The Wild West of Yester-Year

Buffalo Bill Cody

By Rachel Kovaciny


I thought I knew a lot about William “Buffalo Bill” Cody. Then my family visited the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming, a couple of years ago. I discovered there that most of what I knew about him was about his later years, touring with his eponymous Wild West show. The story of his earlier life was all new to me! For instance, I did not know Buffalo Bill was a fellow Iowan! He was born in Le Claire, Iowa in 1846. The Cody family later moved to Kansas, where his father Isaac ran a trading post near the Kickapoo Indian Agency in Fort Leavenworth.


Kansas in the 1850s was a hotbed of violence between pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions. Isaac Cody was a staunch abolitionist, and got stabbed twice with a Bowie knife while giving an anti-slavery speech in 1854. He did not perish from his wounds right away, but he did eventually die of complications in 1857.


The family’s fortunes suffered because of Isaac’s outspoken anti-slavery stance. So, Bill Cody went to work at nine years old as a messenger, wrangler, and driver for a freight company. When his father died, eleven-year-old Cody took work driving cattle. While on that drive, he met up with another famous Bill—Wild Bill Hickok. He gained notoriety as “the youngest Indian fighter on the Great Plains” when he took part in a fight against raiding natives who were after the cattle he was helping to drive.

In 1860, Cody worked for the famous Pony Express. Only fourteen years old, he had several remarkable adventures while riding for the Pony Express... though his legend has added quite a few others. We have corroborating evidence that he rode a 300-mile round-trip in twenty-two hours between Red Butte Station and Pacific Springs Station in Wyoming. Other riders on his route had fallen ill, so Cody just kept going. We also know he out rode a group of Sioux warriors intent on stealing his horse.

During the American Civil War, Cody served as a scout for the US Cavalry in the West, then transferred to the Seventh Kansas Cavalry. He saw action in Tennessee and Missouri. After the war, he went back to scouting out West, where he married Louisa Frederici. Together, they had four children, two of which died young. A third died before Cody, but his daughter Irma outlived him.


In the late 1860s, Bill Cody earned his nickname of “Buffalo Bill.” He worked for the Union Pacific Railroad as a buffalo hunter, shooting buffalo to feed their construction workers as they raced to complete the Transcontinental Railroad. Legend says he killed over four thousand buffalo in less than two years.


Cody continued to work as a scout for the Cavalry and other governmental agencies through the 1870s. In 1872, Cody received the Medal of Honor for heroic actions while scouting for the Third Cavalry in Nebraska. He reunited with Wild Bill Hickok, since Hickok was also scouting for the Army. These exploits combined to give Buffalo Bill Cody a reputation as an expert marksman, hunter, rider, scout, and guide. They said he had total recall of every area he had ever traveled through. News reporters and dime novelists turned Cody into a folk hero, expanding on the wealth of exploits Cody endured. They turned him into a legend in his own time, and he realized this was happening, so he capitalized on it.


In 1872, Cody appeared in The Scouts of the Prairie, a drama written by dime novelist Ned Buntline (real name E. Z. C. Judson). Even though he had no acting training, Cody had dramatic flair and a charismatic stage presence that won him many fans. He enjoyed performing for an audience and, for about a decade, he would scout for the Army, lead hunting parties during the warmer months, and tour with the show during the winter. Wild Bill Hickok also joined the show for a time.


Cody partnered with producer Nate Salsbury in 1883 to create Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, an outdoor extravaganza that celebrated, memorialized, and fictionalized the Wild West all at once. His show presented real American Indians, stunt riding, marksmanship, and dramatic vignettes like a stage holdup, a buffalo hunt, and the adventures of a Pony Express rider. Annie Oakley traveled with the show for years, exhibiting her expert marksmanship. Teton Dakota chief Sitting Bull toured with the show for a while. In 1887, Cody took the show to Europe, where it was part of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee celebration. By the 1890s, the show had transformed into Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World. The performers included Cossacks from eastern Europe, Arabian riders, and gauchos from South America. In 1893, the show operated next to the World’s Fair in Chicago, where over three million people attended it.

Buffalo Bill continued to tour with his show until late in 1916. Though he was in his early seventies, he still appeared in the show. Cody died peacefully on January 10, 1917, in Denver, Colorado. 


Despite having fought against American Indians so often in his early years, Cody was a staunch supporter of Native American civil rights. He employed as many native people as he could in his Wild West Show, giving them a chance to earn competitive wages and experience life outside their reservations. He encouraged the spouses and children of Native performers to travel with the show. Cody also supported women’s suffrage and equal rights for women in all walks of life. He insisted on paying the women in his shows and treated them fairly and equally with the men. He spoke out publicly in favor of women’s suffrage and rights. He was also a determined conservationist, having seen first-hand the devastation wreaked by the wholesale slaughter of wild creatures. It's hard to separate the myth from the man, but the real facts of Buffalo Bill Cody’s life are well-documented now. The truth is so interesting that there’s no reason to add fictional adventures to them anymore.