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The Ned Buntline Story

Updated on December 10, 2012

Ned Buntline was perhaps best known for his Old West dime novels. He was born Edward Zone Carroll Judson around 1823 in Harpersfield, New York. But he was also an American publisher and journalist and allegedly commissioned the legendary Colt Buntline Special. Regardless of whether he did or not, it’s hard to decipher fact from fiction about his life because many researchers believe much of what he wrote about himself and others was made up. If we are to believe what he wrote about himself in some of his over 400 publications his life was actually more adventurous and exciting than the characters he wrote about.

In November 1834, Buntline ran away to sea to become a cabin boy. The following year he was serving aboard a Navy ship. A number of years later he rescued crew members from a boat in New York's East River after it had collided with a ferry. For his quick and daring actions he received a commission as a naval midshipman. Ned was then 15 years old, still a mere youth. However, it was obviously old enough to fight in the Seminole Wars. He resigned four years later.

Colt Buntline Special 16" Barrel

He enlisted during the Civil War and served with the 1st New York Mounted Rifles. Ned quickly attained the rank of sergeant, but was dishonorably discharged for drunkenness. Even so, he unabashedly assumed the title of colonel later on. From then on the red mustached Buntline seemed generally embroiled in some sort of trouble whether with the law, financially or one of numerous romantic involvements. He was frequently accused of blackmail.

One of Buntline’s first literary works was in 1838 with an adventure story called Knickerbocker. But, after a few years in the east trying to get a few newspapers and publications off the ground he had few successes. One of those failures, the Western Literary Journal and Monthly Magazine in Cincinnati that was facing bankruptcy, caused him to flee his debtors.

It was in 1844 he officially assumed the pen name Ned Buntline. Buntline, a nautical term for a rope at the bottom of a square sail, was perhaps used as a reminder of his sea faring days. In 1846, while in Nashville, Buntline had an affair with a married woman. The enraged husband, Robert Porterfield, challenged Buntline to a duel on March 14, 1846, at which time Buntline promptly shot and killed him.

However, the Porterfield family wasn’t going to let things lie. At Buntline's murder trial, Robert’s brother shot and wounded him. During the ensuing chaos Buntline managed to escape, but was captured shortly after. The citizens of Nashville had already hung their prisoner when in the nick of time he was rescued by friends. He was never indicted for murder.

However, not all of his early ventures were failures. One notable achievement in the mid 1840s was his weekly paper called Ned Buntline's Own. It became extremely popular after he moved it to in New York City in 1848. The publication consistently exposed gambling, prostitution and corruption going on, in addition to carrying his Western stories. Ned was also one of the founders of the Know Nothing Party, an anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish political organization also known as the American party. Naturally he consistently printed the party’s political stances in Ned Buntline's Own.

Although a prolific and popular writer, Buntline had a few quirky faults. One being he was known to drink heavily. Even so, he toured the country giving lectures about temperance. It was on one of these tours in the West he met William Cody. Buntline gave him his better known name "Buffalo Bill.” and began writing a series of novels about his life as a hunter and scout. They would later make show business history.

It was Buntline’s business to know about well known frontier figures such as the legendary lawman Wyatt Earp and infamous outlaws like Jesse James. So, when traveling through Nebraska he heard “Wild Bill Hickok” was at Fort McPherson, Buntline had high hopes of getting an interview and writing about the famed gunman. He found Hickok in a saloon. Although he should have known better than to brashly approach a man like Hickok, who had numerous enemies and had been shot at countless times, Buntline’s eagerness almost cost him his life.

Rushing up to Hickok he was met by his drawn pistol to which he punctuated his remarks for Buntline to get out of town within 24 hours. Buntline took the advice and turned to getting his information about Hickok from his friends and acquaintances. Buntline went on to write a serial novel called Buffalo Bill, the King of the Border Men. Originally Buntline intended to use Cody as a secondary to "Wild Bill," but came to find Buffalo Bill a much more interesting character.

A New York Playwright used Buntline's novel to write a play about Cody's life in 1872. That same year Cody saw the play at the Bowery Theater. Soon after Buntline wrote a Buffalo Bill play called Scouts of the Prairie starring Cody, himself, “Texas Jack” Omohundro and a host of others.

At first Cody was hesitant about acting but soon warmed up to being in the spotlight. The play opened in Chicago in December of 1872 to lukewarm reviews by critics. However, despite the reviews it played to packed theaters around the country for several years. Cody found his acting experience gained onstage useful for his later Wild West Show.

Buntline continued to write dime novels. In later years he had a tendency to exaggerate and embellish details of his military career, in an effort to boost readership. He claimed to have been chief of scouts during the Indian wars and had suffered over twenty wounds in battle.

He later settled into "The Eagle's Nest," his home in Stamford, New York. Buntline died there of congestive heart failure in 1886.


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    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 5 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Well, that's because I'm a better writer than Buntline was. :-)

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 5 years ago from south Florida

      Great details, JY, you made Ned Buntline much larger than life and probably more interesting as well. Enjoyed the read.