The Boy Who Became Buffalo Bill: Growing Up Billy Cody in Bleeding Kansas by Andrea Warren.
Ms. Warren says in her author’s note at the end of the book that she set out to write a book about Kansas history, “Bleeding Kansas”, during the time prior to and during the Civil War. She needed a “hook”, a young person who lived in Kansas during the time period and who experienced the difficulties and vicissitudes of war-torn Kansas. She chose Buffalo Bill Cody who moved to Kansas with his family at the age of eight in 1854 and who grew up at the center of a conflict that shattered his family, tore apart the entire region, and made Billy Cody both a responsible man and a participant in the violence and fighting at a very young age.
What was fun for me in reading this new book, just published in November of last year, was how it serendipitously impinged upon and overlapped with several things we have already been reading and discussing in our homeschool this semester. We’re studying the Civil War right now—and its aftermath. So, a biography of Buffalo Bill, especially one that concentrates on his childhood in Bleeding Kansas before and during the war, is just parallel to what we are reading and studying. Then too, we have been reading the Newbery award winner Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith as our morning read aloud book. The protagonist in that book is a young Union soldier, Jeff Bussey, from Linn County, Kansas. I was fascinated to read, in conjunction with the fictional Jeff Bussey’s adventures, about Billy Cody’s adventures as the son of an abolitionist father and later, as a Jayhawker himself. Bill Cody, at age seventeen, went on raids across the Kansas-Missouri border with a group called the Red-Legs, “one of the most infamous Jayhawker bands of them all.” Jeff Bussey encounters Southern-sympathizer Bushwhackers who come to his home on a raid and give him good reason to join the Union army.
Another intersection between this biography and our other studies came as I marveled at the age at which young Billy shouldered responsibility for tasks and decisions that we in this day would never allow or even conceive of at his age. With my adult children I have been discussing the tension between over-protection of children in our culture and the need to protect them from the over-sexualization and violence that our culture promotes. Billy’s parents didn’t seem to be interested in protecting him from hard work, hard living men, or adult decision-making. Two examples:
“Billy drove the supply wagon back and forth to Uncle Elijah’s store in Weston (MO) to get supplies—a big job for and eight year old since it meant crossing on the ferry with the wagon and horses, loading all the goods into the wagon, and then recrossing the river, driving the wagon to the store, and unloading everything. But Billy liked the challenge and was proud that he could already do the work of a man.”
“Billy (age nine) worked alongside several other herders as they moved the cattle from one grazing site to another to fatten them for market. At night the herders ate by firelight and slept under the stars. Billy missed his family and worried about his father’s health and safety. But otherwise it was the perfect life.”
At age fifteen Bill Cody was a rider for the Pony Express. At seventeen, he joined the Union Army. These freedoms and responsibilities were allowed and even expected for young Billy Cody in a Kansas that was a much more dangerous place than 21st century Houston, TX. There were Jayhawkers, Bushwhackers, horse thieves, Native Americans who were still at war with the United States, knives, guns, and all of the other possible dangers that were part of living on the frontier in a state that was near to anarchy. And we are afraid to allow our children to walk to school by themselves?
Another book that my daughter and I are reading together is Jim Murphy’s The Boys’ War: Confederate and Union Soldiers Talk About the Civil War. In that book boys as young as ten or eleven join the Union or the Confederate armies. Some of them ran way from home to join up and lied about their ages, but others were allowed or even encouraged by their parents to sign up. Boys in that era were expected to be men at age twelve or thirteen, to do a man’s work and to shoulder a man’s responsibilities. (And girls often got married at thirteen, fourteen and fifteen and saw themselves as adults, too.)
I don’t say we should go back to those times and those mores in all respects, but perhaps we should quit infantilizing our young men and women and start asking and allowing them to meet challenges and gain the pride and maturity that comes from feeling that they can do the work of a man—or a woman. (Do hard things.)
Anyway, I read this entire book avidly and found it to be a fascinating account of a boy growing up on the frontier. There’s a little bit of information in the final chapters about Buffalo Bill’s show business career, but that wasn’t the focus of the book. And that wasn’t what made it so appealing to me. Bill Cody made some bad decisions (becoming a lawless Jayhawker) as well as good ones (becoming the sole financial support for his mother and sisters after his father’s death) as he became an adult during his teenage years. But he lived a rich and mostly honorable life, full of adventure and yes, responsibility. Young men (or women) who spend their lives playing video games and watching youtube would, I think, be incomprehensible to a time-transported Buffalo Bill.