This month Biography.com is highlighting legendary figures from America’s West, and this week we’re featuring the life of Buffalo Bill Cody. The iconic cowboy shone as a true star of the Plains in his lifetime, and his image continues to shape the world’s perception of the “Wild West.” From a young rider for the Pony Express just before the Civil War to a film producer at the dawn of the twentieth century, Cody’s extraordinary career spanned the Golden Age of the American West.
William “Buffalo Bill” Cody (1846-1917)
1. Child Laborer: Soon after his birth in 1846 in Le Clere, Iowa, William Cody moved with his family to Leavenworth, Kansas. His father died in 1857, and to make ends meet, William went to work with a wagon train company. At the ripe old age of 13, he had crossed the Great Plains several times, traveling between Kansas and Wyoming, and was recruited as a rider by the short-lived but legendary Pony Express. Later in life, Cody gave generously to widows and orphans, well aware of the hardships faced by fatherless children in this era.
2. Well-Earned Moniker: After serving in the Union Army during the Civil War, Cody went on to work as a buffalo hunter for the Kansas Pacific Railroad. He killed over 4,500 bison, which were used to feed the 1,200 men laying tracks for the railroad. Today that may seem like a senseless slaughter, but in his day Cody was highly regarded for his hunting skills, and his nickname of “Buffalo Bill” was considered an honor.
3. Celebrity Scout: Buffalo Bill served the US Army again during the Indian Wars as a civilian scout and tracker. In 1872, President Grant awarded him the Congressional Medal of Honor for acts of valor. (He remains one of the few civilians to ever receive this medal, which is usually reserved for enlisted personnel.) Meanwhile his fame spread east, and a series of “Dime Novels” featured the famous hunter scout, sparking enormous interest. After appearing in an eponymous theatrical production, Cody started the “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show”, touring the world with other well-known westerners including Annie Oakley, Sitting Bull, and James “Wild Bill” Hickok.
4. Family Man and Businessman: Cody married Louisa Frederici when he was 20 years old, probably eager to create a stable family for himself. Their life-long marriage produced 4 children. Possessing an entrepreneurial spirit, Bill invested widely, from mining and oil wells to hotels and filmmaking. His films of the Wild West Show can be found in the National Archives today. He founded the town of Cody, Wyoming, where a historic hotel, named after his daughter Irma, still stands. Sadly, due to a bad loan, Cody lost most of his fortune near the end of his life.
5. Life of a Legend: Around 1900, Bill Cody was one of the most famous people in the world. European royalty and American presidents enjoyed his productions as much as everyday workers. As he aged, his worldview changed. He advocated for increased rights for Native Americans and for the protection of the dwindling bison herds. He believed in equal rights for women and paid the female members of his troupe the same as the men, which was highly unusual at that time. He died in 1917 and was buried on Look Out Mountain, west of Denver, facing the Great Plains where American bison grazed peacefully nearby.