How Buffalo Bill Helped Save Yellowstone National Park

by Suzanne Halliburton
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For this story, we’re featuring Buffalo Bill and how he helped save Yellowstone. And no, we’re not talking about an NFL team or a beloved TV show.

At a Glance: How Buffalo Bill Helped Save Yellowstone

  • When he wrote a letter to a national newspaper, Buffalo Bill was a showman with a Wild West tour.
  • He also was known by his given name, William Cody. He received the Medal of Honor for his work with the U.S. Cavalry.
  • Cody wrote the letter on behalf of a U.S. general.

We’re throwing it back almost 140 years for this story. That’s back when Yellowstone wasn’t the pristine national park that it is now. Rather, the Washington Post reported that in 1883, the park was being spoiled by unrestricted logging, slaughtering of wild animals and vandals doing bad things to the hot springs.

A letter to the editor published by the New York Sun said that the buffalo were being killed so rapidly at the park that they were in danger of becoming extinct.

Buffalo Bill Wrote the Letter on a General’s Behalf

The letter writer? He was none other than Buffalo Bill. Or, you can call him by his given name, William Cody. Coincidentally, Buffalo Bill earned his nickname because he killed thousands of the majestic bison to help feed railroad workers laying track to the west. Here’s some context for the unfolding crisis in 1883. Three decades before, there were millions of buffalo roaming freely. However, their numbers dropped to the thousands by the 1880s.

Plus, Buffalo Bill pointed out in his letter that Native Americans would never kill buffalo or elk that roamed Yellowstone. The tribes there believed the Yellowstone land to be a mystical place. Buffalo Bill pointed out that the plan to kill buffalo to provide food for the guests at local hotels was “thoughtlessly carried out.”

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Letter Helped Entice a President to Visit Yellowstone

Here’s some more history of Yellowstone. Then-President Ulysses S. Grant signed a law on March 1, 1872, to establish Yellowstone as this country’s first national park. The park was known for its beauty. Think of geysers, forests and mountains along with all the wild animals that populated the park. Tourists loved it. But in catering to the tourists and businesses that wanted access to the natural resources, the park’s essence wasn’t considered. Congress helped create the park, but didn’t give it much money to maintain it.

The Post story pointed out that Buffalo Bill hadn’t stepped foot in Yellowstone for a decade. But he still wrote the letter to describe what was unfolding at the park. He did so as a favor to a friend, Lt. Gen. Philip Sheridan. He served in the Civil War and in the Indian Wars on the Great Plains. He also loved Yellowstone and was an advocate for the park. Buffalo Bill served as chief of Sheridan’s scouts for the U.S. Cavalry in 1869. Buffalo Bill received the Medal of Honor in 1872, the same year Yellowstone became an official national park.

By 1883, Buffalo Bill was a famous entertainer with a touring Wild West road show. He was the perfect face for Sheridan’s pitch.

How did the letter help save the park? Then-President Chester A Arthur visited Yellowstone in person. And the trip was an excellent public relations trip for the park, which eventually received the funding it needed.