William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody was a legendary American bison hunter, soldier, scout, and showman. Considered as one of the most prominent figures in the Wild West, he became a legend by the time he way 23, although many historians believe his exploits have been embellished throughout the years. Although he worked on jobs and served as a soldier at the beginning of his life, in his later years, he became famous as the founder of the touring attraction Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. Take a deeper look into the man that became a legend in order to decipher myth from reality.
He’s Not Fully American
Although William Frederick Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill, is considered to be one of America’s great heroes, he’s actually Canadian-American. His father was born in raised in what is now Mississauga in Ontario, Canada.
Cody lived there for many years in his youth in between the years when he was born in Iowa Territory before his family relocated south to the United States Midwest. It was there that Cody began to make a name for himself.
He Had Quite The Role Model And Was Brave From A Young Age
Cody’s father, Isaac Cody, strongly opposed slavery, which was still a very legal and common practice in 1853. When the Cody family was living in Iowa, his father was invited to speak at a trading post that was often frequented by pro-slavery individuals.
Unsurprisingly, many of them took offense at Isaac’s word’s against slavery, with one man stabbing Isaac twice with a Bowie knife, and he never fully recovered from his injuries. At one point, when his father was living away from the family for their safety, ten-year-old Cody even rode 30 miles to warn his father after he heard about a plot to have him murdered.
He Started Working In His Youth
In 1857, Cody’s father passed away due to health complications that were the result of a respiratory infection and his wounds from being stabbed. With his father gone, at a young age, Cody had to start to work in order to help his family that was struggling financially.
At the young age of 11, Cody started his first job as a freight carrier, delivering messages on horseback between the workmen and the drivers. This early job most likely helped him develop his legendary horsemanship.
He Was A Soldier In His Youth
As a young man, Cody’s mother fell ill so he returned home from working odd jobs to care for her. As his mother was recovering, the Civil War broke out, and Cody was keen to enlist as a soldier in the Union Army. However, he was refused because of his young age.
Then, in 1863, at the age of 17, Cody enlisted as a teamster with the rank of Private in Company H, 7th Kansas Calvary, in which he served until he was discharged in 1865.
Earning His Nickname
Cody’s nickname of “Buffalo Bill” came about from a job that he had providing buffalo meat for the workers of the Kansas Pacific Railroad. Supposedly, Cody is purported to have shot and killed 4,282 buffalo in an 18-month span between 1867 and 1868.
Furthermore, Cody and another buffalo hunter, Bill Comstock, entered and eight-hour competition to see who could kill the most buffalo and secure the right to use the name “Buffalo Bill.” Cody won, killing 68 to Comstock’s 48.
He Had A Special Name For His Weapon
For shooting buffalo along with other targets, Cody’s preferred weapon of choice was his Springfield .50 caliber trapdoor needle gun. He named it after the Italian Renaissance femme fatale, Lucretia Borgia, who is best known as the subject of the Victor Hugo play, and regarded for being “beautiful but deadly.”
Currently, the gun is on display at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, however, the stock is missing, and the reason why remains unknown for the most part. Some say he broke it while killing an elk and others that he lent it to the Grand Duke Alexei of Russia on a hunt.
He Was Honored For His Work As A Scout, At First
During the Indian Wars, Cody served as an Army Scout and was awarded a Medal of Honor in 1872. Yet, it was revoked in 1917, along with 910 other recipients, after Congress allowed for the War Department to revoke prior Army Medals of Honor that didn’t meet the regulations introduced in 1897.
All civilian and civilian scout medals were revoked since they did not meet the criteria of being an enlisted soldier, with Cody being one of five scouts to have theirs taken. However, his medal was reinstated in 1989.
He Joined The Freemasons
Buffalo Bill Cody had an incredibly exciting and busy life, but he still managed to find enough time to join the Freemasons, a fraternal organization that many Founding Fathers had been members of.
In 1889, he achieved the rank of Knight Templar, and in 1894, he was elevated to the 32-degree rank of the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry. When Cody died in 1917, he was buried with a full Masonic funeral, a high honor among the brotherhood.
Becoming An International Celebrity
In Nebraska in 1883, Cody founded Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, a touring circus-like attraction. Eventually changing the name to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World, the show would include a parade and performers re-enacting the ridings of the Pony Express, stagecoach robberies, Indian attacks, and more.
Some of Cody’s top performers included Annie Oakley, her husband, Frank Butler, and more. Eventually, Cody took the show internationally and made tours around Europe, establishing him as an international sensation.
He Was Already A Legend In His Early 20s
In 1869, when Cody was just 23, he met Ned Buntline, who published a story about Cody’s adventures, although he took a lot of creative liberty. He first published the story in the New York Weekly newspaper before publishing the novel, Buffalo Bill, King of the Bordermen, which made it onto the front page of the Chicago Tribune.
Other sequels followed, with other writers taking it upon themselves to write about Cody’s embellished life, turning him into a legend at an incredibly young age. To this day, his exploits are still being portrayed in popular culture.
He Had Friends Similar To Him
As it turns out, Cody was friends with another famous “Bill” of the West, “Wild Bill” Hickok, to be exact. Hickok was another notorious gunslinger whose exploits became the stuff of legends over the years, much like Cody.
The two were close friends, and in 1873, Cody invited Hickok to be a part of the stage performance Scouts of the Plain. However, Hickok left the group after just a few short months once he realized the acting life wasn’t for him.
He Probably Didn’t Ride For The Pony Express
Although at the age of 11, Cody did carry messages on horseback for the freight firm Major and Russell, which eventually started the Pony Express, it’s doubtful that Cody rode for the actual Express.
There are contradictions in his autobiography that raise suspicion, with one historian claiming that even when the Pony Express existed, Cody was in school in Leavenworth, Kansas. It’s unlikely that he would have been riding back and forth across Wyoming at the same time.
He Hunted With Russian Royalty
Between 1871 and 1872, Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich of Russia took a four-month goodwill tour of the United States. During that time, the Grand Duke also went on a buffalo hunt organized by General Philip Sheridan.
Cody was also involved in the hunt as a scout. The hunt took place in January at Red Willow Creek in Nebraska and was widely publicized, with some sources claiming that Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich was affectionate toward an “Indian princess.”
He Performed For Queen Victoria’s Jubilee
In 1887, Cody’s manager, Nate Salisbury, arranged to have Buffalo Bill’s Wild West perform in London’s American Exhibition. Traveling across the Atlantic, he brought along “83 saloon passengers, 38 steerage passengers, 97 Indians, 180 horses, 18 buffalo, 10 elk, 5 Texan steers, 4 donkeys, and 2 deer.”
Upon his arrival, he met with future King Edward VII and his family. The performance was on May 11, 1887, and it was the first time since her husband’s death two decades earlier that she appeared at a public performance.
He Fought For The Civil Liberties Of Native Americans
Although Cody fought and killed Native Americans in the Indian Wars, he noted that “I never scouted with a party of soldiers after Indians that I didn’t feel a bit ashamed for myself and a whole heap sorrier for them.”
Furthermore, although his shows portrayed Native Americans as villains, his feelings towards them were a bit more complicated. In reality, he had immense respect for the Native Americans and believed that everything they were going through was wrong and that they should resist it.
He Supported Women’s Sufferage
Even though Cody is an incredibly “manly” figure, he sympathized with his female counterparts. After spending years traveling and performing alongside women such as Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane, Cody understood their plight and became a firm believer in women’s suffrage.
In an interview with The Milwaukee Journal in 1898, when asked if he believed in women’s suffrage, Cody replied “Yes […] Set that down in great big black type that Buffalo Bill favors woman suffrage… These fellows who prate about the women taking their places make me laugh…” He also believed that women should have all of the same civil liberties as men.
He Had A Tabloid Marriage
At the time, Buffalo Bill Cody could have been compared to a reality television star of today. In 1866, he married Louisa Frederici, although he spent much of his time away from her and their four children. In 1904, he sued for divorce, claiming that she had attempted to poison him.
Unsurprisingly, the suit turned into a major scandal that was covered by all the newspapers and even had some reporters digging up old dirt about Cody. The case was eventually dismissed, the couple reconciled their relationship, and stayed together until Cody’s death.
He Played A Role In One Of The First Federal Water Development Projects
After earning some serious money through show business, Cody invested in land in Wyoming, where he became involved in the Shoshone Irrigation project. In 1904, Cody transferred his water rights to the Secretary of the Interior, and drilling began for Shoshone Dam that year, which was later renamed the Buffalo Bill Dam.
Currently, the Shoshone Project irrigates more than 93,000 acres of a variety of produce. The damn was one of the first concrete dams in the US, and in 1910 was the tallest in the world at 325 feet.
He Served Under Custer
In 1866, when Cody was still serving as a scout for the US Army, he served under numerous different commanding officers. Although many of them are rather unmentionable, one of them stands out, and that’s the infamous General George Armstrong Custer.
Of course, Custer is best known for getting himself, and hundreds of other cavalrymen massacred at the Battle of the Big Horn. Supposedly, Cody himself would portray Custer in his shows around the United States.
There Was Debate Over His Burial
Even though he had established the town of Cody, Wyoming in 1895, Cody made it clear that he wanted to be buried on Lookout Mountain near Denver, Colorado, overlooking the Great Plains. He was buried there. However, there was a debate over his corpse in the following decades.
In 1948, 31 years after his death, the American Legion’s chapter in Cody, Wyoming, offered a reward to anyone that could retrieve Cody’s body and bring it back to the town. In response, the Legion’s Denver chapter organized guards to protect Cody’s grave while they dug a deeper hole.
He Rode Into The Herd To Beat Comstock
During his competition with Comstock, Cody didn’t just, he won by a large margin. In order to kill so many more buffalo, Bill would ride into the middle of the herd and pick off the leaders first. Then, the panicked herd would run in circles, and he could take them out at his leisure.
In contrast, Comstock would ride up behind the herd, causing them to scatter and making them much more difficult to pick off.
His Complicated Legacy
While you already know that Buffalo Bill sympathized with Native Americans, you don’t know the whole story. In the late 1850s, he was known as an “Indian fighter” for the stories about his abilities.
One story in particular claims that while he was surrounded by a dozen Native Americans one time, he managed to take out more than half of them. While this story has never been confirmed, it does strike us as odd considering the information we do know to be true.
How Much Do We Really Know?
When it comes to Buffalo Bill, it can be hard to separate the man from the myth. Most of what we know are stories that he told about himself. Many of these stories have been disputed by historians.
Part of the reason is history is so debated is because of how extraordinary many of his claims were. One of the best examples is the already-discussed inaccuracies about his history with the Pony Express.
One Of His Shows Received Terrible Reviews
In 1872, Buffalo Bill reteamed with Ned Buntline to star in The Scout of the Prairie. Buntline was producing the show, which co-starred another one of Bill’s friends, Jack Omohundro. The show was Bill’s stage debut, and was also one of the first Wild West shows ever produced. The show received terrible reviews.
Luckily, audiences weren’t as negative as critics. The show was consistently sold out, with fans showing their loyalty to one of their favorite performers.
He Was A Conversationist
Despite his reputation as one of the great buffalo hunters of the Wild West, Bill Cody actually identified as a conservationist. Maybe he was always one, or maybe he realized later in his life that hunting for sport was bad. We don’t know.
What we do know is that Buffalo Bill believed there should be a hunting season. He also was an advocate to ban hide-hunting, a practice that killed an unnecessary amount of animals for their skin.
He Fought In The Union Army
At the start of the Civil War, Bill Hickok signed up with the Union army. Initially, he was given the role of teamster. After a while it was clear he was capable of more and he was promoted to wagon master.
One year after joining the Union army, Hickock was discharged. The reasons for his discharge are still unknown today. He didn’t stay unemployed for long though and teamed up next with the Kansas Brigade in various roles.
He Dueled Over A Watch
Bill Hickok and Davis Tutt were two men who did not get along. Tutt was a gambler and won a gold watch from Hickock one day. After he lost his watch, Bill asked Davis not to wear it in public because it was special to him.
Tutt didn’t listen, and the conflict led to one of the first documented quick-draw duels in the Wild West. When the two drew their weapons, Tutt missed his shot and Hickok didn’t. He was arrested for the death but was cleared of all charges by a jury.
His Family’s Possible Connection To The Underground Railroad
Bill Hickok grew up in an abolitionist household. His family was even rumored to be a stop on the Underground Railroad for refugee slaves. The railroad established safe houses and secret routes for slaves to find paths to free states and even Canada.
If the Hickok family house was used as a part of the Underground Railroad, it helped to free nearly 1,000 slaves per year at its peak. Like many stories about Hickok’s past, there is no confirmation if this one is true.
Hickock Claimed To Have Fought A Bear And Won
While working as a constable for the Monticello Township, Bill Hickok told a wild story where he claimed to have fought a bear. He said he approached the animal and its two cubs when he noticed them blocking a roadway.
He shot the bear, which only angered it and it attacked him. The enraged beast crushed Hickok with its body, but he managed to take out his knife and fight it off. The encounter left him badly injured, but still alive.
The Origin Of His Name Came From His Nose
When he was born, Wild Bill Hickok was named James Butler Hickok. He was later given the nickname “Duck Bill” because of his peculiarly long nose. When he tired of being the butt of everyone’s jokes, he grew a mustache and rebranded himself as “Wild Bill.”
During the same time period he was known as “Duck Bill” he was also noted for having a slim build, which led to another nickname, “Shanghai Bill.”
Charlie Utter Tried To Straighten Him Out
Along his travels, Hickok teamed up with Charlie Utter and even became a partner in Utter’s train business. As soon as their lives became intertwined, Utter could tell that Bill was going down a dangerous path with his behavior.
While they worked together, Utter tried to ease Hickok away from his worst habits in hopes that he could live a long life. As you’ll earn, Utter’s efforts, while noble, ended up being lost when the pair went their separate ways.
He Left His Wife To Travel With Utter
At 38 years old, Hickok married Agnes Lake. She was 12 years younger than him, and the marriage was doomed to fail from the beginning. It was only a few months into their lives together that Hickok hitched his wagon to Charlie Utter.
Hickok was excited about the idea of heading to South Dakota to prospect for gold. He and Agnes lived in Wyoming Territory, and he left her there to pursue his own monetary interests.
He Was Red-Headed
One of the big things Hollywood gets wrong about Bill is that he had brown or black hair. Pictures of him tend to be in black and white, making his hair look dark, and in turn leading to the way he is portrayed on film.
If you study Wild Bill, however, you learn that most written accounts about him describe him as having red hair. Much like the confusion with Abraham Lincoln’s voice, this is one aspect of Hickok you see in movies we can guarantee is false.
Little Big Man Helped Shape His Modern Image
In 1970, the film Little Big Man was released, featuring Hickok as a character. Jeff Corey played him in the movie, which also starred Dustin Hoffman and Faye Dunaway.
The facts put forth in the movie about Bill are arguably inaccurate, despite the film’s recognition by the Library of Congress as a modern classic. One of the biggest facts that the movie falsifies is how Hickok died. In the film, his life is taken by the son of a man he took the life of.
He Never Sat With His Back To The Door
During his life, Hickok made a lot of enemies. He had so many folks coming after him that whenever he went to a pub or saloon, he would find a seat where he could sit with his back facing the wall.
Having a view of the door meant that no one could sneak up on him. Even when he would play cards and gamble he would make sure he was sitting in a seat with his back facing the wall.
Was He Married To Calamity Jane?
In 1941, Jean Hickok Burkhardt McCormick was awarded old age assistance after making the claim she was the child of Wild Bill and Calamity Jane. McCormick even had a marriage document as proof that the two were lovers.
According to the document, Hickok and Jane were married in 1873. Despite this, Hickok’s history is so shrouded in false details and claims that historians continue to argue against McCormick’s claim, citing multiple inconsistencies in her story.
Bill Never Forgot His Marriage To Agnes Lake
Wild Bill Hickok had many loves throughout his life, but Agnes Lake may have been his greatest love of all. Before he died, years after leaving her for his travels, he wrote her a letter:
“Agnes Darling, if such should be we never meet again, while firing my last shot, I will gently breathe the name of my wife—Agnes—and with wishes even for my enemies I will make the plunge and try to swim to the other shore.”
Hickok And Jane Were Buried Next To Each Other
Further confusing the narrative of Hickok and Calamity Jane are the competing stories of how they ended up being buried next to each other. One story states that Jane requested to be buried next to Hickok.
The other story comes from the men who buried Hickok and claimed he thought it would be funny to be buried next to her because he had “no use” for her. Which version do you think is true?
One Of His First Jobs Was As A Detective
Long before Wild Bill Hickok made himself a home in the Wild West he lived in Springfield, Missouri, where he worked as a detective for the city police. In this job, he was given several tasks ranging from menial to highly skilled.
Three of his most important tasks were policing local Union Army troops, verifying liquor licenses around town, and bounty hunting. It was while he was doing this job that his now-famous rivalry with Davis Tutt began.
Hickok Is Responsible For The “Dead Man’s Hand”
At the time of his passing, Wild Bill Hickok had a poker hand that included two black eight and two black aces. This hand has since that day been known as the “Dead Man’s Hand” during a game of five-card stud.
This signature hand is the only part of Hickok’s legacy. While it’s impossible to know which stories about him are true or not, there is no questioning the impact his legend left on our understanding of the American Wild West.