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William Frederick Cody (1846 – 1917), American Army scout and showman, known as Buffalo Bill, after slaughtering huge amounts of buffalo to feed workers for the railroad companys. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Buffalo Bill

At the turn of the 20th century “Buffalo Bill” Cody was the most famous American in the world. His path from frontier poverty and obscurity to international celebrity is one of the most remarkable stories of America’s Gilded Age. It begins on February 26th, 1846, in Le Claire, Iowa, where William Frederick Cody was born to Isaac and Mary Ann Laycock Cody. At age eight he moved with his family to the Kansas frontier where his father hoped to homestead. The family experienced a series of financial and personal setbacks brought on by the turmoil of the slavery debate and culminating in Isaac Cody’s death in 1857. As the oldest male member of the household, eleven-year-old Will took it upon himself to find work and soon joined the freighting firm Russell, Majors, and Waddell as a cattle drover and teamster. Over the next few years, Cody would pursue the life of the Plainsman, accompanying westbound military supply trains. He also met and became friends with James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok. In his 1879 autobiography, Cody claims to have also pursued gold prospecting, fur trapping, and work as a Pony Express rider during this period.

In 1864 Cody enlisted in the Seventh Kansas Volunteer Cavalry and served as a private for one and a half years. After the war he conducted a brief courtship with Louisa Frederici of St. Louis followed by their marriage in 1866. Though the relationship would prove to be stormy and include one attempt on Cody’s part to sue for divorce, the pair would stay married for over fifty years. Cody made several attempts to lead a more settled life; he briefly owned and managed an inn and tried unsuccessfully to found the town of Rome, Kansas, but was forced to take various odd jobs with the railroad first and, later, with the Army.

In 1904 Cody sued Louisa for divorce claiming she had attempted to poison him. The Cody divorce proceedings brought unwanted public attention to a number of allegations regarding Cody’s extramarital affairs and his excess drinking—problems he managed to curtail in his later years. The judge presiding over the case eventually dismissed Cody’s appeal for divorce, resulting in Cody and Louisa reconciling and remaining close friends until Cody’s death. With all the press devoted to the divorce, Cody’s image became less heroic in the public eye, threatening to diminish his legacy. However, Cody remained popular and continued to perform in the Wild West exhibitions. Publishers still printed dime novels featuring him as the hero of the storyline, and newspapers continued to ask him his opinion on the key subjects of the day. Cody’s responses to these inquiries from the press reflected his progressive support of the conservation movement, women’s suffrage, and American Indian rights.

William F. Cody, age 11. This tintype is the earliest known photograph of Will Cody, taken c. 1857.* This was just before his adventures on the Great Plains began. The indented markings at the bottom of the image are illegible. MS 6 William F. Cody Collection.

Buffalo Bill Cody was just 14 years old, so the story goes, when he made his world-famous ride for the Pony Express. Leaving Red Buttes on the North Platte River near present-day Casper, Wyo., he galloped 76 miles west to Three Crossings on the Sweetwater River. His route took him along what is now called the Oregon/California/Mormon Trail. There was a station—at least a rough cabin and a horse corral—along the road every 12 miles or so. At each station, Buffalo Bill would have jumped off his sweaty horse and onto a fresh one.

As he dismounted, he drew the mochila—the leather saddle cover with special pockets for the mail—from the saddle and threw it over the saddle of the horse the wrangler brought up. This happened in a matter of seconds. There was no time to lose.

The Pony Express began in the spring of 1860 and lasted for 19 months. Its purpose was to get the U.S. Mail across the country as fast as possible. California, a state since 1850, was filling up with white people. The forces that soon would lead to civil war were pulling the nation apart. If the United States was going to hold together, there had to be fast, reliable communication between the West Coast and the centres of power in the East.

When he arrived at Three Crossings, the story goes on, Buffalo Bill found that Miller, the rider who was to take over for him, had been killed the night before in a drunken brawl.

“I did not hesitate for a moment to undertake an extra ride of 85 miles to Rocky Ridge, and I arrived at the latter place on time,” Buffalo Bill remembered many years later. Rocky Ridge was near South Pass. There, another rider would have picked up the westbound mail young Bill delivered. But the eastbound mail needed a carrier, too, to take it back the way he had just come. Bill volunteered, again. When he got back to Three Crossings, the same man was, of course, still dead, and so Bill again transferred the mochila and galloped back to Red Buttes. The entire distance, supposedly, was 322 miles.

All in all, it was a thrilling ride, made by a valiant boy who was a great horseman all his life. By the time he was 50, in fact, Buffalo Bill was the most famous man in America. His Pony Express ride was one of the reasons for his stardom.

But Bill had things mixed up. For one thing, Three Crossings and Rocky Ridge are only 25 miles apart, not 85. For a second thing, much more important, he never did make the famous ride. In fact, William F. Cody never rode for the Pony Express at all.

Buffalo Bill Cody, born William Frederick Cody, was famous for performing in the Wild West shows popular in the 1870s. He toured Europe many times with his “Buffalo Bills Wild West” show and performed for Pope Leo XIII and Queen Victoria.

Young Will Cody was born in 1846 into a middle-class family on the Iowa frontier. After moving to Kansas in the 1850s, the family was thrust into poverty by the violence that then was leading up to the Civil War.

Cody’s family was Quaker and opposed slavery. When Cody was a young child, the family moved from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas Territory, a hotbed of conflict between slavery advocates and abolitionists. While giving an antislavery speech at a local trading post, Cody’s father Isaac was stabbed twice by an angry man in the crowd.

Will Cody’s father, Isaac, was a surveyor, a founder of towns, a real-estate investor and a locator of land claims.. Isaac Cody never recovered entirely from his wounds and died three years later. Young Will, meanwhile, had to find work to help support his mother and sisters.

When he was just 11 years old he took a job carrying messages on horseback for the freighting firm of Majors and Russell. He rode from the company’s offices in the town of Leavenworth to the telegraph office at Fort Leavenworth, three miles away.

Majors and Russell soon became Russell, Majors and Waddell, the largest transportation company in the West, which owned stagecoaches, thousands of freight wagons and tens of thousands of horses, oxen and mules to pull them, as well as a network of stations, corrals and employees across the West. This was the company that started the Pony Express system in 1860. Because young Will had worked for them briefly when he was 11, it may not have seemed to him such a stretch later to claim he had in fact ridden for the Pony Express when he was 14.

Will Cody’s real teenage years were troubling, not thrilling. When Congress made Kansas a territory in 1854, lawmakers left it up to the people there to decide whether to allow slavery. Armed men poured in. Some supported slavery, some opposed it. Elections were often violent. For a time, “bleeding Kansas,” as it was called, had two territorial legislatures. One supported slavery, one opposed it and each claimed to be the legal, rightful lawmaking body of the territory.

During the late 1850s, Will Cody did take jobs driving horses and wagons to places as far away as Fort Laramie and Denver. During the 19 months of 1860 and 1861, when the Pony Express was a going concern, he was in school in Leavenworth. He could not have been riding back and forth across what’s now central Wyoming at the same time, on the Sweetwater Division of the Pony Express.

Buffalo Bill in London, 1887, on the Wild West’s first trip to Europe. Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave. Known as a fearless Indian fighter, Cody respected — and advocated for the rights of — American Indians and once said, “Every Indian outbreak that I have ever known has resulted from broken promises and broken treaties by the government.” Cody received a Medal of Honor while serving the Third Cavalry Regiment as a civilian scout. Congress later rescinded the medal, as well as all others awarded to civilians. In 1989, Cody’s medal was officially reinstated.

The Civil War broke out nationwide in April 1861. Sometime in 1862 young Will, consumed by a desire to avenge his father’s death, joined the Kansas Redlegs, an anti-slavery militia. These men and boys were not regular soldiers. They were unpaid and lived only on what they could steal, according to Louis Warren’s 2005 book, Buffalo Bill’s America. Mostly the Redlegs stole horses and burned farms. More so even than other militias in Kansas and Missouri, they were criminals. They paid little attention to whether the families whose farms they burned were pro- or antislavery, or pro- or anti-union. Young Will Cody rode with them for about a year and a half.

Later in the war, he joined a regular Kansas regiment of the Union Army, and his soldiering became more respectable. After the war, he worked in western Kansas for a meat contractor that provided food for crews building the Kansas Pacific Railroad across the state. His job was to kill buffalo. He became known as Buffalo Bill, one of several hunters on the plains with that nickname at the time. He also became friends with a man who held various police jobs in the towns of western Kansas—James Butler Hickok, better known as Wild Bill. Hickok became suddenly famous in 1867 when a reporter wrote an article about him in Harper’s Weekly, a national magazine.

Soon, both Bills were the heroes of so-called dime novels. Authors of these cheaply made, pulp-paper books used Hickok’s and Cody’s real names but made up their thrilling adventures. Part of the fun for the readers was separating fact from fiction—guessing what was true in the stories and what wasn’t.

Cody understood this. By the early 1870s, Hickok, Cody, a friend named Texas Jack Omohundro, and Jack’s Italian-born wife, Giuseppina Morlacchi, were appearing together during the winters in stage plays around the West. Many of these they wrote themselves. The plays were full of scrapes, escapes, daring rides, fights, rescues, noble heroes and evil villains—the same kind of stuff that thrilled the dime-novel readers.

At the same time, the Indian wars on the plains were escalating. The U.S. Army always needed expert help to find its Indian enemies. Most of this work was done by other Indians and by mixed-race men. They were generally fluent at least in English and their mothers’ Indian languages, which made them useful as interpreters. But because of their race, the white officers were never entirely comfortable around them.

Cody was smart and friendly. The officers liked him because of this, because he liked to drink whiskey and tell stories and because he was white. But Cody also was comfortable around Indians in a way that most white officers were not. When it came time to chase Indian enemies, Cody stuck close to the Indian scouts and stayed out ahead of the troops. When the enemy was found, Cody could take the credit for the discovery.

Soon the officers were praising him in their official reports and in their conversations with newspaper reporters. And they passed his name along to rich men looking for a guide for hunting trips. When Gen. Philip Sheridan arranged for Grand Duke Alexis, son of the Czar of Russia, to come hunt buffalo in 1872, he made sure his favourite officer, George A. Custer, was along on the trip, and that Cody was the guide. At Sheridan’s suggestion, Cody persuaded Spotted Tail, chief of the Brule Lakotas, to visit the hunting camp in western Nebraska with a number of warriors and their families. To entertain the bigwigs, the Indians staged large dances and killed buffalo with bows and arrows from horseback. Custer and the duke were the stars of the event, but the newspapers noticed Cody, too: “He was seated on a spanking charger,” one columnist wrote, “and with his long hair and spangled buckskin suit he appeared in his true character of one feared and beloved by all for miles around.”

The Irma Hotel, shown here around 1920, opened in 1902. It was named for the daughter of William F. Cody.

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show Poster, New York City, Brooklyn 1894. At the age of 11, Cody took a job as a wagon train “boy extra” riding and delivering messages to drivers along the length of the train.

Cody was learning a lot about fame. He continued his double life, appearing in plays in the winter and scouting for the Army in the summers. He took part in a few skirmishes in the Indian wars, and they became part of his plays. Eventually, too, he wore his stage costumes when he went out on campaign. A few weeks after Custer’s defeat and death on the Little Bighorn in 1876, Cody was scouting with the 5th Cavalry in western Nebraska.

He was wearing a red shirt with billowing sleeves and silver-trimmed, black velvet trousers when he encountered a Cheyenne warrior named Yellow Hair. In the skirmish, Cody killed him and scalped him on the spot. He sent Yellow Hair’s scalp, warbonnet, shield and weapons home to his wife, Louisa, by then living in Rochester, N.Y., where it was displayed in a store window. Newspapers covered the story. The following winter he toured with a new play, “The Red Right Hand; or, Buffalo Bill’s First Scalp for Custer,” implying that Cody’s was the first act of real revenge after the Custer fight.

In 1879, when he was 33 years old, Cody published his autobiography. The book smoothed the stories of his early life, and expanded his stock-driving jobs, supposed Pony Express service and Indian skirmishes into dramas of frontier nerve, pluck and progress. About this time, with the Indian wars on the plains all but over, with the buffalo nearly gone and the plains filling up with cattle, Cody must have realized that the demand for his scouting skills would only continue to shrink. But still, America was hungry for the other half of Cody’s skills—his skills in show business.

In 1883, Cody and a partner named William “Doc” Carver put together a travelling show that was part pageant, part circus, part rodeo, part parade and part huge, open-air drama. It was built out of the same thrilling dime-novel and stage-play episodes Cody now knew as well as the episodes of his own life.

Versions of this show, known as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, ran for more than 30 years, from 1883 to 1916. All over North America and Europe, audiences loved it. In the earlier years, Cody found the most efficient way to make money was to park the show in a single spot near a large city—on Staten Island across the harbor from New York, for example, or in a 30-acre field outside Paris—and let the crowds come to him. In later years, after the show became well known, the production had to travel constantly to find audiences still new enough to want to pay to attend.

Cody was an ardent supporter of women’s rights and insisted on equal pay for all members of his travelling shows, regardless of gender. “What we want to do is give women even more liberty than they have,” he said. “Let them do any kind of work they see fit, and if they do it as well as men, give them the same pay.”

Buffalo Bill Cody’s Gloves

Buffalo Bill and the Pony Express, published in 1940, relied on the showman’s imagined versions of a thrilling youth.

The show featured mounted Indians attacking a stagecoach or attacking a wagon train, and Indians attacking and burning a settler’s cabin, with the settlers rescued at the last minute by a band of mounted men led by Buffalo Bill. The company included as many as 650 people in the largest years—cowboys, Indians, buffalo soldiers, sharpshooters, trick riders and trick ropers, as well as cooks, wranglers, animal trainers and all the labourers needed to set up, take down and move the show.

Indians played themselves. In 1885, they included Sitting Bull, victor of the Little Bighorn. Other well-known chiefs and warriors took part over the years, too, among them Spotted Tail, Red Shirt and Standing Bear. The show even featured a pretend buffalo hunt.

Thanks to Buffalo Bill, all these events became central to America’s ideas—and the world’s ideas—about how the West was settled. For decades after Cody’s death in 1917, they appeared and reappear still in Western novels and especially in Western movies. Year after year, and decade after decade, the show seemed thrillingly real to its audiences. “Down to its smallest details, the show is genuine,” Mark Twain, no stranger to the West, wrote to Cody in an unsolicited fan letter in 1884. The word “show” was never in the show’s actual title. It was called “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West,” as though people could depend on it as the genuine article.

And year after year, decade after decade, the opening act was the one many found most thrilling of all: the Pony Express. A rider galloped at full speed to the grandstand and reined his pony back onto its haunches, front feet pawing the air. The rider leapt to the ground, lifted the mochila onto the next horse and was off again at a full gallop. The crowd was left breathless. Then people burst into cheers and applause.

In their luxurious, 10-in by 7-inch printed programs, audience members could read all about Buffalo Bill’s adventures. What did it matter if they were true or not? They seemed true. Cody’s genius lay in offering his audience what it needed to hear.

“Somehow,” writes Texas novelist Larry McMurtry, “Cody succeeded in taking a very few elements of western life—Indians, buffalo, stagecoach and his own superbly mounted self—and created an illusion that successfully stood for a reality that had been almost wholly different.”

In the end, those realities caught up with the star of the spectacle. Cody’s debts were so large that he lost his show in 1913. He toured with other shows through 1916 but died broke.

On January 10, 1917, William F. Cody passed away at his sister’s home in Denver, Colorado. Thousands of adoring fans mourned the loss and lined the streets to pay their last respects to the great scout as his body was laid to rest in its grave on Lookout Mountain. Cody’s last surviving child, Irma Louise, and her husband Fred Garlow passed away during the Great Flu Epidemic in 1918. Louisa resided in Cody raising Irma’s three children until her death in 1921. Her body lies in rest next to her husband at Lookout Mountain.

In 1893, “Buffalo Bills Wild West Show” expanded and became the even more spectacular (though ponderously titled) “Buffalo Bills Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World.” A true multicultural event, the show featured horsemen from around the globe, including South American gauchos, Arabs, Mongols and Turks.

Buffalo Bill and cowgirls of the show.

Buffalo Bill Cody, smoking a cigar, stands in front of “my sleeping teepee” at Campo Bonito in 1910 with L.W. Getchell, whose approval of the mining district convinced Cody to buy in. – Courtesy Patsy Garlow –

Cody, Wyoming, is located on the Shoshone River in the Bighorn Basin in northwest Wyoming. This basin is surrounded by mountain ranges on three sides: the Absarokas to the west; the Owl Creek Mountains to the south; and the Bighorn Mountains to the east. The east entrance to Yellowstone National Park lies 53 miles to the west, up the North Fork of the Shoshone. The Bighorn Basin was restricted from white settlement by treaties with the Indians in1868. Ten years later, those restrictions were lifted and early settlers began to come into the basin. This made the area one of the last frontiers settled in the lower 48 states.

William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody was visiting Sheridan, Wyo., in 1894, when his son-in-law, Horace Boal, took him to the top of the Bighorn Mountains for a view to the west over the Bighorn Basin. Although Cody had heard of this area from Indians, Yale palaeontologist O.C. Marsh and others, he personally had never been to the northern basin. On learning that a group of Sheridan businessmen was already interested in founding a town there, Cody eagerly joined the effort. He saw the beauty of the region, its proximity to a Yellowstone already attracting tourists, the abundance of game and fish, and land available for ranching and farming.

A 1896 attempt at a newspaper, the “Shoshone Valley News,” meanwhile, lasted only briefly. The “Cody Enterprise” started operating in 1899 and is still publishing today under a masthead that honours Buffalo Bill as its founder. By 1900, Cody had a population of slightly more than 300, and in 1901 the town was incorporated. That same year the CB&Q was completed from Toluca to Cody. The Irma Hotel, named after Buffalo Bill’s daughter, opened November 18, 1902, and boasted that it was the most modern hotel in the Rockies.

Buffalo Bill Cody died Jan. 10, 1917, and within six weeks, five prominent town citizens formed the Buffalo Bill Memorial Association. Led by Maggie Simpson, wife of prominent Cody lawyer Will Simpson (and mother of future governor Milward Simpson), the group agreed to capitalize on the $5,000 already authorized by the Wyoming Legislature for a memorial to Buffalo Bill. Buffalo Bill’s niece Mary Jester Allen and Caroline Lockhart, editor and publisher of the “Cody Enterprise,” were instrumental in engaging Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, well-known New York sculptor, to create the statue. Whitney picked out the site for the statue, purchased the land and donated it to the memorial association. The statue was dedicated on July 4, 1924, and three years later to the day the Buffalo Bill Museum opened.

Buffalo Bill’s Casket.

Buffalo Bill’s Burial Place?

The story of Buffalo Bill’s body and its many burials is almost as outrageous as the man himself.

Much of the controversy that followed the death of Buffalo Bill and his burial revolves around Colorado’s neighbour to the north, Wyoming. The Cowboy State wanted Bill to be buried there just as much as Colorado wanted him to stay in a mountain state. In the first draft of Cody’s will, written before he died, he had stated he wanted to be buried outside the town he founded, Cody, Wyoming, somewhere on Cedar Mountain. But in an updated will, Buffalo Bill had specified that he wanted to be buried atop Lookout Mountain with one of the most spectacular views in the entire west.

When Cody died of kidney failure in January 1917, his body ended up on a mountain outside of Denver, Colorado—a counterintuitive choice given his close ties to the town in Wyoming that bore his last name. Cody, Wyoming was founded in the 1890s with help from Buffalo Bill, who employed many of its residents and was responsible for its tourism business. It might seem natural that he’d be buried in the place he’d invested so much in, but he wasn’t. And that’s where the controversy began.

Though Cody spent much of his time in the town named after him, he also loved Colorado. After leaving his family in Kansas when he was just 11 to work with wagon trains throughout the West, he headed to Colorado for the first time as a 13-year-old wannabe gold prospector. During his short time in the area, he chased the glittery fortunes promised by Colorado’s 1859 gold rush. Even after leaving the territory, his travelling vaudeville show, which brought a glamorous taste of Wild West life to people all over the United States, took him back often. Later in life, he frequently visited Denver, where his sister lived. He died there, too—after telling his wife he wanted to be buried on Lookout Mountain.

The mountain, located in Golden, Colorado, has a commanding view of the Great Plains, where Buffalo Bill experienced many of his Wild West adventures. It was also a place to contemplate the giant herds of buffalo that once roamed the West, and from whom Cody took his nickname. (Denver still maintains a small herd of buffalo—direct descendants of original American bison—near the mountain.)

A headline from the June 3, 1917, edition of the Denver Post is displayed at the museum honouring the cowboy legend William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody. (Tom Szalay / For The Times)

But weather almost thwarted Cody’s burial plans. Since he died in January, the road to Lookout Mountain was impassable and his preferred burial site frozen solid. For a while, his body lay in state in the Colorado Capitol building. Governors and famous friends eulogized Cody in an elaborate funeral service. Then his body was placed in a carriage that moved solemnly through the streets of Denver, where thousands showed up to say goodbye. Afterwards, his body was kept in cold storage at a Denver mortuary while his family waited for the weather to change.

Meanwhile, Colorado and Wyoming started a heated feud over one of America’s most famous men. Wyoming claimed that Cody should be buried there; citing an early draft of his will that said he intended to be buried near Cody. Colorado cried foul since Cody’s last will left the burial location up to his widow, who chose Lookout Mountain. Rumours even began to circulate that a delegation from Wyoming had stolen Cody’s body from the mortuary and replaced it with that of a local vagrant.

In part to stop the rumour mill, Cody was finally buried in an open casket on Lookout Mountain in June 1917. Twenty-five thousand people went to the mountaintop to bid him farewell before he was interred. To prevent theft, the bronze casket was sealed in another, tamper-proof case, then enclosed in concrete and iron.

Yet his rocky grave was anything but safe. In the 1920s, Cody’s niece, Mary Jester Allen, began to claim that Denver had conspired to tamper with Cody’s will. In response, Cody’s foster son, Johnny Baker, disinterred the body and had it reburied at the same site under tons of concrete to prevent potential theft. (Allen also founded a museum in Wyoming to compete with a Colorado-based museum founded by Baker.)

Steve Friesen, director of the Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave, at the gravesite on Lookout Mountain near Golden, Colo. (Tom Szalay / For The Times)

The saga wasn’t over yet. In 1948, the Cody, Wyoming American Legion offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who could disinter the body and return it to Wyoming. In response, the Colorado National Guard stationed officers to keep watch over the grave.

Since then, the tussle over the remains has calmed down. Despite a few ripples—like a jokey debate in the Wyoming legislature about stealing the body in 2006—Buffalo Bill still remains in the grave. If you believe the official story, that is. In Cody, Wyoming, rumour has it that he never made it into that cement-covered tomb after all—proponents claim he was buried on Cedar Mountain, where he originally asked to be interred. Many historians and a good number of people from Wyoming believe Bill is buried in Colorado, but that doesn’t stop from the tall tales and controversy from raging on today.

Buffalo Bill Biography – Buffalo Bill Center of the West

Buffalo Bill Cody – Actor, Theater Actor, Military Leader, Folk Hero – Bio

Buffalo Bill | Biography & Facts |

PBS – THE WEST – William F. Cody

“Buffalo Bill” Cody – Buffalo Bill Museum & Grave – Golden, Colorado


William F. Cody Archive: Documenting the life and times of Buffalo Bill

Buffalo Bill — The Man Behind the Legend – American Cowboy …

William Frederick ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody – The Robinson Library

Buffalo Bill Cody: Biography & Facts |

Buffalo Bill Cody vs. Wild Bill Hickok | Denver Public Library History

Buffalo Bill – An Irishman’s Diary on William Frederick Cody

Buffalo Bill and the Pony Express: Fame, Truth and Inventing the West …

William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody | Articles | Colorado Encyclopedia

Buffalo Bill Cody – Trader, Trapper, Frontiersman & Entertainer

Buffalo Bill Cody – United States History

Buffalo Bill’s remains lie in Colorado. But Wyoming begs to differ. – LA …

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