It was near the end of September, an unusually warm week in 1871, and William “Buffalo Bill” Cody and a group of wealthy New Yorkers stood atop a grassy hill near the Platte River in Nebraska, where two miles off they spotted six huge brown beasts.
Cody was a legend of the frontier era, part myth conjured in dime novels. The men from New York had expected to find him as a “desperado of the West, bristling with knives and pistols,” but they did not. Cody was loquacious and friendly, an expert hunter. He knew that with the wind blowing from behind, the men risked their scent being carried to the animals and scaring them away. Then again, a buffalo is a lumbering, hirsute cow, and the men were outfitted with some of the quickest horses and held the best guns owned by the U.S. Army, which was outfitting the hunting expedition. The Army wasn’t in the business of guiding hunting trips for soft-skinned Wall Streeters, but it was in the business of controlling the Native Americans in the area, and that meant killing buffalo. One colonel, four years earlier, had told a wealthy hunter who felt a shiver of guilt after he shot 30 bulls in one trip: "Kill every buffalo you can! Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.”
Cody and the men made a contest of the hunt. Whoever killed the first buffalo would win an engraved silver chalice. Years later, in an article he wrote for the magazine Cosmopolitan, Cody would call this trip the best equipped he’d ever taken. The Army had supplied an armed escort and 25 wagons filled with cooks, linen, china, carpets for their tents, and a traveling icehouse to keep their wine chilled. The reason for such extravagance was undoubtedly because the New Yorkers were well-connected, but also because Major-General Phillip Sheridan, the man with the task of forcing Native Americans off the Great Plains and onto reservations, had come along with them. This was a leisure hunt, but Sheridan also viewed the extermination of buffalo and his victory over the Native Americans as a single, inextricable mission––and in that sense, it could be argued that any buffalo hunt was Army business. After the men circled the herd, they charged down the hill, chasing after the six buffalo, eager for the first kill.