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New Yorker's Collection Is a Tribute to West
Will Bagley
Published: 11/26/2000 Edition: Final Section: Utah Page: B1

Love him or hate him, it's hard to deny the impact of the scamp who claimed he first came West with the Utah Expedition as an eleven-year-old and was a prot? of gunslinger Wild Bill Hickok. This Western legend went on to win fame as a Pony Express rider, Army scout, Indian fighter, and contract hunter for the railroads. But America remembers Buffalo Bill Cody mostly as a showman.

Even if, as many historians suspect, he was one of the greatest liars of all time, Cody left an indelible mark on the West. Images from his show helped define the region and its people in the American mind. After Cody died, Colorado and Wyoming fought over rights to his grave (and they still argue about it). Several towns are named after the famous scout, including Cody, Wyoming, located near Buffalo Bill's ranch and home to an entire institution devoted to his memory, the Buffalo Bill Historical Center.

In 1910, William Robertson Coe, a wealthy New Yorker, bought Cody's ranch. His friend Nathaniel S. Thomas, Episcopal bishop of Wyoming, encouraged Coe to take up book collecting, while rarities could still be had for a few dollars. The geographic boundaries of Coe's interests encompassed everything west of the Missouri River from the Arctic Circle to the Mexican border and covered the period from Lewis and Clark to the completion of the transcontinental railroad. Bibliophile Henry Wagner saluted the 7,000-plus items Coe assembled as "the finest collection of Western material in existence, and the finest undoubtedly that will ever be formed."

The question that often confounds collectors is what will happen to their treasures after they die. Although Coe never graduated from college, in the 1940s he decided to bequeath his collection to Yale University because it was seriously committed to its libraries. This bequest is why one of the three or four great collections of the West's best manuscripts, books, documents, imprints, paintings, periodicals and pamphlets is located on the East Coast. Coe's gift still forms the heart of the Yale Collection of Western Americana at the university's magnificent Beinecke Library. Its 900 items on Utah and the Mormons range from O. Dogberry's 1829 Palmyra Reflector articles (with the first mention of The Book of Mormon in print) to Emma Smith's Sacred Hymns to a perfect copy of one of the rarest and most important books in Mormonism, Joseph Smith's Book of Commandments.

There is hardly a significant book or document related to early Utah that can't be found among Coe's treasures. Coe's newspaper collection contained copies of virtually every newspaper published in the Mormon West, including a complete file of The Deseret News from 1850 to 1876. Given the challenges it overcame and its power, historian Seymour Dunbar concluded the News might be "the most remarkable and interesting newspaper that ever existed." Except, of course, for The Salt Lake Tribune.
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Historian Will Bagley recently spent a month at Yale University as a research associate at the Beinecke Library.

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