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"Buffalo Bill" Cody

Pony Express rider, buffalo hunter, scout, showman

Buffalo Bill Cody

William Frederick Cody was born in Le Claire, Iowa, on February 26, 1846. His family moved west in 1853, and a very young Billy rode ahead of the wagon train to look for likely campsites and hunt game. Their first stop was Weston, Missouri, where one of Billy's uncles lived. Originally destined for the California gold fields, Billy's uncle convinced them to settle down in Kansas; they subsequently built a homestead in the Salt Creek Valley, near Fort Leavenworth. Soon after the family got settled, Billy rode to a nearby trading post for supplies. There he met up with a cousin named Horace Billings, a scout and mountain man, who offered to take Billy on an expedition to search for wild horses. He so enjoyed the experience that he found it extremely difficult to concentrate on his chores after returning home.

Billy's father died in April 1857, leaving 11-year-old Billy to provide for the family. In May, he hired out with the Russell, Majors & Waddell Company of Leavenworth, becoming a go-fer for wagon trains that supplied western forts. His very first outbound trip was uneventful, but the same could not be said for the return trip. On the way back, the wagon train was attacked by Indians, who drove off the cattle, killed three men and wounded another, and ransacked and burned the wagons. Billy and the other men were able to escape and make their way to Fort Kearney, Nebraska. After resting up, Billy returned home with another outfit going back to Leavenworth.

Cody's second trip was with a wagon train bound for Utah Territory. A few days out the train encountered a large band of buffalo on the trail. While the train attempted to make its way through, a group of horsemen approached from the other side of the herd. For reasons unknown the horsemen rode straight into the herd, causing a stampede. Several wagons were overturned and damaged, and most of the oxen were driven off. The wagon train was delayed several days while repairs were made, freight was repackaged, and the oxen were rounded up again. After a few uneventful weeks, the train finally made it to Utah, where it was then met by a band of renegade Mormons. Declaring that they were not subject to the laws of the United States, the men attacked the wagon train, burned all the wagons and freight, and took all the livestock except for a few oxen. Cody and his comrades made their way to Fort Bridger, Wyoming Territory, where they were forced to spend the winter. In the spring, Cody and two other men were attached to a wagon train heading back to Leavenworth. Along the way they were attacked by Indians, but managed to escape fairly unscathed.

The following spring found Cody in Laramie, Wyoming, where he met Jim Bridger, Kit Carson, and other well-known scouts and trappers. He spent the winter trying his hand at fur trapping, but barely made enough to survive. He returned home to Leavenworth just in time to hear about gold being found near Pike's Peak, Colorado, in 1859. He and two friends struck out for Golden, Colorado, to try their luck at prospecting, but gave up after only two months.

In the fall of 1859, Billy and a friend were trapping in the Republican River Valley of western Kansas when a bear killed one of their oxen. Then, to make matters worse, Billy took a fall and broke his leg. His friend rode the remaining oxen over 100 miles to the nearest settlement to get help. While he was gone, Sioux Indians came along and took most of Billy's remaining food. The friend finally returned and the two eventually made their way back to civilization.

In 1860, hearing that the Pony Express was looking for riders, Cody went to see George Chrisman at the Julesburg, Colorado, station. Chrisman was reluctant to hire the 14-year-old, but Billy was apparently able to convince him that he was quite capable of handling the job and was subsequently hired on as the youngest rider for the Pony Express.

Soon after outbreak of the Civil War, Cody was called home to help his sick mother, who operated a hotel in addition to the family farm. He spent some time working as a messenger for the Union Army, carrying dispatches between Fort Leavenworth and Fort Larned, Kansas. After his mother's death in 1863, he enlisted in the 7th Kansas Regiment. During his time in the army, Cody spent some time in St. Louis, where he met a woman named Louisa Frederici. After the war he asked for her hand in marriage. She agreed, but only if he agreed to give up his life on the plains. Billy agreed, but told her that he would first have to make them some money. He spent a year driving stages before returning to St. Louis. The couple were married on March 6, 1866. Trying hard to make good on his promise to give up the "wild life," Cody decided to re-open his mother's hotel. He was not a very good businessman, however, and had to sell the hotel barely a year later. He subsequently spent time as an army scout, tried his hand in real estate, and worked as a laborer on the railroad, before getting his next big break.

While working for the railroad, Cody joined a buffalo hunting party. Quickly impressing his railroad bosses with his shooting skills, he was hired as a full-time buffalo hunter. One day a young man named Billy Comstock challenged Cody to prove who was the best marksman and "champion of the plains." Cody took up the challenge and the two men, along with a huge crowd of spectators, met outside the small Kansas town of Oakley, where a huge buffalo herd awaited them. Cody won the contest easily, killing 69 buffalo to Comstock's 46. He spent the next year and a half supplying buffalo meat to the railroad, killing 4,208 buffalo during that time. It was during this period that people began calling him "Buffalo Bill."

From 1868 to 1872, Cody served as a civilian scout for military forces fighting Indians. Between campaigns, he served as a guide for several parties of buffalo hunters. While stationed at Fort McPherson, Kansas, he met Colonel E.Z.C. Judson, better known as Ned Buntline. The author of several dime novels about famous frontier characters, Buntline picked Cody as his next hero and, in 1869, published Buffalo Bill, King of the Border Men. Staying on at Fort McPherson, Cody built a cabin there for his wife, daughter (Arta), and two of his sisters; they moved there in 1870. His son, Kit Carson Cody, was born there that winter.

Buntline's novel made Cody famous, and in the fall of 1871 a party of rich Easterners and Europeans were treated to a mock battle, war dances, and buffalo hunts put on by Cody. His daughter Orra was born in August 1872, and soon after Buntline convinced Cody to perform in shows on the East Coast. Taking Wild Bill Hickok (whom he had met several years earlier) with him, Buffalo Bill spent the next four winters on stage and the summers scouting. He made enough money to buy a house in Rochester, New York, for his wife, a cattle ranch on the North Platte River in Nebraska, and 4,000 acres in the Big Horn Basin of Wyoming. He did suffer one tragedy, however -- the death of his son in April 1876. Wanting his show to be more realistic, Cody decided to hire real sharpshooters, cowboys, and Indians, and to do the show outside like a circus. The Wild West, Rocky Mountain, and Prairie Exhibition opened on May 17, 1883, in Omaha, Nebraska, the same year his daughter Irma was born. The show featured a stage hold-up, Pony Express riders, Indian battles, and Buffalo Bill himself, with all "actors" firing real guns. The show was an instant hit. In 1885, Cody made $100,000. In 1886, Cody took his show to Europe, where it enjoyed the same success it had in America. In 1893, he made over a million dollars. His ranch in Wyoming had also become a very popular dude ranch, the first of its type. The town of Cody, Wyoming, was planned by him, and he paid for its first buildings.

advertisement for Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show

Cody's business life was finally going quite well, but his personal life was not. Louisa had grown tired of his womanizing, boozing, and excessive travel. The two were on the verge of divorce when their youngest daughter died. They reconciled after that. Although his businesses had made him a millionaire, Cody never learned how to keep his money. Generous to a fault, he was quick to hand out money to almost anyone professing a need. By the time he finally quit performing, he was bankrupt and had to sell off his show to pay his debts. He managed to scrape enough money together to form the W.F. Cody Historical Pictures Company, which in 1914 filmed a reenactment of the Battle of Wounded Knee. Cody was the first to see the possibility of recording the West on film, but his film was a financial failure.

William Frederick "Buffalo Bill" Cody died in Denver, Colorado, on January 10, 1917, and was buried on Lookout Mountain, about twenty miles west of Denver.


New Perspectives on the West

See Also

Kit Carson
Pony Express
Civil War
Fort Larned

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The Robinson Library >> The West >> General History and Description

This page was last updated on November 19, 2018.