William Frederick "Buffalo Bill" Cody was born in Le Claire, Iowa, on February 26th, 1846, 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. But 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, becoming a cattle drover and teamster on westbound wagon trains.

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 married Louisa Frederici of St. Louis; together they would have four children: Arta Lucille (1866-1904), Kit Carson (1870-1876), Orra Maude (1872-1883), and Irma Louise (1883-1918). Only one of Cody's children would survive him.

Unable to find steady work in more settled areas after the war, Cody established himself in a new career as an army scout. 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 tribes, most notably the Battle at Summit Springs and the Battle of Warbonnet Creek. In 1872 Congress awarded the Medal of Honor for his service as a civilian scout with the Third Cavalry.

Cody traced the origin 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. As he began to cultivate his frontier persona, including his long hair and buckskin costume, Cody gained the attention of a writer and dramatist, E. Z. C. Judson, who wrote under the name Ned Buntline. In 1869 Buntline's Buffalo Bill: The King of Border Men appeared serially in Street and Smith's New York Weekly. It would be followed by many 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 Buntline, who invited him to Chicago in 1872 to play himself in a western melodrama titled Scouts of the Prairie. Later that year Cody formed his own touring theatrical troupe with fellow plainsmen James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok and John Burwell "Texas Jack" Omohundro. The Buffalo Bill Combination, with varying cast members, toured U. S. cities for the next ten years, confining its season to the fall, winter, and spring, allowing Cody to return to the Plains each summer to scout for the army and guide hunting parties.

In 1882 Cody organized a Fourth of July celebration in North Platte, Nebraska. Later known as the "Old Glory Blowout," this precursor to today's rodeo featured demonstrations of horsemanship and cowboy culture. It was the next step in the evolution of the Wild West show. Cody paired with actor/manager Nate Salsbury in 1884 to form Buffalo Bill's Wild West. Highlights of the early years include the addition of Annie Oakley and Sitting Bull's brief participation in the summer of 1885. 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 Britain. This led to several extended European tours. All told, Buffalo Bill's Wild West spent 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. Cody's time abroad made him the most recognizable American in Europe by the turn of the century.

With the success of Buffalo Bill's Wild West, Cody was able to devote resources to other projects. These included mining operations in Arizona and irrigation projects in Wyoming. In 1896 the town of Cody, Wyoming, was founded by Cody and his partners as a business venture. Buffalo Bill's Wild West enjoyed an extraordinary run on both sides of the Atlantic through the turn of the century. In the early twentieth century, as public tastes shifted, Cody and the Wild West exhibition found various ways to stay viable. After merging with another traveling exhibition in 1908, the exhibition eventually went bankrupt in 1913, and Cody appeared with other exhibitions between 1914 and his death in 1917.

William F. Cody died on January 10, 1917, at age 70 in Denver, Colorado, and is buried nearby on Lookout Mountain. His last surviving child, Irma, died of influenza the following year, and his wife Louisa passed away in 1921.