Johnny Baker: Buffalo Bill's Foster Son
Instead of an epitaph, Lewis H. "Johnny" Baker requested for his headstone the simple title, "Foster Son of Col. William F. Cody (Buffalo Bill)." In truth he gave himself too little credit, because in his devotion to Buffalo Bill he forged a relationship that proved to be stronger than most blood ties. He was born in 1869 at North Platte, Nebraska, one of seven children of Lew Baker, a popular saloon owner. At the time, Baker's friends Bill and Louisa Cody lived nearby at Ft. McPherson where Cody served as chief scout and guide for the 5th U.S. Cavalry. The Codys left Nebraska for three years as Buffalo Bill's theater career blossomed but returned late in 1877. They built the famous Scout's Rest Ranch near North Platte, bought and developed property in town, and resumed old friendships. And Buffalo Bill acquired a shadow.
Little Johnny Baker dogged the scout and showman just for the chance to hold the reins of his hero's horse, Baker said later. Johnny became a fixture in Cody's life, and when Buffalo Bill started his Wild West show in 1883, largely with hometown talent, 14-year-old Johnny wanted to go along, too. In 1885 Cody relented, and Johnny Baker joined the show as "the Cowboy Kid." It was a formative year for Buffalo Bill's Wild West — Annie Oakley and Frank Butler signed on that spring, and Sitting Bull was the most powerful and charismatic presence of the season. Baker and Oakley almost immediately became friends. Under her tutelage and with her encouragement, he developed formidable skills with the shotgun, and within a few years he became a star in his own right. The show's publicity sometimes promoted a "rivalry" between Annie and Johnny with Johnny supposedly chivalrously refusing to win, but Johnny once confessed that on his best day he couldn't out shoot Little Sure Shot.
A young Johnny Baker poses with a Winchester Rifle in the front row.
Baker gradually took on more and more of the managerial duties of the Wild West, and in the off seasons he became chief troubleshooter for Cody's far-flung business affairs. As Buffalo Bill lay dying at the home of his sister May in Denver, Colorado, in January, 1917, among his last words was a plaintive "I wish Johnny would come." Baker was trying. As soon as he got word of the old scout's collapse, he boarded a train in New York arriving in Denver just a day too late. But he was true to his hero's memory. With the slogan "Let my show go on," he first tried to organize a revival of Buffalo Bill's Wild West but was stymied by trademark challenges and financing problems.
In 1921 Johnny and his wife, Olive, created a more lasting memorial. Using his own collections, he opened a museum next to Buffalo Bill's gravesite on Lookout Mountain overlooking the city of Denver. Baker ran the museum until his death in 1931. Eventually the city took it over. And it is a tribute not only to Cody's memory but to Baker's devotion that the Buffalo Bill Memorial Museum is today one of the true gems of Denver's mountain parks system.