Cody, William “Buffalo Bill”

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William “Buffalo Bill” Cody

William Frederick Cody was born on February 26, 1846, in Iowa . His family moved to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas , when he was seven years old. When Cody was eleven, his father died, and the young boy went to work to support his family.

The young Cody took a job as a herder and horseback messenger. A year later, he accompanied a wagon train to distant Fort Laramie in Wyoming , the military post on the Oregon Trail that served as the gateway to the Rocky Mountains. During the next two years, he trapped beaver, trekked to the gold fields of Colorado , and found time for several months of schooling. He also joined in some of the “border war” mischief committed by antislavery gangs called the Jayhawkers, raiders who crossed from Kansas into Missouri to raid the homes of supposed Confederates (supporters of slavery and the possible secession of the South from the Union) and liberate their slaves.

Earns his nickname

In 1864, Cody enlisted in a volunteer Union regiment with many of his Jayhawking comrades to fight in the American Civil War (1861–65). He married after the war and he and his new wife moved to Kansas.

Cody had developed a taste for adventure and seldom stayed long at home. After a stint as a stagecoach driver and a halfhearted effort at innkeeping near Leavenworth, he set out to make a living on the Great Plains (the vast expanse that stretches east from the Rocky Mountains). His talents, physical gifts, and fearlessness made him successful at contract jobs for the army and the railroads. Hired as a hunter to supply buffalo meat to feed railway construction workers, Cody claimed to have killed 4,280 buffaloes during eight months in 1867–68. That earned him his nickname, “Buffalo Bill.”

In 1868, Cody became a chief scout for the U.S. Army's Fifth Cavalry. During his years as scout, he fought in nineteen battles and skirmishes and was cited several times for his valor and good service.

Becoming a legend

Cody enjoyed talking about (and exaggerating) his adventures and feats. His stories inspired writer E. Z. C. Judson, better known as Ned Buntline (1823–1886), to write about Cody's heroic deeds in a series of successful dime novels, an inexpensive form of popular literature. Buntline even wrote a play, The Scouts of the Prairie, about Cody's exploits and convinced Cody to play the part of himself. The play opened in Chicago, Illinois , in 1872. Other dime novels starring Cody appeared, all of which helped keep his name in the public eye.

The Wild West Show

In 1883, Cody began organizing “Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.” The show featured cowboys performing feats of skill and daring, scenes portraying stereotyped Native North Americans attacking white settlers, and well-staged battle scenes between the U.S. Cavalry and Indian warriors. In the early shows, Cody was the star and other talented marksmen and riders supported him.

By 1884, Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show was a permanent touring show that also performed for extended periods in amusement parks and at World's Fairs. At various times, the show also featured sharpshooter Annie Oakley (1860–1926) and Lakota chief Sitting Bull (c. 1831–1890). Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show toured the United States and Europe for almost thirty years. A master showman, Cody displayed the West as a place of glory and adventure, an enormous territory reserved for Native Americans, cowboys, and outlaws.

Last days

Cody invested his earnings from the Wild West Show in ventures such as mining in Arizona , ranching in Nebraska , town building in Wyoming, filmmaking, and tourism. Most failed. When his Wild West show closed down in 1913, his financial problems forced him to tour as an attraction in other people's shows.

Upon his death in Denver, Colorado, in 1917, Buffalo Bill Cody was accorded an enormous state funeral. Many felt that with his passing, the romance of the Western frontier had disappeared, too.