The greatest showman of the wild, wild west, William Frederick "Buffalo Bill" Cody, was born 174 years ago today in Scott County, Iowa. You might think you know everything about the buffalo-hunting, Pony Express–riding, sharpshooting, women's rights–advocating Civil War veteran who became the P.T. Barnum of the Old West, but even in death, Buffalo Bill has a few more cards up his sleeve.
William F. Cody portrait, circa 1909. (Buyenlarge/Getty Images)
He Earned His Nickname The Hard Way
In the years following the end of the American Civil War, railway companies were busy laying a network of tracks across the west. It was a huge undertaking requiring a massive labor force, so Bill Cody was hired by the Kansas Pacific Railroad to keep company employees fed. He was no line cook: During an 18-month span from 1867–1868, Cody supposedly shot and killed 4,282 buffalo that ended up in the railroad workers' bellies.
This feat was so impressive that folks began to call him "Buffalo Bill," a gesture to which the original Buffalo Bill, a half-Cheyenne hunter and interpreter named Bill Comstock, took exception. The two Bills decided to settle the dispute with a buffalo-off, agreeing that whoever killed the most buffalo in an eight-hour period got the rights to the nickname. Cody won after shooting 68 buffalo to Comstock's 48.
Buffalo Bill spent his childhood in Canada. (britannica.com)
Was He Canadian?
Buffalo Bill was born in Iowa near the town of LeClaire, but Cody's father, Isaac, was born and raised in Ontario, Canada. After his son was born, Isaac packed up his young family and headed back to the bustling streets of Toronto, and Buffalo Bill spent much of his youth in Canada before his family moved back to Iowa.
Bill's father's anti-slavery stance contributed to his death. (sheridaninn.com)
Buffalo Bill's Dad Was An Anti-Slavery Advocate
In 1853, Isaac Cody moved his family again, this time to Kansas Territory near Fort Leavenworth. At the time, Kansas was the site of a conflict over the slavery debate, and the abolitionist Isaac Cody often provoked his new pro-slavery neighbors with his rousing public speeches. During one such speech, a man rushed the podium and stabbed him twice in the abdomen. Isaac never fully recovered from the attack, dying a few years later in 1857. His death left young Buffalo Bill, only 11 at the time, as the man of the house. Although his death hit the boy hard, Bill was proud of his father for standing up for equality.
As a teenager, Buffalo Bill rode for the Pony Express. (thestreetandthecityul.wordpress.com)
Cody Answered An Ad For A "Skinny" Rider
In his early teens, Buffalo Bill took a job as a delivery messenger for a freight company before trying his hand as a prospector. He failed to strike it rich at Pikes Peak during the gold rush, but he spotted an ad there for "skinny, expert riders, willing to risk death daily." The slight 14-year old answered the ad and became a rider for Pony Express, where he worked until he returned home to care for his ailing mother.
Buffalo Bill had to wait until he was 17 to join the Army. (youtube.com)
Buffalo Bill In The Civil War
As soon as his mother recovered from her illness, Buffalo Bill was off again. This time, he had his sights set on the Union Army, who had just begun to fight the the Civil War, but they turned him down because he was underage. He bided his time working as a teamster, supplying Fort Laramie in what is now Wyoming, until the moment he turned 17, when he joined Company H, 7th Kansas Cavalry as a private. He left the army when the war ended in 1865, but it was a temporary move.
Buffalo Bill as a young man. (allthatsinteresting.com)
Chief Of Scouts
In 1868, Buffalo Bill rejoined the Army as a dispatch courier, delivering messages between various western forts. He became a scout during the Indian Wars, and later, General Philip Sheridan appointed him the Chief of Scouts for the 5th Cavalry Regiment and the Third Calvary during the Plains Wars.
Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich of Russia with Buffalo Bill. (pinterest.com)
A Brush With Russian Royalty
In January 1872, Buffalo Bill was tapped to serve as the scout for a hunting expedition through the American West that included the Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich of Russia. This event was covered by newspapers around the world because it was the first time a member of the Russian royal family traveled to the American frontier, and Bill's name was included in many of these reports, bolstering his reputation as a frontiersman.
Books and news articles were written about Buffalo Bill. (amazon.com)
Buffalo Bill Adventure Stories
In 1868, Buffalo Bill met a writer named Ned Buntline. He casually shared a few anecdotes with the writer about his adventures, which Buntline turned into a series of exaggerated tales for the New York Weekly and eventually a novel called Buffalo Bill, King of the Border Men. If Buffalo Bill was a legend before, these stories turned him into a full-blown folk hero.
Buffalo Bill and his troupe toured for 30 years. (en.wikipedia.org)
A Star Of The Stage
Buffalo Bill's next adventure took him to Chicago, where he starred in a stage show penned by Buntline called The Scouts of the Prairie in 1872. By 1883, Cody developed his own touring show, Buffalo Bill's Wild West, combining elements of vaudeville, theatrics, and a touring circus. After securing Annie Oakley and Chief Sitting Bull for his lineup. Buffalo Bill's Wild West toured the United States and Europe for more than 30 years.
The Wild West Show. (smithsonianmag.com)
An Advocate For Equality
Taking a cue from his father, Buffalo Bill was an advocate for the rights of women and Native Americans. Although he'd seen his fair share of battle against America's indigenous people, he noted that every time, the conflict was directly caused by the U.S. government breaking treaties and agreements. In addition, Bill was an outspoken conservationist. It was through his efforts that the U.S. government established specific hunting seasons, so every time Bugs Bunny tries to outsmart Elmer Fudd, a little piece of the wild west survives.