Buffallo Bill Busted

He perfected the Wild West show, toured the world, got rich and then lost millions. What happened?

William “Buffalo Bill” Cody was a lucky man.

From a hardscrabble youth that began in a log cabin in Iowa Territory, he grew up to survive the Civil War, the Indian Wars, and buffalo hunts to create a Wild West show that traveled the globe and made him the most famous man on earth.

But his luck ran out in Arizona Territory in the last decade of his life.

Arizona wouldn’t give him the pot of gold he sought in one mining claim after another. Nor silver or copper. All his claims turned up wanting, costing him as much as a half million dollars—almost $12.5 million in today’s money. That shattered his dream of a comfortable retirement and gave him financial heartbreak instead.

Blame it all on a little piece of scenic heaven known as Oracle, just north of Tucson, where, in 1910, Buffalo Bill started pumping money into mines sold to him as “sure things.”

“He got salted,” says Chuck Sternberg, curator of the Oracle Historical Museum, which displays several pictures of Buffalo Bill in the days when he was a town fixture.

The dry holes would force Buffalo Bill to abandon his hope of retirement in his mid-60s, sending him back on the road for yet more seasons of Wild West shows—but smaller now, sometimes in collaboration with Gordon “Pawnee Bill” Lillie, as he could no longer afford the extravaganzas that had made him so famous.

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