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William Cody (Buffalo Bill) was born near Le Claire, Iowa, on 26th February, 1846. His family moved to Kansas in 1854 and settled near Leavenworth.
Cody worked as an express messenger and at the age of 12 claimed he killed his first Native American. Later he worked as a driver at Fort Laramie. Cody also attempted to make his fortune as a gold miner. This was unsuccessful and in 1860 Cody became a Pony Express rider. He later told the writer Ned Buntline that he set a record by riding 322 miles in 21 hours 30 minutes.
During the American Civil War he served as a scout for the 9th Kansas Volunteers on the Santa Fe Trail. Later he joined the 7th Kansas Volunteers.
After the war Cody worked as a stage driver from Fort Kearny to Plum Creek. In 1867 he was employed as a scout by General George A. Custer. This was followed by obtaining a contract to kill buffalo for the company supplying the food for the men building the Union Pacific Railroad. Cody later boasted of killing 4,280 buffalo in seventeen months, using a 50-clibre breech-loading Springfield rifle. Although most people thought this was a wild exaggeration he was given the nickname Buffalo Bill.
In 1868 Cody was appointed by General Philip H. Sheridan as chief scout for the 5th Cavalry. He held this post during the Republican River campaign. Along with Frank North and his Pawnee Scouts, Cody took part in the victory over Cheyenne warriors at Summit Springs, Colorado, on 11th July, 1869. Cody later claimed he had killed their leader, Tall Bull, but this was disputed by others who were involved in the operation.
As well as scouting for the army Cody worked as a guide for people wanting to hunt buffalo. This include taking Grand Duke Alexis of Russia in what became known as the Great Royal Buffalo Hunt. During this time he met the writer Ned Buntline. This resulted in the article, Buffalo Bill: King of the Bordermen, that appeared in the New York Weekly in 1869. This publicity helped Cody to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
In 1872 Cody appeared in a play in Chicago written by Buntine called The Scouts of the Prairie. It was a great success and Cody went on tour with the play. Later he appeared in Scouts of the Plains, a play written by Fred Maeder.
In 1876 Cody was back working as a scout for General George Crook in the wars against the Sioux. In July of that year he killed and scalped the Cheyenne chief Yellow Hand in battle while serving with the 5th Cavalry. The following year Cody joined up with his old friend, Frank North, to purchase a ranch on the Dismal River in Nebraska.
Cody found the work too unexciting and decided to go back to show business and in 1882 established his Wild West Show. He recruited several famous people to perform in his show including Annie Oakley, Sitting Bull, Red Cloud and Frank North. This included re-enactments of Custer's Last Stand, Native American attacks on stagecoaches and cowboys showing off their skills.
In 1887 Cody toured Europe with his show and gave a special performance in London in front of Queen Victoria and the Royal Family. The Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) was so impressed that he saw it three times. Cody and his team also appeared in France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Austria and Belgium. In 1893 Cody's Wild West Show was the outstanding attraction of the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition.
Cody made a fortune out of his Wild West Show but bad investments caused him financial problems. In 1908 he merged his operations with Major Gordon W. Lillie's Pawnee Bill Show. This was not successful and after the partnership broke up Cody joined the Sells-Floto Circus.
William Cody went bankrupt and was deeply in debt when he died on 10th January, 1917.
I first met Mr. Cody, October, 1868, at Buffalo Station, on the Kansas Pacific railroad, in Kansas. He was scout and guide for the seven companies of the Fifth Cavalry, then under Colonel Royal, and of which I was ordered to take the command.
From his services with my command, steadily in the field for nine months, from October, 1868, to July, 1869, and at subsequent times, I am qualified to bear testimony to his qualities and character.
He was very modest and unassuming. I did not know for a long time how good a title he had to the appellation, 'Buffalo Bill.' I am apt to discount the claims of scouts, as they will occasionally exaggerate; and when I found one who said nothing about himself, I did not think much of him, till I had proved him. He is a natural gentleman in his manners as well as in character, and has none of the roughness of the typical frontiersman.
He can take his own part when required, but I have never heard of his using a knife or a pistol, or engaging in a quarrel where it could be avoided. His personal strength and activity are such that he can hardly meet a man whom he cannot handle, and his temper and disposition are so good that no one has reason to quarrel with him.
His eyesight is better than a good field glass; he is the best trailer I ever heard of; and also the best judge of the 'lay of country,' - that is, he is able to tell what kind of country is ahead, so as to know how to act.
He is a perfect judge of distance, and always ready to tell correctly how many miles it is to water, or to any place, or how many miles have been marched.
Mr. Cody seemed never to tire and was always ready to go, in the darkest night or the worst weather, and usually volunteered, knowing what the emergency required. His trailing, when following Indians or looking for stray animals or game, is simply wonderful. He is a most extraordinary hunter. I could not believe that a man could be certain to shoot antelope running till I had seen him do it so often.
In a fight Mr. Cody is never noisy, obstreperous or excited. In fact, I never hardly noticed him in a fight, unless I happened to want him, or he had something to report, when he was always in the right place, and his information was always valuable and reliable.
Nothing occurred to interrupt our journey until we reached Plum Creek, on the South Platte River, thirty-five miles west of Old Fort Kearney. We had made a morning drive and had camped for dinner. The wagon-masters and a majority of the men had gone to sleep under the mess wagons; the cattle were being guarded by three men, and the cook was preparing dinner. No one had any idea that Indians were anywhere near us. The first warning we had that they were infesting that part of the country was the firing of shots and the whoops and yells from a party of them, who, catching us napping, gave us a most unwelcome surprise. All the men jumped to their feet and seized their guns. They saw with astonishment the cattle running in every direction, they having been stampeded by the Indians, who had shot and killed the three men who were on day-herd duty, and the red devils were now charging down upon the rest of us.
I then thought of mother's fears of my falling into the hands of the Indians, and I had about made up my mind that such was to be my fate; but when I saw how coolly and determinedly the McCarthy brothers were conducting themselves and giving orders to the little band, I became convinced that we would "stand the Indians off," as the saying is. Our men were all well armed with Colt's revolvers and Mississippi yagers, which last carried a bullet, and two buckshots.
The McCarthy boys, at the proper moment, gave orders to fire upon the advancing enemy. The volley checked them, although they returned the compliment, and shot one of our party through the leg. Frank McCarthy then sang out, " Boys, make a break for the slough yonder, and we can then have the bank for a breastwork."
We made a run for the slough which was only a short distance off, and succeeded in safely reaching it, bringing with us the wounded man. The bank proved to be a very effective breastwork, affording us good protection. We had been there but a short time when Frank McCarthy, seeing that the longer we were corralled the worse it would be for us, said:-
" Well, boys, we'll try to make our way back to Fort Kearney by wading in the river and keeping the bank for a breast-work."
We all agreed that this was the best plan, and we accordingly proceeded down the river several miles in this way, managing to keep the Indians at a safe distance with our guns, until the slough made a junction with the main Platte River. From there down we found the river at times quite deep, and in order to carry the wounded man along with us, we constructed a raft of poles for his accommodation, and in this way he was transported.
Occasionally the water would be too deep for us to wade, and we were obliged to put our weapons on the raft and swim. The Indians followed us pretty close, and were continually watching for an opportunity to get a good range and give us a raking fire. Covering ourselves by keeping well under the bank, we pushed ahead as rapidly as possible, and made pretty good progress, the night finding us still on the way and our enemies yet on our track.
The wagons used in those days by Russell, Majors & Waddell were known as the "J. Murphy wagons," made at St. Louis specially for the plains business. They were very large and were strongly built, being capable of carrying seven thousand pounds of freight each. The wagon-boxes were very commodious - being as large as the rooms of an ordinary house - and were covered with two heavy canvas sheets to protect the merchandise from the rain. These wagons were generally sent out from Leavenworth, each loaded with six thousand pounds of freight, and each drawn by several yokes of oxen in charge of one driver.
During the winter at Fort Bridger I had frequently talked with Wild Bill (Hickok) about my family, and as I had become greatly attached to him I asked him to come and make a visit at our house, which he promised to do. So one day, shortly after our return from Fort Bridger, he accompanied me home from Leavenworth. My mother and sisters, who had heard so much about him from me, were delighted to see him and he spent several weeks at our place. They did everything possible to repay him for his kindness to me. Ever afterwards, when he was at or near Leavenworth, Wild Bill came out to our house to see the family, whether I was at home or not, and he always received a most cordial reception.
At times I had with my command the most noted scouts and guides in the western country. A prince among those hunters and frontier men was William P. Cody, better known as "Buffalo Bill," a sobriquet given him for superior horsemanship and rifle shooting. He was of a good family. His father, a strong patriot, was killed in what was known as the "Border War." Cody at that time was one of the handsomest men I have ever seen; very tall and straight, an abundance of golden hair falling to his shoulders, like a cavalier of old; large, brilliant brown eyes, auburn mustache and goatee, and features as perfect as if they had been chiseled out of marble.
I had my celebrated buffalo hunt with Billy Comstock, a noted scout, guide and interpreter, who was then chief of scouts at Fort Wallace, Kansas. Comstock had the reputation, for a long time, of being a most successful buffalo hunter, and the officers in particular, who had seen him kill buffaloes, were very desirous of backing him in a match against me. It was accordingly arranged that I should shoot him a buffalo-killing match, and the preliminaries were easily and satisfactorily agreed upon. We were to hunt one day of eight hours, beginning at eight o'clock in the morning, and closing at four o'clock in the afternoon. The wager was five hundred dollars a side, and the man who should kill the greater number of buffaloes from on horseback was to be declared the winner.
The hunt took place about twenty miles east of Sheridan, and as it had been pretty well advertised and noised abroad, a large crowd witnessed the interesting and exciting scene. An excursion party, mostly from St. Louis, consisting of about a hundred gentlemen and ladies, came out on a special train to view the sport, and among the number was my wife, with little baby Arta, who had come to remain with me for a while.
The buffaloes were quite plenty, and it was agreed that we should go into the same herd at the same time and "make a run," as we called it, each one killing as many as possible. A referee was to follow each of us on horseback when we entered the herd, and count the buffaloes killed by each man. The St. Louis excursionists, as well as the other spectators, rode out to the vicinity of the hunting grounds in wagons and on horseback, keeping well out of sight of the buffaloes, so as not to frighten them, until the time came for us to dash into the herd; when they were to come up as near as they pleased and witness the chase.
At last the time came to begin the match. Comstock and I dashed into a herd, followed by the referees. The buffaloes separated; Comstock took the left bunch and I the right. My great forte in killing buffaloes from horseback was to get them circling by riding my horse at the head of the herd, shooting the leaders, thus crowding their followers to the left, till they would finally circle round and round.
On this morning the buffaloes were very accommodating, and I soon had them running in a beautiful circle, when I dropped them thick and fast, until I had killed thirty-eight; which finished my run.
Comstock began shooting at the rear of the herd, which he was chasing, and they kept straight on. He succeeded, however, in killing twenty-three, but they were scattered over a distance of three miles, while mine lay close together. I had "nursed" my buffaloes, as a billiard-player does the balls when he makes a big run.
The pioneers of Kansas, particularly a number who settled on the frontier - along the upper valleys of the Smoky Hill, Republican, Solomon, and Saline rivers - practically owed their lives to the existence of the buffalo. For years in the early '60's a goodly portion of the meat consumed by those early settlers was cut from the carcass of the noble, shaggy animal which so long existed as monarch of the plains. Thousands of people who at an early day went overland to Utah, Oregon and California drew their supply of meat from the buffalo. Where this life preserver was found, it was known that, by following their paths, near by water would be found. The principal article of fuel found on the frontier for cooking the meat of the buffalo was the dried excrement of the animal, known in early Kansas and Nebraska parlance as "buffalo chips." The buffalo was one of the noblest of all animals. It seemed indispensable. It furnished man with an abundance of the most wholesome meat; the hide was made into shoes and garments worn during the day, and it made a comfortable bed and supplied warm covering in or out of doors at night.
The last herd of buffalo that I ever saw in the wild, native state was in the fall of 1870. It was along the Kansas Pacific railroad near the headwaters of the Smoky Hill river. The railroad had just been built, and the animals seemed terribly frightened at the cars. In their mad race westward along the railroad, they actually kept up with the passenger-train, which was moving along from fifteen to eighteen miles an hour. The race became exciting, and all of the passengers, many of whom had never seen a buffalo, held their breath in suspense. It was noticed that the animals never changed their course, but kept steadily coming nearer the train, apparently determined to cross the track at the curve a short distance beyond. Not caring for a collision which might possibly derail the train, the engineer gave up the race and whistled "down brakes," stopping within a few rods of the animals to let them cross. A parting salute was given by some of the passengers, who emptied the chambers of their six- shooters among the beasts, but which they did not appear to mind any more than a blast from a toy pop-gun. While these animals used to cover the plains of western Kansas and Nebraska in countless millions, hardly one of them is now left to remind us of the once noble and powerful herds originally known in the great West as "crooked back oxen."
For four years-1865-1869-during the lively era of constructing the Pacific railroad and its branches, no less than 250,000 buffaloes were slaughtered in Kansas and other western states. From 1869 to 1876 the greatest slaughter took place, and the number in those years slain ran up into the millions. The animals had become quite scarce in the later '70's and the early '80's, yet no less than one and a half million buffaloes were killed The year 1870 was a great year in hunting the buffalo, during which time upwards of two million were killed in Kansas, Indian Territory and Texas. ''
The most conspicuous person engaged in the great slaughter was the intrepid scout and Indian fighter, Col. William F. Cody who has been more familiarly known as "Buffalo Bill." In 1867, when the Kansas Pacific railroad was being built across the plains to Denver, Cody, then a young man, made a contract with the railway officials to keep its officials supplied with buffalo meat. For doing this he received $500 per month. He was engaged in this work eighteen months, during which time he killed an average of about eight a day-in all 4280 buffaloes; and this is how Cody be- came the renowned "Buffalo Bill."
I had always been fond of hunting, and I now had a good opportunity to gratify my ambition in that direction, as I had plenty of spare time on my hands. In this connection I will relate one of my bear-hunting adventures. One day, when I had nothing else to do, I saddled up an extra pony express horse, and arming myself with a good rifle and pair of revolvers, struck out for the foot-hills of Laramie Peak for a bear-hunt. Riding carelessly along, and breathing the cool and bracing autumn air which came down from the mountains, I felt as only a man can feel who is roaming over the prairies of the far West, well armed and mounted on a fleet and gallant steed. The perfect freedom which he enjoys is in itself a refreshing stimulant to the mind as well as to the body. Such indeed were my feelings on this beautiful day as I rode up the valley of the Horseshoe. Occasionally I scared up a flock of sage-hens or a jack-rabbit. Antelopes and deer were alntost always in sight in any direction, but as they were not the kind of game I was after on that day I passed them by and kept on towards the higher mountains. The further I rode the rougher and wilder became the country, and I knew that I was approaching the haunts of the bear. I did not discover any, however, although I saw plenty of tracks in the snow.
About two o'clock in the afternoon, my horse having become tired, and myself being rather weary, I shot a sage-hen and, dismounting, I unsaddled my horse and tied him to a small tree, where he could easily feed on the mountain grass. I then built a little fire, and broiling the chicken and seasoning it with salt and pepper, which I had obtained from my saddle-bags, I soon sat down to a "genuine square meal," which I greatly relished.
After resting for a couple of hours, I remounted and resumed my upward trip to the mountain, having made up my mind to camp out that night rather than go back without a bear, which my friends knew I had gone out for. As the days were growing short, night soon came on, and I looked around for a suitable camping place. While thus engaged, I scared up a flock of sage-hens, two of which I shot, intending to have one for supper and the other for breakfast.
By this time it was becoming quite dark, and I rode down to one of the little mountain streams, where I found an open place in the timber suitable for a camp. I dismounted, and after unsaddling my horse and hitching him to a tree, I prepared to start a fire. Just then I was startled by hearing a horse whinnying further up the stream. It was quite a surprise to me, and I immediately ran to my animal to keep him from answering, as horses usually do in such cases. I thought that the strange horse might belong to some roaming band of Indians, as I knew of no white men being in that portion of the country at that time. I was certain that the owner of the strange horse could not be far distant, and I was very anxious to find out who my neighbor was, before letting him know that I was in his vicinity. I therefore resaddled my horse, and leaving him tied so that I could easily reach him I took my gun and started out on a scouting expedition up the stream. I had gone about four hundred yards when, in a bend of the stream, I discovered ten or fifteen horses grazing.
Buffalo Bill Cody
Born William Frederick Cody, "Buffalo Bill" earned his nickname after being named as chief buffalo meat provider for the Kansas Pacific Railroad, a southern branch of the Union Pacific, as it pushed its way across the midsection of America following the Civil War. Cody is known to have killed 4,280 head of buffalo in 17 months. The early years Born in Scott County, Iowa, in 1846, Bill grew up on the grasslands of the Midwest. When his father died in 1857, the family moved to Kansas, where Bill worked for a wagon-freight company as a mounted messenger and cattle wrangler. In 1859, at the prairie-toughened age of 13, he tried his luck as a "Fifty-niner," prospecting in the Pikes Peak gold rush. The following year, Bill joined the Pony Express when they wanted "skinny, expert riders willing to risk death daily." During the Civil War, Bill served as a Union scout in campaigns against the Kiowa and Comanche. In 1863, he enlisted at the age of 17 with the Seventh Kansas Cavalry, which went to battle in Missouri and Tennessee. Following the war, Bill married Louisa Frederici in St. Louis and from Fort Ellsworth, Kansas, continued with the army as a scout/dispatch carrier. The legend begins In 1868, Cody returned to the army as chief of scouts for the Fifth Cavalry and took part in 16 battles, including the defeat of the Cheyenne at Summit Springs, Colorado, in 1869. For his service and "gallantry in action," he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1872. Thanks to a number of dime novels by Ned Buntline, beginning in 1869, the public persona of Buffalo Bill evolved into a romanticised hero worship. Buntline alluded that Cody was every bit in the same class of frontiersman as his close friend Wild Bill Hickock, as well as Kit Carson, and Davy Crockett. The novels were, indeed, a heady mixture of fact and fiction. In 1872, Buntline urged Cody to take his new mantle to the stage by starring in his, Buntline's, play, The Scouts of the Plains. Cody capitalized on his innate showmanship in pulling off the gig, and was applauded by an appreciative audience. Cody remained on stage for 11 seasons and became an author as well. He finished the first edition of his autobiography in 1879, and stumped his own style of Buffalo Bill novels. Eventually, Cody would write about 1,700 of those frontier tales. In the theater off-seasons, Cody guided wealthy Easterners and European nobility, including the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia, who was 19 years old at the time, on hunting expeditions and stage-coach rides. In 1876, he returned to America's service as an army scout in the Indian campaign that followed Custer’s demise at the Little Bighorn. In 1883 at the age of 37, Cody organized Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, an outdoor spectacle that vividly portrayed some of the most idyllic and enchanting moments of frontier life. The show included a buffalo hunt with real buffaloes, an Indian attack on the Deadwood stage with real Indians, and a Pony Express ride. The show was said to boasted as many as 1,200 performers, including Arabs, Cossacks, Gauchos, Mongols, and Turks, as well as Native Americans, decked out in the regalia of their respective cultures. Among the star attractions of the group were Annie Oakley, dubbed "Little Sure Shot," and Sitting Bull , who took his place during the finale — a spicy reenactment of Custer's Last Stand. The show was a precursor to today's modern rodeo with a large dash of circus and history lesson thrown in. It mixed sentimentality with sensationalism, and proved to be a huge success, touring America for 20 years. Its tour through Europe in 1887 included a command performance before Queen Victoria. In 1893, the troupe performed as part of the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition, now known as the World's Fair. In 1890, Cody was once again called back by the army during Indian uprisings associated with the Ghost Dance. He arrived with some Indians from his troupe who proved to be effective peacemakers, and even traveled to Wounded Knee following the massacre to help restore order. The last days Cody made a good deal of money from the show, but lost it to mismanagement and investment schemes that failed to pan out. In the end, even the Wild West show was confiscated by creditors. Cody died in January 1917, and is buried in a tomb at the summit of Lookout Mountain near Denver, Colorado.
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.
Wikimedia Commons By 19, Cody had already worked as a cattle driver, teamster, fur trapper, and prospector.
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.
Wikimedia Commons Cody tried to divorce his wife Louisa due to his belief that she had tried to poison him. When the judge dismissed the suit, they reconciled and stayed together until he died.
When he reinvented himself as Buffalo Bill, Cody modeled his look after Hickock and the two would later perform together.
Town Founder and Irrigation Tycoon: The Buffalo Bill Nobody Knows
William F. Cody, famous across two continents as Buffalo Bill, leader of the great Wild West show, was flush with cash and bursting with self-confidence when he embarked on his Wyoming life in 1894, promising to build an irrigated empire along the Shoshone River that would be larger than any such enterprise the West had ever seen. In 1916, broke and ill, he slipped out of Wyoming to die the following year in his sister’s home in Denver, still famous and widely mourned, but not the figure he set out to become 22 years earlier. Cody’s life in Wyoming left a wide trail, however, and it was not all downhill.
By the early 1890s it was 20 years since Cody had begun the transformation from scout, to dime-novel hero to full-time showman. By 1894 the Wild West show had toured widely in North America and toured Europe four times, performing twice before Queen Victoria, selling millions of tickets and making Cody a wealthy man.
His extraordinary success with his show at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago marked the peak of his career as a showman. Now he wanted to make a mark outside the show arena, something that would earn him the enduring respect of wealthy men in the East.
It was water that brought Buffalo Bill into northern Wyoming’s Bighorn Basin. Businessmen George Beck and Horace Alger of Sheridan had purchased a water right to irrigate a large tract along the south side of the Shoshone River where it flows out of the Absaroka Mountains, a hundred miles west of Sheridan. Cody met them in Sheridan in 1893, and they were pleased to bring his name and resources into their project. After Beck and State Engineer Elwood Mead surveyed the land in 1894, and Mead’s report described it as a project that could not fail, they formed the Shoshone Land and Irrigation Company and began digging the Cody Canal in 1895.
From the beginning, the saga of that company, reorganized and renamed Shoshone Irrigation Company in 1896, was a kind of soap opera. Cody knew little or nothing about irrigation or construction, but as company president he tried to micromanage the whole enterprise from his railroad car while he toured America with the Wild West.
As for Beck, he had never undertaken to manage a project this complex. He often found balancing the demands for performance from company directors against the need to conserve scarce funds next to impossible, and chose to say or do nothing rather than get into fights. The land through which they were digging the canal was extraordinarily difficult: In some places it was like cemented gravel, at others it was so sandy the banks would not hold, and they literally had to build a canal of wooden planking above the ground.
Bill Cody had big plans to attract colonies of settlers, all of which fell through. Eastern investors stopped supplying needed capital only Cody’s willingness to pay far more than his fair share kept the ditch project going at all. By 1897, some water had begun flowing to Cody’s little namesake town they had set up the year before, and the following year they had attracted some more farmers. Violent storms in the summer of 1898 wrecked the canal, however, and led its directors to try to sell out for $150,000, roughly the amount they had put into it. There were no buyers.
Development of water resources in the West was never easy. Westerners argued from 1890 on that only irrigation systems could do the job, and the federal government had to take the lead. The Carey Act of 1894, named after Wyoming U.S. Senator Joseph Carey, was a first attempt. States were each to be given a million acres of public land, and they would contract with private developers to build the water systems.
The Cody Canal was one of the first Carey Act projects in the nation. Watching Carey Act failures all across the West, irrigation advocates realized free land was not enough: The cost of building good irrigation systems was still too great for private resources. Federal intervention would be needed—on a scale beyond anything the government had been willing to consider. In 1902, Congress passed the National Reclamation Act, putting federal money directly into water development for the first time, and the U. S. Reclamation Service was formed to do the job.
When the Burlington Railroad completed its spur line to the town of Cody in 1901, settlement picked up. That was a mixed blessing, however, in that more settlers meant more demand on the canal. The irrigation company’s contract with the state under the Carey Act expired that same year. The directors applied for an extension, but the new state engineer—Elwood Mead having moved on to federal employment—inspected the canal and found it was only half built, and the constructed portion was not reliable. He required them to spend another $43,000 extending and rebuilding the ditch, and two years later his successor returned and required a further $20,000.
The business of the canal was taken over by George Bleistein, a printing magnate and Shoshone Irrigation Company director from Buffalo, N.Y., leaving both Beck and Cody out of it. Company officials found the money and did the work, but it was not enough to keep a group of farmers from taking them to court for failure to provide water. All 26 lawsuits were settled in favor of the plaintiffs, wiping away all possibility of the canal investors recovering their money.
The canal was turned over to the settlers in 1907, and when the cloud of litigation dispersed, the settlers had to sell $95,000 of bonds to raise the money needed to make it irrigate even 12,000 acres reliably. The Shoshone Irrigation Company had spent $282,000 by the end of 1905 to build a canal that could not do its job, and had taken in only $82,000 in water sales to settlers. It was a sorry excuse for an irrigation empire.
The U.S. Reclamation Service
But the Cody Canal was the smaller part of Buffalo Bill’s imperial ambitions. In 1897, amid the chaos and bickering along the Cody Canal, Cody convinced his Wild West partner, Nate Salsbury, to join him in a second irrigation venture.
This one was to carry water to 120,000 acres on the north side of the river, extending more than 25 miles east from Cody. They got their plans approved and the state water right issued in May 1899. Cody and Salsbury knew they would have to raise great sums of money to accomplish this Buffalo Bill pronounced himself ready to raise a million dollars! That he would take this on at a time when the Cody Canal seemed to be falling apart shows a measure of his ambition and his self-delusion. The partners actually did little real work on this venture.
Capitalists with the kind of money Cody was looking for were not impressed with the chances of this kind of project. When the federal government finally moved decisively into western water development in 1902, officials in the new U.S. Reclamation Service immediately expressed interest in the Cody-Salsbury plan. They wanted to acquire Buffalo Bill’s water right.
The Burlington Railroad, which had built the line to Cody in 1901, wanted to see a federal project on that land they had no confidence that Cody’s private plans could succeed. Cody temporized throughout 1903, but in early 1904 he finally agreed to relinquish his water right to the Reclamation Service. As a result, the federal government immediately appropriated $2,250,000 to build the Shoshone Project.
They built what was then the highest concrete arch dam in the world in the canyon west of Cody, creating a reservoir of 465,000 acre-feet of water that irrigated 93,000 acres centered on the new town of Powell, 25 miles northeast of Cody. In 1946, on what would have been his hundredth birthday, the dam and the lake were renamed for Buffalo Bill. This honor acknowledged Cody’s vision, while omitting mention of his rather feckless career as an irrigation developer.
Cody’s namesake town
Bill Cody had been better at building a town than an irrigation project. After a stuttering start, with competing layouts two miles apart, the Shoshone Irrigation Company laid out the town of Cody in the spring of 1896. Cody was interested in every detail of the new town: getting a proper hotel built, making sure the streets were wide, recommending that liquor license fees be set high enough to keep the rough trade away.
When they formed the Cody Townsite Company to sell lots, Cody watched it closely. When the Burlington finally came to the deciding point on building into the town, Bill Cody argued in his correspondence constantly and forcefully for the construction. He warned his partners in the townsite company to accommodate the interests of the railroad as expressed through its development arm, the Lincoln Land Company, or risk losing everything they had invested.
The arrival of the Burlington in the fall of 1901 guaranteed that Cody would be a viable town, but it meant that the irrigation company partners had to cede half the income from town lots to the Lincoln Land Company. Buffalo Bill always took credit for getting the railroad to the town. This was clearly overstating the case—the Burlington had good corporate reasons without regard to Bill Cody—but what else would one expect from one of the greatest promoters of his or any other time.
Buffalo Bill owned the livery stable, the blacksmith shop, the newspaper and several ranches around town. He started a company to mine coal outside of town and drilled oil wells. As many as half of the 500 or so people who lived and worked in Cody in 1899 were dependent upon him, and many more applied to him for occasional charity, with which he was famously generous. After the railroad came in, he decided to more than double his financial commitment to the town by building the Irma Hotel—named for his daughter.
Opened with a grand reception Nov. 18, 1902, the Irma—an imposing stone structure in a town of wooden buildings—probably cost him $80,000. No less a judge than the great painter Frederic Remington pronounced it as good a hotel as any in the West. In 1903, a local writer estimated that Cody had poured more than $216,000 into his namesake town. As he fell deeply into debt mining for gold in Arizona, his financial commitment to the town dwindled he even mortgaged his hotel and his home ranch in that decade and later deeded them to his wife, Louisa, to keep them from being sold by creditors.
But his personal commitment to Cody never wavered. When he returned to Wyoming after the summers of Wild West shows, he always gave a big party at the Irma, when he would speak of his optimism for Cody’s future. No other little town in the West could boast of a cheerleader to compare with Buffalo Bill.
The Irma, “Buffalo Bill’s Hotel in the Rockies,” became the centerpiece of his vision for Cody and the country around it. Cody and Beck marked out a wagon road west from Cody up the North Fork of the Shoshone River to the eastern edge of Yellowstone Park. He built Pahaska Tepee, a hunting lodge, just outside the park, at the end of that road, and the Wapiti Inn halfway between Cody and Pahaska these became part of the infrastructure of Yellowstone Park tourism, a new industry that the town and the railroad could advertise. He bought a fleet of steam-driven automobiles to carry tourists up and back and lobbied hard in Washington to have a road built from the center of Yellowstone to a new east entrance.
Cody had worked from his very first years in Wyoming to connect his town with the metropolitan East. He organized hunting parties west of Cody in the high Absaroka Mountains every fall when he returned to Wyoming. At first he was hoping to get wealthy men to invest, but later he was more generally determined to make Cody famous among the elite of eastern cities, especially New York.
He joined the Camp-Fire Club in New York, where he could rub shoulders with men who lived to hunt a few years after he joined the club Cody created an affiliate chapter, one of only four outside of New York. Some Cody men started selling their services as guides and outfitters for eastern hunters, and others began to offer accommodations to tourists who wanted to live on ranches. Cody himself advertised his home ranch, the TE, as a dude ranch in the summer of 1916.
Taken altogether, his creation—for it was nothing less—of the tourist industry in Wyoming was a reverse image of his Wild West show. The Wild West set out to bring the West to the arenas of the East, but the tourist industry grew by bringing more and more Easterners to the West. Cody’s own personality and reputation made for a seamless transition, and to this day the engines of tourism in Wyoming run in no small part on images and memories of Buffalo Bill.
Judged by the standard he set for himself when he came to Wyoming, he must have felt himself something of a failure. He was never marked out by talent or experience to succeed in the irrigation business there were, in fact, very few notable successes in that line of work anywhere in the West. But everything he had done as a showman led easily and naturally to success in tourism. His townsmen followed where he led, and Cody became a town where the tourist dollar sustains life. Buffalo Bill did not earn great wealth from his tourism ventures, but nearly a century after his death he smiles genially down from large billboards along highways across five states. He literally looms larger than life over the corner of Wyoming that calls itself “Cody Country.”
10 Things You Might Not Know About Buffalo Bill Cody
“Cody.” Around here, the name alone conjures up iconic images and stories of the American West. From wagon trains to gold rushes, gunslingers to sunset riders — the American West certainly earned its wild reputation. And among all the legends that sprung forth from this era of American history, none is more renowned or revered than William Frederick Cody. Does that name sound unfamiliar to you? Well, you might know him by his nickname — “Buffalo Bill”. As for us, well, we know him as our town founder.
Easily one of the Wild West’s most colorful characters, Buffalo Bill Cody might also be the most misunderstood. So, to honor him — on what would have been his 175th birthday — we’ve put together a list of 10 incredible facts about the showman and pioneer who dazzled millions around the world with “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show”.
Buffalo Bill Cody Was a Proponent of American Indian Treaty Rights
In his younger days, Bill Cody fought in wars against American Indians, but he always spoke of his opponents with great respect. He also advocated for the rights of American Indians, saying, “Every Indian outbreak that I have ever known has resulted from broken promises and broken treaties by the government.”
In his Wild West Show, Cody often cast American Indian performers in central roles. To this day, the reasoning and results of these choices remain debated. However, many scholars suggest providing audiences with authentic displays of songs, traditions, dances, and horsemanship helped preserve many aspects of American Indian culture during a period of considerable assimilation.
He Also Supported the Women’s Suffrage Movement
Having spent years in the presence of legendary women like Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane, it comes as no surprise that Bill Cody was an ardent supporter of women’s suffrage. And he didn’t just talk a big game — he put his money where his mouth was and insisted on equal pay for all members of his traveling shows, regardless of gender. Famously, Cody put it very simply when he said, “What we want to do is give women even more liberty than they have. Let them do any kind of work they see fit, and if they do it as well as men, give them the same pay.” By today’s standards, this may not seem like much, but in the late-1800s, this perspective was practically revolutionary! Cody never backed down from his stance, however. In fact, he took things a step further by saying, “These fellows who prate about the women taking their places make me laugh.”
Never let it be said that Buffalo Bill didn’t have a flare for the dramatic!
After His Father’s Death, He Took a Job at Age 11 to Help His Family
Bill Cody was never afraid of hard work. In fact, he went to work at the early age of 11. Unfortunately, it was to ease the financial burden on his family after the death of his father. The job Cody took was as a wagon train “boy extra”. Today, this is the kind of job that would be done by text message — literally. Cody would ride along the length of the wagon train on horseback, taking and delivering important messages to different drivers throughout the train, ensuring everybody had the most up-to-date information.
He Rode With the Pony Express… Or Did He?
Sometimes, the legend of Buffalo Bill is bigger than the man himself. We suspect he liked it that way. This is why he was happy to tell people that he signed on with the Pony Express at the ripe old age of 14 and, after an apprenticeship building corrals and stations for the burgeoning mail service, became a full-fledged rider. Historians have never truly been able to verify these claims, and contradictions in his own autobiography have raised speculation about their veracity.
Regardless, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show went on to lionize the Pony Express, and his name will forever be synonymous with the service.
Whether he rode the trails or not, one thing is clear — Buffalo Bill was never one to stand in the way of a good rumor.
Cody was a Freemason
Bill Cody was very active in Freemasonry in his later years. In fact, he achieved the rank of Knight Templar in 1889 and 32-degree rank in the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry in 1894. When he passed away in 1917, he received a full masonic funeral — complete with pallbearers dressed in their Knights Templar uniforms.
And speaking of Bill’s funeral…
There Are Conflicting Reports on Where Buffalo Bill is Really Buried
While thousands visit the Buffalo Bill gravesite outside of Denver annually, many Cody residents believe their town’s namesake is actually buried on Cedar Mountain overlooking the town of Cody itself. The legend behind this belief involves a bold plan, a middle-of-the-night trip to a Denver mortuary, and an unlucky ranch hand bearing a likeness to Buffalo Bill. Spend enough time learning about Bill Cody, and you’ll quickly discover that nothing is impossible!
Cody’s Family was Quaker and Vehemently Opposed Slavery
When Bill Cody was a young child, his family moved from Scott County, Iowa, to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas Territory. Arriving in the young territory in 1854, the Cody family was greeted by a hotbed of conflict between slavery advocates and abolitionists. And this is where we learn that Bill’s belief in equal rights was most likely inherited from his father, Isaac Cody.
Not long after arriving in the town of Leavenworth, Issac found himself in Rively’s Trading Post, where a meeting of slavery advocates was taking place. When asked to voice his opinion on the subject, Issac gave an impassioned anti-slavery speech. For his efforts, he was stabbed twice in the chest with a Bowie knife. He survived the attack and remained steadfast in his convictions — passing them on to his son in the process.
Cody Was Once the Most Recognizable Man on Earth
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show was legendary and drew crowds all across the world. The sheer reach of these performances has led some historians to assert that at the height of his traveling show’s fame, Cody was the most recognizable celebrity in the world. This level of notoriety earned him an audience with Pope Leo XIII while the Wild West Show was touring Europe.
What’s in a Name?
In 1893, “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show” expanded and became the even more spectacular (though ponderously titled) “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World.” A true multicultural event, the show featured horsemen from around the globe, including South American gauchos, Arabs, Mongols, and Turks.
Cody Received a Medal of Honor
In 1872, while serving the Third Cavalry Regiment as a civilian scout, Bill Cody was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for “Documented gallantry above and beyond the call of duty as an Army scout”. In 1917, the medal was rescinded — along with 910 others awarded to civilians — when Congress designated the Medal of Honor as the highest military honor it could bestow.
As you might expect, Cody’s living relatives were not happy about this. For years, they voiced their objections and asked Congress to reconsider. These efforts were unsuccessful, until 1989, when a letter from Cody’s grandson helped convince Congress that Buffalo Bill deserved to have his medal restored. In 1989, over 70 years after being taken away, Cody’s award was officially reinstated, and his family could once again proudly call him a Medal of Honor recipient.
William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody dies
The frontiersman and showman died on January 10, 1917.
The ultimate entertainer, ‘Buffalo Bill’ was as much showman as he was frontiersman and helped create a fantastical image of the Wild West.
Born to a farming family on February 26th, 1846, Cody spent his early years in Iowa, working in a variety of short-lived jobs: joining parties hunting for gold and riding for the Pony Express. During the Civil War, he was part of a group of anti-slavery guerrillas in Kansas, which led to him joining the Seventh Kansas Volunteer Cavalry in 1864. As it expanded through the West, the railroad company hired him to provide meat for their workers, for which he killed up to 12 buffalo a day. It was for this that he earned the name ‘Buffalo Bill’.
In July 1869 he met the dime novelist Ned Buntline, who interviewed him and wrote a serial for the New York Weekly. Although titled ‘Buffalo Bill, the King of Border Men’ and billed as ‘the wildest and truest story he ever wrote’, it was mostly based on the life of ‘Wild Bill’ Hickock.
In 1872, following Buntline’s suggestion, Cody made his first appearance in a play, The Scouts of the Prairie. For the next few years he switched between scouting for the army, guiding hunting parties and touring in plays. On occasion his activities on the frontier – such as his role in the death of Cheyenne chief Yellow Hand during the Sioux War of 1876 – became source material, helping to build his legend.
Off the back of his growing popularity, Cody produced his Buffalo Bill Wild West show in 1883. Like a circus with its attractions, it recreated the Pony Express, Indian attacks on wagon trains, sharpshooters and parades of costumed groups on horseback. Huge audiences came to watch fantastic battles and dramatic deaths, with performers playing it up for the enthusiastic crowds. It featured such personalities as Annie Oakley and the Sioux chief Sitting Bull, but Cody was its star attraction.
The show peaked at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, where it attracted six million people. Cody continued to star in the show until his retirement in 1912.
He died in Denver, where 25,000 people paid respects to his coffin and was buried six months later in a steel vault on Lookout Mountain overlooking the city. He remains synonymous with the image of the Wild West.
The Unlikely Alliance Between Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull
As Buffalo Bill Cody debarked at New York harbor on November 24, 1890, he received a telegram from General Nelson A. Miles, commander of the U.S. Army troops in South Dakota. Miles asked Cody to proceed immediately to Standing Rock, a reservation in Dakota Territory, where a tense situation was unfolding. Miles further authorized Cody “to secure the person of Sitting Bull, and deliver him to the nearest Commanding Officer of US Troops.” It was the general’s hope that Cody could convince the Lakota leader to surrender𠅏or the last time.
Buffalo Bill, who rode for the Pony Express, fought in the American Civil War, and served as a scout for the Army, also created a Wild West show that toured the United States and Europe. Lakota Sioux chief Sitting Bull was part of the cast for four months in 1885, and since then, they had created a strange friendship.
They say that timing is everything, and in this case, one of history’s biggest near-misses involves the moment in which Buffalo Bill almost got to Sitting Bull’s cabin shortly before his old friend was killed by tribal police. Would Cody have been able to head off this disaster? Would he have gotten into a fight? Or would he have been killed himself? Of course, we cannot answer these questions, but here’s some of what we do know.
Major McLaughlin—the agent in charge of Standing Rock—had long wanted to get rid of his old nemesis, Sitting Bull, and he knew that fear could aid his mission. McLaughlin believed that his mission was to 𠇌ivilize” Native Americans by forcing them to adopt white ways, and Sitting Bull was infamous for his role in the defeat of Custer’s 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876 and his fierce advocacy for his people.
In the days following Sitting Bull’s return to Grand River, McLaughlin began laying the groundwork for his arrest, telling reporters and others that the chief was the instigator of the troublesome practice of ghost dancing (a religious movement that had swept the tribes of the Great Plains). Ghost Dancers believed that an apocalyptic day was approaching when the buffalo would return, and their now-vanished world would be restored.
The Ghost Dance. (Credit: Library of Congress)
On November 17, Major McLaughlin and his interpreter, Louis Primeau, headed to Grand River to gauge the ghost dancing’s fever. When they arrived, there were about one-hundred people circling around a pole, crooning and swooning, as another hundred looked on. A woman fainted and was carried into Sitting Bull’s tent. Deciding that it was a bad time to intervene, McLaughlin and Primeau spent the night at the nearby home of Bull Head, a lieutenant in the Indian police and enemy of Sitting Bull. At dawn, McLaughlin returned to Sitting Bull’s camp as the chief was stepping out of a sweat bath.
Sitting Bull looked “very thin and more subdued than I had ever seen him,” McLaughlin later wrote. He wrapped himself in a blanket and shivered in the morning chill as McLaughlin made one more attempt to stop the ghost dance. Sitting Bull made a counter offer, that together they should visit men who had spiritual awakenings through ghost dancing and see that it was nothing to fear. McLaughlin told him that would be a waste of time, and instructed Sitting Bull to head to Fort Yates, reservation headquarters, on the following morning to continue the conversation.
Suspecting that this was a trap to detain him, Sitting Bull never made that trip, sending his friends instead. Twenty other men from Sitting Bull’s encampment sent their wives to collect their government-controlled rations. McLaughlin immediately issued an order stating that no family could receive supplies unless a male head of the household came to get them. So now, with conditions at Sitting Bull’s camp already deteriorating, he and his followers were being starved.
From then on, there followed a strange series of crossed wires and near misses. Some of the dancers had fled to a remote place in the badlands known as the Stronghold, Sitting Bull wanted to join them—not to participate, but to talk to them. He needed permission to leave the reservation, and sent McLaughlin a poorly translated and badly spelled note, in which he seemed to threaten the major, allegedly saying, “I will let you know something…the Policeman told me you going to take all our Poneys, gund, too…I want answer back soon.”
McLaughlin had read many such notes from Native Americans over the years given that they rarely had access to good translators, the messages were often inaccurate. But this one indicated that Sitting Bull planned to leave Grand River and head to Pine Ridge in search of his compatriots. McLaughlin sent a letter ordering him to remain at his cabin. In other words, he was under arrest.
Sitting Bull. (Credit: Cowan’s Auctions)
Meanwhile, Sitting Bull’s old friend Buffalo Bill Cody was being enlisted to head off a possible confrontation. Cody had just returned from a European tour of his Wild West show. He was scheduled to testify before Congress, which wanted to shut down his Wild West show. Indian rights advocates wanted to hold Cody accountable for the fact that several members of the Wild West cast had gotten sick and died while abroad. During this time, Cody received the fateful telegram from General Miles.
Cody contacted three friends, Dr. Frank Powell (aka White Beaver, a member of his show), “Pony Bob” Haslam (another cast member), and Lieutenant G.W. Chadwick. On Thanksgiving Day, November 27, they arrived by train at Mandan, North Dakota, announcing via telegram to McLaughlin that they would be checking in at Standing Rock the following day. Meanwhile, his associate Arizona John Burke and a contingent of Indians were heading for Pine Ridge as part of a two-pronged peace mission.
But when Cody reached Fort Yates, he was not able to continue any farther. Apparently he was drunk, and according to Dr. Powell, needed to rest for a few hours before continuing. His friends left, and when they returned, he was completely incapacitated, having spent the entire afternoon drinking. Later, Powell and Pony Bob learned that McLaughlin’s officers had plied him with liquor to prevent him from heading to Sitting Bull’s cabin.
Buffalo Bill. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Early the next morning, he sobered up and announced that he was on his way to see his friend. Unable to prevent his departure, the officers provided him with a wagon and he loaded it up with sweets from the supply store, knowing that Sitting Bull liked candy. In addition to his three friends, he was now accompanied by five newspaper reporters.
“I was sure,” he wrote later, “that my old enemy and later friend would listen to my advice.” But he confessed to also being concerned he was going to 𠇊 hostile camp of Indians, risking all on the card of friendship and man-to-man respect.”
Meanwhile, McLaughlin was still trying to prevent Cody’s intervention. En route, Cody’s party was headed off by Louis Primeau, McLaughlin’s interpreter. He told them that Sitting Bull was not at home, and that he was heading to Fort Yates on another trail, sending Cody on a misinformed detour. That night, at his camp along Four Mile Creek, he received the news that President Benjamin Harrison had rescinded General Mile’s order for him to bring in his old friend Sitting Bull. The following day, Cody and his party returned to Fort Yates and soon left for the railroad station at Mandan.
But sometime during the chaotic forty-eight hours of his mission, Sitting Bull had gotten word that Buffalo Bill was looking for him. “Is it true?” he asked. What meaning did this have for the medicine man as things were careening towards a conclusion? We can imagine that perhaps it strengthened him. Perhaps it gave him heart, or affirmed his friendship with Cody when most needed.
Hearing that his old friend had been nearby, he may have wondered if he sought his return to the Wild West show. Or maybe it was another kind of lifeline. Somebody wanted something, that was for sure. The man who told him about Buffalo Bill asked him to surrender everyone knew that the end game was underway. Sitting Bull declined. He knew all too well that doing so would lead to his arrest—or murder while in custody.
How Buffalo Bill Became a Living, Breathing Personification of the American West
As the world pivoted from the 19th to the 20th century, few men alive, certainly no American alive, was better known than William Frederick Cody. He was a frontiersman and soldier turned entertainer and entrepreneur who thrilled crowds all over the globe by giving adoring patrons an authentic — well, mostly authentic — taste of the American West.
"Buffalo Bill" and his Wild West show played before rapt throngs of people (more than 3 million in 1893 alone) for more than 20 years, offering the paying public an up-close look at real honest-to-goodness cowboys and Indians. Sharpshooting exhibitions, trick riding and recreations of buffalo hunts (with real buffalo) and stagecoach holdups were all regular parts of the program. The show was so ambitious that it took hundreds of people to stage it. To move the show from one place to another, two trains — totaling 50 or more cars — were required.
The Wild West show — officially, "Buffalo Bill's Wild West" — was so popular that it went international, first touring England for almost a year in 1887. Cody and his band of showmen (and women) spent large chunks of the decade after that playing in front of sold-out venues in several other spots in Europe.
Of course, the show, strictly speaking, wasn't the real thing. It's difficult to shoot a glass ball out of the air with a pistol, hold up a stagecoach with guns blazing, fight with Indians you're paying to be there, or slaughter buffalo with a rifle in front of a crowd of meek city folks and foreigners.
Still, Buffalo Bill sure was the real deal. Well. Mostly.
"I think the key reason why he was so successful is they never billed the show as a circus," says Jeremy Johnston, the historian for the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Buffalo Bill's namesake town of Cody, Wyoming. "It was always billed as an historical exposition, or an historical reenactment, this unusual combination of drama and authenticity.
"For people watching the show, you're watching Buffalo Bill and many other performers who were actually in the American West and actually fought in the Indian Wars. You're seeing these individuals who were there at the events reenacting what they did. It just really had to leave quite the impression."
The Backstory of Buffalo Bill
To help out his struggling family, William Cody (born in 1846 in Iowa) was forced into work before he hit his teens. He became a cattle driver in Kansas. He worked on train routes to the American West. He moved from those jobs into (historians wrestle with how true this is) a short stint as a Pony Express rider. Later, he enlisted as a cavalryman in the last year or so of the Civil War and, after the war, became Chief of Scouts for the Fifth Cavalry, where he took part in several fights in the Indian Wars.
He earned his nickname in 1866, according to the William F. Cody Archive, for his skills at hunting buffalo to feed railroad workers. By his count, he killed more than 4,000 bison on the plains in around 18 months as a buffalo hunter.
All the riding and roping and shooting earned him his bona fides among those in the West. And when he began to embrace a certain persona — wearing his hair long, dressing in buckskin, sporting a floppy sombrero, later fashioning a huge handlebar mustache — his legend grew with it.
In 1869, prolific dime novelist Ned Buntline (dime novels of the time fed the public's insatiable appetite for stories of the Wild West) penned "Buffalo Bill: The King of Border Men," one of literally hundreds of stories that would feature Buffalo Bill in the decades to come. Cody was barely 23. He soon would become a household name.
Here's a passage from that first "novel," recounting a fictional account of "Wild Bill" Hickok (a real-life friend to Cody) talking to Cody's mother:
The First ‘Buffalo Bill’ Was Named William Mathewson, not Cody
William “Buffalo Bill” Cody truly was a frontiersman, scout and Indian fighter. But he became bigger than life as a showman thanks to newspapers, pulp fiction, dime novels, excellent promotion and his crowd-pleasing Wild West extravaganza. By the late 19th century, the name “Buffalo Bill” was recognized all over the United States and Europe. But Cody was not the first man to carry that catchy moniker.
The first “Buffalo Bill” was a Kansas frontiersman, well known in his time but never a living legend. In his youth, he rode and trapped with Christopher “Kit” Carson. A familiar figure at Bent’s Fort and Fort St. Vrain, he traded with Indians on the central Plains and sometimes fought them. He once beat up Kiowa Chief Satanta (White Bear), warrior and future “Orator of the Plains,” and then became the chief’s trusted friend. He also counted George Armstrong Custer as a friend. Defining the northern end of a famous cattle trail was among his accomplishments, and he was one of the founders of Wichita, Kan. His birth name was William Mathewson.
Born on New Year’s Day 1830 in Triangle, N.Y., Mathewson at 19 jumped at an opportunity that would change his life forever—he joined the Northwestern Fur Company. As he traveled through the still-wild land that would become the Dakotas, Nebraska and Montana, he learned to trap, trade and fight. After two years with the Northwestern Fur Company, he joined a party under the direct command of Kit Carson and set off farther west toward the Rocky Mountains.
In 1852 Mathewson worked at Fort St.Vrain (in present-day central Colorado), a civilian post where he gained insight into business possibilities. He decided to establish a trading post along the Santa Fe Trail near the center of what is now Kansas—at the so-called Great Bend of the Arkansas River. Beginning in 1853, Mathewson was based at the post for 10 years and traded with both emigrants and Indians. Kansas Territory, which included much of present-day Colorado, was created in May 1854.
The summer of 1860 was unusually hot, dry and windy, and the settlers’ crops in eastern Kansas shriveled in the fields. By the bitter winter of 1860-61, many settlers were starving. One day a traveler returning from the West reached the eastern Kansas settlements with a wagon loaded with buffalo meat. Asked where he got all that meat, he replied, “Out at Bill’s.” Naturally, he was asked, “Bill who?” His casual answer: “Oh, just Bill, the buffalo killer out at Big Bend.” Thus, the moniker “Buffalo Bill” was bestowed on William Mathewson.
At his post on the Big Bend of the Arkansas, Buffalo Bill Mathewson generously supplied the needy folks with all the buffalo meat they could carry on horseback or haul in their wagons. Through the winter, he made almost daily trips to the buffalo range, sometimes killing as many as 80 of the big beasts a day to ensure a steady supply of “free” meat. It was six or seven years later that William F. Cody shot enough buffalo near Fort Hays, Kan., to earn the same soubriquet, “Buffalo Bill.”
In 1861 Kiowa Chief Satanta rode to Mathewson’s trading post intending to steal some stock and gain vengeance for a warrior who had been killed while attempting to take a horse from the post. In a heart beat, Mathewson floored Satanta and gave him a thorough beating, before escorting the chief and his followers off the property at gunpoint. From that day on, the Plains Indians in the area called Mathewson “Sinpah Zilbah (Long-Bearded Dangerous White Man). A year later, Satanta presented Mathewson with some of his finest ponies and entered into a treaty with his “friend.” If it was Mathewson’s generosity that impressed the Kansas settlers, it was his relationship with Satanta that made him well known among area Indians.
By the summer of 1864, Buffalo Bill Mathewson had left the post on the Big Bend and moved to a ranch. Life hadn’t become any easier, though. The Indians were on the warpath. Satanta warned Mathewson about the uprising long before raiders struck the ranch. Instead of seeking safer ground, Mathewson and a few other men, each armed with the first breechloading rifles used on the Kansas plains, made a stand. Early on July 20, hundreds of Indians attacked the ranch, but they were met by devastating fire. A three-day impasse ensued, and on the third night, the raiders withdrew after losing some 100 horses and several of their companions.
After getting the warning from Satanta, Mathewson had not only prepared a defense but also had written to both the Overland Transportation Company and Bryant, Banard & Company, advising them not to send out any supply wagons. One supply train of 147 wagons and 155 men had already departed the government posts in New Mexico Territory, however, and was now within three miles of Mathewson’s ranch. From the roof of his ranch, Buffalo Bill saw the Indians attack the wagon train. Leaving his men behind to protect the ranch, he loaded his Sharps rifle and Colt revolvers and rode headlong into the encircled wagons. Grabbing an ax, he broke open some crates in the wagons and distributed weapons and ammunition to the freight men. Under his leadership, the freighters delivered a scathing fire that broke the attack. Mathewson then took a group from the train and chased the retreating Indians.
Not long afterward, on August 28, 1864, Mathewson married Elizabeth Inman, who had emigrated from Yorkshire, England, in 1850. Becoming a married man didn’t mean Buffalo Bill would change his lifestyle. He taught Lizzie how to handle firearms, and she became his steadfast companion on trading expeditions. Later, she and a friend, Miss Fannie Cox of St. Joseph, Mo., would accompany him on the new Chisholm Trail—the first two white woman to do so. The Indians who visited the Mathewsons’ ranch/trading post called Lizzie “Marrwissa” (Golden Hair).
At the end of the Civil War, the Federal government requested that the commander of the Western Department find someone to contact the hostile Indians and arrange a council. The obvious choice was Mathewson, who discovered an Indian camp at the mouth of the Little Arkansas River and managed to arrange a council between the government commissioners and Indian leaders. In 1867, however, the Indians were back on the warpath in Kansas. After assessing the situation, Mathewson telegraphed Washington, requesting that General Winfield Scott Hancock and his troops be withdrawn from the area and stating that he would try to contact the Indians himself.
This request was granted, and Mathewson convinced the Indians to meet with government representatives. The result was the Medicine Lodge Treaty, in which the southern Plains tribes were assigned reservations in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma).
That same year, Buffalo Bill took two boys he had rescued from the Comanches to Fort Arbuckle in Indian Territory. Upon delivering the youths, Mathewson ran into Colonel Henry Dougherty, who was moving a cattle herd north from Texas. Dougherty asked Mathewson to be his guide, and Mathewson led him over the northern portion of what then was called “Chisholm’s Trail,” bringing the first herd of Texas Longhorns to the Wichita area. After the railroad arrived in Wichita in 1872, the town became the major cattle shipping hub of Kansas, and Chisholm’s Trail became the famous Chisholm Trail.
Also during the 1860s, Mathewson met and frequently visited with an army man stationed in Kansas and destined to become a military icon of the Frontier West—Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, who would die at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana Territory in 1876. Between 1868 and 1873, Mathewson was instrumental in securing the release of 54 white women and children held captive by the Indians. He and his wife settled in the Wichita area, where he built a log home, became a civic leader and established the Wichita Savings Bank in 1887.
Why was William Mathewson not a legend in his own time as was William F. Cody? His lack of national fame was his own choosing. He didn’t view his life as extraordinary he simply did what needed doing. On numerous occasions Buffalo Bill Mathewson was approached by newspaper and magazine writers and even authors of the popular dime novels wanting to tell the story of his life on the Western frontier. However, Mathewson always rejected the proposals.
When Mathewson died in Wichita on March 22, 1916, he was referred to as “the original Buffalo Bill.” Not long after that, his son, William Mathewson Jr., received a letter from none other than the famous scout-turned-showman Buffalo Bill Cody. The letter voiced Cody’s condolences and acknowledged the fact that fellow frontiersman William Mathewson was truly the first “Buffalo Bill.”
Originally published in the August 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.
Buffalo Bill Cody
Though the show eventually became a great success, Buffalo Bill went through several financial wobbles, especially in the early days of the enterprise. In 1884, Bill nearly went bankrupt. After deciding to spend the winter in New Orleans of that same year, Bill hired a boat to take his performers and equipage to the Crescent City via the Mississippi river. Bill then went ahead by train to secure performance grounds while the hired steamship headed to New Orleans.
While steaming down the river, the ship collided with another vessel sinking the steamer and almost drowning everyone on board. Cody estimated the monetary loss to be around $20,000. After the initial shock of what happened, Bill decided to open in New Orleans on time. This decision proved to be disastrous. The weather was completely merciless raining the entire 3 months that the “Wild West” was there, deterring spectators from showing up. At the end of the endeavor, Bill counted his losses at about $60,000. Combined with the $20,000 lost on the river, Buffalo Bill was staring at $80,000 dollars of debt.
Buffalo Bill Cody vs. Wild Bill Hickok
If you don’t know the difference between the two men here are some entertaining facts about each to help you know who is who:
William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody was born in Le Claire, Iowa in 1846. In 1883, Buffalo Bill created the Wild West show. The circus-like attraction was successful for decades and played to massive crowds all over the world. The popularity of the show made Buffalo Bill the most famous American at the time. Cody is attributed as the inventor of our national idea of the Wild West and was an inspiration for early Western movie makers like the iconic director John Ford and the incomparable John Wayne. Many of the scenes that played out in his Wild West shows: Circling the wagons, Indian attacks, and trick shooting were eventually mimicked on film. Before his time as a showman, Buffalo Bill earned a reputation as a rugged frontiersman while supposedly riding with the Pony Express in 1860, hunting buffalo for the Kansas Pacific Railroad (which earned him his nickname), and as Chief of Scouts for the Third Cavalry during the Plains Indian Wars (where he eventually received a Medal of Honor in 1872). Buffalo Bill also earned the respect of the great Sioux Chief Sitting Bull and was an early advocate of equal pay for women. He died in 1917 at the age of 70 in Denver, Colorado.
James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok was born in Homer, Illinois in 1837. In 1861, because of a "sweeping nose and protruding upper lip" Hickok received the nickname “Duck Bill” from local bully and supposed outlaw David McCanles. McCanles, after having a financial dispute with Hickok, would be the first man reputed to have been shot to death by "Wild Bill." After McCanles’ death, Hickok grew a mustache and began referring to himself as “Wild Bill.” Throughout his lifetime, Hickok would work as a wagon-master for the Union Army during the Civil War, serve as a sheriff and city marshal, and kill at least six men in gunfights. A voracious gambler all his life, Wild Bill would collect his final reward at a poker table in Deadwood, South Dakota in 1876, murdered by an assassin’s bullet. Hickok is widely regarded as the greatest gunfighter who ever lived, is the winner of the first recorded quick-draw duel, and was posthumously inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 1979. Legend has it that at the time of his demise, Hickok famously held the “dead-man’s hand” (aces and eights, all black, and a “hole” card). As a side note, both Hickok and Cody were friends and in 1873 acted together in a play before going their separate ways. If you want to know more go here and search the library's photographs and manuscript collections for these two western icons.