William Frederick "Buffalo Bill" Cody (February 26, 1846 – January 10, 1917) was an American soldier, buffalo hunter and showman. He was born in the American state of Iowa, near Le Claire. He was one of the most colorful figures of the Old West, and mostly famous for the shows he organized with cowboy themes.
Nickname and work life
William Frederick Cody (Buffalo Bill) got his nickname for supplying Kansas Pacific Railroad workers with buffalo meat. The nickname originally referred to Bill Comstock. Cody won the nickname from him in 1868 in a buffalo killing contest. He won 69 to 48.
In addition to his documented service as a soldier during the Civil War and as a Colonel, Chief of Scouts for the Army 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.
Performer in Buffalo Bill's Wild West, seen at Buffalo Bill Museum in Colorado.
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, 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 (see Bleeding Kansas). 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, this time officially appointed.
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 buffalo 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 toured the United States starring in plays based loosely on his Western adventures, initially with Texas Jack Omohundro, and for one season with Wild Bill Hickok. His part typically included an 1876 incident at the Warbonnet Creek where he scalped a Cheyenne warrior, purportedly in revenge for the death of George Armstrong Custer.
Life in Cody, Wyoming
In 1895, William Cody was instrumental in helping found Cody, Wyoming. Later he built the Irma Hotel downtown. He also had lodging along the route to the east entry of Yellowstone National Park that included the Wapiti Inn and Pahaska Teepee. Up the Southfork was his TE Ranch getaway with family.
Buffalo Bill's Wild West
It was the age of great showmen and traveling entertainers, like Barnum & Bailey's Circus and the Vaudeville circuits. Cody took the lead from fellow showman 'Pawnee Bill' and put together his own traveling show. In 1883 in Omaha, Nebraska Cody 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. In 1887 he performed in London in celebration of the Jubilee year of Queen Victoria, and toured Europe in 1889. He set up an exhibition near the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 (properly the World's Columbian Exposition), which greatly contributed to his popularity. At first his manager was Dr. Carver, but the show only became famous once his manager became Nathan "Nate" Salsbury (Buffalo Bill Cody Wild West Show)
A handbill for Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World
, from 1899
As the Wild West toured North America over the next twenty years it became a moving extravaganza, including as many as 1200 performers. 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. Bill used real working cowboys and real Indians. His best performers were well known in their own right. People like Annie Oakley and Frank Butler put on shooting exhibitions. Sitting Bull and a band of twenty braves appeared in the show at one time. Other well-known contemporaries such as 'Calamity Jane' (Martha Jane Cannary-Burke) and James Butler 'Wild Bill' Hickock toured at one time or another. Buffalo Bill and his performers would re-enact the riding of the Pony Express, Indian attacks on wagon trains, and stagecoach robberies. Cody's performance typically ended with a melodramatic re-enactment of Custer's Last Stand in which Cody himself portrayed General Custer. 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. Buffalo herds, which had once numbered in the millions, were now threatened with extinction. Railroads crossed the plains, barbed wire and other types of fences now 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. Builders called it the Buffalo Bill Dam.
Buffalo Bill's grave on Lookout Mountain in Colorado
Cody died on January 10, 1917 broke and alone. Despite his request to be buried at Cody, Wyoming, he was buried on Colorado's Lookout Mountain, at Golden, Colorado, west of the city of Denver, located on the edge of the Rocky Mountains and overlooking the Great Plains. This was due to the influence of a financial backer to whom W. F. Cody owed money, and at the direction of Cody's wife. Some time before death, Cody converted to Catholicism.
Buffalo Bill was a rough-hewn outdoorsman, and pushed for the rights of American Indians and women. In addition, despite his history of killing the buffalo, 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 1950's and 60's. 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 most recently with Reba McEntire in the lead role. On television his persona has appeared on shows such as Bat Masterson and even Bonanza. His persona has been portrayed everywhere from an elder statesman to a flamboyant, selfserving 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,
- "Every Indian outbreak that I have ever known has resulted from broken promises and broken treaties by the government."
Buffalo Bill Cody in 1903
While in his shows the Indians were usually the "bad guys", attacking stagecoaches and wagon trains in order to be driven off by "heroic" cowboys and soldiers, Bill also had the wives and children of his Indian performers set up camp as they would in the homelands as part of the show, so that the paying public could see the human side of the "fierce warriors", that they were families like any other, just part of a different culture.
The city of Cody, Wyoming was founded in 1896 by Cody and some investors, and is named for him. It is the home of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center. Fifty miles from Yellowstone National Park, it became a tourist magnet with many dignitaries and political leaders coming to hunt. Bill did indeed spend a great amount of time in Wyoming at his home in Cody. However, he also had a house in the town of North Platte, Nebraska. This western Nebraska town is still home to "Nebraskaland Days," an annual festival including concerts and a large rodeo. His home in North Platte is both a museum, and a tourist destination for thousands of people every year.
Buffalo Bill became a hero of the Bills, a Congolese youth subculture of the late 1950s who idolized Western movies.
In film and television
Buffalo Bill has been represented in the movies by:
- Himself (1898 and 1912)
- George Waggner (1924)
- John Fox, Jr. (1924)
- Jack Hoxie (1926)
- Roy Stewart (1926)
- William Fairbanks (1928)
- Tom Tyler (1931)
- Douglass Dumbrille (1933)
- Earl Dwire (1935)
- Moroni Olsen (1935)
- Ted Adams (1936)
- James Ellison (1936)
- Carlyle Moore (1938)
- Jack Rutherford (1938)
- George Reeves (1940)
- Roy Rogers (1940)
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- Joel McCrea (1944)
- Richard Arlen (1947)
- Enzo Fiermonte (1949)
- Monte Hale (1949)
- Louis Calhern (1950)
- Tex Cooper (1951)
- Clayton Moore (1952)
- Rodd Redwing (1952)
- Charlton Heston (1953)
- William O'Neal (1957)
- Malcolm Atterbury (1958)
- James McMullan (1963)
- Gordon Scott (1964)
- Guy Stockwell (1966)
- Rufus Smith (1967)
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- Matt Clark (1974)
- Michel Piccoli (1974)
- Paul Newman (1976)
- Buff Brady (1979)
- R. L. Tolbert (1979)
- Ted Flicker (1981)
- Ken Kercheval (1984)
- Jeffrey Jones (1987)
- Stephen Baldwin (1989)
- Brian Keith (1993)
- Dennis Weaver (1994)
- Keith Carradine (1995)
- Peter Coyote (1995)
- J. K. Simmons (2004)
- Frank Conniff (2005)
William Cody's statue at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming.
"Buffalo Bill's / defunct"
A famous free verse poem on mortality by E. E. Cummings uses Buffalo Bill as an image of life and vibrancy. The poem is untitled, but commonly known by its first two lines: "Buffalo Bill's / defunct". The poem uses expressive phrases to describe Buffalo Bill's showmanship, referring to his "watersmooth-silver / stallion", and using a staccato beat to describe his rapid shooting of a series of clay pigeons.
- Project Gutenberg's Last of the Great Scouts, by Helen Cody Wetmore
Other Buffalo Bills
- Buffalo Bill is also the name of a fictional character from Thomas Harris's The Silence of the Lambs, who was also parodied in the movie Joe Dirt under the name Buffalo Bob
- Two television series, Buffalo Bill, Jr. (1955–6) starring Dickie Jones and Buffalo Bill (1983–4) starring Dabney Coleman, had nothing to do with the historic person.
- The Buffalo Bills, an NFL team based in Buffalo, New York, were named after Buffalo Bill. Prior to that team's existence, other early football teams used the nickname.
- The Buffalo Bills are a barbershop-quartet singing group consisting of Vern Reed, Al Shea, Bill Spangenberg, and Wayne Ward. They appeared in the original Broadway cast of The Music Man (opened 1957) and in the 1962 motion-picture version of that play.
- Buffalo Bill is the title of a song by the jam band Phish
- Sitting Bull
- Annie Oakley
- Katherine Clemmons
- Annie Get Your Gun
- Ned Buntline: Contemporary of Buffalo Bill and author of successful dime novel series "Buffalo Bill Cody - King of the Border Men"
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