The Life & Times of:
Buffalo Bill Cody
William F. Cody "Buffalo Bill"
By the turn of the 20th century, William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody was probably the most famous American in the world.
No one symbolized the West better. He lived a life on the American frontier that legends are made of. Bill Cody was the spirit of the West for millions. He was consulted on Western and Indian matters by every American president from Ulysses S. Grant to Woodrow Wilson. He was honored by European royalty, military leaders, and business tycoons. He counted among his friends such artists and writers as Frederic Remington and Mark Twain.
Buffalo Bill Cody was America's ideal man: a courtly, chivalrous, self-made fellow who could shoot a gun and charm a crowd. Yet as Annie Oakley put it - he was the simplest of men, as comfortable with cowboys as with kings.
Just who was this “Great Champion of the Plains” and how did he achieve such an exalted position? This chronology will give you some insight.
1846 - Born just west of the Mississippi River near LeClaire, in Scott County, Iowa on February 26th. He was the only boy among a family of six children.
1854 - While he was still a child, his family moved to Leavenworth, Kansas.
1857 - At the age of eleven his father died and to help support his family Cody left his home in Leavenworth to seek employment. His first real job was for freight contractors Russell, Majors and Waddell.
1858 - Bill works as a driver on a wagon train, crossing the Great Plains several times by the age of 12.
1859 - He tried fur trapping and gold mining, meeting with little success.
1860 - The Pony Express, advertised for "skinny, expert riders willing to risk death daily." Already a seasoned plainsman at age 14, Cody fit the bill. He became one of the most fearless and daring among its riders.
1861 - Cody befriended James Butler Hickok. The two of them threw in together and bought a race-horse to race in St. Louis. Through this misadventure they lost what meager savings they had.
1863 - Cody scouted for the Cavalry against the Kiowa and Comanche Indians as a civilian scout.
1864 - In 1864, he actually joined the army, and became a scout for the 7th Cavalry. He served in that capacity for 19 months.
1865 - On September 29, he mustered out of the army; however he continued to offer his services as a scout.
1866 - After the Civil war, he married Louisa Frederici in St. Louis. They settled in Salt Creek Valley, Kansas, where Cody became involved in the hotel business. Before long he was losing money and within six months he had sold the Hotel and, after depositing his wife with his sister in Leavenworth, looked for employment more suited to the life he knew.
1867 - Buffalo Bill took up the trade that gave him his nickname and his reputation as an expert shot - hunting buffalo to feed the construction crews of the Kansas Pacific Railroad. By his own count, he killed 4,280 head of buffalo in seventeen months.
1868 - Cody again entered the government service as a scout and guide for the 5th Cavalry at Fort McPherson, Nebraska. After a series of dangerous rides he was appointed by General Sheridan chief scout and guide.
1869 - On May 13, while leading an advance troop of 40 soldiers, Cody found himself surrounded by about 200 Cheyenne warriors. Rallying the men to fight for their lives, Cody was cool and collected. A fierce battle ensued but the majority of the soldiers men got out alive.
Exploits like this made Buffalo Bill a well known figure.
It was about this time that the pulp industry was romanticized the exploits of the heroes and villains who roamed the plains. Dime novelist, Ned Buntline, took a particular interest in, and began writing about, the exploits of Cody.
1872 - For his service over the years and valor in action as an army scout. Cody became one of only four civilian scouts to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
At age 26 the Buffalo Bill legend took a dramatic turn in 1872 when his old friend Ned Buntline influenced Cody to go to New York to play himself in a play entitled “The Scouts of the Prairie”. Cody proved a natural showman, winning enthusiastic applause for his good-humored self-portrayal. The show was a success, despite one critic’s characterization of Buffalo Bill as "a good-looking fellow, tall and straight as an arrow, but ridiculous as an actor." Other critics noted Cody’s manner of charming the audience and the realism he brought to his performance. The acting bug got a hold of Cody and never let go. Cody and Buntline began touring the country.
1873 - The following season after a falling out with Buntline, Cody organized his own troupe which included himself and old friend "Wild Bill" Hickok.
1876 - Following the disaster at the Little Bighorn, Cody discharged his dramatic company when he was called back into service as an army scout for the 5th cavalry. On July 17, just three weeks after Custer’s defeat, Buffalo Bill's regiment intercepted a band of Cheyenne warriors in the battle of Indian Creek, where he killed and scalped a Cheyenne Chieftain named Yellow Hair.
1879 - He wrote his autobiography, and began publishing his own dime novels.
1882 - Cody joined forces with play producer Nate Salisbury. They worked on an idea for a great outdoor show. Their fledgling idea was brought to life with the “Fourth of July Old Glory Blowout”. The event was a huge success and so was born the show that would later make “Buffalo Bill” a household name.
1883 - In May Cody’s theatrical genius first revealed itself in Omaha, Nebraska before an audience of 8,000 people. In partnership with Dr. W.F. Carver, he first presented his greatest creation - "The Wild West, Rocky Mountain, and Prairie Exhibition".
Fascinated crowds were not sure exactly what it was - rodeo, circus, pageant, play - but they knew it was exciting and that they liked it. It was an outdoor spectacle, designed to both educate and entertain, using a cast of hundreds as well as live buffalo, elk, cattle, and other animals. The show contained portrayals of a buffalo hunt, an Indian attack on a stagecoach, a Pony Express ride, and even Custer’s Last Stand, utilizing Lakota Indians who had participated in the actual event. The shows demonstrated bronco riding, roping, and other skills that would later become part of public rodeos. In later years Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show would star sharpshooter Annie Oakley, Buck Taylor, and Chief Sitting Bull, among others. Cody even added an international flavor by assembling a "Congress of Rough Riders of the World" that included Cossacks, lancers and other Old World cavalrymen along with the vaqueros, cowboys and Indians of the American West. The phenomenal success of the Wild West was founded on a nostalgia for the passing frontier which swept the nation in the late 19th Century. The show would run - in one form or another- for 30 years, spending almost ten years of that time in Europe to the delight of huge audiences.
1887 - The Wild West was invited to England for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee celebration. "Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show" was the hit of the celebration and was elevated to international fame.
1890 - Though he was by this time an international celebrity Buffalo Bill Cody still had a real-life reputation in the West, and in 1890 he was called back by the army for a brief time once more during the Indian uprisings associated with Wounded Knee. He came with some Indians from his troupe who proved effective peacemakers, and even helped to restore order after the massacre.
1892 - Buffalo Bill resumed his show tour.
1893 - At the World's Columbian Exposition “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show” was the talk of Chicago.
1896 - Helps found the city of Cody, Wyoming.
1900 - Begins spending large sums for irrigation and other projects in Wyoming.
1902 - Longtime partner, Nate Salsbury, dies. Cody forms a mining company and begins investing heavily at Oracle, Arizona.
1908 - Buffalo Bill never retired, even though he tried. He did two years of farewell performances while his show was combined with Pawnee Bill’s. However, discovered at the end of the second year that he could not retire due to personal debts as a result of several bad investments.
1913 - In 1913 Buffalo Bill even played himself in a movie.
1916 - Buffalo Bill’s Medal of Honor was revoked on the grounds that Cody was not a regular member of the armed forces at the time. The ruling stated that only enlisted men and officers could receive the medal and that army scouts, who were considered civilians, were ineligible.
1917 - Buffalo Bill Cody, America’s living legend died while visiting his sister in Denver. He was 70 years of age, and according to his wife Louisa it was his wish to be buried on Lookout Mountain, a promontory with spectacular views of both the mountains and plains, places where he had spent the happiest times of his life.
1921 - Louisa, who had married Buffalo Bill back before he became famous, was buried next to her husband four years later. The Buffalo Bill Memorial Museum established.
1958 - Cody was made a member of the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City.
1989 - Cody’s Medal of Honor was restored posthumously.
Facts you should know about “Buffalo Bill”
- Buffalo Bill had a great love for children. Many free passes were distributed to orphanages when the Wild West show came to town.
- He also was an early advocate of women’s rights. He believed in equal pay and voting rights for women. The women in his show received comparable pay for comparable work to the men in the show.
- Cody was a staunch conservationist as well, recognizing very early that America was obligated to preserve the beauty and resources of the mountains and great plains that he so loved. In Wyoming and Colorado he worked to establish game preserves and limit hunting. Noted conservationist and head of the Forest Service for Theodore Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot lauded him as "not only a fighter but a seer."
- Buffalo Bill Cody treated American Indians, his former foes, with great respect and dignity. As public figure he spoke often about Indian rights and cautioned the government to "never make a single promise to the Indians that is not fulfilled. All frontier scouts respect the Indian. Every Indian outbreak that I have ever known has resulted from broken promises and broken treaties by the government. They had their wives and little ones to protect and they were fighting for their existence. America was the Indian's heritage, and the Indian had only fought for what was his.”
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