F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody 1846-1917
William Frederick Cody
was born on February 26, 1846, in Le Claire, Iowa. He had five sisters,
Martha, Julia, Eliza, Helen, and Mary, and one brother, Samuel. Samuel
was killed early on, when he fell from a horse. The family moved west
in 1853. Though young, Billy could already ride and shoot. He rode ahead
of the wagon train to look for likely camps sites and hunt game. Their
first stop was Weston, Missouri, where Billy's uncle lived. They would
stock up on supplies there.
But the uncle convinced them to forget the California gold fields and
settle down in Kansas. The Cody's took his advice. So Billy, his father,
and a scout went out to look for property. They took trade goods for the
Indians. They passed through Fort Leavenworth, where Billy was fascinated
by drilling soldiers and bushwhackers. They went on to a trading post
called Rively's Place where a lot of rough characters hung around. Then
they went on to an Indian trading post and traded with the Kickapoo Indians.
After riding through Kansas for several days, they picked some land in
the Salt Creek Valley to build a homestead. The trail to Salt Lake City
led right through the valley.
One day, Billy had gone to the trading post for supplies when he met up
with a cousin named Horace Billings. Billings was a scout and mountain
man. Billings offered to take young Billy under his wing while he went
on an expedition to search for wild horses. Billy loved being outdoors
and learning everything he could about tracking animals and reading trail
signs, and surviving in the wild. After returning home, he had a hard
time concentrating on his chores.
One day in 1855 Billy and his father rode in to Rively's for supplies.
Some men were there who talked loudly about Kansas becoming a salve sate.
They badgered Mr. Cody into giving his opinion on the matter. When he
said he was against slavery the men attacked and stabbed him. One day
while his father was recuperating, Billy heard the men were planning to
come out to their farm and finish the job. Billy's new little baby brother
Charles had just been born at this time. Mr. Cody was forced to hide while
the men were looking for him.
There were several raids and gunfights between pro- and anti-slavery factions.
One night a man warned Billy that a gang lie in wait for his father. Billy
set out to warn him, even though he was very sick with a fever. When he
reached a certain point, his father's enemies tried to gun him down. But
he somehow escaped and reached his father unharmed. Unfortunately, he
was now so sick he fainted dead away.
He recovered a few days later and rode home. His father went to Ohio to
try to bring more "free-staters" to Kansas. His father died
in April 1857, when Billy was 11. It was up to Billy to provide for the
family. He hired out with the Russell, Majors & Waddell Company, which
operated out of Leavenworth. He was basically a go-fer, doing odd jobs
for wagon trains that supplied the frontier forts. In May 1857, he shipped
out on his first expedition. The trip out was uneventful. But on the way
back, they were attacked by Indians. The Indians drove off the cattle.
Three white men were killed and one was wounded. They hid in a high creek
bank and managed to chase off the Indians. But then a few minutes later
they started ransacking the wagons. The white men snuck off while they
were occupied. The Indians burned the wagons when they were done.
The men built a raft so that they could put their weapons and the wounded
man on it. They walked about 35 miles before finally reaching Fort Kearney.
After resting up, Billy returned home with another outfit going back to
His next trip would be with the Simpson wagon train bound for Utah. They
had a mishap just a few days out. There was a large band of buffalo on
the trail. On the other side of the buffalo ere some wagons and horsemen
heading east. The horsemen rode straight into the buffalo, stampeding
them straight into the Simpson wagon train. The frightened oxen took off,
overturning several wagons and damaging several others. They were delayed
while repairs were made and freight was repackaged. After a few uneventful
weeks they arrived at Fort Laramie. Billy had a great time there and met
the famous Thomas FitzPatrick and Kit Carson. In a few days, they continued
While taking the oxen to water, Simpson, Billy, and a few others were
accosted by some men led by Joe Smith. T he Simpson trains were now in
Mormon territory. The Mormons had declared that they were not subject
to the laws of the U.S. They were taking anything that belonged to the
army. They burned all the wagons and freight. They took all the livestock,
except for a few oxen they left with Simpson. They had no choice but to
walk back to Fort Bridger. There were others there who had suffered the
same fate. But it was too late in the year to turn back. Billy and his
friends would have to winter at the fort.
In the Spring, Billy, Simpson, and George woods were attached to a train
heading back to Leavenworth. They decided to take a slight detour in hopes
of finding better graze for the animals. But they were attacked by Indians
instead. They shot their mules and used them as a barricade. This served
them well and only Woods got a slight shoulder wound. But the Indians
didn't leave. They figured the could wait the whites out. But then the
wagon train appeared to rescue them and the Indians fled.
Billy returned home, but the following Spring he was on the trail again.
At Laramie he met Jim Bridger, Kit Carson, and other famous scouts and
trappers. He spent the winter trying his hand at fur trapping, but barely
made enough to survive. He returned home just in time to catch the gold
fever. Gold had been found near Pike's Peak, Colorado in 1859. Billy had
to try his hand at prospecting. He was only 13, when he got two friends
and went to Golden, Colorado. Within two months they gave up.
In the fall, he and partner David Harrington tried trapping the creeks
feeding the Republican River of western Kansas. They were doing quite
well, when a bear killed one of their oxen. Then Billy broke his leg when
he fell one day. Harrington rode the one oxen left over 100 miles to the
nearest settlement. While he was gone, Sioux Indians came and took most
of Billy's remaining food. The only reason they didn't kill him was because
Billy had known the chief's son back at Fort Laramie. Dave finally returned
and the two of them went back to civilization. They made quite a bit of
money, most of which Billy turned over to his mother.
Then Billy heard about the Pony Express. This was an adventure tailor
made for him. But he had to wait for his leg to heal. As soon as he could,
he went to see George Chrisman at the Julesburg, Colorado station. Chrisman
didn't want to take on someone was young as Billy, who was only 14 years
old. He sent him to a station further east, where it was less dangerous.
Billy was hired on a trial basis as the youngest rider. But when the Paiute
War broke out in Nevada, the Pony Express was interrupted for several
weeks. Riders were balking about going out there. Naturally, that is precisely
where Billy wanted to be.
Al Slade took him on a 76 mile relay, from Red Buttes on the North Platte
to Three Crossing son the Sweetwater. It was a dangerous route with outlaws
and Indians lurking. On one ride, the rider that was supposed to relieve
him had been killed. Billy had to ride another 85 miles to Rocky Ridge.
He had scarcely got there when the rider coming east arrived. Billy had
to turn right back around to Red Buttes, making one of the longest rides
in the history of the Pony Express, 322 miles in 21 hours.
That year, Civil War broke out in the east. Most of the frontier soldiers
went back to fight. The Pony Express line became unprotected and the Indians
were especially troublesome. One time, they chased Billy most of his run.
They were always running off the horses. They attacked stagecoaches and
About this time, Billy met Wild Bill Hickok. He was leading a group to
go out and steal back some horses. Billy went with him. The raid was successful
and the white men got all their horses back, plus some Indian ponies.
Another time, Billy was almost captured by an outlaw band. But a clever
trick allowed him to escape. But he lost his horse and had to walk back
to the station.
Shortly afterward, he was called home to helping his ailing mother. When
he arrived he found that there were constant skirmishes between the free
staters of Kansas and the pro-slavery Missourians. Cody joined the Kansas
men and became a Jayhawker. That didn't last long, as his mother was against
it. So for awhile, he became a messenger for the army, carrying dispatches
between Fort Leavenworth and Fort Larned, Kansas. In the winter, he scouted
for the army against Indian and white outlaw gangs.
His mother died in 1863. Fortunately his sister had married, so the couple
moved into the Cody household to look after the younger kids. Just before
he turned 18, Cody enlisted in the 7th Kansas Regiment. He acted as scout
and for a time scouted with Hickok. During his time in the army, he spent
some time in St. Louis. While there he met a woman named Louisa Frederici.
After the war was over, Billy returned there and asked for her hand in
marriage. She agreed, but only if he gave up his life on the plains. Bill
agreed, but first he'd have to make them some money. He drove stages for
a year. Then he returned to St. Louis. They were married on March 6, 1866.
He was 20, she was 22. Then returned to Kansas, where Cody re-opened his
mother's hotel. But he was not a very good businessman. He had to sell
Once again, he became an army scout. While he was gone, his daughter Arta
was born. After an unsuccessful real estate venture, Cody was broke again.
He resorted to working as a laborer on the railroad. But then came another
A big buffalo herd was going by. Everyone encouraged Cody to go hunt some
since he was the best shot. He rode out and shot three of them with no
trouble at all. Part of his success was that his horse could anticipate
what his master wanted. His railroad bosses were impressed and hired him
full time to hunt buffalo. It was a dangerous job as the Indians became
resentful of the slaughter of the buffalo. Other white men were taking
them only for the hides. The Indians harassed Cody wherever he went.
A man named Billy Comstock challenged Cody to prove who was the best marksman
and "champion of the plains." Cody was up for it. Cody won easily,
killing 69 buffalo to Comstock's 46. For another year and a half, he hunted
for the railroad. He killed 4,208 buffalo during that time. People started
calling him Buffalo Bill.
After that he returned to being an army scout. The Indians were making
war and the army was responding. One day, Cody was captured by Comanches.
They soon let him go after some smooth talking by Cody. But soon a chase
was on. Fortunately, a party of soldiers were nearby and they were able
to chase off the Indians. After that Cody ended up at Fort Hays, scouting
for the 5th Cavalry. At first some of the men did not respect Cody's skills
as a scout and buffalo hunter. But after driving some buffalo into camp
and shooting them practically at their feet, he had earned their respect.
General Carr depended heavily on Cody and even increased his pay to prove
That winter was rough and Cody suffered frostbite on one of his ears.
The damage left him permanently partially deaf on that side. He also had
grown his air long, as well as grown a moustache and goatee. Louisa, who
remained at St. Louis during this time, had a little trouble getting used
to it. But he convinced her all the plainsmen looked like he did.
On a battle with the Sioux, Cody's horse was shot from under him. But
he won an Indian horse he named Powder Face. Cody continued to scout and
worked with a band of Pawnee scouts who were feared by the Sioux. The
cavalry had several skirmishes with the Sioux, some of which were won
by the Indians.
After that Cody was sent to Fort McPherson to scout for Major Brown. While
there he met the famous Colonel E. Z. C. Judson, better known as Ned Buntline.
Buntline wrote dime novels about famous frontier characters. He picked
Buffalo Bill as his next hero and in 1869 published "Buffalo Bill,
King of the Border Men."
Cody stayed at Fort McPherson and built a cabin there for his wife, daughter,
and two of his sisters. They moved there in 1870. He scouted during the
summer. In the winter his son Kit Carson Cody was born.
Then came the turning point. In the fall of 1871, a party of rich easterners
and Europeans went out west in a hunting party. General Sheridan asked
Cody to arrange with Chief Spotted Tail of the Sioux to put on a mock
battle, war dances, and buffalo hunts. The Grand Duke Alexis of Russia
was one of those thrilled by the show.
Shortly after this, Cody went back east. He had been invited several times.
At the time he went, Buntline was putting on plays about Cody's life and
it was highly popular. Cody returned to scouting a short time later. That
summer he received the only injury he ever got in an Indian fight--a grazing
In August 1872, his daughter Orra was born. By that time, Buntline was
nagging him constantly to come back east to perform. He finally relented,
taking Hickok and Texas Jack with him. He spent the next four winters
on stage and the summers scouting. In April 1876, his young son died.
Soon after, he joined the Battle of War Bonnet Creek in the Black Hills.
He made enough money to buy a house in Rochester, New York, for his wife,
a cattle ranch on the North Platte, and 4,000 acres in the Big Horn basin
Then he changed his show because he wanted it to be real. He got real
sharpshooters, cowboys, and Indians. He did the show outside like a circus.
The Wild West, Rocky Mountain, and Prairie Exhibition opened on May 17,
1883 in Omaha, Nebraska, the same year his third daughter Irma was born.
Cody played himself. He had a stage holdup, pony express riders, and Indian
battles. They fired real guns. The show was an instant hit. In 1885, Cody
The next year he took his show to Europe where it was just as successful
as it was in America. In 1893, he made over a million dollars. His ranch
in Wyoming was also becoming a very popular dude ranch, the first of its
type. The town of Cody, Wyoming was planned by Cody and he paid for the
first buildings. His business may have been doing well, but his personal
life wasn't so pretty. Louisa had grown tired of his boozing and womanizing.
They were on the verge of divorce when their daughter died. They reconciled
But Cody's bigger problem was that he was generous to a fault. Though
a millionaire, he frequently handed out his money. By the time he finally
quit performing, he was bankrupt. He had to sell off his show to pay his
debts. Somehow he scraped together enough to form his film company, the
W. F. Cody Historical Pictures Company. He was the first to see the possibility
of recording the west on film. In 1914, his company filmed a reenactment
of the Battle at Wounded Knee. The film was a financial failure.
William F. Cody died on January 10, 1917, at 71 years old, at Denver,
Colorado. He is buried on Lookout Mountain, twenty miles west of Denver.
-Copyright 2000 by Beth