William F. Cody
1846 - 1917
In a life that was part legend and part fabrication, William F.
Cody came to embody the spirit of the West for millions,
transmuting his own experience into a national myth of frontier
life that still endures today.
Born in Scott County, Iowa, in 1846, Cody grew up on the
prairie. When his father died in 1857, his mother moved to
Kansas, where Cody worked for a wagon-freight company as a
mounted messenger and wrangler. In 1859, he tried his luck as a
prospector in the Pikes Peak gold rush, and the next year,
joined the Pony Express, which had advertised for "skinny,
expert riders willing to risk death daily." Already a seasoned
plainsman at age 14, Cody fit the bill.
During the Civil War, Cody served first as a Union scout in
campaigns against the Kiowa and Comanche, then in 1863 he
enlisted with the Seventh Kansas Cavalry, which saw action in
Missouri and Tennessee. After the war, he married Louisa
Frederici in St. Louis and continued to work for the Army as a
scout and dispatch carrier, operating out of Fort Ellsworth,
Finally, in 1867, Cody took up the trade that gave him his
nickname, hunting buffalo to feed the construction crews of the
Kansas Pacific Railroad. By his own count, he killed 4,280 head
of buffalo in seventeen months. He is supposed to have won the
name "Buffalo Bill" in an eight-hour shooting match with a
hunter named William Comstock, presumably to determine which of
the two Buffalo Bill’s deserved the title.
Beginning in 1868, Cody returned to his work for the Army. He
was chief of scouts for the Fifth Cavalry and took part in 16
battles, including the Cheyenne defeat at Summit Springs,
Colorado, in 1869. For his service over these years, he was
awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1872, although this
award was revoked in 1916 on the grounds that Cody was not a
regular member of the armed forces at the time. (The award was
restored posthumously in 1989).
All the while Cody was earning a reputation for skill and
bravery in real life, he was also becoming a national folk hero,
thanks to the exploits of his alter ego, "Buffalo Bill," in the
dime novels of Ned Buntline (pen name of the writer E. Z. C.
Judson). Beginning in 1869, Buntline created a Buffalo Bill who
ranked with Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone and Kit Carson in the
popular imagination, and who was, like them, a mixture of
incredible fact and romantic fiction.
In 1872 Buntline persuaded Cody to assume this role on stage by
starring in his play, The Scouts of the Plains, and though Cody
was never a polished actor, he proved a natural showman, winning
enthusiastic applause for his good-humored self-portrayal.
Despite a falling out with Buntline, Cody remained an actor for
eleven seasons, and became an author as well, producing the
first edition of his autobiography in 1879 and publishing a
number of his own Buffalo Bill dime novels. Eventually, there
would be some 1,700 of these frontier tales, the majority
written by Prentiss Ingraham.
But not even show business success could keep Cody from
returning to the West. Between theater seasons, he regularly
escorted rich Easterners and European nobility on Western
hunting expeditions, and in 1876 he was called back to service
as an army scout in the campaign that followed Custer’s defeat
at the Little Bighorn.
On this occasion, Cody added a new chapter to his legend in a
"duel" with the Cheyenne chief Yellow Hair, whom he supposedly
first shot with a rifle, then stabbed in the heart and finally
scalped "in about five seconds," according to his own account.
Others described the encounter as hand-to-hand combat, and
misreported the chief’s name as Yellow Hand. Still others said
that Cody merely lifted the chief’s scalp after he had died in
battle. Whatever actually occurred, Cody characteristically had
the event embroidered into a melodrama--Buffalo Bill's First
Scalp for Custer--for the fall theater season.
Cody’s own theatrical genius revealed itself in 1883, when he
organized Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, an outdoor extravaganza that
dramatized some of the most picturesque elements of frontier
life: a buffalo hunt with real buffalos, an Indian attack on the
Deadwood stage with real Indians, a Pony Express ride, and at
the climax, a tableau presentation of Custer’s Last Stand in
which some Lakota who had actually fought in the battle played a
part. Half circus and half history lesson, mixing sentimentality
with sensationalism, the show proved an enormous success,
touring the country for three decades and playing to
enthusiastic crowds across Europe.
In later years Buffalo Bill’s Wild West would star the
sharpshooter Annie Oakley, the first "King of the Cowboys," Buck
Taylor, and for one season, "the slayer of General Custer,"
Chief Sitting Bull. Cody even added an international flavor by
assembling a "Congress of Rough Riders of the World" that
included cossacks, lancers and other Old World cavalrymen along
with the vaqueros, cowboys and Indians of the American West.
Though he was by this time almost wholly absorbed in his
celebrity existence as Buffalo Bill, Cody still had a real-life
reputation in the West, and in 1890 he was called back by the
army once more during the Indian uprisings associated with the
Ghost Dance. He came with some Indians from his troupe who
proved effective peacemakers, and even traveled to Wounded Knee
after the massacre to help restore order.
Cody made a fortune from his show business success and lost it
to mismanagement and a weakness for dubious investment schemes.
In the end, even the Wild West show itself was lost to
creditors. Cody died on January 10, 1917, and is buried in a
tomb blasted from solid rock at the summit of Lookout Mountain
near Denver, Colorado.
The controversial, half-fictitious career of William Frederick
Buffalo Bill' Cody (1846-1917), American scout and publicist,
helped create the prototype "Wild West" hero.
William Cody, born in Scott County, lowa, and raised on a farm,
served briefly in the Civil War. Hunting buffalo for
construction crews of the Kansas Pacific Railroad, he was dubbed
"Buffalo Bill" because of his proficiency. He also served as
civilian scout for U.S. generals Sheridan and Carr. Though he
went east to begin a stage career in 1873, he returned west in
1876 to avenge Gen. Custer's defeat. Claiming to have killed
Chief Tall Bull, he later brought the Wild West indoors and
toured widely with his Wild West Show. Clever publicists, like
Ned Buntline, Prentiss Ingraham, and John Burke, billed him as
"Prince of the Plains" and made him the hero of countless
stories and novels.
Often in trouble and always in debt, Buffalo Bill toured Europe
to recoup his fortunes. He became the darling of Queen
Victoria's Jubilee in England and went on to France, Spain, and
Italy, spreading the legend of the American West, depicting the
wild yet romantic life which Europeans liked to think of as
uniquely American, and paving the way for the 20th-century
cowboy movie. The name Buffalo Bill was magic; in Victorian days
he personified the American dream.
But triumph turned to ashes. Tired of sham hero worship, Buffalo
Bill drank heavily and involved himself in many foolish
liaisons. Women doted on him, but his wife wanted a divorce.
Sick children sought his touch, but his only son died in his
arms. Manipulated by shrewd men, he had to perform his Wild West
act daily to avoid bankruptcy. Finally, disillusioned, he
petitioned the Federal government for the $10 monthly
Congressional Medal-holders' dole. All his dreams had become
In 1910 Sam Goldberg released a slide series showing Buffalo
Bill in action, and Harry Powers made the first moving picture
of the Wild West Show, "300 thrills in 300 reels." But Bill
himself was not able to utilize the new mass-media
opportunities. Instead, the old man watched William S. Hart,
Harry Carey, and Tom Mix fill the heroic void. When he died he
was buried in Cody, Wyo.; since citizens of Denver plotted to
steal the body, tons of concrete were poured over it. Thus the
man whose life revolved in frantic motion had found his resting
Buffalo Bill epitomized a whole phase of the American western
movement and the final winning of the Great West. His reputation
had been contrived and half-fictitious, but to his own code and
image he remained faithful.
(1846-1917), western scout and showman. Anyone interested in the
history of the American West must eventually reckon with the
life and legacy of William F., "Buffalo Bill," Cody. A master of
show business, Cody confirmed American and European audiences in
their conviction that the real West was a place of glory and
adventure, an enormous space reserved for the equestrian
exercises of Indians, cowboys, and outlaws.
With his buckskin outfits and sharpshooting skills, Cody was by
no means a frontier fake. Born in Iowa, he moved with his family
to Kansas in 1854 and, following his father's early death, began
a long occupational odyssey. He worked as a messenger for the
freighting firm of Russell, Majors, and Waddell; he served as a
scout for the U.S. Army; he killed buffalo to feed workers on
the Union Pacific Railroad; he guided celebrities on hunting
expeditions; he tried his hand at mining, at ranching, and at
In 1872, the flexible Cody added "actor" to his list of
occupations, appearing on stage in a frontier melodrama in
Chicago. In 1883, Cody departed from the limitations of stage
plays and launched his open-air Wild West Show. For thirty
years, the show toured the United States and Europe.
Featuring horses and riders in a variety of displays, the Wild
West Show held equal appeal for American crowds and European
royalty, with England's Queen Victoria a particular fan.
Although the down-to-earth project of transporting, feeding,
sheltering, outfitting, and organizing cowboys, Indians,
sharpshooters, advance men, laborers, cooks, managers, horses,
and even buffalo may well have been the show's most impressive
feat, audiences were riveted by the evocation of another, less
practical world--a world of parades, races, and reenactments of
stagecoach robberies and Custer's Last Stand. Over time, the
show added events and participants beyond the framework of the
American West, with the staging of the Charge at San Juan Hill
and the creation of the Congress of Rough Riders of the World,
including Russian, French, German, British, Arab, Argentinean,
Mexican, Cuban, Hawaiian, and Filipino riders.
Marketing both himself and his show, Buffalo Bill Cody traded
heavily on the authentic adventures in his personal history. He
had in truth been a child of the West and a genuine scout and
hunter. But the necessary theatricality of the Wild West Show,
the flourishes of dime novelists using Cody as their main
character, and Cody's own creative habits as an embellisher of
his autobiography soon made the line dividing authenticity from
illusion an impossible one to trace. Accordingly, depending on
the interpreter's perspective, the Wild West Show was a trick
and a fraud in its distortions of western reality or an innocent
diversion, of considerable mythic power, from the mounting
pressures of urban industrial life.
Although the show brought in substantial revenue, Cody spent his
last years in financial uncertainty, drained in particular by
unwise investments in an Arizona mine. At the time of his death
in Denver, his unsuccessful struggle for financial stability had
forged yet another link in the chain that made Buffalo Bill
Cody, both intentionally and unintentionally, a key
representative of the fortunes of the American West.
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This web page was last updated on:
09 December, 2008