Born and raised in Wyoming, I feel that it is fitting for me to learn and write about some of the American West heroes that have made this land so great. This biography is the first in a series I intend to title, Heroes of the West.
Buffalo Bill Cody was a legend in the far West. A frontiersman, one of the best bison hunters West of the Mississippi, a great entertainer with his traveling Wild West show, and a ruthless trailblazer in a time that mostly consisted of legend and folktale. Buffalo Bill Cody set a standard for what the West looked like and could be for the whole nation.
William Frederick Cody was born on February 26, 1846 on a farm just outside the tiny town of Le Claire, Iowa to Isaac and Mary Ann Cody. William grew up on the farm, and led a quiet childhood. In 1853, when he was seven, the family sold the farm and moved to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas Territory. This was at a time in our country when it was divided so badly over slavery. Kansas was nearing Statehood at this time, and there was a hot debate over whether it would be slave or free.
Isaac Cody, (William’s father,) was very antislavery. Kansas was on the verge of becoming a slave state. Inevitably, that came to a head at Rively’s Store, a place where many pro-slavery supporters met. Isaac’s antislavery speech angered the men so much that they threatened to kill him if he didn't step down. When Isaac refused, one of the men pulled a Bowie knife and stabbed Cody twice. Isaac was immediately rushed to medical attention, and lived, but never truly made a full recovery.
In Kansas, the family was persecuted so bad over their being antislavery, that William’s father often had to leave home for days or weeks on end. One such time, young William rode 30 miles to warn his father of a plot to kill him on the way back. Isaac went to Cleveland, Ohio to organize about thirty antislavery families to add to the cause. During the return trip, he caught a respiratory infection which, compounded by the lingering effects of the stabbing and complications from kidney disease, led to Isaac Cody’s death in 1857.
|Young William Cody|
After the father’s death, the Cody family struggled financially. Bill took on a job with a freight carrier as a “boy extra.” He would ride up and down the wagon train delivering messages between the driver and the workmen. Next he joined Johnston’s Army as an unofficial member of the scouts assigned to put out a rumored rebellion from the Mormons in Salt Lake City, Utah. According to his own account in his autobiography, (see below,) this was where he first 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 (9 m) 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, Bill Cody was struck by gold fever. He gathered up his belongings and headed west to California. Along the way, he met an agent for the Pony Express. This agent persuaded Bill to join and Bill worked delivering messages cross-country at breakneck speed for a number of years. He only quit when he was called to his mother’s sick bedside. After she recovered, Cody wanted to enlist as a Union soldier during the Civil War, but was denied because of his age. He began working as a Freight Caravan delivering supplies to Fort Laramie, Wyoming until 1863, when he joined the army as a captain in Company H, 7th Kansas Calvary and served until he was discharged in 1865.
The next year, Cody married Louisa Frederici. They had four kids together, but two died young in Rochester, New York. From 1868 to 1872, Cody was employed as a scout for the United States Army. Part of the time he scouted for Indians, and part of the time he hunted Bison for the army. In 1872 he joined Alexei Alexandrovich of Russia’s highly publicized royal hunt. In December that year, Cody traveled to Chicago to make his stage debut with friend Texas Omohundro in The Scouts of the Prairie. During the ’73-74 season, they invited their friend James Hickok to join them in a new play called Scouts of the Plains. In 1879, Cody wrote an autobiography titled The Life and Adventures of Buffalo Bill.
The troupe continued for ten years. In 1883, Cody founded “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West,” a circus – like attraction that toured annually. This show was immediately popular, touring all over the US and Europe. It was a collection of acts and tricks all pertaining to the West. Many headline performers were also featured on the show, such as Annie Oakley, Gabriel Dumont, and Lillian Smith. With his profits, Bill purchased a 4,000 acre ranch near North Platte, Nebraska. In 1887-1890, the show toured Europe, and was watched by Queen Victoria and the Pope.
Through the ‘90s the show gained in popularity in both the U.S. and Europe. In 1895, Bill founded the town of Cody, Wyoming. He had passed through it in the 1870s and was so impressed at all the area had to offer that he decided to build a town there. Several streets in the town were named after his associates. In November 1902, he opened the Irma hotel, which he named after his daughter. He also established the TE ranch, located on the south fork of the Shoshone River.
On October 29, 1901, a freight train crashed into Buffalo Bill’s train. 110 horses died in the accident, and although no people were killed, Annie Oakley’s injuries were so severe that she was told she would never walk again. However, she recovered and went back to performing later.
Over the next 15 or so years, Cody settled down. He retired from performance and moved to Denver, Colorado. Having built up such an enormous fortune, he lived quite comfortably. Arguably the greatest legend of the west, Buffalo Bill Cody died of kidney failure on January 10, 1917, surrounded by friends and family. His funeral procession was led by Wyoming governor and close friend John B. Kendrick. Today he is buried on Lookout Mountain, Golden, Colorado.
Buffalo Bill Cody was, is, and always will be one of the legends of the American West. He was one of the greatest entertainers of the late 19th and early 20th century. He founded a still-thriving Wyoming town, and he created a introduced the world to the American West. He stood for toughness, bravery, and everything that made the West so great, and I am proud to be able to live in and experience this great land that this great person left a lasting impression on.