"Buffalo Bill" Cody was the real deal -- he had hunted buffalo, fought Indians, and scouted along America's vast Western frontier. But Cody's biggest achievement came as that frontier vanished -- he brought the "Wild West" to the stage and fairgrounds, and wrapped it in a three-hour package.
Union Soldier, Buffalo Hunter
William Frederick Cody was born on February 26, 1846, in an Iowa log cabin. His father Isaac, a farmer with a touch of wanderlust, had been one of the first legal settlers in the Kansas Territory, moving his family there in 1854. A free soiler, Isaac was once stabbed by a pro-slavery man after giving a speech. He died in March 1857, as the territory was wracked by a conflict over slavery known as "bleeding Kansas." Young Will went to work as a messenger and ox herder, and at age 14 he rode for the Pony Express. During the Civil War, Cody served as a "jayhawker" battling Confederate guerrillas from Missouri -- famous outlaw Jesse James fought on the opposing side. His mother Mary Ann had made Cody promise not to enlist, but following her death in 1863 he joined the Union Army, seeing action in Missouri and Tennessee. After the war Cody married Louisa Frederici and got a job shooting buffalo to feed the men laying a railroad track for the Kansas Pacific Railroad, killing more than 4,000 in eight months and earning the name "Buffalo Bill."
Fighting Natives, Courting Fame
From 1868 to 1872 Cody served as a scout in the wars former Union general Phil Sheridan waged across the Northern Plains against Native Americans. Cody was involved in the summer 1869 campaign that drove the Cheyenne from Kansas, southern Nebraska and northern Colorado, and later that year he appeared as the star of Ned Buntline's novel Buffalo Bill, the King of Border Men, which romanticized his exploits as a jayhawker. In 1872 Cody attended the stage version of the novel in New York City and was asked to make a few remarks, which gave him a bad case of fright. But he was sufficiently recovered to perform in December of that year in a Buntline play called The Scouts of the Prairie. It was said to have been composed in a mere four hours, and Cody was no actor, but audiences loved it -- one critic said the play contained "all the thrilling romance, treachery, love, revenge, and hate of a dozen of the richest dime novels ever written." As for Cody, who had pitch black eyes, flowing hair, and an impressive moustache, one newspaper later remarked, "Everybody is of the opinion that he is altogether the handsomest man they have ever seen." Buffalo Bill performed for the next decade, interrupted only by return summons to serve as a scout. In one incident, during the war against the Sioux of 1876, Cody killed and scalped an Indian named Yellow Hair. He had recently learned of General George Armstrong Custer's defeat at Little Big Horn, and Buffalo Bill apparently exclaimed, "The first scalp for Custer." When word of this spread, it added to his growing fame.
Nostalgia for a Vanished Frontier
Not content with acting in other people's plays, Cody in 1883 put together what became known as the Wild West, an entertainment that advertisements billed as "A Visit West in Three Hours." By then, the American West had changed irrevocably with the completion of a transcontinental railroad and white settlement of Native lands. As early as 1876, Native Americans had been put on display for millions of visitors at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, and by 1893, young historian Frederick Jackson Turner would famously declare, "The frontier has gone." As the real thing was eradicated, nostalgia for it grew. As early as 1876, Native Americans had been put on display for millions of visitors at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, and by 1893, young historian Frederick Jackson Turner would famously declare, "The frontier has gone." As the real thing was eradicated, nostalgia for it grew. Actual cowboys and Indians roamed the parade grounds of Cody's show, which featured sharpshooting and reenactments of Pony Express rides, Indian attacks on an authentic "Deadwood stagecoach," and even a recreation of Custer's Last Stand featuring Native Americans who had participated in it. Cody's show would run for 30 years and be seen by presidents and monarchs, as well as millions of Americans and Europeans for whom it would become the depiction of what the West was really like.
A brilliant showman and first-class rider, Cody performed in the show and also drew in such luminaries as Annie Oakley, whom he initially rejected but then hired in 1885 and kept in the show for almost all of the next 17 years, and Sioux warrior Sitting Bull, who had fought Custer in 1876. Although he had participated in 14 fights against Indians, Cody harbored no ill feelings towards his Native American performers, and he made sure they were treated the same as the rest of the company. Buffalo Bill even tried to help Sitting Bull during the 1890 ghost dance conflict that led to the Sioux warrior's death, returning to the Dakotas for the first time since 1876.
Unfortunately, Cody did not have a good head for business, and after the death of his manager, he fell into debt. After the 1913 season, memorabilia from the Wild West was sold off by creditors, and Cody died bankrupt in 1917.
My American Experience
The legend of the Wild West has been played out in American Popular culture since the start of westward expansion. The real-life people who helped tame the west would shape the western heroes celebrated in film and television for decades.