At the turn of the 20th century “Buffalo Bill” Cody was the most famous American in the world. His path from frontier poverty and obscurity to international celebrity is one of the most remarkable stories of America’s Gilded Age. It begins on February 26th, 1846, in Le Claire, Iowa, where William Frederick Cody was born to Isaac and Mary Ann Laycock Cody. At age eight he moved with his family to the Kansas frontier where his father hoped to homestead. The family experienced a series of financial and personal setbacks brought on by the turmoil of the slavery debate and culminating in Isaac Cody’s death in 1857. As the oldest male member of the household, eleven year old Will took it upon himself to find work and soon joined the freighting firm Russell, Majors, and Waddell as a cattle drover and teamster. Over the next few years Cody would pursue the life of the Plainsman, accompanying westbound military supply trains. He also met and became friends with James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok. In his 1879 autobiography Cody claims to have also pursued gold prospecting, fur trapping, and work as a Pony Express rider during this period.
In 1864 Cody enlisted in the Seventh Kansas Volunteer Cavalry and served as a private for one and a half years. After the war he conducted a brief courtship with Louisa Frederici of St. Louis followed by their marriage in 1866. Though the relationship would prove to be stormy and include one attempt on Cody’s part to sue for divorce, the pair would stay married for over fifty years. Cody made several attempts to lead a more settled life; he briefly owned and managed an inn and tried unsuccessfully to found the town of Rome, Kansas, but was forced to take various odd jobs with the railroad first and, later, with the Army. Cody’s working relationship with the military began in 1868 as a hunter and guide and, eventually, a scout making $75 per month. Cody’s scouting, which was his primary employment until 1872, consisted of guiding troops, carrying messages between forts, and occasionally hunting game. He would work intermittently as a scout for the next decade, eventually becoming Chief of Scouts for the Fifth Cavalry. During that time Cody participated in a number of battles and skirmishes with Plains Indians; most notably, the 1869 Battle at Summit Springs in which he was purported to have killed Chief Tall Bull, the leader of the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers. In 1872, the United States Congress awarded him The Medal of Honor for his service as a civilian scout.
Cody traced the origins of his nickname to an eighteen-month stint beginning in 1866, hunting buffalo to provide meat for Kansas railroad workers. He claimed to have killed approximately 4,280 buffalo during this time. Cody also developed a sideline as a hunting guide serving wealthy patrons from the eastern United States and Europe. As he began to cultivate his frontier persona—at least partly inspired by "Wild Bill" Hickok, including his long hair and buckskin costume—Cody attracted the notice of a writer and dramatist, E. Z. C. Judson, who wrote under the name Ned Buntline. In 1869, Buntline’s Buffalo Bill, King of the Border Men appeared serially in Street and Smith’s New York Weekly. It would be followed by other Buffalo Bill dime novels over the next forty years, eventually numbering in the hundreds.
Cody began a career on stage at the encouragement of Ned Buntline, who invited him to Chicago in 1872 to play himself in a western melodrama entitled Scouts of the Prairie. Already a popular culture figure, Cody had attended a performance of a Buffalo Bill play during a previous visit to New York City. At the time he found it impossible to imagine himself on stage. Although he was not a natural actor, he was an experienced raconteur from his days guiding tourists on hunting trips, and Buntline reshaped the Chicago debut with largely improvised dialogue to capitalize on Cody’s gift for storytelling. The play received scathing reviews—one critic mockingly compared it to a dime novel on stage—but it was a popular success. Later that year, Cody separated from Buntline and formed his own touring theatrical troupe with fellow plainsmen, "Wild Bill" Hickok and John Burwell "Texas Jack" Omohundro. The Buffalo Bill Combination toured U. S. cities, with various cast changes, for the next ten years, generally confining its season to the fall, winter, and spring allowing Cody to return to the plains to scout for the army and guide hunting parties in the summer months. Dramatized conflicts with Indians featured gunplay, and the outsized persona of Cody himself made these border dramas the foundation for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West exhibition.
In 1875 Cody resettled with his family to Rochester, New York. The Cody family now included three children: Arta Lucille (1866-1904), Kit Carson (1870-1876), and Orra Maude (1872-1883). Irma Louise arrived in 1883 (1883-1918). While his family was still in Rochester, Cody interrupted his 1876 tour upon hearing the news of Custer’s death at Little Bighorn to return to scouting with the Fifth Cavalry. Back with his old regiment a month later, Cody found himself involved in a skirmish near Warbonnet Creek, Nebraska, on July 17th. Although the episode was relatively minor, Cody managed to kill a Cheyenne warrior named Yellow Hair, subsequently incorporating the incident in his show career. During the campaign, Cody wore a stage costume that included a scarlet shirt and black velvet pants. Within a few months he was back on stage wearing the same costume and brandishing his war trophies, including Yellow Hair’s war bonnet, shield, and scalp. The play, titled The Red Right Hand: or Buffalo Bill’s First Scalp for Custer, shrewdly tied Cody to the growing legend of Custer and Little Bighorn. Cody would feature Custer’s Last Stand in his dramatic spectacles for many years to come.
In 1879 Cody published his autobiography: The Life of Hon. William F. Cody. Dozens of versions in various states of abridgement would be reissued over the next four decades. The memoir is a mixture of Cody’s experiences from his first thirty-three years and tall tales that draw on dime novel language and plots to shape the persona of Buffalo Bill. Historians have cast doubt on a number of claims made in the autobiography, including his account of riding for the Pony Express. However, Cody would continue to promote these biographical details on stage and showground throughout his career.
The Cody family later relocated to North Platte, Nebraska, where Cody organized a Fourth of July celebration in 1882, later known as the “Old Glory Blowout.” A precursor to today’s rodeo, the event featured demonstrations of horsemanship and cowboy culture. It was the next step in the evolution of the Wild West show. The following year Cody teamed with North Platte dentist and expert marksman, William Frank “Doc” Carver to stage a Rocky Mountain Prairie Exhibition. They toured with the exhibition throughout that summer, drawing large audiences. However, because of personality differences and a lack of management skills, the partnership dissolved after one season.
Cody paired with actor/manager Nate Salsbury the following year to form Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. Salsbury had successfully managed his own acting troupe, Salsbury’s Troubadours, since 1874, performing comic burlesques to audiences in the U. S., Britain, and Australia. Buffalo Bill's Wild West found success under the new management. Over the next three years the exhibition toured U. S. cities, developing acts and honing its logistics. A standard program included races on horseback or on foot, sometimes with cowboys, Mexican vaqueros, and Indians in competition. Horsemanship demonstrations such as the roping and riding of bucking horses were combined with a more genteel Virginia reel on horseback performed by cowboys and cowgirls. Marksmanship exhibitions would eventually make stars of Annie Oakley, Lillian Smith, and Johnnie Baker. “Illustrations” of Indian attacks on the Deadwood stagecoach and a settler’s cabin, as well as a “genuine buffalo hunt” lent dramatic spectacle to the performance as a whole, as did reenactments of famous battles such as Little Bighorn and Summit Springs. Cody presided over the program from the opening “Grand Processional” to the final “Salute” and participated in many of the individual events demonstrating his shooting skills as “America’s Practical All-Round Shot,” repulsing Indian attacks, and staging the mock buffalo hunt.
Native Americans played an integral role in the success of Buffalo Bill's Wild West, validating the show’s claims of authenticity and serving invariably as the aggressors in the show’s dramatic set pieces. Highlights of this period include the addition of Annie Oakley, who joined the show in 1884 billed as "Little Sure Shot," becoming its most popular featured performer; and Sitting Bull’s four-month participation in the summer of 1885. Sitting Bull was the most prominent of hundreds of Plains Indians who participated in the exhibition during its storied run. Though Sitting Bull’s motives included an extra political dimension—he gained an audience with President Grover Cleveland among other federal officials during the show’s stay in Washington, D.C., in June 1885—the typical Show Indian saw Buffalo Bill's Wild West as an opportunity to earn relatively good pay at $25 per month and to see parts of the United States and Europe otherwise prohibited to them.
In May 1887 Cody realized his long-held dream to take his exhibition abroad when Buffalo Bill's Wild West embarked on a year-long tour of England. A six-month London season was part of a joint venture with the American Exhibition at Earl's Court and corresponded with celebrations of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. The command performance before the Queen caused a media sensation and provided a marketing bonanza for Cody and his team of promotional agents. During the London stay over two million visitors paid a schilling each to witness the spectacle. The show’s London success led to several extended tours of Europe in subsequent years. All told, Buffalo Bill's Wild West would spend nearly a decade performing in Europe including a triumphant summer at the 1889 Paris Exposition, presentation before Pope Leo XIII in 1890, and innumerable visits to the show by European royalty.
In 1888 Buffalo Bill returned from England an international celebrity, a status that ensured the continued popularity of the American West in a transnational setting. In 1890, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West returned to Europe, touring England, Scotland, France, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Ukraine. Due to unfounded criticism of the mistreatment of American Indian performers, Cody and Salsbury discussed adding an International Congress of Rough Riders to highlight skilled equestrians from around the world in view of the slight chance they may lose their Indian performers. The management of Buffalo Bill's Wild West competently defended its treatment of American Indians, continuing to retain their services, and Buffalo Bill's Wild West added the phrase "International Congress of Rough Riders" to its promotional material in 1893.
When the Ghost Dance movement generated fear among white settlers in the Dakotas, General Nelson A. Miles requested that Cody travel to the Standing Rock Reservation to return with Sitting Bull to negotiate a peaceful settlement. Reservation officials mistrusted Cody and rescinded Miles’ directive, recalling Cody from his task. Shortly after Cody returned, reservation police attempted to arrest Sitting Bull, an event that led to a confrontation that ended Sitting Bull’s life. Two weeks later, on December 29, 1890, the Seventh Cavalry surrounded a Lakota village on Wounded Knee Creek, and the infamous massacre soon followed. In the aftermath of the Wounded Knee Massacre, a number of Lakota Ghost Dancers, officially identified as prisoners of war, toured Europe with Cody.
In 1893 Buffalo Bill's Wild West performed the entire season in Chicago, successfully competing directly with the World's Columbian Exhibition. Due to the poor health of Cody’s manager Nate Salsbury, the Wild West collaborated with circus promoter James A. Bailey. This new arrangement added a new circus-like atmosphere to the exhibition. Bailey added advertisements to Buffalo Bill's Wild West programs and expanded to include sideshow acts. After Salsbury’s death in 1902, Bailey returned Buffalo Bill's Wild West to Europe for its last foreign tour. After James Bailey's death in 1906, the settlement of Bailey’s estate entangled Cody, financially crippling him—an unfortunate circumstance from which he never completely recovered—and the Wild West’s financial status remained problematic.
Major Gordon W. Lillie, known as "Pawnee Bill," purchased the interest in Buffalo Bill's Wild West held by the Bailey estate in 1909. The following year, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Combined with Pawnee Bill’s Great Far East toured the nation. Once again, the financially strapped Cody borrowed money from Denver newspaperman Harry Tammen, eventually forcing the exhibition into bankruptcy in 1913, and Cody found himself working for Tammen’s Sells-Floto Circus. Shortly before his death, Cody broke with the Sells-Floto Circus and appeared briefly with the Miller Brothers and Arlington 101 Ranch Real Wild West in 1916. Unfortunately, Buffalo Bill’s last performance years included a number of repeated farewell performances that tainted his image as a serious performer. Despite this tarnished image, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West significantly influenced American culture and shaped the United States’ image on a world stage. The Wild West exhibition ingrained the image of the American Frontier in popular culture, an image frequently reappearing in literature and film. Cody also began a tradition with Buffalo Bill's Wild West that continues today at almost every public function in America: the playing of the Star Spangled Banner, which became the official national anthem in 1931, partly due to Cody popularizing the song through the Wild West's performances.
Toward the end of his life, Cody’s vision of the Wild West appeared on film. In 1912 Buffalo Bill and Pawnee Bill Film Company produced the Life of Buffalo Bill. The storyline of this film begins with Cody falling asleep and dreaming of his accomplishments that constitute the remainder of the film. In 1913 Cody began working with the Essanay Film Company of Chicago to film an epic entitled The Indian Wars. The film starred Cody, General Nelson A. Miles, and a cast of American Indian extras. This eight-reel film covered the Indian Wars on the Great Plains, focusing mainly on the events related to Cody’s scouting career, and concluded with the Wounded Knee Massacre. Unfortunately, the film was not a financial success and only a few known segments of footage exist today.
Realizing celebrity is fleeting, Cody invested in a number of business ventures to ensure a profitable retirement. In 1894 Cody began work with George T. Beck to develop a reclamation project along the Shoshone River (then named the Stinkingwater River) in Wyoming's Bighorn Basin. Using his celebrity, Cody promoted the irrigation project and the emerging community of Cody, Wyoming, named in his honor. Cody and Beck secured funds through Phoebe Hearst, William Randolph Hearst’s wealthy mother, and a group of investors from Buffalo, New York. Unfortunately, Cody’s dreams of an agricultural empire in northwest Wyoming exceeded both his financial resources and his capabilities. Cody’s fledging Wyoming empire did not expand until the Chicago, Quincy, & Burlington Railway built a line to Cody. The coming of the railroad also brought the Lincoln Land Company, which took over the selling of town lots. The newly created Reclamation Service (later renamed the Bureau of Reclamation) finished developing Cody’s proposed expansion of the irrigation project. Additionally, Cody offered a portion of his claim to the Mormon Church, which ensured the successful reclamation of the land in question.
In addition to promoting reclamation in the American West, Cody established a stage line from Cody, Wyoming, to the east entrance of Yellowstone National Park. Beginning with the Irma Hotel, built in 1902, Cody later completed the smaller Wapiti Inn and Pahaska Tepee to serve tourists traveling along the Northfork of the Shoshone River into Yellowstone National Park. Cody joined other interested parties to pressure the U. S. Cavalry, then in charge of managing Yellowstone, to allow automobile traffic through Yellowstone to expand western tourism. Cody’s visions of economic development in the West were lucrative for many others, including future generations, but Cody’s various investments did not succeed as he had hoped. Many of those investments, including patent medicines, a Cody military institute, Bighorn Basin oil fields, and the Campo Bonito mine in Arizona, failed to produce great profits, forcing Cody to remain with the Wild West exhibition to ensure some source of income.
In 1898 new American heroes emerged from Cody’s shadows with the fighting of the Spanish American War. Despite his business obligations and advanced age, Cody promised his adoring fans he would fight in the conflict with Spain. Cody did send two of his horses with General Miles, who rode them during the campaign to take Puerto Rico—this was Cody’s only direct contribution to the war effort. Theodore Roosevelt’s regiment of Rough Riders successfully fought in Cuba, and a new leader of American Rough Riders emerged. Despite the popularity of the Rough Rider moniker, Roosevelt never acknowledged its original use by Cody. Roosevelt also refused to attend the Wild West performances of the Battle of San Juan Hill, even though many of his former Rough Riders performed in the reenactment.
In 1904 Cody sued Louisa for divorce claiming she had attempted to poison him. The Cody divorce proceedings brought unwanted public attention to a number of allegations regarding Cody’s extramarital affairs and his excess drinking—problems he managed to curtail in his later years. The judge presiding over the case eventually dismissed Cody’s appeal for divorce, resulting in Cody and Louisa reconciling and remaining close friends until Cody’s death. With all the press devoted to the divorce, Cody’s image became less heroic in the public eye, threatening to diminish his legacy. However, Cody remained popular and continued to perform in the Wild West exhibitions. Publishers still printed dime novels featuring him as the hero of the storyline, and newspapers continued to ask him his opinion on the key subjects of the day. Cody’s responses to these inquiries from the press reflected his progressive support of the conservation movement, women’s suffrage, and American Indian rights; his remarks continue to surprise readers today.
On January 10, 1917, William F. Cody passed away at his sister’s home in Denver, Colorado. Thousands of adoring fans mourned the loss and lined the streets to pay their last respects to the great scout as his body was laid to rest in its grave on Lookout Mountain. Cody’s last surviving child, Irma Louise, and her husband Fred Garlow passed away during the Great Flu Epidemic in 1918. Louisa resided in Cody raising Irma’s three children until her death in 1921. Her body lies in rest next to her husband at Lookout Mountain.
Today Cody’s legacy remains vigorous, despite various attempts to negate his image and his contributions to the nation. Many of his investments in the American West benefited generations to come. North Platte, Nebraska; Cody, Wyoming; and Denver, Colorado, continue to receive economic benefit through their past affiliation with Buffalo Bill. The violent struggle between Plains Indians and white settlers, depicted in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, remains a popular topic in American culture, and the American Cowboy emerged as a hero, based on the scenes depicted in the Wild West exhibition. Cody forever cemented his vision of the Wild West into America’s national identity and its popular history—a legacy reflected in art, literature, and film throughout the 20th century and into the 21st century. Whether we see Cody as an imposter or as a hero, we cannot debate his significant contribution to the World.