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The Burial of Buffalo Bill

"Pahaska Ishtemi Washta,"

"May the long-haired man rest well."

-Sioux prayer for Buffalo Bill Cody

On June 3, 1917, Buffalo Bill Cody was laid to rest on Lookout Mountain, 12 miles west and 2,100 feet above Denver, Colorado. Cody passed away in January, but winter weather meant that the burial would have to wait. The road up Lookout Mountain was impassible in the snow and the ground where his casket would be laid was frozen solid. Buffalo Bill's body was laid in state in the Colorado State House where Governors, dignitaries, and citizens alike paid their respects. Then the body was quietly stored at a Denver mortuary to await summer and access to Lookout Mountain.

Buffalo Bill's grave, Lookout Mountain, Colorado.

Meanwhile, citizens of Cody, Wyoming, the town that Buffalo Bill founded and named after himself, questioned the choice of the great showman's final resting place. Bill's wife, Louisa, said that he had picked the spot himself, and their daughter Irma, Bill's sisters, and many family friends like Johnny Baker corroborated her account. But there were rumors that Cody had died penniless, his once vast fortune having dwindled by overspending and mismanagement. Harry Tammen, the same circus impresario (and Denver Post owner) that had brought on the financial collapse of Buffalo Bill's Wild West now came to Louisa with the mayor of Denver and $20,000 in cash, the equivalent of nearly $520,000 today.

One story goes that Louisa left her meeting with Tammen and boarded a train for Cody, Wyoming. When the train arrived, locals gathered to pay their respects for their town's namesake. When Louisa stepped off the train, they rushed to offer their condolences. They then waited for the train's baggage door to open and the coffin to be removed. They waited, but the door was never opened. When one local man asked where Bill was, Louisa confessed "I sold him."

People crowded Denver's streets to watch the casket be carried to the top of Lookout Mountain, but again rumors circulated. The folks from Cody maintained that Cody wanted to be buried not on Lookout Mountain, but high up on Cedar Mountain where he could watch over his town. The 1906 will that Cody signed designated that exact spot, though his wife maintained that his wishes changed in the last years of his life. Some people in Cody whispered to each other that a couple of men from Wyoming had snuck down and switched the body of Buffalo Bill for an old ranch hand that bore a striking resemblance to the famous scout. They had done the work quietly and quickly, arriving back in home a few days later with Buffalo Bill's remains. No one in Denver was ever aware of the switch, the story goes, and the men were able to bury Bill on Cedar Mountain, as he had once requested.

Crowds watch as Buffalo Bill's casket is taken to Lookout Mountain.

But as the open casket was finally delivered and twenty-five thousand people gathered on Lookout Mountain looked on, it looked like Louisa Cody and the people of Denver had finally put the issue to rest. Wary that the folks from Cody might try something, the open casket was closed, sealed inside a tamper-proof case, and sealed in concrete and iron.

A few years later, Buffalo Bill's niece, Mary Jester Allen, began telling people, including those in Cody, that the city of Denver had conspired to tamper with her uncle's will, and that his final resting place overlooking Denver was not where he wanted to rest in peace. Johnny Baker, who Cody viewed as an adopted son, had opened Pahaska Teppee, a museum about Buffalo Bill's life and legacy near the grave. Now, he had Buffalo Bill's casket dug up and reburied under twenty tons of concrete.

Sign on Cedar Mountain, Wyoming

For nearly twenty years, it seemed like the spot of Buffalo Bill Cody's final resting place was settled. But in 1948, the Wyoming Foreign Legion offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who could bring Buffalo Bill Cody's remains from Lookout Mountain to Cody, where they would be reinterred at Cedar Mountain. Legionnaires from Colorado, along with the Colorado National Guard, stationed armed men at the grave to ensure no one would be able to collect the reward money.

Today, half a million people a year stop at Buffalo Bill's grave, pausing to admire the spectacular view of the Great Plains and to remember the great showman, who at one time was one of the most famous people on the planet. But there are some who still believe that those people are at the grave of an unknown and uncelebrated ranch hand, and that Buffalo Bill is resting on Cedar Mountain in Wyoming, looking down on the city that bears his name—Cody.

Cedar Mountain over the Buffalo Bill Reservoir near Cody, Wyoming.

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