In an atmosphere of pioneer struggles and Indian warfare, “Buffalo Bill Cody” was born to Isaac and Mary in a place known as Scott’s Farm, and situated near the Mississippi River in Scott County, Iowa, close to the historic little town of Le Clair, where but a few years earlier a village of Fox Indians had been located.
That is where Black Hawk and his thousand warriors had assembled for their last war-dance; where a marquee of General Scott was erected, and the treaty with the Sac and Fox was drawn up; and in obedience to the Sac chief’s terms, Antoine Le Clair, the famous half-breed Indian scholar and interpreter, had built his cabin.
Will (as he was known to the family) had one brother and five sisters. Young Will was a natural on horseback and was out riding with his older brother, 13-year-old Samuel. Samuel’s mare, “Betsy Baker,” was being contrary, trying to throw her rider. Finally, she reared high and flipped over on her back, crushing poor Samuel.
Will’s mother, always somewhat delicate, was so affected in health by the shock of Samuel’s death that a change of scene was advised. While Isaac had prospered as a farmer in Iowa, he had recently caught the gold fever and was planning to move the family to California in pursuit of his golden day-dream. However, before he could finalize his plans he was discouraged by some disgruntled returning gold seekers, who pointed out it was no place for children. So, Isaac decided on Kansas instead.
They assembled three prairie schooners for their Kansas migration and a spring carriage for Mary and the girls, and then headed toward Weston, where Isaac’s brother Elijah lived.
Will was only 8 years old, but served as an armed escort and rode proudly alongside the wagons with a rifle across his saddle and his dog “Turk” bringing up the rear.
On their journey to Kansas they pitched tents for the night alongside a swift-moving stream. Will immediately set forth with his dog in search of wild game for supper and had scarcely put the camp behind him when Turk let out a yelp and out of the bushes, right in front of him, bounded a magnificent deer. Now, nearly every hunter will confess to “buck fever” at sight of their first deer, so it is not strange that a boy of Will’s age stood motionless and dazed at the graceful animal until it vanished from sight.
Turk, of course, gave pursuit, but soon returned jumping up and down barking reproachfully at his young master as if to scold him for not shooting. But, Will soon had an opportunity to recover his dog’s good opinion as Turk almost immediately jumped another stag within gun range. This time, the young hunter mastered his nerves, took aim with a steady hand and brought down his first deer.
The following Sabbath they were camped beside another deep, swift-running stream awaiting the chance for a ferryboat to take them across. So, once again the future famed “Buffalo Hunter” set forth with Turk to bring some meat back to the campsite. After being wearied and overheated from a rabbit chase, Turk attempted to swim across the little river, but got chilled and would have perished had not Will rushed to his rescue. The ferryman saw the boy struggling with the dog in the water and started after him in his boat, but Will managed to reach the opposite river bank before he could get there.
As he pulled up alongside the shore, the ferry operator said, “I’ve heard of dogs saving children, but this is the first time I ever heard of a child saving a dog from drowning.”
A collection from this column, “Portraits of the Past” volume five, is now available at The Examiner, 410 S. Liberty St., and at the Blue and Grey Book Shoppe, 106 E. Walnut St. These affordably priced books make ideal gifts and are a good way to preserve these stories for future generations.
To reach Ted W. Stillwell send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 816-252-9909.