The "Wild West" that America fell in love with didn't exist. It was invented by Buffalo Bill — who himself was a character invented by the eccentric William F. Cody.
Buffalo Bill Cody has been revered as a hardened hero of the West — a true cowboy. But it was his ability to spin a yarn that was truly his claim to fame, as it would be his depictions of the Wild West displayed in his traveling roadshows that would influence how we see the frontier to this day. Indeed, even his name was just the fabrication of an eccentric man named William Cody.
Perhaps Cody’s imagination stemmed from his eclectic work history. He was a recipient of the Medal of Honor, a performer, a rider for the Pony Express, and a civilian scout for the U.S. Army. He eventually even became a Knight Templar and a 32nd degree in the Scottish Rite branch.
But arguably the most impressive thing Cody did was to furnish the public’s mind with the aesthetic and substantive details of the frontier that persist today — indeed, in many ways, it was his imagination that invented the myth of the Wild West.
Who Was Buffalo Bill?
William F. Cody was born on Feb. 26, 1846 in LeClaire, Iowa, to Isaac and Mary Ann Laycock Cody. According to The William F. Cody Archive, the Cody family moved to the Kansas frontier when William was eight years old, as his father had decided to settle on a plot of public land there.
Unfortunately, the Codys mainly experienced both personal and financial setbacks during this time. Isaac Cody was stabbed and killed in 1857 for delivering an anti-slavery speech. William suddenly became the man of the house and consequently, Bill Cody was just 11 years old when he set out to find his first job.
After he joined the Russell, Majors, and Waddell firm as a cattle driver and teamster, Cody became a Plainsman and routinely accompanied military supply trains bound for the west. His 1879 autobiography also revealed that he became a gold prospector, a fur trapper, and worked as a Pony Express rider in less than two decades of his time on earth.
Though whether Cody actually held all these jobs at one time or another has been difficult for historians to verify. For one thing, he likely didn’t ride with the Pony Express.
Cody reportedly met his first legend of the Wild West while cattle driving for the firm: none other than James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok. This figure was arguably best portrayed in modern entertainment by Keith Carradine in HBO’s popular Deadwood series set in the late 1800s.
When he reinvented himself as Buffalo Bill, Cody modeled his look after Hickock and the two would later perform together.
William Cody’s Early Years
In 1864, Cody enlisted in the Seventh Kansas Volunteer Cavalry. After his one and a half year stint as a private, he met Louisa Frederici of St. Louis and was positively smitten. Cody’s courtship was fairly brief and the pair married as soon as 1866.
Though the couple had tumultuous phases over the years and would prove to be one of the first tabloid celebrity couples America had ever seen, the two stayed together for over half a century. Cody did at one point, however, try to sue for divorce. But back in 1867 as a newly married man, Cody tried his best to establish a reliable, settled life and he did so by trying to found the town of Rome, Kansas.
But Cody simply could not get the town off the ground. With no additional prospects on the horizon, Cody took whatever odd jobs with the railroad he could and later offered his services to the Army. It was during this time too that Cody acquires his nickname, “Buffalo Bill,” while hunting buffalo meat for Kansas railroad workers. He later claims to have killed 4,280 buffalo during his 18-month employment.
Cody established a fairly reliable working relationship with the military. He started in 1868 as a hunter and a guide. When he became a scout, Cody made $75 per month. This became his primary source of income until 1872 and had him guiding troops, carrying messages, and hunting game.
For the next 10 years, Cody remained a reliable and efficient scout for the Army. When he became Chief of Scouts for the Fifth Cavalry, he participated in numerous battles against the Plains Indians.
His participation in the 1869 Battle at Summit Springs saw him allegedly kill Chief Tall Bull, the infamous leader of the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers. Three years later, the United States Congress saw it fit to award Cody the Medal of Honor for his overall contributions as a civilian scout.
Back in these days, figures like “Wild Bill” Hickok and William “Buffalo Bill” Cody essentially comprised the beginnings of American celebrity. Cody started curating his Wild West persona on the back of Hickok’s, with whom he would reunite during their time together in the Civil War, growing his hair out and wearing similar buckskin outfits.
Author E.Z.C. Judson eventually took notice of Cody’s persona and penned a newspaper serial based on him. Under the nom de plume Ned Buntline, Judson’s Buffalo Bill, King of the Border Men exaggerated Cody’s character and was regularly published in New York Weekly.
The scripted tales of Buffalo Bill were compressed into dime novels which sold into the hundreds. Over the next four decades, Cody would craft a prolific career as a caricature of himself.
Becoming Buffalo Bill
In 1872, Buntline invited Cody to play himself in the western Scouts of the Prairie melodrama on stage in Chicago. By this point, his Buffalo Bill monicker had already become an established alias — one which eventually became an eponymous play in New York City with Cody as the lead.
Though not a gifted actor, Buffalo Bill did have experience in entertaining tourists on the countless guided trips and hunting expeditions he endeavored as a scout. To Buntline’s credit, he took advantage of Cody’s organic wit and charisma and reworked the Chicago play into a more improvisational piece.
While critics despised the play, one described it as a dime novel on stage, Scouts of the Prairie was a roaring success with the general public. William Cody recognized the opportunity and split from Buntline to form his own theatrical touring group with Hickok and John Burwell “Texas Jack” Omohundro.
This new troupe was called The Buffalo Bill Combination, and it toured around cities with alternating casts for the next 10 years. The dramatizations were usually centered around triumphant gunplays between Native Americans and a fantastical version of Buffalo Bill.
Touring was a seasonal endeavor, so Cody could actually stay home with his family during the off-seasons. In 1875, Cody, his wife, and their three children Arta Lucille, Kit Carson, and Orra Maude moved to Rochester, New York. Cody and his wife would outlive almost all of their children.
Family fell to the way-side for William Cody in 1876 when General Custer fell in battle at Little Big Horn. Cody returned to the fold of service in his stead.
Scouting with the Fifth Cavalry once more, Cody quickly found himself back in action on July 17 of that year in a skirmish at Warbonnet Creek, Nebraska. The cowboy was said to have managed to kill Yellow Hair, a Cheyenne warrior — which was naturally incorporated into Cody’s stage shows thereafter.
Buffalo Bill then went back to his regularly scheduled performing a few months later, brandishing Yellow Hair’s war bonnet, shield — and scalp — on stage.
This new play was titled The Red Right Hand: or Buffalo Bill’s First Scalp for Custer, which essentially saw Cody force a legacy beside another man who wasn’t alive to disagree with it.
Growing Legends And Fame
Cody published his autobiography, The Life of Hon. William F. Cody in 1879. Dozens of later versions would be reissued for the next 40 years which worked to keep his self-described feats permanently engrained in popular culture.
Historians still argue over the veracity of some of Cody’s claims in his autobiography, however. But Cody was apparently unbothered by constructing a false persona. He would live as Buffalo Bill for the rest of his life.
When the Cody family moved to North Platte, Nebraska in 1882, Buffalo Bill organized a Fourth of July celebration known as the “Old Glory Blowout.” It was essentially the first modern-day rodeo, was cowboy-themed, and had riders demonstrate their skill on horseback.
In 1884, Cody created the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West exhibition with actor and manager Nate Salsbury. The new duo worked well and toured the cowboy-themed variety show across the country for the next three years. Illustrations of past battles, mock buffalo hunts, and reenactments were presented to audiences, as Cody showed off his shooting skills as “America’s Practical All-Round Shot.”
It was during one of these events, which included marksmanship exhibitions, that figures such as Annie Oakley, Lillian Smith, and Johnnie Baker rose to prominence. Oakley even joined the show in 1884 as “Little Sure Shot” and became the show’s most popular performer for a time.
It was important that Cody include indigenous performers to lend credence to his shows. As such, Sitting Bull spent four months in Bill’s Wild West in the summer of 1885 and considering the fact that he was the most famous of the hundreds of Plains Indians, that meant a lot towards legitimizing the stories in Cody’s shows.
For less prominent Native Americans, being part of the touring group allowed them to travel the country as well as to Europe for a salary of $25 per month. Sitting Bull even managed to meet President Grover Cleveland during the show’s stint in Washington D.C. in June 1885.
William Cody took his show on the transatlantic road in May 1887 and spent a year touring England. The six-month stint in London included a performance before the Queen, while over two million Londoners paid a shilling each for the show. This success led to an expanded tour across Europe.
Cody returned home in 1888 as a bonafide celebrity before returning to Europe in 1890 and performing in England, Scotland, France, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Germany, Austro-Hungary, and Ukraine. Three years later, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West teamed up with circus promoter James A. Bailey until Bailey’s death in 1906. Bailey’s estate pounced on Cody’s finances and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West was forced into bankruptcy in 1913.
Financial Failures And Final Days
Cody went to work for Tammen’s Sells-Floto Circus once his show was forced to end. He made brief appearances for the Miller Brothers and Arlington 101 Ranch Real Wild West. His numerous “final” performances left audiences beaten down with goodbyes that seemingly continued indefinitely, though he did eventually say goodbye to his life on stage for good in 1916.
In 1904, 58-year-old William Cody sued his wife for divorce. According to him, she tried to poison him. These proceedings were widely publicized and wrought nothing but harsh attention on the couple. Cody’s infidelities and alcoholism were also widely publicized at this time.
Ultimately, the presiding judge threw the case out and Cody’s appeal for divorce was dismissed. Cody and his wife nonetheless remained together till the bitter end.
The public fiasco did taint his image as a strong, stoic figure, but that was only temporary. His persona was reproduced on paperback, in newspapers, on screen, and permeated culture for decades. Even now, 100 years later, people know the name “Buffalo Bill.”
In an arguably progressive turn of events for the time, Cody’s response to journalists asking about social issues such as environmental conservation, women’s suffrage, and Native American rights were all on the right side of history. He supported them all, even as an old, white icon of the Wild West.
William F. Cody died on Jan. 10, 1917. The Titanic was already corroding at the bottom of the ocean and the Great War was about to come to an end. Cody had lived through an era of history that has since been mythologized — in large part due to himself — and he died in a post-industrial world in his sister’s Denver, Colorado home.
Thousands of fans lined the streets as his body was carried to a grave on Lookout Mountain in Colorado. His youngest daughter Irma and her husband Fred Garlow died a year later in the Great Flu Epidemic. His wife Louisa raised Irma’s three children until she herself passed away in 1921. Louisa was buried next to her husband.
It’s hard to convey just how massively Cody’s Wild West exhibition contributed to cultivating the image of the frontier.
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West influenced later literature, film, and the imaginations of millions across the Atlantic and the country itself. “The Star-Spangled Banner,” for instance, was largely popularized by Cody’s heavy inclusion of it in his shows. It became the national anthem in 1931.
Cody’s interpretations of the West were also put on the silver screen. Life of Buffalo Bill was played in 1912 and The Indian Wars in 1913. Cody, Wyoming was named in his honor and the performer, in turn, built a stage line from there to the east entrance of Yellowstone National Park.
Part imposter and part actual cowboy, Buffalo Bill Cody’s true character is necessarily a muddled one, but that is perhaps part of its charm.
What’s clear, of course, is that Cody’s performances left an undeniable and indelible mark on how millions of people across generations have processed the Wild West. As such, he’s arguably the inventor of the myth of the Wild West.
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