Have you ever noticed the small herd of buffalo leisurely grazing on the southwest corner of the grounds of the Federal Penitentiary on Metropolitan Avenue? Perhaps, you have wondered what such a creature is doing in this part of the country, in a small herd at that, within the city limits of Leavenworth?
The North American species of bison, referred to by the French fur trappers as “boeufs” but technically a bovine ruminant, once roamed the western plains in massive herds, reportedly numbering anywhere from 30 to 100 million. But the American bison nearly became extinct in the 19th century. The greatest loss actually took place between 1870 and 1883 and by 1900 fewer than 1,000 remained.
Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West Show is credited for being instrumental in saving the buffalo from extinction. Over a thirty year period of time, staged buffalo hunts portrayed in the shows using real buffalo romanticized the wild west. Spectators, who also came to number in the millions, had never even seen a buffalo. The plains bison have long shaggy winter coats which are lighter in the summer. They are herbivores and typically weigh between 700 to 2200 pounds.
When the Leavenworth Buffalo Bill State Park Committee was planning annual Buffalo Bill Cody Days back in the 1970s, the establishment of a buffalo herd in Leavenworth became a reality. Regrettably, their founding purpose for a Buffalo Bill Cody Park out on Cody Hill was never achieved. Still, with the inaugural Leavenworth herd, consisting of two cows and one bull from Fort Riley, the memory of Buffalo Bill Cody and the American buffalo has been kept alive here.
As Buffalo Bill Cody Days are celebrated again in Leavenworth, a Cody Family exhibit is currently available for viewing at the Carroll Mansion Museum, home of the Leavenworth County Historical Society. Photos of the famed buffalo scout, Buffalo Bill, are showcased, as well as those of his family who resided in the Salt Creek Valley, west of Fort Leavenworth, in the early days of Kansas settlement.
Recently, two letters, written by Louisa Frederici Cody, wife of Buffalo Bill, were acquired by the museum. The research committee was also called upon to identify which son of George Keller, one of Leavenworth’s founders, was a life-long correspondent of Buffalo Bill. The request came from California with a copy of a family-owned letter, written by Buffalo Bill, shortly before his death, to “Friend Keller” in Kansas. After a little research, a statement was discovered in the obituary of A.B. Keller that Keller was a “playmate of William F. Cody, when the noted Indian scout lived in Salt Creek valley. They visited with each other and kept correspondence until the death of Buffalo Bill.” The letters will also be on exhibit as well as a baby jacket worn by Cody, which was donated by Mrs. John Reardon and given her by Mayme Allen, niece of Bill Cody and founder of the Buffalo Bill Cody museum in WY.
For more information, contact the museum at 682-7759 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday 10:30 am to 4:30pm. 1128 Fifth Avenue, Leavenworth.
If you haven’t seen these representative pieces of American wild west history right here in Leavenworth, take a short drive and discover just how much the buffalo herd has grown since the 1970s and then swing by the museum to learn more about the Cody family.