Buffalo Bill — The Man Behind the Legend
Smart, ambitious, and creative, William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody sold himself and his experiences and became larger than life.
by Steve Friesen
He wasn't always known as Buffalo Bill. Long before he acquired the iconic name, he was simply William Frederick Cody, an 8-year-old boy when his family moved from Iowa to Leavenworth, Kansas Territory, then a frontier town at the edge of the American West. Unlike the rest of the Kansas Territory, Iowa was a free state, so when they moved to Leavenworth, the family encountered a raging debate about slavery. Kansas Territory bordered Missouri, where slavery had been allowed since statehood in 1820, and pro-slavery advocates were agitating for the extension of the practice into the new territory. Young “Will” Cody’s father Isaac tried to quietly establish a small farm but was drawn into the slavery debate at a settler’s meeting. As he spoke carefully but strongly about his opposition to allowing slavery in the territory, shouts of “black abolitionist” and “kill him” erupted from the crowd before a man jumped up and stabbed him. (Will later wrote that his father shed “the first blood in the cause of the freedom of Kansas.”) Isaac recovered from the wound and, despite multiple death threats, continued to speak out against allowing slavery in Kansas. The threats only strengthened his resolve, and in 1856 he became an active member of the Topeka legislature that prepared for statehood.
The Leavenworth area was the jumping-off point for wagons heading west to the Great Plains and beyond, and Will later wrote about being impressed by the beauty of the surrounding scenery. He was also enthralled by the “vast number of white-covered wagons” camped in the valley, and his sister Julia later wrote that Will was so excited that he declared that he wanted to go, too. In this period, Will had his first encounter with American Indians, members of the Kickapoo tribe, who came to trade with his father who had established a small trading post on their land. They were friendly, and the Will learned as much as he could about them. The peaceful nature of this first meeting and his fascination with the American Indians served him well during his years as a hunter and Army scout. And likely drawing from his father’s brave example, Will would later employ African American buffalo soldiers in his Wild West shows and advocate for American Indian and women’s rights.
William F. Cody (1846–1917) lived in one of America’s most exciting eras and went on to commodify his unique experiences in the West before audiences’ eyes. A pioneer and a pioneering showman, he built his fame and business thanks to real frontier experiences. And setting the mold for modern celebrities, he became famous for being famous. Unlike modern celebrities, however, his performances were based on fact—largely the story of being thrust into adulthood. More than 1,500 dime novels, several silent films, wealth, and world travels followed, but it all started with his true exploits. And through it all, he never lost his soul.
In 1857 Isaac became ill, still in a weakened condition from the knife wound, and died. At age 11, Will was now the man of the household. He later wrote that “this sad event left my mother and the family in poor circumstances, and I determined to follow the plains for a livelihood for them and myself.” Will took a job working for Russell, Majors and Waddell, which sent wagon trains filled with freight to Santa Fe and other points west. Will made the first of several trips across the Great Plains, from Leavenworth to Salt Lake City and back, trips that made strong impressions on him. He also marveled at the thrilling stories he heard from the other teamsters in the outfit and participated in his first buffalo hunt. (“The country was alive with buffaloes,” he later wrote.) Over the next several years, Will took odd jobs and attended school in Leavenworth, but school held little fascination for him. He’d had a taste of the great expanse of the West and was enthralled.
“I longed for the cool air of the mountains,” he later wrote. “And to the mountains I determined to go.”
When gold was discovered in Colorado, he joined the “Rush to the Rockies” of 1859. Failing to make his fortune in the Colorado gold fields, Will returned to Kansas and joined the Pony Express. Stories about Cody’s employment with the Pony Express have come under fire because of contradictory information about dates and activities. Cody, like many Westerners of his time, didn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story, but scholars tend to give him the benefit of the doubt on this issue, as he had already worked as a cattle herder, messenger, and teamster for Russell, Majors and Waddell, the company that started the Pony Express. And enough of his contemporaries linked him to the Pony Express to entirely dismiss the claim. (His autobiographies, the biographies written by his sisters Julia and Helen, and accounts by boyhood friends mention the participation, as well.)
The conflict between pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions in Kansas came to a head with the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, when 15-year-old Will joined a group of Jayhawkers—Kansas guerillas that preyed on their pro-slavery neighbors in Missouri. When his mother Mary Ann found out, she made him quit the group, saying they were little more than “horse thieves.” Shortly after, most of his former companions were killed in a raid.
“I grew up among some of the roughest men and some of the most desperate characters that ever infested the border of civilization, and had it not been for my mother, I too, might have died with my boots on,” Cody later wrote. “God bless our mothers.”
He went on to support women’s suffrage, and stated that it was due, in large part, to the respect he had for his mother. The death of Mary Ann in 1863 was hard on 18-year-old Will. He became despondent and later wrote that after two months of carousing and “under the influence of bad whiskey, I awoke to find myself a soldier in the Seventh Kansas.” Cody served in the Union Army from 1864 until the end of the war in 1865.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, Will found employment providing meat for the expanding Kansas Pacific railroad. Assisted by his faithful horse Brigham, he proved to be an effective buffalo hunter. Will wrote that, “as soon as one buffalo would fall, Brigham would take me so close to the next, that I could almost touch it with my gun.” His favorite hunting rifle was an 1866 Springfield, which he nicknamed “Lucretia Borgia,” after the most famous member of the Machiavellian Borgia family, which gained power in Renaissance Italy by murdering its opponents. During one 17-month period Will killed 4,280 buffalo as a meat hunter, earning him his famous nickname: Buffalo Bill.
When Buffalo Bill finished his contract with the railroad, he sought employment with the U.S. Army as a contract scout. His work was sporadic, but he was effective and drew the attention of Generals Carr and Sheridan, who frequently engaged him to scout for them and their men. He continued to hunt buffalo as needed, supplying meat for the Army.
Buffalo Bill’s time with the Army coincided with the final, bloody years of the Indian Wars. From 1868 to 1869, he took part in nine battles, the most significant happening at Summit Springs, in northeastern Colorado. A group of Cheyenne Dog Soldiers (a warrior class known for their aggressiveness) led by Tall Bull had been attacking white settlements in Nebraska and Kansas. Tall Bull’s attacks had resulted in the deaths of many settlers and led to the capture of two white women. Guided by William F. Cody, Frank North, and Luther North, the Fifth Cavalry attacked Tall Bull’s village near Summit Springs. They rescued one of the female captives, but the other was killed when the fighting began. General Carr, leader of the command, credited Cody with killing Tall Bull himself. Over the next three years, Buffalo Bill was in several actions, one of which even earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor.
During this time, Buffalo Bill somehow met Ned Buntline, a dime novelist and journalist, likely at Fort McPherson along the North Platte River in western Nebraska. When Buntline returned back East, he serialized a new tale, “Buffalo Bill: The King of the Border Men,” in 11 issues of the New York Weekly from 1869–1870. Buntline did not invent Buffalo Bill, as some historians have suggested, but “Buffalo Bill: The King of the Border Men” introduced him to the public and was the first of many dime novels to featured Cody (most of which are entirely fictional). Buntline and Cody later starred together in a stage production, which started Cody on the road to celebrity.
Three years prior to meeting Buntline, Buffalo Bill had married Louisa Frederici and kept home in Leavenworth, and other western Kansas and Nebraska communities, while he hunted and scouted. They eventually had four children together, but Louisa neither understood nor enjoyed the frontier life. When her husband moved on to show business, she was no more enthusiastic about near-constant travel. The family finally settled in North Platte, Neb., in 1878, where Buffalo Bill later kept a separate residence. When he filed for divorce in 1904, the news was a front-page scandal, and the acrimonious divorce trial was widely covered. (The judge refused the divorce petition, and the feuding Codys somewhat reconciled in their final years.)
Ned Buntline’s story was turned into a play, which showed at the Bowery Theater in New York City, in 1872. Buffalo Bill traveled to Chicago and New York and was met with curiosity and awe by members of society. He was invited on stage between acts and introduced to the audience. Gazing out on a sea of earnest faces, he recognized an opportunity and, within a year, ventured into show business. Buffalo Bill’s acting career began on December 16, 1872, when he joined fellow scout Texas Jack Omohundro and Ned Buntline on stage in Chicago. Written at the last minute by Buntline, the play was titled, “Scouts of the Prairie.” Cody and Omohundro went on to form the Buffalo Bill Combination, which toured playhouses around the country until the 1880s. They even got their friend Wild Bill Hickok to join them on stage for a short run.
When Buffalo Bill learned that an expedition led by George Armstrong Custer had discovered gold on Cheyenne and Lakota lands in the Black Hills, he cut the 1876 theatrical season short and headed West again. Scouting with the Fifth Cavalry in Nebraska, Buffalo Bill guided a party of troopers to a group of Cheyenne warriors at Warbonnet Creek—warriors who were reportedly on their way north to join the American Indians who had defeated Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn just three weeks prior. Eyewitness Christian Madsen, a soldier with the Fifth Cavalry who later became a well-known lawman, recorded that Cody was ahead of the party and fired at Cheyenne sub-chief Yellow Hair, killing him. Yellow Hair went by that name thanks to a trophy he wore—the scalp of a blonde woman. According to Cody, after he killed Yellow Hair, he scalped him and waved it in the air, shouting “The first scalp for Custer!” When he returned to show business that fall, he incorporated the incident into the play “Red Right Hand.” The story gained instant notoriety and became central to publicizing Buffalo Bill’s Combination and later, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show.
In 1883, Buffalo Bill had the vision to transcend the limitations of the stage, later writing: “I conceived the idea of organizing a large company of Indians, cowboys, Mexican vaqueros, famous riders and expert lasso throwers, with accessories of stage coach, emigrant wagons, bucking horses and a herd of buffaloes, with which to give a realistic entertainment of wild life on the plains.”
That spring he traveled through Nebraska, Colorado, and Wyoming, gathering together animals and performers, who joined him in rehearsing the new show in Columbus, Neb. But his performers weren’t actors, they were the genuine articles—frontier scout Frank North, mountain man John Y. Nelson, Texas cowboy Buck Taylor, and sharpshooter A.H. Bogardus. Some, like Bogardus, even joined Cody in investing in the show. Buffalo Bill also included former American Indian foes, who welcomed the opportunity to leave the crippling reservations. After several months of rehearsal, the show premiered in Omaha, Neb., on May 17, 1883, before a crowd of over 10,000. A local newspaper account reported that the audience “cheered at trifles and blazed with enthusiasm at any demonstration of merit. The picture was an extraordinary one, such as we are not likely to see again.” But they would see it again and again over the next 30 years. Cody’s idea was a hit and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West became an American institution.
[/caption]Buffalo Bill’s Wild West was the crescendo of his professional life. Prior, he had been a minor celebrity, but the show made him a world-renowned figure, who toured throughout the United States and Europe many times. Buffalo Bill’s innovations in show operations were studied and copied by many during his time. In fact, the “cowboy’s fun” portion of his Wild West, which included races and the riding of bucking broncos, has been credited with helping originate professional rodeo. He also regularly played “The Star Spangled Banner” in his shows, which helped influence the song’s choice as the American national anthem in 1931. A visit by the Wild West to New Orleans during 1885 influenced the local African Americans, who began “masking” as Plains Indians during Mardi Gras, imitating their clothing and language. And the popularity of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West influenced the fledgling movie industry, leading to the domination of Western-themed movies. (Approximately 40 movies have been made that feature Buffalo Bill or include him as a main character, not to mention the films he appeared in as himself.)
He had a tremendous run of success, though uncompromising creditors and a season of bad weather forced him to sell the show in 1913. An agreement with one of his creditors, Harry Tammen, forced Buffalo Bill to tour with the Sells Floto Circus for two years, and when that agreement concluded in 1916, Cody joined the Oklahoma-based 101 Ranch Wild West. When William F. Cody died of kidney failure at age 71 at his sister’s home in Denver in 1917, telegrams poured in from well-wishers around the world, and his coffin lay in state in the rotunda of the Colorado State Capitol. By that time, he had been recognized for using his wealth and position to speak out for equal rights and was respected for being more than a showman. He had seen his father stand up against slavery and had himself employed people of many ethnicities and races in his Wild West, including former American Indian enemies, giving them equal pay and advocating for their rights, even providing opportunities for them to meet with American Presidents. He showed that cowgirls like Lulu Parr could ride and that markswomen like Annie Oakley could shoot as well, or better, than their male counterparts. And he had spoken out for providing women employment rights and the right to vote.
“Let them do any kind of work that they see fit, and if they do it as well as men give them the same pay,” he had stated.
Buffalo Bill supported—and demonstrated—the idea that America’s diversity and opportunity are what make it unique. Imperfect and contradictory in many ways, he understood that progress was necessary and supported the settlement of the West yet also wanted people to recognize that maintenance of wilderness areas was critical to the lifeblood of the nation. Buffalo Bill advocated for the preservation of wild places and supported President Theodore Roosevelt’s National Park initiatives. He spoke publicly for the preservation of the buffalo and against their wholesale slaughter, despite having contributed to that slaughter himself.
A legend in his own time, William F. Cody became something much larger: Buffalo Bill, symbol of America’s frontier era and the shaping of a nation.