William Frederick Cody, the man who would take the Wild West to the world, was born on February 26, 1846 in Scott County, Iowa. He was the only boy among a family of six children. When his father died in 1857, William took odd jobs in an attempt to prove his ability as the family bread winner. His first real job was as a general dog’s body for Freight contractors Russell, Majors and Waddell. Soon, however, he would be riding perilous and dangerous marathon journeys as a Pony Express Rider.
At the outbreak of the War between the States, Cody found himself involved with a gang of jayhawkers – rogues who set about stealing horses from secessionist farmers in Missouri. Once his mother got wind of what he was up to, young Bill was shipped off to Leavenworth to make a respectable future for himself.
In Leavenworth, Cody ran into one James Butler Hickock. The two of them threw in together, investing their meagre life savings into a sporting enterprise that proved disastrous. They bought a race-horse which Cody was to race in St. Louis. Through this adventure they lost everything.
In 1863 Cody scouted for the Cavalry against the Kiowa and Commanche Indians. In 1864, he actually joined the army. He became a scout for the 7th Cavalry. He served in that capacity for 19 months, mustering out of the army on September 29, 1865. He continued to offer his services, however as a scout. At the same time he had set his sights on his future bride, Louisa Frederici of St. Louis. They were soon married and settled in Salt Creek Valley, Kansas, where Cody became involved in the hotel business. Before long he was losing money, however, and this, combined with his yearning for the life of the plains, doomed his business to failure. Within six months he had sold the Hotel and, after depositing his wife with his sister in Leavenworth, headed back to the life he loved. For the next twelve months he worked as a scout through the Kansas Indian territory. In 1867 he took a job grading tracks for the Kansas Pacific Railroad. When there arrived 1200 tracklayers, Cody was further employed to provide buffalo meat for the workers. He was contracted to deliver 12 buffalo to the railroads cook shacks. By his own calculations Cody would go on to slay 4,280 of the beasts in this capacity. It was at this time that he acquired the name Buffalo Bill.
On completion of his work for the railroad. Cody resumed work as a scout with the army. After a daring 350 mile despatch ride he was promoted to chief of scouts for the Fifth Cavalry. On May 13, 1869 Cody was leading the Fifth in an attack on about 500 Cheyennes. At the lead of an advance troop of 40 soldiers, Cody soon found himself surrounded by about 200 warriors. Rallying the men to fight for their lives, Cody was cool and collected. A fierce battle ensued but the majority of the white men got out alive.
Exploits like this made Buffalo Bill a well known figure. Soon Cody made the acquaintance of Ned Buntline, a dime novelist who was intent on making Buffalo Bill a star. He produced a series of books and magazines about the daring scout. With the advent of the Transcontinental Railway Cody saw lucrative employment as a hunting guide for rich European travellers.
By 1872 Cody was touring the country appearing in Buntline produced stage dramas like ‘The Scouts of the Plains.’ The applause he received was mesmerizing to Cody and set within him a determination to become a life long showman. Over the next decade he developed his talents as a showman while still keeping his hand as a real life scout. In the Spring of 1876 he had a duel to the death with a Cheyene Chieftan named Yellow Hair. After killing the warrior he scalped him and then proclaimed “ First scalp for Custer.”
In 1882 Cody joined forces with play producer Nate Salisbury. They worked on an idea for a great outdoor show that would bring the west to life. The idea was put into practice with the Fourth of July ‘Old Glory Blowout.’ The event was a huge success and so was born the show that would become ‘ Buffalo Bill’s Wild West.’ Cody would prove himself as the ultimate showman. The tours of his show would travel across the nation and then through Europe, making Buffalo Bill Cody extremely famous as well as extremely rich. His former lack of business acumen, however, came back to haunt him. He was a sucker for get rich quick schemes and lost vast amounts on investments that went sour.
By the mid 1890’s Cody had wearied of the show and was ready to retire. His marriage was also in decline as was his health. But he couldn’t give up the life of a showman and, for financial as well as personal motives continued touring with the show until 1916. In 1913 he even played himself in a movie. In old age drink got the better of him. He died on January 10, 1917. He was 70 years of age.