Colonel William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody (1846-1917) was a frontiersman and hero of the American West who perpetuated his own legend as a travelling showman and impresario. Cody was born and raised on the prairies of Iowa; moving to Kansas when his father died in 1857 and working as a mounted messenger before trying his luck as a prospector in the Peak Pines gold rush of 1858. Aged 14 he answered horseback mail service the Pony Express’s advertisement for ‘skinny, expert riders willing to risk death daily’.
In 1867 Cody took-up the trade that made his name as a buffalo hunter rounding up and dispatching the wild beasts that fed the construction workers building the Kansas Pacific Railroad. By his own account, Buffalo Bill killed 4280-head of buffalo in seventeen months and earned his moniker winning an eight-hour shooting match with rival hunter William Comstock. In 1868 Cody was appointed Chief of Scouts for the Fifth Cavalry and served in sixteen battles including the Cheyenne defeat at Summit Springs Colorado in 1869. He was awarded the Congress Medal of Honour in 1872.
Like Daniel Boone, Kit Carson and Davy ‘King of the Wild Frontier’ Crockett, Buffalo Bill became a national folk hero and subject of sensational dime store novels. The novelist Ned Buntline met Cody in 1869 and published his first adventure Buffalo Bill: King of the Border Men for the New York Weekly. In 1872 Buntline penned a play The Scouts of the Plain and invited Cody to appear as himself in a Bowery Theatre production in New York.
Though no actor, Cody could spin a good yarn and continued to appear as himself in national theatre tours. In between theatre seasons, Buffalo Bill would escort rich Americans and European nobility such as Russia’s Grand Duke Alexei on expeditions to the Wild West. General Philip Sheridan identified in Cody ‘a public relations windfall’ for the US Army and recognized that the Army needed good PR during the controversial annexing of native American Indian territories. Cody’s expeditions, accompanied by General Sheridan and Major General Custer, were widely publicized.
In 1876 Cody was called back to service as an Army scout in the campaign that followed General Custer’s defeat at Little Bighorn during which he famously duelled with Cheyenne chief Yellow Hair who he allegedly shot, stabbed in the heart and scalped in under five seconds. Never missing an opportunity to capitalize on his own heroics, Cody took a show called The Red Right Hand: or Buffalo Bill’s First Scalp for Custer on the road displaying Yellow Hair’s feathers, shield and scalp to audiences who thrilled at his tales of derring-do.
In 1883 Cody produced his first outdoor spectacular Buffalo Bill’s Wild West re-enacting his heroic life as a frontiersman, Pony Express rider, buffalo hunter and scourge of the Indians. He would also throw-in tableaux of historic heroics such as Custer’s Last Stand. For the next thirty years Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show would tour the world; showcasing legendary folk heroes such as sharpshooter Annie ‘Little Sure Shot’ Oakley and her husband Frank Butler, Calamity Jane, Wild Bill Hickok and (for one season) Chief Sitting Bull. Oakley would say of Buffalo Bill, ‘he was the simplest of men, as comfortable with cowboys as with kings’.
When Cody took his show on the road to Europe, he gave a royal command performance for Queen Victoria at Olympia in 1887 to celebrate her Golden Jubilee. His show was seen by over two million people and ‘nature’s nobleman’ was feted throughout the courts of Europe including a performance in Rome for Pope Leo XIII in 1890.
He returned to perform for The Queen in 1892 and for her successor King Edward VII in 1903 on the single occasion that Cody made an appointment at Henry Poole & Co. He is respectfully listed in the ledgers as Col W. F. Cody and his order for a black cloth frock coat lined satin, satin facings, DB silk vest and black stripe cloth trousers still exists in the Buffalo Bill Center of the West collection in Wyoming.
By 1903 Cody had made a fortune. He invested heavily in stock breeding, coal mining, oil drilling, construction, tourism and publishing in his home state Wyoming. His newspaper The Cody Enterprise, founded in 1899, is still published today. Cody also used his status as the world’s most famous American to lobby for women’s suffrage and fair treatment of native American Indians.
But within a decade Cody was bankrupt due in no small part to mismanagement of his spectacular shows and increasingly dubious investments. Though he wasn’t the first and won’t be the last performer to fall into such a trap, his reputation was not helped by a series of repeated farewell performances. He was finally reduced to performing as an employee in the Sells-Floto Circus: a double-hander of a show featuring performing dogs and ponies as well as circus acts. On his death in 1917, Cody’s reputation as nature’s nobleman was restored. King George V, Kaiser Wilhelm II and President Woodrow Wilson sent messages of condolence.