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date: 05 March 2021

Cody, William Frederickfree

(26 February 1846–10 January 1917)
  • Rick Ewig

Buffalo Bill Cody.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-111880).

Cody, William Frederick (26 February 1846–10 January 1917), frontiersman and entertainer, better known as “Buffalo Bill,” was born in Scott County, Iowa, the son of Isaac Cody and Mary Ann Bonsell Laycock. Cody’s father managed several farms and operated a state business in Iowa. In 1854 the family moved to the Salt Creek Valley in Kansas, where Cody’s father received a government contract to provide hay to Fort Leavenworth. After his father died in 1857, Cody went to work as an ox-team driver for fifty cents a day. Shortly thereafter, the firm of Majors and Russell hired him as an express boy. Cody attended school periodically, although his formal education ended in 1859 when he joined a party heading to Denver to search for gold. He prospected for two months without any luck. He arrived back in Kansas in March 1860 after a trapping expedition. He rode for a time for the Pony Express during its short lifetime (Apr. 1860–Nov. 1861). After the start of the Civil War he joined a group of antislavery guerrillas based in Kansas. Later the Ninth Kansas Volunteers hired him as a scout and guide. On 16 February 1864 Cody enlisted into Company F of the Seventh Kansas Volunteer Cavalry. He saw quite a bit of action in Tennessee, Missouri, Arkansas, and Kansas during his one year and seven months of duty. He was mustered out of the army as a private on 29 September 1865.

Cody married Louisa Frederici in St. Louis in 1866; they had four children. The couple moved back to Kansas, where Cody briefly ran a hotel in the Salt Creek Valley. For a short time in 1866 and 1867 he worked as a scout at Fort Ellsworth, but then he formed a partnership with William Rose, a grading contractor for the Kansas Pacific Railroad. The two partners established the town of Rome, Kansas, opening a saloon and store. However, once the railroad bypassed the town, it did not survive long. Soon after, the company hired to board the railroad workers contracted with Cody to provide meat for the workers, which he did by killing twelve buffalo a day. Because of these exploits, he first became known as “Buffalo Bill.” The army then hired him as a scout, a position he held for several years. He participated in a number of expeditions against Indians, including General Philip Sheridan’s campaign against the Plains Indians in 1868–1869.

Cody began to attain some national fame by 1869. In July he met dime novelist Ned Buntline, who interviewed him and wrote a serial story for the New York Weekly, “Buffalo Bill, the King of Border Men.” Even though Buntline advertised the story as “the wildest and truest story he ever wrote,” it did not relate any of Buffalo Bill’s actual adventures and more closely followed the life of Wild Bill Hickok.

While Cody scouted for the army, he also guided hunting parties of notables who traveled west. In January 1872 he guided the party of Grand Duke Alexis, a son of the czar of Russia. He also entertained other dignitaries and put on his first Wild West show for the grand duke, which was reported in newspapers across the country. In February 1872 Cody traveled to Chicago and New York, where he saw the play based on Buntline’s Buffalo Bill serial. After Cody returned to the West, Buntline wrote his second Buffalo Bill dime novel. For heroic actions during an engagement with Indians during April 1872, Cody was awarded the Medal of Honor. However, an act of Congress on 16 June 1916 struck his name from the rolls because he was a civilian at the time of the battle. Also in 1872 Cody was elected to Nebraska’s legislature representing the Twenty-sixth District, but he never claimed his seat. Later that year Buntline encouraged Cody to return east and appear on the stage, which Cody did, starring with another frontiersman, Texas Jack, in The Scouts of the Prairie. Following the success of the play, Cody’s life changed. During the next several years he scouted for the army, guided hunting parties during the summer months, and toured in plays from fall to spring. Some of the experiences on the frontier, such as the killing of Cheyenne chief Yellow Hand during the Sioux War of 1876, provided material for plays or his later Wild West shows. Cody last served as a scout during August 1876, when he participated in General George Crook’s Big Horn and Yellowstone expedition.

Beside the plays, Cody and a number of ghostwriters added to his growing reputation through dime novels and serials about Cody’s western experiences. These did not document his actual adventures, however, but only served to publicize his shows. His press agents produced many more dime novels about the wonders of the western frontier and Cody’s many adventures. Cody’s final season of acting in plays was 1882–1883. The plays by that time incorporated events such as Indian dances and shooting exhibitions, which became staples of Cody’s later Wild West shows. Before his last year on stage, Cody produced the “Old Glory Blow Out” on 4 July 1882 in North Platte, Nebraska, where Cody owned a ranch. One thousand cowboys entered this forerunner of the rodeo, competing for prizes in broncobusting, shooting, and riding. There began Cody’s Wild West show.

Cody launched his touring Buffalo Bill Wild West show at the fairgrounds of Omaha, Nebraska, on 17 May 1883. An outdoor show, it included re-creations of the Pony Express, Indian attacks on the Cheyenne-to-Deadwood stage, horse races, roping events, and wild horses. Cody was the main attraction, however, sitting on his horse and directing the action wearing a buckskin jacket, shiny black boots, and a white Stetson over his long, flowing hair. Nate Salsbury joined the show as a partner the following year, a business arrangement that lasted many years. The show lost money at first, but by 1886 it was a profitable operation.

Annie Oakley, a trick shooter also known as “Little Sure Shot,” had joined the tour in 1884. Sitting Bull, the famed Sioux chief, toured with the show during the 1886 season. The following year Cody took his entourage to Europe, where the Wild West show was a tremendous success. The show returned to Europe in 1889 and again in 1891. Buffalo Bill and his western show attained their greatest success in 1893 at the World’s Fair held in Chicago. Six million people saw the show that year. Cody continued to tour with the show until 1912, when he retired. Continuing debts, however, forced him to join the Sells-Floto Circus for the 1914 and 1915 seasons. For his last season of shows in 1916, Cody joined the Miller Brothers and Arlington 101 Ranch Wild West.

Cody attempted to capture the West in another way during 1913 when he started his own film company. With the assistance of the Essanay Film Company of Chicago, Cody started the Colonel W. F. Cody (Buffalo Bill) Historical Pictures Company. His intention was to depict events in his life and of the Old West as accurately as possible, using many of the original participants. Cody starred in and produced the eight one-reel subjects, which included his killing of Yellow Hand, the battle of Summit Springs, and the battle of Wounded Knee. Only a short portion of the films survives.

Even though the Wild West show was generally a profitable undertaking, Cody was a poor businessman. Most of his ventures ended in failure. Investments in Arizona mines failed to provide for his retirement, in fact costing him approximately $500,000. The most interesting venture, however, was Cody’s attempt at the turn of the century to develop Wyoming’s Big Horn Basin, one of the last areas in the country to be settled. He joined George Beck and others in trying to construct the Cody Canal, a project of the Shoshone Land and Irrigation Company. They also founded a town that became known as Cody. Their efforts to irrigate Wyoming’s arid landscape failed, however. It took the federal government, by means of the 1902 Newlands Act, to complete the project with the construction of the Shoshone Dam, finished in 1910 and, in 1946, renamed the Buffalo Bill Dam. In 1902 Cody built the Irma Hotel in Cody, named for his youngest daughter. Although the hotel is still operating, it was a money-losing venture for Cody when it first opened.

Cody died in Denver, Colorado, outliving two of his four children. Colorado’s legislature passed a special resolution that authorized that his body lie in state in the capitol for one day, during which time 25,000 people paid their respects. Five months later, on 3 June, Cody was buried in a steel vault on the top of Lookout Mountain near Denver.

Although an authentic frontier hero, Cody through most of his career was a showman who helped perpetuate the mythic image of the West. His internationally popular Wild West shows entertained millions, and some 550 dime novels relating to fictional exploits attributed to him added to the legend that persists.


The Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo., houses many Cody-related artifacts, an extensive permanent exhibit on his life and significance, and many of the frontiersman’s papers. Materials concerning Cody’s attempt to develop Wyoming’s Big Horn Basin can be found in the George Beck and Buffalo Bill collections, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming, Laramie. Cody’s autobiography, Life and Adventures of “Buffalo Bill”, has gone through numerous editions and was first published as Buffalo Bill’s Own Story of His Life and Deeds (1917). The most comprehensive biography of Buffalo Bill Cody is Don Russell, The Lives and Legends of Buffalo Bill (1960). For an examination of Cody’s Wild West show, see Sarah J. Blackstone, Buckskins, Bullets, and Business: A History of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West (1986). See also Joseph G. Rosa, Buffalo Bill and His Wild West: A Pictorial Biography (1989); Helen (Cody) Wetmore, Last of the Great Scouts: The Life Story of Colonel William F. Cody, “Buffalo Bill,” as Told by His Sister, Helen Cody Wetmore (1899); and Dixon Wecter, The Hero in America: A Chronicle of Hero Worship (1941). For an explanation of Cody’s filmmaking endeavors, see Kevin Brownlow, The War, the West, and the Wilderness (1978). An obituary is in the Denver Post, 10–12, 15 Jan. 1917.