Buffalo Bill Cody remains a legendary figure in the American past. His legacy is a reflection of changing mores and a projection of contemporary celebrity. There are towns with his name and even the NFL team, “The Buffalo Bills” of New York State. Some US states like to claim him as their own native son.
William Frederick Cody was born near LeClaire, Iowa, on February 26, 1846. The following year, the young family moved back to Cody’s father, Isaac’s native area near Toronto in present day Ontario. In 1853, The family moved to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas Territory. One day, Isaac, who followed an anti-slavery Quaker belief, was invited to speak at a trading post about his anti-slavery views. His speech so angered the crowd that one man stabbed Isaac. The injury plagued Isaac Cody until his death in 1857.
To help ease the financial difficulties of his family, the eleven-year-old Bill worked as a “boy extra” for wagon train freight carriers. His next youthful job was as an unofficial scout to help guide the US Army to Utah to control a rumored rebellion in Salt Lake City. In 1860, Bill was recruited into the Pony Express. He was a rider until being called home to his mother’s sick-bed.
Bill Cody then served as a Union scout against the campaigns against the Kiowa and Comanche people during the American Civil War. He then enlisted, in 1863, with the Seventh Kansas Cavalry. He fought in Missouri and Tennessee. Shortly after the war, he married Louisa Frederick and continued army work as a dispatch carrier and scout.
In 1867, Cody turned to bison hunting to help feed the construction crews of the Kansas Pacific Railroad. By his own estimates, Cody supposedly wiped out some 4,280 head of buffalo in 17 months. Legends claim that Bill Cody engaged in an eight-hour shooting match with a hunter named Bill Comstock, apparently to determine which of the two “Buffalo Bills” would earn the actual title.
Starting in 1868, Cody again contracted to scout for the US Army. He worked as chief of scouts for the Fifth Cavalry, which took part in 16 battles, including the subjugation of the Cheyenne at Summit Springs, Colorado in 1869.
Concurrently, in the late 1860s, writer Ned Buntline, aka E.Z.C. Judson, started selling Buffalo Bill dime novels. Buntline loosely based his character around the true and fictional exploits of Bill Cody. The book version of Buffalo Bill took on the charisma of a combination of Kit Carson, Davy Crockett, and Daniel Boone. The character was a blend of true, heroic feats and romanticized fictions.
Buntline convinced Cody to personify his fictional character in 1872, on stage, as the star of the play, “The Scouts of the Plains”. Even though Cody’s acting skills were amaturish, his personal magnetism won him accolaids for eleven seasons.
Between theatre seasons, Cody guided wealthy Easterners and Europeans on Western buffalo hunts. After a falling out from Buntline, Cody wrote his first autobiography in 1879 and published a few of his own “Buffalo Bill” dime novels.
In 1876, Cody returned to scouting for the Army to serve in the military campaign following the defeat of Custer at Little Bighorn. It was this time Cody began bragging up a supposed duel with chief “Yellow Hair” of the Cheyennes. Cody claimed that he shot “Yellow Hair” with his rifle, then stabbed him in the heart, and scalped the chief in about five seconds. His personal tale was disputed by other witnesses, but Cody’s version stuck. The scout embroidered his story into a melodramatic play for the next theatre season, “Buffalo Bill’s First Scalp for Custer”.
Bill Cody’s most famous chapter unfolded in 1883, near North Platte, Nebraska. Here he organized “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West”. The shows were basically large scale, outdoor circus extravaganzas. The Wild West shows dramatized the most colorful aspects of the American frontier. The shows usually included such events as bison hunts with real critters, a Pony Express ride, some sort of Indian battle with real Indians. As a finishing touch, Cody presented his version of Custer’s Last Stand. A few of the actors were some of the Lakota warriors who actually fought the battle.
“Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” was a huge national and international hit for nearly 30 years. Throughout the years, Cody hired such luminaries as Buck Taylor–the first King of the Cowboys, Annie Oakley the sharpshooter, and, for one season, he even featured Chief Sitting Bull as “the slayer of General Custer”. As the shows evolved, Cody added new features to the playbill. Audiences could watch Old Western cowboys and Indians, Russian Cossaks, and other Old World figures, all together, as a “Congress of Rough Riders of the World”.
During a period of “intermission”, Cody was again called into service by the US Army. This time they were concerned about uprisings associated with Ghost Dances by native Americans. Cody travelled with several of his Indian actors who helped in negotiations. Cody also helped restore order in the aftermath of the tragic Wounded Knee massacre.
Cody slowly lost his great wealth from show business due to mismanagement and his weakness for get rich quick schemes. Finally, his beloved Wild West Show was grabbed by creditors.
On January 10, 1917 Cody died of kidney failure at his sister’s home in Denver, Colorado. He received a full Masonic funeral at the Elks Lodge Hall in Denver. Accolaids were sent by such leaders as President Woodrow Wilson, King George V, and Kaiser Wilhelm II. His remains were interred at Lookout Mountain near Golden, Colorado.
Among Bill Cody’s honors are towns and geographical sites named after him. They include the city he was instrumental in founding–Cody, the county seat of Park County, Wyoming; Cody in Cherry County, Nebraska; Fort Cody Trading Post in North Platte, Nebraska; Buffalo Bill Cody Homestead in Scott County, Iowa; Cody Park in Colorado; and the town of Cody in South Dakota.