.