During the nineteenth century, many brave men and women fought against the British, French, Spanish, and the native American Indians for the opportunity to settle the vast track of land west of the Mississippi River. This seemingly endless open country offered a chance for a new start where one could build a future not based on your family tree but rather on hard work, sweat, and occasionally some spilt blood. By the end of the nineteenth century, this new country was tamed. The only thing left to do was tell the story. William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, with help from Annie Oakley, Sitting Bull, Geronimo, and hundreds of others, told the story of the Old West—well, at least Buffalo Bill’s version of the taming of the West. For three decades, Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show brought to audiences around the world images of America’s colorful past, with a cast of hundreds of cowboys and Native Americans. Presidents, kings, Queen Victoria, the Prince of Wales, and Pope Leo XIII were all captivated by this rip-roaring circus-like show that brought the Old West alive once again.
William Frederick Cody was born on a farm just outside Le Claire, Iowa, on February 26, 1846. When William was seven years old, his parents, Isaac and Mary Ann Cody, sold their farm and moved to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The Codys arrived in a Kansas that was in the throes of a dangerous debate over slavery. Isaac Cody’s antislavery convictions were not popular, and he was stabbed while giving an impassioned speech. He died when Bill was only eleven years old, while trying to bring antislavery settlers from Ohio into the state. The death of his father forced Bill to look for a job to help support his mother, brothers, and sisters. He got his first job in 1857 with a freight contractor working for the army force invading Utah to put down a rumored rebellion by the Mormon population in Salt Lake City. When news of gold found in Colorado reached Cody, he decided to head west to make his fortune. On his way out west he got sidetracked and ended up working as a Pony Express mail carrier. During these years, he would become lifelong friends with James Butler (“Wild Bill”) Hickok.
Early in the Civil War, Cody wanted to enlist as a soldier in the Union Army 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 at age 17. In 1863, he enlisted as a teamster with the rank of private in the Seventh Volunteer Kansas Calvary. Cody later recalled the events of his enlistment: “I met quite a number of my old comrades and neighbors, who tried to induce me to enlist and go south with them. I had no idea of doing anything of the kind; but one day, after having been under the influence of bad whisky, I awoke to find myself a soldier in the seventh Kansas. I did not remember how or when I had enlisted…” He saw little action during his 18 months as a teamster and was discharged in 1865. After the Civil War, he married Louisa Frederici, or “Lulu,” as she was known. Over the course of their long and turbulent marriage, they would have four children together, two of whom would survive into adulthood.
Cody received the nickname “Buffalo Bill” after the Civil War, when he had a contract to supply Kansas Pacific Railroad workers with buffalo meat. Cody is purported to have killed over four-thousand buffalo during an eighteen-month period in 1867 and 1868.
The Legend of Buffalo Bill Begins
The legend of “Buffalo Bill” took shape when Cody met the writer Ned Buntline, who popularized the life of Cody, mostly invented by the author, in a series of dime-store novels and plays. In the winter of 1872, Cody traveled to Chicago to make his stage debut in The Scouts of the Prairie, one of the original Wild West shows produced by Buntline. As Cody described the show: “There were between forty and fifty ‘supers’ dressed as Indians…We blazed away at each other with blank cartridges…We would kill them all off in one act, but they would come back ready for business in the next.” Cody’s fellow scout, Texas Jack Omohundro, co-starred in the play, as did “Will Bill” Hickok for a short time. Cody had to let Wild Bill go because he couldn’t act and spent much of his time playing tricks on the other actors. The newspaper critics hated the play—one critic called it a dime store novel on stage— but the audience loved the persona of Buffalo Bill and his tales of winning the West. For the next several years, Cody performed during the winter months and worked as a scout for the army in the summer months.
While living with his family in Rochester, New York, Cody interrupted his 1876 tour when he heard the news of General Custer’s death at Little Bighorn and returned to scouting for the Fifth Calvary. A month later, Cody was working for his old regiment and became involved in a minor skirmish with Indians near Warbonnet Creek, Nebraska. During the fracas, Cody managed to kill a Cheyenne warrior named Yellow Hair. Months later, Cody was back on stage brandishing his war trophies, including Yellow Hair’s war bonnet, shield, and scalp. Ever the showman, Cody starred in his own play titled The Red Right Hand: or Buffalo Bill’s First Scalp for Custer, shrewdly tying himself to the growing legend of Custer and Little Bighorn.
In 1879, he published his autobiography, The Life of Honorable William F. Cody. The book would appear in many different abridgments over the next forty years and was a mixture of Cody’s experiences and tall tales designed to shape the legend of Buffalo Bill. Historians have called into question the accuracy of many of the stories in the autobiography; however, Cody promoted the stories in the book for the remainder of his career in his shows.
Buffalo Bill: The Genius of America’s Greatest Showman - Biography (2005)
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show
Cody partnered with manager Nate Salsbury to start an acting troupe that became known as “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” show starting in 1883. His Wild West show toured the United States and Europe until 1916. The show was a circus-like affair that featured Indians and cowboys and played out dramas depicting Cody’s rendition of the Old West. For over a decade, the sharpshooters, Annie Oakley and her husband, Frank Butler, were a big draw for the show as they performed amazing feats of marksmanship with their guns. Skits with Indian attacks on the Deadwood stagecoach and a settler’s cabin were incorporated into the show as well as reenactments of famous battles such as those at Little Bighorn and Summit Springs. As well as participating in the three to four hour show, Cody presided over the opening “Grand Processional” and the final “Salute” to close the show.
For many people away from home and their spouse for extended periods, it can be hard on a marriage, and Bill Cody’s marriage was no exception. Cody’s wife Lulu traveled to Chicago for a surprise visit with her husband while the Wild West Show was set up outside the 1893 World’s Fair. She arrived at the hotel to find that Mr. and Mrs. Cody were already registered— the other Mrs. Cody was actress Katherine Clemmons. Cody had a long and financially costly affair with Clemmons. Lulu was outraged and threw a considerable fit. But she didn’t go home empty handed; to make peace, Cody presented her with the finest house in North Platte, Nebraska.
Over the years, Cody had been purchasing parcels of land near North Platte, which he named the “Scout’s Rest Ranch.” The large home on the 4,000 acre ranch had eighteen rooms and a large barn for winter storage of the show’s livestock. The home and a portion of the grounds have become the Buffalo Bill Ranch Historic State Park, which is open to tourists today.
With the success of the Wild West show, Cody became the employer of hundreds of individuals, including some of the very Indians he had been at war with just a few years earlier. Buffalo Bill proved to be an enlightened employer, paying his cast equal wages and treating them all—including the Indians, black cowboys, and women—with respect. By pulling the Indians off the unhealthy reservations and paying them a decent wage, he probably saved more Indians than he allegedly killed. Over the years, he was known as an advocate for women’s suffrage and fought for the fair treatment of Native Americans.
Tours of Europe
In 1887, Cody took the show to Great Britain in celebration of the Golden Jubilee year of Queen Victoria, who attended one of the performances. The show played in London and the other major cities of the United Kingdom for five months. Over the course of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show’s run, the troupe would tour Europe a total of eight times. The show was enormously successful in Europe, attacking royalty to many performances and making Cody an international celebrity.
Cody was instrumental in founding the city of Cody, Wyoming, in 1895. During the 1870s he traveled through the area and was so impressed with the potential and natural beauty of the area that he came back years later to start a town. Today, the Old Trail Town museum is at the center of the community and commemorates the traditions of Western life.
Final Days and Legacy
Buffalo Bill continued to perform in Western shows until 1916. The effects of age were starting to show as he often had to be helped onto his horse and his performance consisted of little more than riding through the arena waving his hat. Even though the Wild West show remained popular, his fortune began to fade due to poor business decisions and investments, including the purchase of an unproductive gold mine. He would continue to perform up until months before his death.
In early January 1917, Cody’s health began to fail. His once powerful body had been weakened by the ravages of time and alcohol abuse, leaving his heart too weak to fully sustain him. Sensing his time on this earth was short, Buffalo Bill was baptized in the Catholic Church just one day before his death. On January 10, 1917, Colonel Buffalo Bill Cody passed away quietly at his sister’s house in Denver, Colorado. Shortly after the world learned of his death, tributes poured forth from the common man, the kings of Europe, and President Woodrow Wilson. The burial was a spectacular affair held on June 3, five months after his death.
His funeral was held at the Elks Lodge Hall in Denver with the governor of Wyoming, John Kendrick, leading the funeral procession to the cemetery. He was buried on the edge of the Rocky Mountains on a summit of Lookout Mountain, near Golden, Colorado, with twenty-five thousand in attendance. The Post reporter, Gene Fowler, wrote of the funeral: “With it we have turned a page that cannot be rewritten…It was the most impressive, the most notable funeral ever witnessed in America. No president could have been more honored by the presence of thousands.” Fowler continued his description, “There was a circus atmosphere about the whole thing. A lot of us drank straight rye from bottles while speeches were being made by expert liars. Six of the Colonel’s surviving sweethearts—now obese and sagging with memories—sat on camp chairs beside the grave.”
Whether you think Cody’s rendition of the Old West was fact, fantasy, or somewhere in between, the reality is that his story of the Old West has been engrained in our modern culture through books and movies. The life and death struggle between the Plains Indians and the ever-advancing westward moving white settlers, as depicted in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, remains a popular topic in the renditions of history. Cody brought the cowboy from a simple ranch hand to a hero of the Wild West, saving the damsels in distress, fighting hostile Indians, or hunting down the thieves and murderers that roamed the open country. Buffalo Bill Cody, be he an imposter, unvarnished promoter, hero, or just a good salesman, has made a lasting impact on American culture and our appreciation of the winning of the West.
Buffalo Bill (Colonel W.F. Cody) An Autobiography of Buffalo Bill (Colonel W.F. Cody). Cosmopolitan Book Corporation. 1920.
Etulain, Richard W. (editor) Western Lives: A Biographical History of the American West. University of New Mexico Press. 2004.
Fisher, David. Bill O’Reilly’s Legends & Lies: The Real West. Henry Holt and Company. 2015.
McMurty, Larry. The Colonel and Little Missie: Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, and the Beginnings of Superstardom in America. Simon & Schuster. 2005.
Warren, Louis S. Buffalo Bill’s America: William Cody and the Wild West Show. Alfred A. Knopf. 2005.
The William F. Cody Archive: Documenting the life and times of Buffalo Bill http://codyarchive.org/ Accessed July 29, 2018.
Doug West (author) from Missouri on August 24, 2018:
Thanks. Buffalo Bill and Will Bill were both very colorful men and they make history fun. They both lead amazing lives.
Tim Truzy from U.S.A. on August 24, 2018:
Doug, this is an excellent article on Buffalo Bill. You covered the topic, including his friendship with Wild Bill Hickock.
I remember reading Buffalo Bill's story as a child, and I wanted to be an old West "scout" like him. I remember reading somewhere that it was because of is show which traveled Europe and America, we as a nation earned the reputation of being "cowboys." I believe recently, one leader called America a country of cowboys.
I can't say that's a bad thing.
People like you and I, Doug, and many people we know, wear white hats.
Thanks for the great article.
Much respect and admiration for your skills at getting it right and fair,