Albert Bierstadt’s Emigrants Crossing the Plain (1867)

William Cody’s incredible life paralleled historical events of the western frontier. Cody watched history unfold before his eyes. He was born in 1846, the year of the Mexican War. He died in 1917, the year the United States entered World War I. During Cody’s life, he was the most famous person on Earth. He was the first reality star. Cody brought to life the “dime store” perceptions of the American West and helped to shape the history of the region. The enigmatic persona of Buffalo Bill perfectly symbolizes the frontier mythology of the American West. Just like the frontier where he roamed, William Cody’s story is a mixture of truth and myth. The authenticity of the “real” Buffalo Bill is as elusive as the truth about the “real” Old West.

 Buffalo Bill was born as William Frederick Cody on February 26th, 1846 in Scott County, Iowa in a log cabin that was built by his father, Isaac. Will’s parents, Isaac and Mary Cody, eventually had seven children together-Martha, Samuel, Julia, Will, Eliza, Helen and May. In 1853, Will’s older brother Samuel died tragically at the age of 12 after falling from a bucking horse. The family was deeply saddened by the loss. Will’s father Isaac Cody was a loving father and husband, but like many pioneers, he did not stay in one place for too long. Soon, the family was on the road. William Cody’s earliest memories were of western expansion. In 1854, Kansas was officially opened to settlement by the U.S. government. The Cody family moved to the Kansas territory that same year. The family made the journey by wagon and the risky voyage took a month. After crossing the Missouri River by ferry, the Cody family stopped in Fort Leavenworth. At Fort Leavenworth, young Will Cody saw Indians for the first time. He later described them as, “a dark skinned and rather fantastically dressed people. As I had never seen a real live Indian, I was most interested in them. I went over and endeavored to talk to them, but our conversation was very limited.” [1]

The family settled in eastern Kansas, in Salt Creek Valley. The  Cody children spent their time herding livestock, gathering wild berries, and enjoying the beauty of the streams and grassy hills. Isaac was a traditional frontiersman and was an experienced surveyor and land spectator. In late 1854, Isaac Cody and several other emigrants founded the town of Grasshopper Falls. Isaac Cody was a Free Soil Democrat, which meant that he did not think slavery nor black people should be allowed in Kansas. For that reason, the Cody’s pro slavery neighbors did not want the family in Salt Creek Valley. Soon, they were targets for violence. In September 1854, a pro slavery activist named Charles Dunn stabbed Isaac in the side during a political rally. Isaac survived, but for two years after the stabbing, he received constant death threats. One night, armed men on horseback surrounded the Cody house and began to harass the family. Isaac escaped the house disguised as Mary and fled to Leavenworth. Pro slavery raiders continued to torment the Cody family by stealing their livestock and burning their hay. They even stole Will’s prized pony named Prince. Isaac left home frequently to avoid being murdered and the family was often left to fend for themselves. [2]

In 1857, Isaac traveled east to find settlers for Grasshopper Falls. In Chicago, he met up with his brother Joseph and the two went to a Republican conference. There, Isaac met a fledgling influential lawyer named Abraham Lincoln. The trip was a success because Isaac brought back sixty families with him to Grasshopper Falls. He invited them to stay with the Cody family until they found a claim and settled into their own cabin. As a result, white tents overflowed on the Cody property. Because of overcrowding, scarlet fever and measles spread. While working in the rain to help with the outbreak, Isaac became ill and died soon after. He was 46 years old. The loss of Isaac distressed the family and the financial toll was immense. At eleven years old, William Cody became the “man of the house” for a family of six. [3]

Will’s mother Mary began to rent rooms in the family home in order to bring in some money.  Sister Julia milked cows and tended to the farm. Young Will became an ox driver for a neighbor who sold hay in Leavenworth. Will earned a decent salary and gave his mother all of his earnings. Soon, he was also carrying messages on horseback to a telegraph office in Leavenworth. At the same time, Cody became a boyhood teamster. At fourteen, he led a wagon to Denver for his uncle Elijah. He tried his hand at trapping and prospecting along the way.  For such a young boy, Cody was becoming quite industrious. [4]

At the beginning of the Civil War, boys could act as drummers and fifers at the age of sixteen. Will was fifteen years old and wanted to assist in some way. Because he was too young to enlist in the Civil War, he joined a private army headed by a man named Chandler. Cody’s job with Chandler and his men entailed stealing horses in Missouri and bringing them back to Kansas. Chandler’s men made these kinds of raids all summer. Government officials heard of these activities and sent detectives to make arrests. Some of the men in Chandler’s gang were arrested, but not Cody. Cody’s mother found out about his horse stealing activities and made Cody promise to stop engaging in the dishonorable enterprise. In 1862, Cody joined The Red Legged Scouts, a Unionist group known for the red stockings they wore. The Red Legs were an informal militia of “Jayhawkers” that operated in Missouri against pro slavery factions. The Red Legs were known as lawless marauders and thieves. Cody defended his involvement with the Red Legs because he was an irregular and operated only on call. In 1863, Will received a letter from his sister. His mother had fallen ill. Cody took a train from Denver to Kansas to find his mother dying of tuberculosis. She died in November of 1863. [5]

Will Cody in 1865.

The death of Cody’s mother devastated him. Will Cody was seventeen years old and both of his parents were gone. Cody began to drink heavily to deal with his grief. Soon after, he enlisted as a soldier with the Seventh Kansas Volunteer Calvary; better known as Jennison’s Jayhawkers. According to Cody, the decision was made “after having been under the influence of bad whisky”. Cody’s time with the Seventh Kansas Volunteer Calvary was unremarkable, though his service records show that he witnessed fierce battle in Tupelo. Cody later claimed to have also been a spy with Bill Hickock during this time, but those claims are doubtful. According to official records, Cody was a hospital orderly in January of 1865. Four weeks later he moved on to a messenger job for the Freedman’s Bureau in St Louis. [6]

Cody was a gifted storyteller and he excelled at grafting anecdotes from other people into tales of his own. In his autobiography, Cody claimed to have also delivered mail for the Pony Express from 1859 to 1861 out of Colorado but the stations he mentioned in his book were not accurate. More telling is the fact that the Pony Express did not yet exist in 1859. The men Cody said hired him asserted they did not, and no records show Cody as being a rider for the Pony Express. Cody said in his autobiography that he had also been on a route with Wild Bill Hickock’s party as they reclaimed stolen horses from the Sioux on the Powder River. According to Cody, this ride was in 1861, but in 1861, Hickock was in Nebraska recovering from an injury. Over the years, Hickock featured in many of Cody’s stories. Wild Bill Hickock died in 1876. That was when Cody began to incorporate himself into Hickock’s tales. Cody’s stories about his life were remarkably honest until the death of his father. It was after the death of Isaac that Cody began to weave tales about prospecting, Indian fighting and riding with the Pony Express. Ever the optimist, Cody wanted to be associated with the west, the region of the nation’s future. [7]

After the Civil War, Cody took up a series of odd jobs and temporary business ventures. For several months he drove a stagecoach for a transport company in Nebraska. In 1866, Cody returned to Saint Louis and married Louisa Frederici. Her father was Austrian and Italian but Cody always referred to Louisa as German. Superficially, they were well suited as a couple. She was a beautiful, middle class woman and the daughter of merchants. Cody’s handsomeness attracted her, but he exaggerated his financial prospects in order to win her affections.  Shortly after their marriage, Louisa began doubting her choice for a husband. Hoping to bring in the riches Louisa expected, Cody turned the family home into a hotel called The Golden Rule. Unfortunately, Cody spent money faster than he made it. The business was a failure. Money problems added tension to his marriage. Cody began to live separately from his pregnant wife. He was gone for long periods of time, mimicking the frequent absences of his father during his own childhood. His first child, a daughter named Arta, was born while he was away. Will and Louisa later had a son, Kit, and two more daughters, Orra and Irma. [8]

W.F. Cody

Louisa Frederici Cody

Cody was a natural entrepreneur and soon discovered that the railroad offered economic possibilities. In 1867, Cody went into a partnership with William Rose of the Kansas Pacific Railroad and together they founded the town of Rome, Kansas. The town was meant to be right where the railroad was scheduled to cross. In the West, the railroads were built first and the towns followed. Cody and Rose surveyed lots and staked them for building sites. Soon, there was a saloon and some stores. They bought supplies and prepared for the settlers to come. Cody recalled, “In less than a month, we had two hundred frame and log houses, three or four stores, several saloons and one good hotel.” Cody was so sure that his town would flourish that he sent for Louisa and baby Arta. Once they arrived, the family lived in the back of the general store. Rome lasted a little more than a year and even survived a cholera epidemic in 1868. Residents decided that Rome was too far away from the railroad. Many of them moved to nearby Hays City. As the people moved away, Rome’s abrupt rise and fall passed quietly into history. [9]

Through 1868, Will Cody hunted buffalo for money and soon became known as “Buffalo Bill” because of his hunting skills. The newspapers even made mention of his hunting exploits on occasion. Before the Civil War, buffalo robes did not make it very far. Due to rot and insect infestation, distant customers were off limits. The extension of the railroad made it possible to ship buffalo meat and fur to the east without spoilage. Cody claimed to have killed 4,280 buffalo in eighteen months. In January of 1868, he earned $100 a day for his hunting expertise. Cody made a nice profit from market hunting during this time. From 1869 to 1972, Will Cody scouted and tracked Indians for the army. He also guided tourists on buffalo hunts. Cody’s “Indian fighting skills” and excellent tracking and hunting abilities made him popular in the press and in dime store novels. His military reputation increased as he guided and fought next to troops. While his involvement with the military helped Cody gain respect, he was never actually in the army during the Indian wars. Scouts like Cody were civilians and not soldiers. Even so, by 1887 Cody was claiming the rank of a colonel. In truth, Cody himself requested the honorable title from the governor of Nebraska in that same year. He sought the title to professionalize his military record for the Wild West show’s arrival in London. Friends and family referred to him as Colonel Cody for most of his life.  Cody received the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1872 but it was taken away from him just before his death. It was realized that he had been a civilian scout when he won the medal and not an actual member of the army. [10]

Cody’s sister Helen said that Cody longed to be in show business since his youth. He told his sisters while “playing Indians” that one day he would run a big show when he was a man. When his sisters told him that he was destined to be president instead, he said, “I don’t propose to be president, but I do mean to have a big show.”  1872, Cody was still looking for glittery opportunities. Show business came calling when dime store novelist Ned Buntline urged him by letter to go on stage to play himself as Buffalo Bill. “There is money in it,” wrote Buntline, “and you will prove a big card as your character is a novelty on the stage.” The appearance at Nixon’s Amphitheatre was announced in that day’s Chicago Journal as “The real Buffalo Bill, Texas Jack, and Ten Sioux and Pawnee Chiefs in Ned Buntline’s great drama Buffalo Bill.” Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack had only one night to learn their lines. They soon realized it would be impossible to do. During the play, Cody forgot his lines and was fed the cue, “Where have you been, Bill? What took you so long?” Cody began to make up his own dialogue on the spot, telling stories of Indian fights and various adventures on the prairie. The audience loved it. Cody proved to be a natural in show business because he had a brilliant ability to obscure make-believe and reality. Imitators were soon copying his formula and dime store novel sales increased substantially throughout the 1870’s. The “Codyesque” imitation shows featured conflicts between cowboys and Indians, adventures of scouts and frontiersmen, and the rescue of a maiden in distress. The audiences enjoyed the violent and the absurd the most. The more stereotypical the storyline was, the better. By blurring the line between his actual experiences on the frontier and one of his tall tales, Cody created the enduring myth of the Wild West that still exists today.  [11]

Buffalo Bill’s dime store popularity was immense.

While enjoying fame from his stage career, Cody continued to scout for the army. In 1874, he rode with Pawnee scouts into the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming. In 1876, the war between the Cheyenne and the Sioux broke out again. Cody was appointed as a scout with the Fifth Calvary and headed to Wyoming Territory once again. While they were there, the men heard word that General Custer and his men had fallen at the Little Big Horn River, 150 miles northeast. Cody was distressed over the news of Custer’s death. On July 17th, Cody and his men had a skirmish with a small party of Cheyenne at Warbonnet Creek on the border of Wyoming and Nebraska. The clash was brief and the Indians swiftly retreated to their reservations. It is believed that three Indians were killed during the altercation. The small fight became famous all over the world, mostly because Buffalo Bill was there. Cody was dressed in his grand stage costume of black velvet with red trimming and silver buttons. It was in his “Buffalo Bill” stage costume that Cody killed and scalped a Cheyenne chief named Yellow Hair (sometimes mistakenly written as Yellow Hand).

The true story of the fight between Buffalo Bill Cody and Yellow Hair is not truly known. It seems that they came upon one another by accident. Cody was on his way to alert couriers to the presence of the Cheyenne and to warn them of the threat of an ambush. The two fired their guns at the same time, but Cody was a better shot.  By that fall, Cody had already written a play about the incident. He called it, “The Red Right Hand” or “First Scalp for Custer.” Cody wrote his own account of the fight in his autobiography. He bragged, “I scientifically scalped him in about five seconds.” Cody claimed that two hundred Cheyenne chased him as soldiers cheered him on. “I swung the Indian chieftain’s top-knot and bonnet in the air and shouted: ‘The first scalp for Custer!’ Cody’s tale is highly fictionalized. The fact that he wore a stage costume as he killed and scalped a Cheyenne indicates his expertise at blurring myth and reality. Killing Yellow Hair further increased his legendary status as an Indian fighter. Even though the event likely occurred, near the end of his life Cody denied even killing Yellow Hair. “Bunk! Pure bunk! For all I know Yellow Hair died of old age.” [12]

Cody’s actions at Warbonnet Creek brought him immediate praise. The battle between Cody and Yellow Hair occurred just weeks after his friend General Custer died at Little Big Horn. When Cody returned to the stage three weeks later, he began re-enacting his fight with Yellow Hair. He displayed the warrior’s scalp and war bonnet along with other items from the scene. His performance was so popular that he later used it in his Wild West exhibition. He even posed for a photograph in the stage clothing he wore when he killed Yellow Hair. Despite repeatedly capitalizing on his fight with Yellow Hair, Cody later expressed unease about the taking of the chief’s scalp. It brought him criticism throughout his life as it was seen as an “uncivilized” act. [13]

The Killing of Yellow Hand by Irving R. Bacon

A dime store depiction of Cody’s legendary encounter with Yellow Hair.

By the late 1870’s, Will Cody’s performances were becoming larger and more complex. He was looking for new ways to increase his reputation as a frontier legend. In 1877, he began recruiting real Indians for his show. He sought out Oglala Sioux Indians from the Red Cloud agency. In 1878, he hired some Pawnee Indians. Cody’s fondness for Native Americans began to materialize at the time that he added real Indians to his show. In the plays, the real Indians began playing the role of the “noble savages” and the fake Indians played the “savage savages”. Cody understood the public’s longing for the “noble savage”. He was fond of saying that, “In nine times out of ten, where there is trouble between the white man and the savage, it will be found that the white man is responsible.” He often criticized the American government for not abiding by their treaties with Indians. Buffalo Bill’s depictions of violence against Indians became a “last resort” in his shows. He said, “I never sighted down my rifle or drew my knife on an Indian but I felt almost sorry for it and I never did it when I could help it.” Cody began urging his fellow Americans to “take an Indian by the hand and make him a friend.” He made his shows less violent and more extravagant. His newfound sympathy for Native Americans was not just for show. He was known to pay a good wage to his Indian actors and they enjoyed the work. Cody later hired so many Native American performers for his Wild West show that he earned an enduring place of admiration and respect among the Lakota people.[14]

While business was good and Cody was becoming more famous, Cody and his wife Louisa were continually having marital problems. Louisa had resented Cody’s involvement in show business from the very beginning. The death of their only son in 1876 increased tensions. Soon after their daughter Irma was born in 1883, their daughter Orra died. That same year, Cody launched Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. The Wild West show offered an exaggerated glimpse of the “real west”, as seen by Buffalo Bill Cody. Five thousand people showed up for the Wild West show in Chicago. Historical scenes such as “Pony Express”, “Buffalo Hunt” and “Deadwood Stagecoach Attack” captivated the audience. There were demonstrations of horseback shooting skills, Indian dances, and battles between cowboys and Indians. Cody took creative license with many “historical” events while glorifying his life story. [15]

The Wild West show resonated with the audience. The show’s finale, “Attack on Settler’s Cabin by Hostile Indians” was one of the most popular segments. The finale began in 1884 and featured a white family defending their home against Indians. The attacking Indians are driven away by Buffalo Bill and his entourage of cowboys. The finale’s focus on a frontier family under attack by Indians tapped into the fears of the nineteenth century audience. In “Attack on Settler’s Cabin”, the vulnerable white woman was at the heart of the story. The focus on domesticity and family preservation resonated with the middle class audience. The theme of “woman, home, and settlement” was the message of western expansion. The finale lasted until 1907. The long-term success of the finale was a testament to the effectiveness of the message in the show and in American society. [16]

The Wild West show continued to attract enthusiastic audiences. When the show visited New Orleans in 1885, the Daily Picayune praised the show, “The performers include Indians, Mexicans, cowboys and special marksmen and riders. Among the animals are a hundred horses, including all grades from the roughers to the bucking mustang. The entertainment brings the life of the Wild West as it were home to the view it all. It is a dime novel pictured by the heroes themselves. It is much to see Buffalo Bill riding and shooting with a grace and unerring air that belongs to no other…” The show was called “exciting, interesting and of the highest order of entertainment”. Despite their worst season and forty-four days of rain, the show indeed went on and the audiences adored it. It was at the rainy New Orleans venue that Annie Oakley first saw the Wild West show.  [17]

Phoebe Ann Moses aka Annie Oakley was an American sharpshooter and exhibition shooter. She was the princess of the Wild West show.

Annie Oakley

In 1885, twenty-five year old Annie Oakley auditioned to join the Wild West show. Oakley was a talented shooter. At fifteen years old she won a shooting contest against a traveling Irish trick shooter named Frank Butler. Soon, Butler was smitten with Annie and they were married. Butler became Oakley’s manager and loyal companion for the rest of their lives. The dainty sharp shooter immediately impressed Cody. Oakley was phenomenal with guns and was a skilled hunter. While many shooting tricks of the Wild West show contained artful deception, Oakley’s shooting skills were genuine. Crowds were drawn to the virtuous image of Oakley. She was less than five feet tall, delicate and youthful. When she entered the arena it was said that she prettily “tripped in, bowing, waving and wafting kisses” to the audience. When she shot dimes from between her husband’s fingers or shot cigarettes from between his lips, the audience was captivated. Oakley represented a paradox to the audience. She was a pretty pioneer wife displaying decidedly  “masculine” talents.  Annie Oakley’s ability to blur the gender roles while at the same time promoting domesticity made her a marketing asset for Cody’s show. He gave her top billing for her act and began marketing her in the show’s advertisements. Oakley was the perfect mythological character for the Wild West show and her act made it more palatable for “respectable” women. Cody noticed that Annie provided a much needed femininity and energy to the show. In a way, Annie Oakley symbolized the vulnerable white woman from the “Attack on Settler’s Cabin”. Oakley stayed with the Wild West show for most of its duration and became one of the most famous people associated with the show besides Buffalo Bill Cody. [18]

Wild West Show Performers, 1909

“The Death of Custer” from the Two Bill’s Show 1905

Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill

In 1883, Cody had attempted to recruit famed chief Sitting Bull to join his Wild West show. Sitting Bull was not interested until he saw a postcard featuring Annie Oakley. The Sioux chief saw her performance in 1884 in St Paul. He called her “Tatanya Cincila” or “Little Sure Shot”. Oakley claimed that Sitting Bull had adopted her as a daughter. The heartwarming story of Oakley’s “adoption” into Sitting Bull’s family increased the familial atmosphere of the Wild West show and provided an undeniable draw for the audience. Sitting Bull was still despised by some and referred to as the “killer of Custer”. Yet, when he first joined the show, he was loudly cheered. Sitting Bull did not take part in re-enactments. He rode his horse in the opening scenes and sold autographs to fans. Unfortunately, in 1886, Sitting Bull was banned from the Wild West show by civilian authorities. To the audience, Sitting Bull’s transformation from feared enemy to family man was meaningful. It represented the passage of the Indian from “savagery” to “civilization”. Cody’s Wild West show provided the stage for the “domestication” to take place. Despite Sitting Bull’s appeal, he was never fully accepted by the spectators.  [19]

In 1887, Cody took his Wild West show to England. The trip to London took twelve days by ship. In Britain, Buffalo Bill was the star of the show. He symbolized the American West like no one else. Britain warmly welcomed Cody and his performers and they were treated like royalty. In England, Cody was an authentic hero. English newspapers vividly described the wonders of Cody’s Wild West show and colorful advertisements were plastered all over London. Queen Victoria heard of the popular show and sent a “command” to see the Wild West show. After it was explained to her that the show could not be moved to Windsor Palace, she agreed to see it at the Earl’s Court arena. The queen’s appearance at the Wild West show was unprecedented. She had not attended a public entertainment event since her husband’s death more than twenty-five years earlier.  On May 12th, the Wild West show was presented to the queen at Earl’s Court. She had stated that she would only attend the show for an hour but she was so fascinated that she stayed until the end. Queen Victoria then commanded to meet with Will Cody and other leading members of the show.  Buffalo Bill’s Wild West stayed in London until November. The Times of London credited Cody and his Wild West show with “bringing America and England nearer together. Colonel Cody can achieve no greater triumph.” The same paper went on the say, “Civilization itself consents to march onward in the train of Buffalo Bill.” From London the show continued onto Birmingham where they toured for six months. While in Birmingham, Cody became ill with bronchitis and he complained of being homesick. The group headed back to America on May 1st. A few Native Americans from the show enjoyed their experience overseas so much that they decided to stay on in England. [20]

An 1888 poster depiction of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in London.

In 1893, Will Cody was in his late forties and his hair was beginning to turn gray. That year, historian Frederick Jackson Turner declared in his essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” that the frontier was officially over. At the same time, Cody introduced his “Congress of Rough Riders” at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition. The world’s fair was the perfect setting for the Wild West show and the Rough Riders.  The Rough Riders exhibition featured racially diverse horsemen from all over the world. The multicultural riders competed to see who was the most skilled horseman. The Rough Riders engaged the public on familiar grounds.  They celebrated industrialization, urban living, and immigration. The crowds enjoyed watching the competition. Famed western artist Frederic Remington described the appeal of the show, “The great interest which attaches to the whole show is that it enables the audience to take sides on the question of which people ride the best and have the best saddle.” The Congress of the Rough Riders gave the audience a unique mixture of world history and spectacular stunts. Nostalgia for the frontier was stronger than ever and the Wild West show’s Rough Riders were seen as bastions of Americanism. [21]

The Wild West Show made record profits in 1893, but in 1894, people were spending less money on entertainment expenses. Low box office receipts convinced Cody that something needed to be changed. He decided to take the show on the road in a different way. James A. Bailey from the Barnum and Bailey Circus provided rail cars for the Wild West Show in exchange for a share of Cody’s earnings. In 1895, the show was sent to 130 places in 190 days and covered 9000 miles. The rail cars carried over seven hundred performers and six hundred animals and took up sixty-two railway cars. The schedule for the performers was grueling, and life on the road was hard on aged Cody. He was growing older and was overwhelmed by managing the Wild West show. In 1896, Cody held a Wild West show in North Platte, Nebraska. The official population of the town was four thousand, but over eighteen thousand people came to his show. Will Cody, Annie Oakley and Johnny Baker were the stars of the show.  The North Platte Wild West show brought in more than $20,000. After the show, Cody was arrested for putting on such a large show without the proper license. Cody had a license for a sideshow, but his show was now considered to be more of a circus and the license fee for a circus was considerably higher. Cody had always maintained that the show was not a circus and the incident was never taken to trial. [22]

As usual, Cody was looking for new projects. In 1896, Will Cody and a man named George Beck became partners in a town-founding project in Wyoming. Beck chose the name “Shoshone” for the town. At Will Cody’s insistence, it became the town of Cody, Wyoming. Will Cody put a lot of money into his town venture and envisioned irrigation ditches that would water prosperous crops. Cody, Wyoming was officially incorporated in 1901 and quickly became the focus of Cody’s “manic entrepreneurialism”. He established newspapers, started a livery stable, and drilled oil wells. He began gold mines and coal mines and opened the Irma Hotel, named after his daughter. Western paintings by artists such as Frederic Remington hung on the elegant cherry wood walls. The Irma Hotel’s construction costs were a reputed $80,000. Cody supervised every step of the process. Many of Cody’s ventures in his town failed. The gold, oil and coal deposits were usually not worth the effort of extraction. Nonetheless, the town of Cody was doing well. The railroad reached town in 1901. Shortly after, the town held a parade to attract new settlers. The settlement of Cody promised irrigated crops to farmers, and that was the main appeal of the location. While many of Cody’s projects failed, the town of Cody, Wyoming flourishes still today as does the Irma Hotel. [23]

Cody, Wyoming, Circa 1900

Louisa and Will in front of the Irma Hotel.

In the 1899 program for the Wild West show, Cody took a risk by endorsing a woman’s right to vote. Cody was ahead of his time as he often was. The Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution was still twenty years away. Cody was a product of his environment. People in the west were more favorable to women’s suffrage. When asked if women should have the same rights and privileges as men, Cody replied, “Most assuredly I do. I’ve already said they should be allowed to vote. Why, of course, if a woman is out earning her living she keeps up with what is going on in the world, then she knows the best man to vote for. What we want to do is give our women even more liberty than they have. Let them do any kind of work that they see fit, and if they do it as well as men, give them the same pay.” Cody’s support of women surely came from his close association with independent women in his Wild West show, women like Annie Oakley. [24]

In 1901, the Wild West show left Charlotte, North Carolina and headed to Danville, Virginia. At 3:20 am, the second section of the train collided with a freight train. One hundred ten horses were killed, including Cody’s horse, Old Pap. Cody was distraught. While no performers were killed, Annie Oakley suffered severe internal injuries. She would never appear in the Wild West show arena again. Oakley claimed that the shock of the incident turned her hair white in less than one day. She was 41 years old and white haired when she retired. She did continue to shoot, although not professionally. While her professional shooting career was over, Annie still taught women to shoot and she never lost her skill. Her last public appearance was in 1925. She and Frank Butler remained inseparable until their deaths. They died two weeks apart that same year. [25]

While Cody played up his family man image to the public, his marriage to Louisa never really improved. When he wrote letters to family from the road, he never wrote to Louisa.  His requests to Louisa for divorce were repeatedly denied. Nonetheless, they led separate lives. Will and Louisa seemed happy in public, but in private they never truly got along. Over the years, Cody engaged in extramarital affairs with actresses and various other women. Louisa knew about the affairs, but the fights were always about Cody’s inability to save the money he made.  Cody brought in a lot of money over the years, but he lost it almost as quickly. Due to bad business ventures and his taste for extravagant belongings, he was never able to save for the future. He also maintained two homes, invested large amounts of money into his ranch, and gave generously to his family, friends, employees and charities. His monetary generosity drained his accounts at the end of his life. [26]

In 1906, monetary issues continued to plague Will Cody. An outbreak of a highly contagious animal disease called glanders forced Cody to slaughter two hundred of his three hundred horses. The incident put the show deeply in debt. Soon after, James Bailey died suddenly. A note for $12,000 with Cody’s signature on it was discovered by Bailey’s estate and they wanted it to be paid in full. Cody insisted that he already paid it, and he probably did. The Baileys demanded payment anyway. Even though Cody longed to retire, he could not afford to leave the show because of his rising debts. Through 1908-1909, Cody merged his show with Major “Pawnee Bill” Lillie. Lillie had idolized Cody since he first saw Buffalo Bill perform as a child. When the two shows merged, they were known as “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and Pawnee Bill’s Far East”. The alliance with Pawnee Bill was beneficial to Cody. Lillie paid off Cody’s debts with the Bailey family. During the “Two Bills” shows, the men lived and traveled together as they toured America and Canada. Lillie admired Cody and understood his temperament. Creditors often overwhelmed Cody. To deal with the emotional strain, he would retire to bed or burst into tears and threaten to not appear at the arena. Overall, the partnership with Lillie was a success, especially for Cody. [27]

Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Troupe

Wild West Show Cowboys

Brave Chief, Eagle Chief, Knife Chief, Young Chief, William Cody,Chief American Horse, Chief Rocky Bear, Chief Flies Above, Chief Long Wolf.

On May 24, 1911, railcars filled with the Cody’s Wild West show performers and animals wrecked near Lowell, Massachusetts. Wild animals such as elephants and buffalo stampeded. Some wounded animals and their keepers were trapped in the railway cars. Injured cowboys, Indians, Arabs and Cossacks huddled together in the field. Cody’s private car was damaged in the wreck, but he was uninjured. Cody and Johnny Baker took charge and restored order. After helping injured performers, Cody led the group on foot into the town of Lowell. They set up their tents just in time for their show. In a June 1911 letter Cody wrote, “I am yet hit hard down east since leaving Boston. The railroad wreck will cost about $10,000 damage. And we are losing money in every town.” [28]

In 1910, Cody began working his plan for retirement into the show. He claimed that each performance was a “farewell performance”. He gave repeated departure speeches to the crowds. “Out in the West, I have my horses, my buffalo, my staunch old Indian friends, my home, my green fields…. My message to you is one of farewell…” A program from 1912 read, “Buffalo Bill, Back to the New West. The Old West I Leave With You.” The show remained profitable. In 1910, the Two Bills show made an astounding $400,000. Cody should have been able to retire at that point. Major Lillie purchased a $100,000 mansion and placed the rest of his earnings in savings. Cody continued to get involved in random business ventures that drained his money. He spent $200,000 on mines in Arizona. He sought investors for his irrigation ditches in Cody, Wyoming. He still had his beloved Scout’s Rest Ranch. He also had his Welcome Wigwam in North Platte, the Irma Hotel and the TE Ranch in Wyoming. Cody and Lillie shared their $40,000 expenses for wintering their livestock. In order to raise his share, Cody took out a $20,000 loan from a man named Henry Tammen. Tammen was the owner of the Sells-Floto Circus and the Denver Post, a tabloid-like newspaper. The Denver Post reported that Cody’s loan had a stipulation. The next season, Cody was to partner with Tammen’s circus instead of with Pawnee Bill. Cody vehemently denied that he had agreed to those terms for the loan. Lillie was infuriated and his feelings were hurt.  The damage was done.

In 1913, just days from the loan payment deadline, Tammen initiated a chain of foreclosure suits in court. The Wild West show was taken as payment for Cody’s $20,000 loan. The sheriff and some deputies came to the show grounds and seized all cash and sold all of the Wild West property at an auction. The Wild West show was officially bankrupt. Cody was forced to work with the Sells-Floto Circus in 1914 and 1915. The circus was no Wild West Show. The tents were dirty, the ropes were rotted and the shows were often flooded out. It was not completely terrible, though, as Cody made $100 a day plus 40 percent of the earnings for each show after the $3000 that Tammen took. Cody rode his horse to introduce acts, but he did not perform his famous shooting acts. A fellow circus performer noted, “He kept pretty much to himself in his private dressing tent. He had a certain amount of dignity about him that I admired. He was a handsome man for his age and he still looked wonderful on a horse.” [29]

Cody was concerned about the well being of his Wild West show performers. They had been left penniless and homeless by Tammen’s deeds and the animals had been left without shelter. Any amount of money the Colonel could get, he gave it to the members of his company. A supportive friend gave him $500 and Cody divided it equally among his cast. A stable was found for the horses and the show cast members moved in with the horses and slept in the hay. Many of them only had the clothes they were wearing, so they washed their clothes at night to wear the next day. The performers made money any way they could. Whatever money they made, they shared with one another. Many of the Indians sold their costumes and headed back to the reservation. Cody’s favorite horse named Isham had to be auctioned. Two of Cody’s friends bid against one another, determined to get the horse back to Cody. The horse was bought by his friend for $150 and was sent to Cody’s TE Ranch. Cody began to receive offers from vaudeville. One offer from London was for $2500 a week. Cody demanded $5000 and was refused. Cody had his own ideas for the future. He decided to make a series of historical films about his life in the Old West. He wanted to recreate events with original participants whenever possible. Cody planned to recreate the Yellow Hair fight, the Battle at Wounded Knee and the Battle of Summit Springs. By late 1913, he was at Pine Ridge Reservation to film scenes. The Twelfth Calvary was in attendance with six hundred troops. Indians from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show were there as well. Tepees were set up exactly where they had been when their ancestors had died twenty-five years earlier. There was even some talk by the young Indians concerning the use of real bullets instead of blanks during the battle scenes in order to avenge their ancestor’s deaths. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed and blanks were used. The film project was heralded by newspapers as “the greatest film ever made”. Unfortunately, none of the films Cody made survived. Nonetheless, Cody’s interest in film making further reveals his innovative instincts for entertainment. [30]

In November of 1916, Will Cody was very ill. His health had been up and down for a while, and was not improving. He did not want the newspapers to find out that he was not feeling well and attempted to hide his condition from the press. Cody traveled to Glenwood Springs, hoping the healing mineral waters would restore his health. He returned home four days later. Cody died January 10th, 1917. After everything, Louisa was by his side. Cody had stipulated that he wanted to be buried on a hill overlooking Cody, Wyoming. Henry Tammen offered to pay for the funeral if it were held in Denver, Colorado instead. Louisa Cody did not have the money to pay for a funeral, so Cody was buried in Denver instead. Some say that Louisa resented the town of Cody as much as she resented Cody’s other ventures. Perhaps she chose to bury Cody in Denver for that reason as well. [31]

Louisa and Will Cody in their later years.

After Cody’s death, Annie Oakley said, “I traveled with him for seventeen years and the whole time we were one great family loyal to a man. His words were more than most contracts.” Sitting Bull was once asked about a white Stetson hat that was given to him by Cody, “My friend Longhair gave me this hat. I value it highly for the hand that placed it on my head had a friendly feeling for me.” Years after their break up, Major Lillie said that Cody, “still lives in my memory as the ideal of my boyhood days. He was one of the biggest and best men I ever knew.” Cody’s wife Louisa never spoke badly of Cody in public. She said, “Will is one of the kindest and most generous of men.” Despite his numerous business failings, his extramarital affairs, his tall tales, and his excessive drinking, those who knew Will Cody revered him and only had kind words to say about the man. [32]

William “Buffalo Bill” Cody was a world-renowned celebrity who embodied the western frontier and America itself. An ongoing debate still exists about Will Cody. Was he a showman or a frontiersman? The concept of “artful deception” permeated nineteenth century American culture. The American West where Will Cody roamed was the place where myth and reality merged. On the frontier, Cody learned to invent and re-invent himself, just like other settlers during his time had done. Therefore, Cody was a frontiersman and a showman. Embodying the frontier myth made Cody more than a person. He became a symbol of a time and place. He represented the paradox of the American West. Cody was colorful, absurd, legendary, over the top. He was honest yet fake. His life was a mixture of theater and reality, much like the American West itself. [33]

Buffalo Bill in the Limelight by Frederic Remington


[1] Robert A. Carter, Buffalo Bill Cody:The Man Behind the Legend. (Castle Books), 2000. 13-17.

[2] Louis S. Warren, Buffalo Bill’s America. (Vintage Books), 2005, 8-12.

[3] Robert A. Carter, Buffalo Bill Cody:The Man Behind the Legend. (Castle Books), 2000. 22-23.

[4] Louis S. Warren, Buffalo Bill’s America. (Vintage Books), 2005, 16-18.

[5] Robert A. Carter, Buffalo Bill Cody:The Man Behind the Legend. (Castle Books), 2000. 62-67.

[6] Louis S. Warren, Buffalo Bill’s America. (Vintage Books), 2005, 37-38.

[7] Warren, Ibid., 18-23, 29.

[8]Warren, Ibid., 43-45.

[9] Robert A. Carter, Buffalo Bill Cody:The Man Behind the Legend. (Castle Books), 2000. 90-91.

[10] Louis S. Warren, Buffalo Bill’s America. (Vintage Books), 2005, 53-55, 83-89.

[11] Robert A. Carter, Buffalo Bill Cody:The Man Behind the Legend. (Castle Books), 2000. 176-180, 452.

[12] Carter, Ibid., 117-119, 545.

[13] Paul L. Hedren, The Contradictory Legacies of Buffalo Bill Cody’s First Scalp for Custer. (Montana: The Magazine of Western History), 2005, 16-35.

[14] Louis S. Warren, Buffalo Bill’s America. (Vintage Books), 2005, 189-196.

[15] Warren, Ibid., 219,232-238, 268.

[16] Louis S. Warren, Cody’s Last Stand: Masculine Anxiety, the Custer Myth, and the Frontier of Domesticity in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. (The Western Historical Quarterly), 2003, 49-69.

[17] Willam E. Deahl, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in New Orleans. (Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association), 1975, 289-298.

[18] Louis S. Warren, Buffalo Bill’s America. (Vintage Books), 2005, 239-252.

[19] Warren, Ibid., 253-255.

[20] Robert A. Carter, Buffalo Bill Cody:The Man Behind the Legend. (Castle Books), 2000. 301,305,321-313, 320-321.

[21] Louis S. Warren, Buffalo Bill’s America. (Vintage Books), 2005, 332, 420-424.

[22] Robert A. Carter, Buffalo Bill Cody:The Man Behind the Legend. (Castle Books), 2000. 380-381, 385.

[23] Louis S. Warren, Buffalo Bill’s America. (Vintage Books), 2005, 470-475.

[24] Robert A. Carter, Buffalo Bill Cody:The Man Behind the Legend. (Castle Books), 2000. 388-389.

[25] Carter, Ibid., 392-393.

[26] Louis S. Warren, Buffalo Bill’s America. (Vintage Books), 2005, 345-347.

[27] Robert A. Carter, Buffalo Bill Cody:The Man Behind the Legend. (Castle Books), 2000. 409-411, 414-415.

[28] Carter, Ibid., 420-421.

[29] Carter, Ibid., 534-537.

[30] Carter, Ibid., 431-433.

[31] Louis S. Warren, Buffalo Bill’s America. (Vintage Books), 2005, 541-542.

[32] Robert A. Carter, Buffalo Bill Cody:The Man Behind the Legend. (Castle Books), 2000. 416, 446, 451.

[33] Louis S. Warren, Buffalo Bill’s America. (Vintage Books), 2005, 543.


Carter, Robert A. Buffalo Bill Cody:The Man Behind the Legend. Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 2000.

Deahl, William E. “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in New Orleans .” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association. 16. no. 3 (1975): 289-298. (accessed March 11, 2012).

Hedren, Paul L. “The Contradictory Legacies of Buffalo Bill Cody’s First Scalp for Custer .” Montana: The Magazine of Western History . 55. no. 1 (2005): 16-35. (accessed March 11, 2012).

Warren, Louis S. Buffalo Bill’s America. New York: Vintage Books, 2005.

Warren, Louis S. “Cody’s Last Stand: Masculine Anxiety, the Custer Myth, and the Frontier of Domesticity in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West.” The Western Historical Quarterly, . 34. no. 1 (2003): 49-69. (accessed March 11, 2012).