Thursday, June 08, 2017

The Most Ridiculous Outfit Ever Worn to A Gunfight In The History of The American West

June 8, 2017
   Imagine you are the costume designer on a Western movie set. The producers have tasked you with the job of making sure all the costumes are authentic and accurate to the times portrayed in the film. The story in the film takes place in Nebraska and involves elements of the U.S. Army's Fifth Cavalry and Cheyenne warriors who crossed paths at Warbonnet Creek on July 17, 1876.

   Two actors, Ryan Gosling and Adam Beach, have been hired to portray the two main combatants. You have big plans on how to dress them in authentic garb because you have called Old West clothing experts Jim Hatzell and David Carrico to assist you, so you have done your homework and you are ready to rock. There is only one problem. On the first day of filming, Gosling shows up wearing this outfit:

Buffalo Bill, 1876

   People ask me all the time: how do you find out the truth on all those gunfights you feature in Classic Gunfights? The simple answer is, I find the person who knows the most about the event, and, or, the combatants. Sometimes it turns out to be several people, or, often as not, people who don't agree. My job is to extrapolate between the various versions and arbitrate the outcome, hopefully giving both sides their say.

   Our August issue will feature the famous fight between Buffalo Bill Cody and Yellow Hair (also known as Yellow Hand). Turns out there are four people who know the ins and outs of this fight the best, with Paul Hedren having a slight advantage in terms of the details. I used his version for the narrative, but there was one sticking point for me. And this morning I sent a furtive email about it to my key experts:

The Three Pauls,
   I am covering the Buffalo Bill vs. Yellow Hair fight in the next issue and I commend you Paul Hedren on your fine articles in True West. Meghan found them for me, and they are stellar. One aspect of the fight really bothers me: Cody wearing the "vaquero costume" and, in fact, CHANGING into it the morning of the fight?! Pardon my French, but my Bullshit flag is flying at full mast.

   So Cody and King wrote up the account to send to the New York Herald and it reads like mega-purple prose that would shame even Zane Grey. Do you actually buy that he wore the costume he is photographed in? He looks like a Plains Pimp, not a frontier scout. Please advise. We go to press today. Thanks.


   Fortunately, the answers to my burning questions came back fast and furious:

Yup, no question Buffalo Bill wore the vaquero outfit at Warbonnet. But here's what's new. Steve Friesen has a letter from him telling how he wore this stage costume straight from stage to field. His bags did arrive simultaneously in Cheyenne and thus he had nothing to change into. Vaquero it was.
—Paul Hedren

   As Hedren mentions, it turns out Steve Friesen of the Lookout Museum outside Denver had some insights as well:

   In 1903, in a letter to artist Irving Bacon, Cody wrote that he did wear a showy outfit that he "had worn when playing a Mexican on stage."  However, he preferred that Bacon show him in buckskins.  When artist Robert Lindneux was working on a painting of the Yellow Hair incident in 1929, he wrote Charles King to verify the outfit.  King replied that Cody had rushed out from his stage appearance in Wilmington, Delaware, barely joining the battalion in time before it marched westward.  His baggage had not yet arrive with a suitable outfit so he was forced to wear the "jaunty Mexican jacket and long trousers."  Like other portrayals before it, Llindneux's painting ended up showing Cody in the typical scouting buckskins rather than the Mexican outfit.  Cody's flamboyant outfit was a result of chance; not of posturing for show business.
    For all of us who have had our luggage delayed or lost while traveling, this seems like a pretty logical explanation.  My sources were a letter to Irving Bacon from Cody and the letter from Charles King to Lindneux.  Unfortunately, I don't have copies of them here, they are at the museum. 
 —Steve Friesen

Dear Bob et al -- The costume is right.  The only thing I can add is that the description of Yellow Hair's outfit comes from the testimony of Sgt. John Hamilton, Troop D, 5th Cavalry.  Hamilton added other details, such as that the blond scalp was a "young woman's," though you have to wonder how he could tell. 
-- Paul Fees 

What astonishes me is that we have so much info on his outfit. Incredible. And I love the painters putting him in buckskin. Its like the Alamo hump. Painters and movie makers put it in even though they know it was not there in 1836.
—Paul Andrew Hutton

Charlie Russell's 1917 painting of the Buffalo Bill vs. Yellow Hand fight. 

   Note that Russell has shown Cody in traditional buckskin, which it turns out is inaccurate.

A Postscript:
   A cowboy friend of mine has this to say about the Charlie Russell painting:

"First I believe Buffalo Bill is not wearing buckskins, or not entirely. Take a close look at the inside of the legs of his pants. Russell has painted Bill wearing cloth pants because the pants are 'foxed.' As to the shirt, it could be cloth too because the sleeves have no fringed leather. This could well be part of the vaquero outfit which Bill no doubt had in his collection."
—Bill Dunn

"When the legend dresses like a pimp, dress him down."


  1. Anonymous4:22 PM

    BBB always has info that sparks interest and curiosity. Great posting.

  2. Too bad Hollywood overlooked this one, BBB: it would have made for great footage in the Joel McCrea/Maureen O'Hara movie. (Maureen & Joel at the train station with hasty goodbyes, or Anthony Quinn, as Yellow Hand, starts giggling uncontrollably at the sight of Pahaska's garb, & misses his shot...) ~outtakes!

  3. Anonymous3:47 PM

    Not this subject, but are you by any chance the Bob Bell who wrote a short story titled, "The $4000 Spike"?

  4. Now you've really got me wanting to see a movie of this with Ryan Gosling (great choice for a young Buffalo Bill) and Adam Beach!


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