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A Fast Learner

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Buffalo Bill may not have been the fastest gun in the Old West, but you can put him down for the title of "fastest learner." He learned how to turn plain William F. Cody from LeClaire, Iowa, into a theatrical and dashing hero in less than ten years.

William Cody was a scout at Fort McPherson, Kansas, when the popular writer, Ned Buntline, found him in 1869. Buntline gave him the nickname Buffalo Bill and made him the hero of a wild adventure novel, Buffalo Bill, King of the Border Men. Other even wilder novels followed. It didn't take Cody long to learn that there was money in being Buffalo Bill. In 1872, he and Buntline teamed up to produce a theatrical performance at the International Amphitheater in Chicago. Buntline wrote a script in four hours. Act One consisted of Buffalo Bill and his scouts riding around stage on horseback, killing ten Indians. In Act Two, the Indians came back to life and were hunted down and killed all over again. The crowds loved it, and the play went on to tour the East.

By 1874, Buffalo Bill had learned that if he ditched Buntline, he could keep all the profits. He toured the East with his own western dramas, having added more popular scalping to his shooting of Indians.

But theaters didn't hold large enough crowds. On May 17th, 1883, at the fairgrounds in Omaha, Nebraska, he opened his first wild west tent show, which toured the world for two decades. One of Buffalo Bill's feature acts in the show was to ride into the tent on his white horse at full gallop and shoot five clay pigeons out of the air with his six-shooter. No, he was not the fastest gun; he had learned that it was much easier to use bird shot in his pistol than to become truly skilled.

Buffalo Bill had learned to be a fake. By the end of his life, the real William F. Cody from LeClaire was long gone. Bill was living in a world in which he imagined he had really done all those daring deeds in the novels. And when he died in 1918, his widow sold him to Denver as a tourist attraction.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

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Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.