In addition to his documented service as a soldier during the Civil War and as Chief of Scouts for the Third Cavalry during the Plains Wars, Cody claimed to have worked many jobs, including as a trapper, bullwhacker, "Fifty-Niner" in Colorado, a Pony Express rider in 1860, wagonmaster, stagecoach driver, and even a hotel manager, but it's unclear which claims were factual and which were fabricated for purposes of publicity. He became world famous for his Wild West show.
William Frederick Cody was born at his family's farmhouse in Scott County, Iowa, on February 26, 1846, to Isaac and Mary Cody. When Cody was 7, his older brother, Samuel, was killed by a fall from a horse. His death so affected Mary Cody's health that a change of scene was advised and the family relocated to Kansas, where William worked for a while in a store in Leavenworth, moving into a large log cabin on land that they had staked there.
Cody's father believed that Kansas should be a free state, but many of the other settlers in the area were pro-slavery. While giving an anti-slavery speech at the local trading post, he so inflamed the supporters of slavery in the audience that they formed a mob and one of them stabbed him. Cody helped to drag his father to safety, although he never fully recovered from his injuries. The family was constantly persecuted by the supporters of slavery, forcing Isaac Cody to spend much of his time away from home. His enemies learned of a planned visit to his family and plotted to kill him on the way. Cody, despite his youth and the fact that he was ill, rode 30 miles to warn his father. Cody's father died in 1857 from complications from his stabbing.
After his father's death, the Cody family suffered financial difficulties, and Cody, aged only 11, took a job with freight carrier as a "boy extra," riding up and down the length of a wagon train, delivering messages. From here, he joined Johnston's Army as an unofficial member of the scouts assigned to guide the Army to Utah to put down a falsely-reported rebellion by the Mormon population of Salt Lake City.
At the age of 14, Cody was struck by gold fever, but on his way to the gold fields, he met an agent for the Pony Express. He signed with them and after building several way stations and corrals was given a job as rider, which he kept until he was called home to his sick mother's bedside.
His mother recovered, and Cody, who wished to enlist as a soldier, but was refused for his age, began working with a United States freight caravan which delivered supplies to Fort Laramie.
Civil War soldier and marriage
Shortly after the death of his mother in 1863, Cody enlisted in the 7th Kansas Cavalry Regiment and fought with them on the Union side for the rest of the Civil War.
While stationed at military camp in St. Louis, Bill met Louisa Frederici (1843-1921). He returned after his discharge and they married on March 6, 1866. Their marriage was not a happy one, and Bill unsuccessfully attempted to divorce Louisa. They had four children, two of whom died young: his beloved son, Kit died of scarlet fever in April, 1876 and his daughter Orra died in 1880.
His early experience as an Army scout led him again to scouting. From 1868 until 1872 Cody was employed as a scout by the United States Army. Part of this time he spent scouting for Indians, and the remainder was spent gathering and killing bison for them and the Kansas Pacific Railroad. He received the Medal of Honor in 1872 for "gallantry in action" while serving as a civilian scout for the 3rd Cavalry Regiment. This medal was revoked on February 5, 1917, 24 days after his death, because he was a civilian and therefore was ineligible for the award under new guidelines for the award in 1917. The medal was restored to him by the army in 1989.
After being a frontiersman, Buffalo Bill entered show business. He formed a touring company called the Buffalo Bill Combination which put on plays (e.g. "Scouts of the Prairie", "Scouts of the Plain") based loosely on his Western adventures, initially with Texas Jack Omohundro, and for one season (1873) with Wild Bill Hickok. The troupe toured for ten years and his part typically included an 1876 incident at the Warbonnet Creek where he claimed to have scalped a Cheyenne warrior, purportedly in revenge for the death of George Armstrong Custer.
Buffalo Bill's Wild West
It was the age of great showmen and traveling entertainers, like the Barnum and Bailey Circus and the Vaudeville circuits. Cody put together a new traveling show based on both of those forms of entertainment. In 1883 in the area of North Omaha, Nebraska he founded "Buffalo Bill's Wild West," (despite popular misconception the word "show" was not a part of the title) a circus-like attraction that toured annually.
As the Wild West toured North America over the next twenty years, it became a moving extravaganza, including as many as 1200 performers. In 1893 the title was changed to Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World. The show began with a parade on horseback, with participants from horse-culture groups that included US and other military, American Indians, and performers from all over the world in their best attire. There were Turks, Gauchos, Arabs, Mongols and Cossacks, among others, each showing their own distinctive horses and colorful costumes.
Visitors to this spectacle could see main events, feats of skill, staged races, and sideshows. Many authentic western personalities were part of the show. For example Sitting Bull and a band of twenty braves appeared. Cody's headline performers were well known in their own right. People like Annie Oakley and her husband Frank Butler put on shooting exhibitions along with the likes of Gabriel Dumont. Buffalo Bill and his performers would re-enact the riding of the Pony Express, Indian attacks on wagon trains, and stagecoach robberies. The show typically ended with a melodramatic re-enactment of Custer's Last Stand in which Cody himself portrayed General Custer.
In 1887 he performed in London in celebration of the Jubilee year of Queen Victoria, and toured Europe in 1889. In 1890 he met Pope Leo XIII. He set up an exhibition near the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, which greatly contributed to his popularity, and also vexed the promoters of the fair. As noted in The Devil in the White City, he had been rebuffed in his request to be part of the fair, so he set up shop just to the west of the fairgrounds, drawing many patrons away from the fair. Since his show was not part of the fair, he was not obligated to pay the fair any royalties, which they could have used to temper the financial struggles of the fair.
Many historians claim that, at the turn of the 20th century, Buffalo Bill Cody was the most recognizable celebrity on earth and yet, despite all of the recognition and appreciation Cody's show brought for the Western and American Indian cultures, Buffalo Bill saw the American West change dramatically during his tumultuous life. Bison herds, which had once numbered in the millions, were now threatened with extinction. Railroads crossed the plains, barbed wire, and other types of fences divided the land for farmers and ranchers, and the once-threatening Indian tribes were now almost completely confined to reservations. Wyoming's resources of coal, oil and natural gas were beginning to be exploited towards the end of his life.
Even the Shoshone River was dammed for hydroelectric power as well as for irrigation. In 1897 and 1899 Colonel William F. (Buffalo Bill) Cody and his associates acquired from the State of Wyoming the right to take water from the Shoshone River to irrigate about 169,000 acres of land in the Big Horn Basin. They began developing a canal to carry water diverted from the river, but their plans did not include a water storage reservoir. Colonel Cody and his associates were unable to raise sufficient capital to complete their plan. Early in 1903 they joined with the Wyoming Board of Land Commissioners in urging the federal government to step in and help with irrigation development in the valley.
The Shoshone Project became one of the first federal water development projects undertaken by the newly formed Reclamation Service, later to become known as the Bureau of Reclamation. After Reclamation took over the project in 1903, investigating engineers recommended constructing a dam on the Shoshone River in the canyon east of Cody.
Construction of the Shoshone Dam (later called Buffalo Bill Dam) started in 1905, a year after the Shoshone Project was authorized. Almost three decades after its construction the title of dam and reservoir was changed by Act of Congress to Buffalo Bill Dam to honor Cody.
Life in Cody, Wyoming
In 1895, William Cody was instrumental in helping found Cody, Wyoming. Incorporated in 1901, Cody is located 52 miles from Yellowstone National Park's east entrance. Cody was founded by Colonel William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody who passed through the region in the 1870s. He was so impressed by the development possibilities from irrigation, rich soil, grand scenery, hunting, and proximity to Yellowstone Park that he returned in the mid-1890s to start a town. He brought with him men whose names are still on street signs in Cody’s downtown area – Beck, Alger, Rumsey, Bleistein and Salsbury.
In 1902, he built the Irma Hotel in downtown Cody. The hotel is named after his daughter, Irma. He also had lodging along the North Fork of the Shoshone River, which is a route to the east entrance of Yellowstone National Park that included the Wapiti Inn and Pahaska Teepee. Up the south fork of the Shoshone was his ranch, the TE.
When Cody acquired the TE property, he ordered the movement of Nebraska and South Dakota cattle to Wyoming. This new herd carried the TE brand. The late 1890s were relatively prosperous years for Buffalo Bill's Wild West and he used some of the profits to accumulate lands which were added to the TE holdings. Eventually Cody held around eight thousand acres of private land for grazing operations and ran about a thousand head of cattle. He also operated a dude ranch, pack horse camping trips, and big game hunting business at and from the TE Ranch. In his spacious and comfortable ranch house he entertained notable guests from Europe and America.
Cody died of kidney failure on January 10, 1917, surrounded by family and friends at his sister's house in Denver. His funeral was in Denver at the Elks Lodge Hall. Wyoming Governor John B. Kendrick, a friend of Cody's, led the funeral procession to the Elks Lodge.
Contrary to popular belief Cody was not destitute, but his once great fortune had dwindled to under $100,000. Despite his request to be buried in Cody, Wyoming, in an early will, it was superseded by a later will which left his burial arrangements up to his wife Louisa. To this day there is controversy as to where Cody should have been buried. On June 3, 1917, he was buried on Colorado's Lookout Mountain, in Golden, Colorado, west of the city of Denver, located on the edge of the Rocky Mountains and overlooking the Great Plains. While there is evidence that Cody had already been baptized as a baby, he was baptized a Catholic on January 9, 1917, the day before he died.
In contrast to his image and stereotype as a rough-hewn outdoorsman, Buffalo Bill pushed for the rights of American Indians and women. In addition, despite his history of killing bison, he supported their conservation by speaking out against hide-hunting and pushing for a hunting season.
Buffalo Bill became so well known and his exploits such a part of American culture that his persona has appeared in many literary works, as well as television shows and movies. Westerns were very popular in the 1950s and 60s. Buffalo Bill would make an appearance in most of them. As a character, he is in the very popular Broadway musical Annie Get Your Gun, which was very successful both with Ethel Merman and more recently with Bernadette Peters in the lead role. On television, his persona has appeared on shows such as Bat Masterson and even Bonanza. His personal appearance has been portrayed everywhere from an elder statesman to a flamboyant, self-serving exhibitionist.
Having been a frontier scout who respected the natives, he was a staunch supporter of their rights. He employed many more natives than just Sitting Bull, feeling his show offered them a better life, calling them "the former foe, present friend, the American", and once said,