William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody (February 26, 1846 – January 10, 1917) was an American soldier, bison hunter and showman.

Buffalo Bill received the Medal of Honor in 1872 for service to the US Army as a scout.

One of the most colorful figures of the American Old West, Buffalo Bill became famous for the shows he organized with cowboy themes, which he toured in Great Britain and Europe as well as the United States.

Charles Bronson played Buffalo Bill in “The White Buffalo” – a film that took a rather surrealist view on the life of the legendary hunter.

Video comes courtesy of YouTube:

That was Hollywood – to the extreme.

Here’s what history has to tell us:

Cody’s Early Life

William Frederick Cody was born on February 26, 1846 on a farm just outside of Le Claire, Iowa. He was baptized as William Cody in the Dixie Union Chapel in Peel County (present-day Peel Region), Ontario, Canada in 1847, not far from his family’s farm.

His parents Isaac and Mary Cody were Canadians. The Chapel was built with Cody money and the land was donated by Philip Cody of Toronto Township.

The Cody family were originally Quakers, and opposed to slavery. They had emigrated from the United States with other Quaker families from Vermont, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania, shortly before or after the Revolutionary War (when slavery was still legal in those states), to buy land and farm in York, Peel, and Ontario counties.

In 1853, Isaac Cody sold his land in rural Scott County, Iowa for $2000, and he and his family moved to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas Territory.

Invited to speak at Rively’s store, a local trading post where pro-slavery men often held meetings, Cody’s father gave an antislavery speech that angered the crowd – which threatened to kill him if he didn’t step down. One man in the crowd attempted to make good on the threat, jumping up and stabbing the elder Cody twice with a bowie knife.

Cody’s father would have died from his wounds had it not been for Rively, the store’s owner, who rushed him to safety. Isaac Cody never fully recovered from his injuries.

In Kansas, the family was frequently persecuted by pro-slavery supporters, forcing Cody’s father to spend much of his time away from home.

On one occasion, his enemies learned of a planned visit to his family, and plotted to kill him on the way. The young Cody – despite his youth and the fact that he was ill – rode 30 miles (48 km) to warn his father.

Cody’s father went to Cleveland, Ohio to organize a colony of thirty families to bring back to Kansas. During his return trip he caught a cold which, compounded by the lingering effects of his stabbing and complications from kidney disease, led to Isaac Cody’s death in April, 1857.

The Young Professional

After the father’s death, the Cody family suffered financially.

At age 11, Bill Cody took a job with a freight carrier as a “boy extra.” He would ride up and down the length of a wagon train, and deliver messages to the drivers and workmen.

Next, he joined Johnston’s Army as an unofficial member of the scouts assigned to guide the Army to Utah to put down a rumored rebellion by the Mormon population of Salt Lake City.

According to Cody’s account in “Buffalo Bill’s Own Story”, the Utah War was where he first began his career as an “Indian fighter”:

“Presently the moon rose, dead ahead of me; and painted boldly across its face was the figure of an Indian. He wore this war-bonnet of the Sioux, at his shoulder was a rifle pointed at someone in the river-bottom 30 feet (9 m) below; in another second he would drop one of my friends. I raised my old muzzle-loader and fired. The figure collapsed, tumbled down the bank and landed with a splash in the water. ‘What is it?’ called McCarthy, as he hurried back. ‘It’s over there in the water.’ ‘Hi!’ he cried. ‘Little Billy’s killed an Indian all by himself!’ So began my career as an Indian fighter”.

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 stations and corrals, Cody was given a job as a rider, which he kept until he was called home to his sick mother’s bedside.

Military Service

After his mother recovered, Cody wished to enlist as a soldier, but was refused because of his age.

He began working with a United States freight caravan which delivered supplies to Fort Laramie.

In 1863 he enlisted as a teamster with the rank of Private in Company H, 7th Kansas Cavalry and served until discharged in 1865.

The next year Cody married Louisa Frederici, and they had four children together. Two died young in Rochester, NY. They and a third child are buried in Mount Hope Cemetery, in the City of Rochester.

From 1868 until 1872, Cody was employed as a scout by the United States Army. Part of the time he scouted for Indians. At other times, he hunted and killed bison to supply the Army and the Kansas Pacific Railroad.

In January 1872, Cody was a scout for Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich of Russia’s highly publicized royal hunt.

The Nickname

Cody got his nickname after the American Civil War when he had a contract to supply Kansas Pacific Railroad workers with buffalo meat.

Cody earned the monicker by killing 4,280 American bison (commonly known as buffalo) in eighteen months, (1867–1868).

Cody and William Comstock competed in a buffalo-shooting match over the exclusive right to use the name – which Cody won by killing 68 bison to Comstock’s 48.

He was known as “Buffalo Bill”, from that point on.

Medal of Honor

In 1872, Cody was awarded a Medal of Honor for “gallantry in action” while serving as a civilian scout for the 3rd Cavalry Regiment.

In 1917, the U.S. Army – after Congress revised the standards for award of the medal – removed from the rolls 911 medals previously awarded either to civilians, or for actions that would not warrant a Medal of Honor under the new higher standards. Among those revoked was Cody’s.

In 1977, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker’s medal was restored, and other reviews began. Cody’s medal – along with those given to four other civilian scouts – was re-instated on June 12, 1989.

Show Business

In December 1872, Cody traveled to Chicago to make his stage debut with friend Texas Jack Omohundro in “The Scouts of the Prairie”, one of the original Wild West shows produced by Ned Buntline.

During the 1873–1874 season, Cody and Omohundro invited their friend James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok to join them in a new play called “Scouts of the Plains”.

The troupe toured for ten years. Cody’s part typically included an 1876 incident at the Warbonnet Creek, where he claimed to have scalped a Cheyenne warrior.

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West

In 1883, in the area of North Platte, Nebraska, Cody founded “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West”, a circus-like attraction that toured annually. (Despite popular misconception, the word “show” was not a part of the title.)

With his show, Cody traveled throughout the United States and Europe, and made many contacts. He stayed, for instance, in Garden City, Kansas, in the presidential suite of the former Windsor Hotel. He was befriended by the mayor and state representative, a frontier scout, rancher, and hunter named Charles “Buffalo” Jones.

In 1893, Cody changed the title to “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World”.

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. Turks, Gauchos, Arabs, Mongols and Georgians, displayed their distinctive horses and colorful costumes.

Visitors would see main events, feats of skill, staged races, and sideshows. Many historical western figures participated in the show. For example, Sitting Bull appeared with a band of 20 of his braves.

Cody’s headline performers were well known in their own right. People such as Annie Oakley and her husband Frank Butler did sharp shooting, together with the likes of Gabriel Dumont.

Performers re-enacted the riding of the Pony Express, Indian attacks on wagon trains, and stagecoach robberies.

The finale was typically a portrayal of an Indian attack on a settler’s cabin. Cody would ride in with an entourage of cowboys to defend a settler and his family.

The show influenced many 20th-century portrayals of “the West” in cinema and literature.

With his profits, Cody purchased a 4,000-acre (16 km2) ranch near North Platte, Nebraska, in 1886. Scout’s Rest Ranch included an eighteen-room mansion and a large barn for winter storage of the show’s livestock.

The Grand Tour

In 1887, Cody took the show to Great Britain in celebration of the Jubilee year of Queen Victoria. It played in London before going on to Birmingham and Salford near Manchester, where it stayed for five months.

In 1889, the show toured Europe, and in 1890 Cody met Pope Leo XIII.

Cody set up an independent exhibition near the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, which greatly contributed to his popularity. It vexed the promoters of the fair, who had first rejected his request to participate.

In 1908, Pawnee Bill and Buffalo Bill joined forces and created the “Two Bills” show. That show was foreclosed on when it was playing in Denver, Colorado.

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West toured Europe eight times, the first four tours between 1887 and 1892, and the last four from 1902 to 1906.

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West was enormously successful in Europe, making Buffalo Bill an international celebrity and an American icon.

The author Mark Twain commented, “…It is often said on the other side of the water that none of the exhibitions which we send to England are purely and distinctly American. If you will take the Wild West show over there you can remove that reproach.”

The Wild West brought an exotic foreign world to life for its European audiences, allowing a last glimpse at the fading American frontier.

Cody, Wyoming

In 1895, Cody was instrumental in the founding of Cody, the seat of Park County in northwestern Wyoming. The Old Trail Town museum is at the center of the community, and honors the traditions of Western life. Cody first passed through the region in the 1870s, and was greatly impressed by the development potential of the site, and its proximity to Yellowstone Park.

When he returned in the mid-1890s to start a town, he brought with him associates for whom streets were named: Beck, Alger, Rumsey, Bleistein and Salsbury. The town was incorporated in 1901.

In November 1902, Cody opened the Irma Hotel, which he named after his daughter. He envisioned a growing number of tourists coming to Cody via the recently opened Burlington rail line. He expected that they would proceed up the Cody Road along the North Fork of the Shoshone River to visit Yellowstone Park.

To accommodate travelers, Cody completed construction of the Wapiti Inn and Pahaska Tepee in 1905 along the Cody Road, with the assistance of artist and rancher Abraham Archibald Anderson.

Cody also established the TE Ranch, located on the South Fork of the Shoshone River about thirty-five miles from Cody. When he acquired the TE property, he sent cattle from Nebraska and South Dakota. His new herd carried the TE brand.

Eventually Cody held around 8,000 acres (32 km²) of private land for grazing operations and ran about 1,000 head of cattle. He also operated a dude ranch, pack horse camping trips, and big game hunting business at and from the TE Ranch. In his spacious ranch house, he entertained notable guests from Europe and America.

The Shoshone Project

Wyoming’s resources of coal, oil and natural gas were beginning to be exploited toward the end of Cody’s life.

Even the Shoshone River was dammed for hydroelectric power, as well as for irrigation.

In 1897 and 1899 Cody and his associates acquired from the State of Wyoming the right to take water from the Shoshone River to irrigate about 169,000 acres (680 km2) of land in the Big Horn Basin. They began developing a canal to carry water diverted from the river, but their plans did not include a water storage reservoir.

Cody and his associates were unable to raise sufficient capital to complete their plan.

Early in 1903 they joined with the Wyoming Board of Land Commissioners in urging the federal government to step in and help with irrigation development in the valley.

The Shoshone Project became one of the first federal water development projects undertaken by the newly formed Reclamation Service – later to become known as the Bureau of Reclamation. After Reclamation took over the project in 1903, investigating engineers recommended constructing a dam on the Shoshone River in the canyon west of Cody.

Construction of the Shoshone Dam started in 1905, a year after the Shoshone Project was authorized. When it was completed in 1910, it was the tallest dam in the world.

Almost three decades after its construction, the name of the dam and reservoir was changed to Buffalo Bill Dam by an act of Congress, to honor Cody.

The Death of Buffalo Bill

Cody died of kidney failure on January 10, 1917, surrounded by family and friends at his sister’s house in Denver.

Cody was baptized into the Catholic Church the day before his death by Father Christopher Walsh of the Denver Cathedral.

Cody was also active in the concordant bodies of Freemasonry, having been initiated in Platte Valley Lodge No. 32, North Platte, Nebraska, on March 5, 1870.

He became a Knight Templar in 1889 and received his 32 degree in Scottish Rite of Freemasonry in 1894.

He received a full Masonic funeral.

Upon the news of Cody’s death, tributes were made by King George V of the United Kingdom, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Imperial Germany, and President Woodrow Wilson.

His funeral was in Denver at the Elks Lodge Hall.

The Wyoming governor John B. Kendrick, a friend of Cody’s, led the funeral procession.

Cody’s grave lies atop Lookout Mountain in Golden, Colorado.

Since his death, Buffalo Bill has been honored by two U.S. postage stamps. One was a 15¢ Great Americans series postage stamp.

Our series continues – but this story ends, here.

I hope you’ll join me, for our next tale.

Till then.