Cody, William "Buffalo Bill"

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Cody, William "Buffalo Bill"

Born February 26, 1846

Scott County, Iowa

Died January 10, 1917

Denver, Colorado

Pony Express rider, army scout, showman

"Buffalo Bill was one of those men, steel-thewed and iron nerved, whose daring progress opened the great West to settlement and civilization.... He embodied those traits of courage, strength and self-reliant hardihood which are vital to the well-being of our nation."

Theodore Roosevelt, as quoted in Buffalo Bill: The Noblest Whiteskin

At the turn of the twentieth century, William F. Cody was known as "the greatest showman on the face of the earth," according to Nellie Snyder Yost in Buffalo Bill: His Family, Fame, Failures, and Fortunes. Growing up on the frontier, Cody loved the freedom and excitement of western life. But as more people settled the once "wild" West and as Indians were forced onto reservations, Cody saw that the way of life he had grown to love was disappearing. To preserve it, he turned his real life adventures into the first and greatest outdoor western show. Cody wanted to "bring the people of the East and of the New West to the Old West, and possibly here and there to supply new material for history," according to his autobiography. Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show presented eager spectators with reenactments of what Buffalo Bill considered true western life: battles between army soldiers and Indians, stagecoach ambushes, Pony Express deliveries, horse races, buffalo hunts, and trick shooting. Touring with his show for more than three decades, Buffalo Bill did more than any other person to both preserve and create the legend of the Wild West.

Young man of the house

Born on a frontier farm in Scott County, Iowa, on February 26, 1846, William F. Cody did not enjoy a carefree childhood; he began working as a young boy. His family was one of the first to move to the Kansas Territory in 1847, where Cody saw men "dressed all in buckskin with coonskin caps or broad-brimmed slouch hats—real Westerners of whom I had dreamed," he remembered in his autobiography.

When Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, settlers began heated debates about whether Kansas should become a free or a slave state. Cody's father, Isaac, bravely announced his antislavery position among a group of proslavery supporters. As eight-year-old William watched, one of the proslavery supporters stabbed Isaac Cody in the back. Cody drove the wagon back home with his father's head in his lap. His father spent the next three years hiding from proslavery supporters who threatened his life. Cody took his father's place on the farm, tending the cattle, hunting, bringing water to the house, and riding to Fort Leavenworth for supplies. Cody's father died from pneumonia in 1857, and his mother rented out the farm and sold the livestock. The eleven-yearold William took a job driving an ox team to Leavenworth and delivering messages on the back of a mule.

Riding the range

While still a boy, Cody accompanied trail boss John Willis on a month-long cattle drive to Fort Kearny, Nebraska. On this trip Cody killed an Indian for the first time. Indians ambushed the cattle drive and three of the herders were killed. Cody wrote that he saw an Indian hiding by a nearby riverbank. "Instead of hurrying ahead and alarming the men in a quiet way, I instantly aimed my gun at the head and fired," he later wrote in The Life of Hon. William F. Cody Known As Buffalo Bill. Such an experience was part of Cody's job. Cody grew up at a time when white settlers were pushing American Indians out of their native lands. Though he did kill Indians, he later came to regret it, according to Karen Bornemann Spies in Buffalo Bill Cody: Western Legend.

Cody thrived on his experiences on the trail and continued to work on wagon trains. In 1858 he met Christopher "Kit" Carson (1809–1868; see entry) and Jim Bridger (1804–1881; see entry) at Fort Laramie. Cody sat fascinated as the scouts talked in sign language with Indians. This meeting planted the seed of what would become Cody's next career, and he quickly began learning sign language by playing with Indian children from neighboring villages. Most of Cody's skills were learned in this way—by experience.

After a brief stretch of work in the Colorado gold mines, Cody took a job with the Pony Express. The express mail service, which lasted about eighteen months starting in 1860, needed brave men to ride horses at full speed between relay stations to carry mail across the country. One of the youngest riders, Cody logged one of the longest rides on his trip from Red Buttes to Rocky Ridge, in Wyoming Territory. Usually Cody would hand off the mail to another rider after the seventy-two-mile trip to Three Crossings, but one day Cody arrived to find the other rider dead. Undeterred, Cody hopped on a fresh horse and rode on to the next station. By the time he returned to Red Buttes, twenty-one hours and forty minutes later, he had ridden twenty-one horses and logged 322 miles. On another ride he was pursued by fifteen Indians and escaped capture.

Becoming a scout

The Civil War (1861–65; a war fought between the Northern and Southern United States over the issue of slavery) broke out when Cody was fifteen years old. He initially joined a band of raiders who stole the horses of proslavery supporters, but his mother insisted that he quit the band. Cody found legitimate work with military wagon trains. And by 1864, he had signed up for the Seventh Kansas Volunteer Cavalry of the United States Army. During his year and a half in the army, Cody fine-tuned his skills as a scout.

After the war, Cody held several jobs, including that of stagecoach driver for Ben Holladay's Overland Mail Company and a short stint as a hotel owner. On March 6, 1866, Cody married Louisa Frederici. The couple would eventually have four children. But Cody was not one to appreciate the stay-at-home life; some scholars assert that Cody did not spend longer than six months at home during the entire marriage, according to Paul O'Neil in The End and the Myth. Shortly after his marriage, Cody left his wife in Leavenworth, Kansas, and went to Fort Ellsworth, Kansas, to begin life as a scout for the army.

Renamed Buffalo Bill

Cody's first assignment was to guide General George Armstrong Custer (1839–1876; see entry). Custer thought so highly of Cody's scouting skills that he extended an open invitation for Cody to serve as a guide for him. But Cody left scouting to start an ill-fated town along the Kansas Pacific Railroad. He lost all his money on this venture. Cody's fortune soon changed when he became a buffalo hunter for the railroad. In 1867 Cody had a contract to kill twelve buffalo each day to feed the railroad workers. The wage of five hundred dollars per month was significantly more than the thirteen dollars per month a private in the army was paid. After killing eleven buffalo with twelve shots, Cody earned the nickname "Buffalo Bill," a name he proudly answered to for the rest of his life. The railroad workers sang this song about the great hunter:

Buffalo Bill, Buffalo Bill
Never missed and never will.
Always aims and shoots to kill
And the company pays his buffalo bill.

By the time he finished his eight-month stint as a hunter, Cody claimed to have killed 4,280 buffalo, note Joseph G. Rosa and Robin May in Buffalo Bill and His Wild West. This number is probably an exaggeration. Karen Bornemann Spies states that three thousand is a more accurate number.

Living legend

Cody returned to scouting in 1868 by signing up with the Tenth Cavalry at Fort Hays, Kansas. He signed up for the most dangerous assignments in Indian Territory. His bravery won him a position as chief of scouts for the Fifth Cavalry. With this cavalry, Cody joined seven expeditions and fought in nine battles in the ongoing war with the Indians. He earned a reputation as the best army scout. Cody's fame spread quickly. He was the first scout to be honored with a one-hundred-dollar bonus. In 1872, Cody earned a Medal of Honor, the highest medal awarded in the armed services, for his work as a scout for Company B of the Third Cavalry.

In 1869, Ned Buntline wrote the first dime novel about Buffalo Bill, titled Buffalo Bill, the King of Border Men. Over the years, hundreds of dime novels would be written about Cody. His fame also won the attention of wealthy men from the East and Europe, who wanted to experience the thrill of the West. Starting in 1871, Cody led these rich men on planned hunting expeditions. The most memorable trip included Grand Duke Alexis, son of Czar Alexander II of Russia. Cody treated his royal guests to a five-day hunting trip, including a buffalo hunt and a wild ride in a stagecoach. The grand duke rewarded Cody with a fur robe, a stickpin, and buffalo-shaped, diamond cuff links.

Life on stage

Cody took a leave of absence from scouting in 1872. On a trip to see Ned Buntline's theatrical production of his book Buffalo Bill, the King of Border Men, Cody soon found himself on stage. Buntline offered to pay Cody five hundred dollars each week for playing himself on stage. Cody persuaded a few of his friends to join him on stage on December 16, 1872, for a production of The Scouts of the Prairie. Although Cody couldn't act—a New York Herald review of the program noted that "Everything is so wonderfully bad it is almost good"—the play proved very popular. Cody soon formed his own company and moved his family to Rochester, New York, where he began touring in 1873. His program of The Scouts of the Prairie grew in popularity over the next three years and included trick shooting and western roping.

On April 20, 1876, Cody learned that his only son had died of scarlet fever. Depressed by the news, Cody closed the show and left for the frontier, rejoining the Fifth Cavalry as a scout. As his detachment prepared to move out, they learned of General Custer's slaughter by the Sioux at Little Bighorn. On July 17, 1876, Cody led men to fight the Cheyenne. During the battle Cody killed Chief Yellow Hair (sometimes referred to as Yellow Hand).

After this brief return to scouting, Cody returned to the stage. But now he included a reenactment of his battle with Yellow Hair in his show. Soon Cody organized his company to perform outdoors with live animals. While touring California in 1877, Cody persuaded some Sioux Indians to join the show. By 1882, Cody had begun to perfect what would become the formula for his lasting success. He wanted to present reenactments of western history. Cody organized the "Old Glory Blow Out" in North Platte for Independence Day. The show became one of the first rodeos, including horse and bronco riding, shooting contests, and a dramatic reenactment of a stagecoach robbery.

On May 19, 1883, Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show opened to a crowd of about eight thousand in Omaha, Nebraska. The cowboys, live animals, reenactments of famous battles, shooting exhibitions, and stagecoach and Pony Express deliveries proved a winning combination. By 1885, the show had about one million spectators and made a profit of one hundred thousand dollars. According to Walsh and Salsbury in The Making of Buffalo Bill, Mark Twain (1835–1910) wrote that the show "brought vividly back the breezy, wild life of the great plains and the Rocky Mountains ... Down to its smallest details, the show is genuine cowboys, vaqueros, Indians, stage coach, costumes, and all." The Wild West Show had garnered such fame in the United States that Queen Victoria of England requested that the show be featured at her Golden Jubilee in 1887 to celebrate fifty years of her rule. Cody loaded 200 passengers, 180 horses, 18 buffalo, 10 mules, 10 elk, 5 Texas steers, 4 donkeys, and 2 deer onto a ship called the State of Nebraska in New York and began a seventeen-day trip to England. The show traveled and performed for the next six months in England, returned to the United States for a year, and then toured Europe until 1892. The Wild West Show played to a crowd of nearly eighteen thousand outside the World's Fair grounds in Chicago in 1893.

Rewriting History

Buffalo Bill represented his Wild West Show as an authentic slice of western life. But like the many books about Buffalo Bill, the Wild West Show exaggerated and embellished real events to rewrite history. Though Cody had been present at many events depicted in his show, the reenactments often embellished the truth. In the reenactment of Custer's Last Stand, for instance, Cody rode into the ring after the battle and the words "Too Late" flashed on a screen. In truth, Cody never attempted to save Custer at Little Bighorn.

While embellishing certain details, the Wild West Show also created stereotypes that would endure for generations. Buffalo Bill's depictions of cowboys and Indians are the most well known stereotypes he influenced. The Native Americans in the show, for example, were real Indians. Buffalo Bill had originally hired Sioux who wore their traditional feather headdresses and war paint and rode horses. Not all Native American tribes dressed this way before battle or rode horses. Nevertheless, the ornamentation was so popular that all Indians, whatever their tribe, dressed the same way in the Wild West Show. While Buffalo Bill introduced prominent Indians in the show with respect, the show portrayed Indians as a menace to whites on the plains. Some historians suggest that the show perpetuated a stereotype of Indians as vicious warriors. The cowboys of the Wild West Show did not show the wear and tear of lonely days herding cattle on the open plains. Instead, Buffalo Bill's cowboys and cowgirls exhibited impressive roping and shooting skills and performed fancy riding tricks.

The end of the glory days

By 1894, the slow economy made it difficult for people to afford tickets to the Wild West Show. Buffalo Bill was tired of traveling and his partner, Nate Salsbury, became ill. Salsbury died in 1902, but Cody couldn't retire because he had mismanaged his money and had lost a great deal in bad investments. To try to get out of debt, Cody took his show to Europe again and toured until 1906. By 1908, the show had regained its financial success. Cody gained the financial support of Major Gordon Lillie, known as Pawnee Bill. Pawnee Bill owned another show, which he combined with the Wild West Show. Cody was still unable to retire because he continually lost money in bad investments. Cody lost his show in 1913 when it was auctioned off to pay his debts. He then toured with a circus between 1914 and 1916. In his sixties, Cody no longer performed for audiences. Often helped onto his horse, he would merely ride into the ring and sit tall in the saddle while the spotlight lingered on him. His final appearance was on November 4, 1916. He died in the company of his wife and one remaining child, Irma, in Denver on January 10, 1917.

For More Information

Burke, John. Buffalo Bill: The Noblest Whiteskin. New York: Putnam,1973.

Cody, William Frederick. An Autobiography of Buffalo Bill (Colonel W. F. Cody). New York: Holt, Rinehart and Co., 1920.

Cody, William Frederick. The Life of Hon. William F. Cody Known As Buffalo Bill. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1978.

Havighurst, Walter. Annie Oakley of the Wild West. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.

O'Neil, Paul. The End and the Myth. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1977.

Rosa, Joseph G., and Robin May. Buffalo Bill and His Wild West. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1989.

Spies, Karen Bornemann. Buffalo Bill Cody: Western Legend. Springfield, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1998.

Walsh, Richard J., and Milton S. Salsbury. The Making of Buffalo Bill. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1928.

Yost, Nellie Snyder. Buffalo Bill: His Family, Fame, Failures, and Fortunes. Chicago: The Swallow Press, 1979.