One of the most colorful characters to come out of the Old West was Buffalo Bill. He acquired his nickname after the Civil War, when he was hired to provide meat for the Kansas Pacific Railroad workers. Reportedly, Cody shot 4,280 bison in 18 months.
William Frederick Cody (February 26, 1846 – January 10, 1917) was born near La Claire, Iowa, but his family soon migrated to Canada. In 1853, they moved to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas Territory. When Cody’s father stood up at Rively’s store to give an anti-slavery speech, he was stabbed twice, and would have died had it not been for Rively, who jumped in and saved his life. Pro-slavers continuously threatened to kill Cody’s father, and in 1857, he died of complications acquired from his wounds.
Cody, now 11, took odd jobs to help support his family. He worked as a wagon train courier, and claimed to have been a “Fifty’Niner” in Colorado. When the Civil War broke out, he joined Johnston’s Army as an unofficial scout in Utah Territory to quash a rumored rebellion by the Mormons in Salt Lake City. According to Cody’s memoirs, this was where he first started his career as an Indian fighter. At age 14, he became a rider for the Pony Express. In 1863, he enlisted with the 7th Kansas Cavalry as a teamster, and served as a Private in Company H until his discharge in 1865.
In 1866, Cody married. The couple had four children, but three of them died in Rochester, New York. Cody began working as an Indian scout for the U.S. Army, and served as a scout for the highly publicized Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich of Russia’s royal hunt. Cody was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1872 for serving as a civilian scout, but in 1917, the rules were changed, and his award was revoked. (It was reinstated in 1989).
In December, 1872, Cody and his friend, Texas Jack Oromoundo, traveled to Chicago to perform their debut, The Scouts of the Prairie. “Wild Bill” Hickok appeared with them the following year. The troupe toured for ten years. Cody claimed that he had once scalped a Cheyenne warrior, which was part of his act. He also claimed that he had been a trapper, a bullwhacker, a stagecoach driver, and a wagon master, but no documentation exists, and historians believe he might have fabricated these claims to gain publicity. Regardless, Cody’s colorful reputation grew. In 1883, he founded “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” near North Platte, Nebraska. The circus-like show toured annually, and Cody met many dignitaries and heads of state. In 1893, he changed the name of his show to “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World.” Sitting Bull, Calamity Jane, and Annie Oakley appeared in the touring show, as did many diplomats from foreign countries. His show performed in such places as Madison Square Garden in New York City and the ancient Roman amphitheatre in Verona, Italy.
In 1887, Cody performed a show for Queen Victoria, and in 1889, he met Pope Leo XIII. He wasn’t allowed into the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, so he set up outside the fairgrounds and made a killing anyway. Between 1887 and 1906, Cody’s Wild West show toured Europe eight times. His shows gave Europe an authentic American experience, and insight into the fading American Western frontier.
Cody was instrumental in founding a town named after him, and in 1895, Cody, Wyoming, near the east entrance of Yellowstone National Park, was founded. He established a ranch and hotel, and used his influence to persuade Congress to build a dam on the Shoshone River. Upon its completion in 1910, it was the largest dam in the world.
In 1917, Cody died in Denver at his sister’s home. He was eulogized by George V, Kaiser Wilhelm II and President Woodrow Wilson. Cody is buried on Lookout Mountain in Golden, Colorado. At one point, Buffalo Bill was the most famous man in the world. He supported Native American Indian rights and women’s rights, and pushed for the end of hide-hunting and the start of hunting seasons. He was an activist, a conservationist, a humanitarian, and a remarkable performer. He saw his Wild West change drastically over the course of his lifetime, but left a significant historical impact on the world, and changed their perception of the Wild West forever.