June 17, 2016
By Joel R Kolander
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If you run a quick online search for “King of the Cowboys” the results are packed with websites featuring Roy Rogers. This is helped, of course, by a film that Rogers made entitled “King of the Cowboys.” Capitalizing on World War II, the 1943 film features saboteurs blowing up government warehouses in the United States, with Roy and some associates hot on their trail to foil them. Unfortunately, Rogers was not the first to bear this royal moniker. While Roy is worthy of a lot of praise, he hadn’t even been born yet by the time the original King of the Cowboys was living the winter years of his life. That man was William Levi “Buck” Taylor, a Texas-born, real live ridin’ ropin’ cowpuncher who grew up in the life, and whose talents were so prodigious they pushed him to the very heights of stardom and helped forever change how the public would perceive the very word “cowboy.”
Buck Taylor, as he is better known to history, was born in a small east Texas town called Fredericksburgh, located in Gillespie County, in 1857. They moved around Texas some, and his father fought several times to protect his homeland. William Cody in his book “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” wrote that Taylor’s family “fought for its [Texas] independence with Crockett and Col Travis at the Alamo, where a grandfather and uncle fell” and “under Sam Houston at San Jacinto…” By the time Buck was born, only he, his father, and a younger brother were the sole surviving males of the family. He was still a child when his dad joined the newly-formed Texas Cavalry and died in one of its early engagements in the Civil War, almost certainly in 1863. Two years later Buck endured the worst tragedy possible for a child, when he was orphaned after losing his mother as well. He then fell under the protective wing of an uncle who owned a large ranch on the rolling Texas plains.
There Buck grew up in the hard life of a cowpuncher. He learned the tricks, the trades, the hard work, all the while growing stronger and more accomplished. Millions of boys growing up decades later would have given almost anything to find themselves in the exact position in which Taylor was thriving. He could ride like the wind, throw a lasso with uncanny precision, understood how to manage a herd, could bust nearly any bronco, and possessed what Cody describes as “general cow-sense.” That may sound like a funny word, but it is no small compliment. Buck himself is quoted as saying,
“I was dependent on myself at an age when ordinary children are still in the nursery… There was only one thing to do; which was to be a cowpuncher… By the time I was 14 I was able to ride and rope with some of the best of them and was known around our section as the best cowpuncher of my age that had ever been seen.”
He would soon take supervisory roles such as “boss of the outfit” and lead herds along the Chisholm Trail with his brother James Baxter “Bax” Taylor, to the cattle yards and slaughterhouses up north. Those trips would also take him to Nebraska where his skills and “remarkable dexterity earned the attention of Major [Frank] North and Buffalo Bill and they secured his services for several seasons on their ranch by the Dismal River.” Cody Ranch (also referred to as “Scout’s Rest Ranch”) is located about 65 miles north of North Platte and was founded in 1877 when Cody reached out to Major North, then the leader of the Pawneee Scouts for the U.S. Army. The scouts were disbanded that year and Cody proposed a partnership with Frank North and his brother Luther to become cattlemen. Cody’s first encounter with the Taylor brothers was when they brought a herd up the trail for Luther, who swore up and down that Bax, not Buck, was the best bronco buster he had ever encountered. Turns out good horsemanship ran in the family. Even their older sister Mary is written about in a local newspaper as apt to “ride the worst bronco, or rope the most refracting old sow in the county.” Buck continued to impress Cody with “his feats of strength, easily throwing a steer by the horns or tail, lassoing and tying single-handed,” and “his mastery of wild horses,” The last of which earned him his nickname, “Buck.” It was on the Cody Ranch he also learned to read and write and earned a infamous reputation to down large amounts of biscuits. Once having ate 24 in one sitting, he was enduring some ribbing by his mess mates before finally being sufficiently annoyed and threatening to eat 24 more.
When the Buffalo Bill Wild West show opened on May 19, 1883, Buck was a shoe-in to appear in the show. He had already been auditioning for Cody for several years by way of his performance, but his talents and skills on the range were only part of his appeal. Buck Taylor stood between 6′ 3″ and 6′ 5″ depending on what source you read, and was an imposing figure when the average cowboy stood but a scant 5′ 8″. In addition to skills he had honed nearly his entire life, Taylor was well known to pick up his hat off the ground at a full gallop. If that wasn’t enough to impress the crowd, he would often follow it up by retrieving his handkerchief or glove in the same manner. Handsome and with long, curly hair, Buck played a perfect lead in Buffalo Bill’s staged recreation of The Battle of Little Big Horn. Buck was also well-liked by his colleagues and those he met. He had a personality that Cody describes as “…a fine representative of his class. Amiable as a child,” features Cody never failed to publicize, billing him as the “King of the Cowboys.” It was this combination of talent, good looks, and a kind nature that set the stage for the Buffalo Bill Wild West show to rewrite history.
At that point in American history, cowboys were viewed quite differently than they are today. They were considered dirty, gritty, unmannered, uncultured, dangerous, hard men who lived hard lives in the dust, mud and rain with livestock. Even worse, they were sometimes synonymous with outlaws. In his 1881 message to Congress, President Chester Arthur describes a band of “armed desperadoes known as ‘cowboys,” as a violent faction disturbing the peace in the Arizona Territory. There were some writers who were making heroes of scouts and cavalry men at that time, but the cowboy remained the depraved prairie drifter. Period author Frederick Whittaker even went so far as to write damning articles about cowboys depicting them as unrefined, ruffians and barbarians, violent to all they encountered.
Thankfully, Cody’s show was already doing its part to counter the unfavorable image of the cowboy. The Staten Island venue for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show held 35,000 souls with two performances a day. In later years, it would also play prominently outside the 1893 Columbian Exposition (after being denied a place inside the show) on the Midway where he would skim from the over 26 million visitors the World’s Fair would attract during its six month run. Cody, ever the marketer, had seen his own stories enjoy immense popularity. What if he took the new-found popularity of the cowboys in his show and gave the people what they wanted? He had already increased their role in his shows with positive results, so why not take the next step? That role fell to the most likely choice: Buck Taylor.
In 1887 Cody’s promoter and friend Prentiss Ingraham, who had produced a nearly ceaseless stream of stories on Buffalo Bill, published the first of several dime novels about Buck which was grandly entitled Buck Taylor, King of the Cowboys, or, the Raiders and the Rangers: A Story of the Wild and Thrilling Life of William L Taylor. He would go on to write six more on the King of the Cowboys, and 1887 was arguably the peak of Taylor’s career. His dime novel had been released and he was currently on tour with the Wild West show in Europe, performing in front of various heads of state and even royalty. In fact, Queen Victoria herself came to enjoy a show with the public during her Jubilee of that year. It marked the first time she had attended a show in public since the death of Prince Albert twenty-five years earlier. Author and historian R. L. Wilson adds, “Further, the Queen paid homage to the American flag during the performance, the first time a British sovereign had done so since the beginning of the Republic.” Unfortunately, Buck Taylor broke a leg or hip during a performance that year, allegedly during a quadrille when a horse collided with his leg while on horseback. The popularity of the show and of Taylor was so great that his recovery was frequently covered in the local newspapers.
If this were a more tragic story, that might be the end of Buck’s career, but it would take more than a busted leg to stop a real cowboy. He would reappear in the show and stayed with it until about 1890 when he would leave for reasons that appear to be undocumented to history. Whatever his reasons, Taylor moved to Wyoming, and worked on a ranch with his brother Bax before the two broke off and started one of their own in the town of Rongis near Long Creek. Even there he never stepped completely away from show business, serving as the superintendent for Denver’s Cowboy Tournament and Wild West in 1890. In an unusual twist to any biography, while living in Rongis his death was incorrectly reported by the Ft. Worth Gazette on March 23, 1892. It was said he had been shot in a fight and that two other men had been stabbed, none of which was true. What was truly newsworthy that year was that Buck had started appearing in shows again. He also found some time to meet a young lady that would eventually become his wife. On September 12, 1893 Buck married Emely Reynolds Allibone Laugton in Carbon, WY.
One of the shows Buck joined was the Wyoming Wild West, a curious name for a show located on the East Coast. The show had a nasty habit of allowing shell-game operators to follow their show and operate outside of it which caused no shortage of problems. In New Jersey swindled college students disrupted and eventually broke up the show. “Fire crackers and other fireworks were thrown under the orator’s stand just as Buck was to make his appearance. The buffalo was set loose, steers were freed. Spectators fled the tent.” Similar complaints arose from a show in Maine, and in Quebec the show folded so fast that many of the Native Americans working the show were left behind, causing a international question of who was going to pay to get them back home.
Little is known of any other shows, but they must not have been up to snuff for Buck because by 1894 he had started his own western show. Unfortunately, “Buck Taylor’s Wild West” was one of no fewer than 242 other western shows that would ultimately attempt to replicate the success of Cody’s legendary show. Buck’s foray into the business would be a flop, and by 1897 he found himself briefly working in California before moving to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania to assume duties as the superintendent at the Betzwood Stock Farm. That same year, Buck’s brother Baxter was killed when he was thrown from a wagon at their ranch in Rongis. For a man with little remaining family and who had partnered with his brother so frequently, the news must have been a tremendous blow.
The rest of Buck’s life was surprisingly quiet, given how storied and exciting it had been to that point. The sole other occurrence in Buck’s life that is documented is that he had his identity stolen by an impostor named Barry F. Tatum. A former actor, Tatum pretended to be Buck to the point where he gave a political speech endorsing Teddy Roosevelt, and even made some money by endorsing a 75 proof snake oil medicine called Peruna that claimed to help “catarrh, coughs, influenza, la grippe.” Peruna withdrew Tatum’s endorsements after he died in 1900 from tuberculosis. Of course, Tatum’s death resulted in yet another false death report for the real Buck Taylor. In hindsight, all the identify theft and impersonation Buck endured in life seems an eerie foreshadowing of that which he would endure even after his death, thanks to the number of performers who not only assumed the title of “King of the Cowboys” but even used the Buck Taylor name for their own gains.
Buck Taylor would not pass away for another 24 years at 67 years of age. He died in Downington, Pennsylvania, still living on a ranch, albeit far from the American West he loved so dearly. While never taking part in the cowboy’s rise to fame in the movies, Buck was one of the earliest faces of cowboys that the public could admire and embrace as a hero. He was the right man who came along at the right time. Hopefully he took some sort of personal satisfaction in that, though there is no way he could have anticipated the heights the Western genre would finally attain.
In September 2016, Rock Island Auction Company will be offering a Colt Single Action Army that has never left the descendants of Buck Taylor. The legendary cowboy acquired this revolver when he was 39-years of age. That puts it shipping date in 1896 – after his most colorful days in the western shows, but while he still had plenty of ranching and work to do.
The Colt letter for this beautiful sixgun confirms this shipment date and lists its original configuration, which it retains to this day: nickel plated, 5 1/2 in. barrel, and firing .45 caliber hunks of lead. While a true cowboy in every sense of the word, the flashy nature of the revolver likely appealed to Buck thanks to his time spent in the limelight. Judging by the condition of the revolver, it is likely not one that spent a lot of time bouncing around in a holster, but one that he treasured and saved for when the occasion called for some glitz.
The provenance of this gun was nearly lost forever. When Buck passed away in 1924, this Single Action Army came into the possession of his niece, Francis Taylor Hoffmeister, who was given the gun at Buck’s funeral as part of her inheritance. She clearly was familiar with her famous uncle because she had kept many newspaper clippings about Buck’s life events. Whether the two had any personal relationship is unknown. Francis Taylor had a twin sister, Ruth, who passed in 1926. When Francis passed away in 1984, just a year short of becoming a centenarian, the gun was not passed down her family, but down her twin sister’s. Ruth’s granddaughter has retained the pistol to this day. Francis was the last remaining relative who knew of the gun’s remarkable provenance. Had she not relayed this history to her grandniece, this might just be any other high condition Colt in our auction, its story permanently erased from memory.
History buffs and any number of knowledgeable Western enthusiasts owe these two ladies a debt for preserving the remarkable provenance behind this piece of irreplaceable Americana. The only other firearm in existence tied directly to Buck currently resides in the Autry Museum of the American West. The revolver at RIAC represents a once-in-a-lifetime chance to own a classic piece of a bygone era and a connection to a man who forever changed the reputation of the American cowboy. It will be auctioned in Rock Island Auction Company’s 2016 September Premiere Auction held September 9 – 11.
Harris, Charles W., and Buck Rainey. The Cowboy: Six-Shooters, Songs, and Sex. Norman: U of Oklahoma, 1976. Print.
Murdoch, David Hamilton. The American West: The Invention of a Myth. N.p.: U of Nevada, 2001. Print.
Slatta, Richard W. The Cowboy Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1994. Print.
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