Who Was Buffalo Bill Cody?

As one of the most colorful figures of the American West, Buffalo Bill Cody is associated with the popular wild west shows of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His legend began to spread when he was only 23 years-old. Shortly thereafter Buffalo Bill Cody started performing in shows that displayed cowboy themes and episodes from the frontier and Indian Wars. He founded Buffalo Bill’s Wild West in 1883, taking his large company on tours in the United States and, beginning in 1887, in Great Britain and continental Europe.

The early days of young Bill Cody

William F. Cody in 1865.

William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody was an American scout, bison hunter, and most famously a showman. Born February 26, 1846 in Le Claire, Iowa Territory (now the U.S. state of Iowa), he lived for several years in his father’s hometown of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, before he and his family returned to the Midwest and settled in the Kansas Territory.  In the years before the Civil War, Kansas was overtaken by political and physical conflict over the question of slavery. Buffalo Bill’s father, Isaac Cody, was against slavery. After an antislavery speech angered the assembled crowd so much that they threatened to kill him if he didn’t step from the podium, a man jumped up and stabbed Issac twice with a Bowie knife, an injury from which he would never recover.

After his father’s death, the family suffered financially. At age 11, Bill took a job with a freight carrier as a “boy extra.” On horseback he would ride up and down the length of a wagon train and deliver messages between the drivers and workmen. Next he joined Johnston’s Army as an unofficial member of the scouts assigned to guide the U. S. Army to Utah, to put down a rumored rebellion by the Mormon population of Salt Lake City.

According to Cody’s account in Buffalo Bill’s Own Story, the Utah War was where he began his career as an “Indian fighter”:

“Presently the moon rose, dead ahead of me; and painted boldly across its face was the figure of an Indian. He wore this war-bonnet of the Sioux, at his shoulder was a rifle pointed at someone in the river-bottom 30 feet below; in another second he would drop one of my friends. I raised my old muzzle-loader and fired. The figure collapsed, tumbled down the bank and landed with a splash in the water. ‘What is it?’ called McCarthy, as he hurried back. ‘It’s over there in the water.’ ‘Hi!’ he cried. ‘Little Billy’s killed an Indian all by himself!’ So began my career as an Indian fighter.”

In 1860, the 14 year-old Cody was struck by gold fever, with news of gold at Fort Colville and the Holcomb Valley Gold Rush in California.  On his way to the gold fields, however, he met an agent for the Pony Express. He signed with them, and after building several stations and corrals, Cody was given a job as a rider. He worked with the Point Express until he was called home to his sick mother’s bedside.

Cody claimed to have had many other jobs in addition to a Pony Express rider, including trapper, bullwhacker, “Fifty-Niner” in Colorado, wagonmaster, stagecoach driver, and a hotel manager, but historians have had difficulty documenting all of them, which leads modern-day historians to believe he may have fabricated some for publicity. 

Military service as an expert scout

After his mother recovered, Cody wanted to enlist as a soldier in the Union Army during the American Civil War but was refused because of his young age. He began working with a freight caravan that delivered supplies to Fort Laramie in present-day Wyoming. In 1863, at age 17, he enlisted as a teamster with the rank of private in Company H, 7th Kansas Cavalry, and served until his discharge in 1865.

In 1866, he reunited with his old friend “Wild Bill” Hickok in Junction City, Kansas, where Hickok was serving as a scout. Cody enlisted as a scout himself at Fort Elsworth and scouted between there and present-day Fort Hays. He was attached as a scout, variously, to Captain George Augustus Armes (famous for the Battle of the Saline River) and a lieutenant colonel named George Armstrong Custer, who would later perish famously at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in Montana.

In 1867, with construction of the Kansas Pacific Railway completing through Hays City and Rome, Cody was granted leave of absence to hunt buffalo to supply railroad construction workers with meat. This endeavor continued into 1868, which saw a unique hunting contest with a Mr. William “Bill” Comstock.

Nickname and birth of a legend

William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody.
Image courtesy of Burke-Koretke Photography.

Cody received the nickname “Buffalo Bill” after the Civil War, as he was supplying the Kansas Pacific Railway workers with buffalo meat.  Cody is purported to have killed 4,282 bison in eighteen months in 1867 and 1868. Cody and Comstock, competed in an eight-hour buffalo-shooting match over the exclusive right to use the name, which Cody won by killing 68 animals to Comstock’s 48.  Comstock, part Cheyenne and a noted hunter, scout, and interpreter, used a fast-shooting Henry repeating rifle, while Cody competed with a larger-caliber Springfield Model 1866.  Cody explained that while his formidable opponent, Comstock, chased after his buffalo, engaging from the rear of the herd and leaving a trail of killed buffalo “scattered over a distance of three miles”, Cody—likening his strategy to a billiards player “nursing” his billiard balls during “a big run”—first rode his horse to the front of the herd to target the leaders, forcing the followers to one side, eventually causing them to circle and create an easy target, and dropping them close together.

Shortly afterward, a 23 year-old Cody met Ned Buntline, who later published a story based on Cody’s adventures (largely invented by the writer) in New York Weekly magazine and then published a highly successful novel, Buffalo Bill, King of the Bordermen, which was first serialized on the front page of the Chicago Tribune.  Many other sequels followed from the 1870s through the early part of the 20th century.  

Cody returned to Army service in 1868. From his post in Fort Larned, he performed an exceptional feat of riding as a lone dispatch courier from Fort Larned to Fort Zarah to Fort Hays to Fort Dodge to Fort Larned, and, finally, back to Fort Hays, for a total of 350 miles in 58 hours through hostile territory, covering the last 35 miles on foot. In response, General Philip Sheridan assigned him Chief of Scouts for the 5th Cavalry Regiment. He was also Chief of Scouts for the Third Cavalry in later campaigns of the Plains Wars.

In January 1872, Cody was a scout for the highly publicized hunting expedition of the Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich of Russia. Cody was awarded the Medal of Honor later that year for gallantry as an Army scout in the Indian Wars. It was revoked in 1917, along with medals of 910 other recipients, when Congress authorized the War Department to revoke prior Army Medal of Honor awards it had considered dubious since the introduction of strict regulations in 1897. All civilian medals were revoked, including civilian scouts, since they did not meet the basic criterion of being officers or enlisted soldiers. Cody was one of five scouts affected, and their medals were stripped shortly after Cody died in 1917, only to be reinstated over 70 years later in 1989.

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West

In December 1872, Cody traveled to Chicago to make his stage debut with his friend “Texas Jack” Omohundro in The Scouts of the Prairie, one of the original Wild West shows produced by Ned Buntline.  The effort was panned by critics – one critic compared Cody’s acting to a “diffident schoolboy” – but the handsome performer was a hit with the sold-out crowds.

In 1873, Cody invited “Wild Bill” Hickok to join the group in a new play called Scouts of the Plains. Hickok did not enjoy acting and often hid behind scenery; in one show, he shot at the spotlight when it focused on him. As such, he was released from the group after a few months. Cody founded the Buffalo Bill Combination in 1874, in which he performed for part of the year, while scouting on the prairies the rest of the year. The troupe toured for ten years as Cody’s part typically included a reenactment of an 1876 incident at Warbonnet Creek, where he claimed to have scalped a Cheyenne warrior.

Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill in 1885.

In 1883, in the area of North Platte, Nebraska, Cody founded Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, a circus-like attraction that toured annually. In 1893, Cody changed the title to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World. The show began with a parade on horseback, with participants from horse-culture groups that included US and other military, cowboys, American Indians, and performers from all over the world in their best attire.  Turks, gauchos, Arabs, Mongols and Georgians displayed their distinctive horses and colorful costumes. Visitors would see main events, feats of skill, staged races, and sideshows. Many historical western figures participated in the show. For example, the great Indian chief, Sitting Bull, appeared with a band of 20 of his braves. Cody would later become world-famous for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, as audiences would prove to be enthusiastic about seeing a piece of the American West, even a sometimes fictionalized one. 

Vintage Buffalo Bill’s Wild West poster.

Cody’s headline performers were well known in their own right. Annie Oakley and her husband were sharpshooters, together with the likes of Gabriel Dumont and Lillian Smith. Performers re-enacted the riding of the Pony Express, Indian attacks on wagon trains, and stagecoach robberies. The finale was typically a portrayal of an Indian attack on a settler’s cabin, after which Cody would triumphantly and dramatically ride in with an entourage of cowboys to defend a settler and his family. Another celebrity appearing on the show was Calamity Jane, as a storyteller, beginning in 1893. The show influenced many 20th century portrayals of the American West in both cinema and in literature.

With his profits, Cody purchased a 4,000-acre ranch near North Platte, Nebraska. The Scout’s Rest Ranch included an eighteen-room mansion and a large barn for winter storage of the show’s livestock. In 1887, Cody took the show to Great Britain in celebration of the Jubilee year of Queen Victoria, who attended a performance. In 1908, Pawnee Bill and Buffalo Bill joined forces and created the Two Bills show, although that show was later foreclosed on when it was playing in Denver, Colorado.

Image courtesy of True West Magazine.

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West tours Europe

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West toured Europe eight times, the first four tours between 1887 and 1892, and the last four from 1902 to 1906. The Wild West first went to London in 1887 as part of the American Exhibition, which coincided with the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. The Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, requested a private preview of the Wild West performance; he was impressed enough to arrange a command performance for Queen Victoria. The Queen enjoyed the show and meeting the performers, setting the stage for another command performance on June 20, 1887, for her Jubilee guests.

Royalty from all over Europe attended, including the future Kaiser Wilhelm II and the future King George V.  These royal encounters provided Buffalo Bill’s Wild West an endorsement and publicity that ensured its success.  The show’s 1892 tour was confined to Great Britain; it featured another command performance for Queen Victoria. The tour finished with a six-month run in London before leaving Europe for nearly a decade.

Buffalo Bill Cody in 1903.

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West returned to Europe in December 1902 with a fourteen-week run in London, capped by a visit from King Edward VII and the future King George V. The Wild West traveled throughout Great Britain in a tour in 1902 and 1903 and a tour in 1904, performing in nearly every city large enough to support it. The 1905 tour began in April with a two-month run in Paris, after which the show traveled around France, performing mostly one-night stands, concluding in December of that year.

The final tour, in 1906, began in France on March 4 and quickly moved to Italy for two months. The show then traveled east, performing in Austria, the Balkans, Hungary, Romania, and the Ukraine, before returning west to tour in Poland, Bohemia (later Czech Republic), Germany, and Belgium. The show was enormously successful in Europe, making Cody an international celebrity and an American icon.

Life in Cody, Wyoming

In 1895, Cody was instrumental in the founding of the town of Cody, the seat of Park County, in northwestern Wyoming. Today the Old Trail Town museum at the center of the community commemorates the traditions of Western life. Cody first passed through the region in the 1870s. He was so impressed by the development possibilities from irrigation, rich soil, grand scenery, hunting, and proximity to Yellowstone Park that he returned in the mid-1890s to start a town, which was later incorporated in 1901.

Buffalo Bill with his family outside the Irma Hotel in 1902.
Photo courtesy of The Irma Hotel.

In November 1902, Cody opened the Irma Hotel, named after his daughter. He envisioned a growing number of tourists coming to Cody on the recently opened Burlington rail line. He expected that they would proceed up Cody Road, along the north fork of the Shoshone River, to visit Yellowstone Park.

Cody also established the TE Ranch, located on the south fork of the Shoshone River about thirty-five miles from Cody. When he acquired the TE property, he stocked it with cattle sent from Nebraska and South Dakota, and the new herd carried the TE brand. The late 1890s were relatively prosperous years for the Wild West show, and he bought more land to add to the ranch. He eventually held around 8,000 acres of private land for grazing operations and ran about 1,000 head of cattle. He operated a dude ranch, pack-horse camping trips, and big-game hunting business at and from the TE Ranch. In his spacious ranch house, he entertained notable guests from Europe and America.

Cody would publish two autobiographies, The Life and Adventures of Buffalo Bill, in 1879, and The Great West That Was: “Buffalo Bill’s” Life Story, in 1916.

Philosophy as a conservationist and feminist

As a frontier scout, Cody respected Native Americans and supported their civil rights. He employed many Native Americans, as he thought his show offered them good pay with a chance to improve their lives. He described them as “the former foe, present friend, the American” and once said that “every Indian outbreak that I have ever known has resulted from broken promises and broken treaties by the government.”

In his shows, the Indians were usually depicted attacking stagecoaches and wagon trains and were driven off by cowboys and soldiers. Many family members traveled with the men, and Cody encouraged the wives and children of his Native American performers to set up camp—as they would in their homelands—as part of the show. He wanted the paying public to see the human side of the “fierce warriors” and see that they had families like any others and had their own distinct cultures.

Cody also supported the rights of women.  He said, “What we want to do is give women even more liberty than they have. Let them do any kind of work they see fit, and if they do it as well as men, give them the same pay.”

“What we want to do is give women even more liberty than they have. Let them do any kind of work they see fit, and if they do it as well as men, give them the same pay.”

– Buffalo Bill Cody

Cody was known as a conservationist who spoke out against hide-hunting and advocated for the establishment of a hunting season. While Cody’s show brought appreciation for Western and American Indian cultures, he saw the American West change dramatically during his life. Bison herds, which had once numbered in the millions, were threatened with extinction. Railroads crossed the plains, barbed wire and other types of fences divided the land for farmers and ranchers, and the once-threatening Indian tribes were confined to reservations. Wyoming’s coal, oil and natural gas were beginning to be exploited toward the end of his life, all of which troubled Cody.

A complicated marriage

Buffalo Bill and his wife Louisa Frederici.

Cody married Louisa Frederici in 1866, just a few days after his twentieth birthday.  The couple met when Cody had traveled to St. Louis during the Civil War.  In marriage Frederici stayed home with their four children in North Platte, while he stayed outside the home, hunting, scouting, and building up his acting career in the Wild West show.  As Cody began to travel more frequently and to places farther from home, problems over infidelity, real or imagined, began to arise. These concerns grew so great that in 1893, Frederici showed up at his hotel room in Chicago unannounced and was led to “Mr. and Mrs. Cody’s suite,” which embarrassed Cody.  He had grown accustomed to the “throng of beautiful ladies” who surrounded him both in the cast and in the audiences, and this trend continued as he became involved with more and more actresses who were not afraid to show their attraction to him in front of an audience.

Cody filed for divorce in 1904, after 38 years of marriage.  This decision was made after years of jealous arguments, bad blood between his wife and his sisters, and friction between the children and their father. While filing for divorce was scandalous in the early 20th century, when marital unions were seen as binding for life, Cody was determed to get Frederici to agree to a “quiet legal separation,” in order to avoid “war and publicity.”  After Cody’s announcement that he was suing for divorce, Frederici began to fight back. Later, due to the death of his daughter, Cody changed his mind about the divorce although Frederici would have none of it. She pressed on arguing they were no longer compatible as husband and wife. 

The final divorce ruling was that “incompatibility was not grounds for divorce,” so the couple was to stay legally married.  Cody returned to Paris to continue with the Wild West show and attempted to maintain a hospitable, but distant, relationship with his estranged wife.  The two reconciled in 1910, after which Frederici often traveled with her husband until his death in 1917.

Death and legacy

Cody died on January 10, 1917, having been baptized in the Catholic Church the day before.  Upon hearing of his death, tributes were made by many world leaders, including King George V of Great Britain, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.  His funeral service was held at the Elks Lodge Hall in Denver. The governor of Wyoming, John B. Kendrick, a friend of Cody’s, led the funeral procession to the cemetery.

Post card depicting Buffalo Bill’s grave on Lookout Mountain.

At the time of his death, Cody’s once-great fortune had dwindled to less than $100,000 (approximately $1,956,000 today). He left his burial arrangements to his wife. She said that he had always said he wanted to be buried on Lookout Mountain in the foothills of Colorado, which was corroborated by their daughter Irma, Cody’s sisters, and family friends. On June 3, 1917, nearly six months after his death, Cody was buried west of Denver on Lookout Mountain, in present-day Golden, Colorado, on the edge of the Rocky Mountains. 

Buffalo Bill was many things, both verified and unverified, although what we do know about him was that he was, first and foremost, the original purveyor of a romanticized American West. He was also an anti-slavery abolitionist, a friend and supporter of Native Americans and their culture, a true believer that the lands of the American West should be protected, and a mid-century feminist. And, in all that, a truly remarkable man.

Until next time, mis amigos, happy trails! ★