Farewell to “Buffalo Bill”

U.S. #2177 – Historians doubt some of Cody’s stories from his early life, believing they were made up for publicity.
U.S. #2177 – Historians doubt some of Cody’s stories from his early life, believing they were made up for publicity.

On January 10, 1917, famed scout and showman “Buffalo” Bill Cody died.

William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody, was born on February 26, 1846, in LeClaire, Iowa.  Following his father’s death, Cody took his first job as a driver on west-bound wagon trains at age eleven.  In that role, he rode on horseback alongside trains delivering messages between drivers and workmen.  Cody became an accomplished horse wrangler, hunter, and “Indian fighter” by his teens.

U.S. #2869b – Cody was a conservationist and supported an established hunting season.

Struck by “gold fever,” the 14-year-old Cody headed to California, and met an agent for the Pony Express along the way.  Cody claimed he helped build several stations and corrals before working as a rider (though some historians believe he made this up for publicity in later years).  He served as a scout for the Union Army during the Civil War (which earned him a Congressional Medal of Honor in 1872) and went on to assist the government in its attempts to wipe out Native American resistance.

Cody competed for the exclusive right to his nickname “Buffalo Bill” while supplying meat for the Kansas Pacific Railroad workers.  He and hunter William Comstock spent eight hours shooting buffalo in a contest, which Cody ultimately won with 68 kills to Comstock’s 48.  In all, Cody killed over 4,000 American bison in an 18-month span.

U.S. #2869d – Annie Oakley received top-billing in the Wild West shows.

Cody became a celebrity after meeting Ned Buntline, a writer for the New York Weekly.  Buntline published an article loosely based on Cody’s adventures that led to a highly successful novel, Buffalo Bill, King of the Bordermen.  Cody’s daring feats provided material for other newspaper reporters and dime novelists, who transformed “Buffalo Bill” into a national folk hero.  Over time, 557 dime novels were written about Cody, many by authors who had never been west of the Hudson River.

U.S. #2869a – A poster similar to those Cody used for his shows.

In 1872, Cody joined his friends in Chicago in a play called The Scouts of the Prairie and toured with the group for ten years.  Then, on July 4, 1882, Cody held an “Old Glory Blowout” in North Platte, Nebraska.  This show featured buffalo and bucking-bronc riding, steer roping, horse racing, a buffalo hunt, and re-enactments.  Because of this show, North Platte claims to be home to the very first rodeo.  The “Old Glory Blowout” was such a success that Buffalo Bill formed his spectacular Wild West Show in 1883.

U.S. #143L3 – Cody claimed to have been a Pony Express rider at the age of 14.

It was an extravaganza featuring fancy shooting, hard-riding cowboys, parades, races, sideshows, and war-whooping “Indians.”  Some of the top attractions included mock battles against Indians, and a demonstration of Cody’s marksmanship. The show’s stars included sharp-shooter Annie Oakley and Chief Sitting Bull. Extremely popular, the show lasted for almost 20 years, touring the U.S. and even overseas. Cody’s show toured Europe eight times. It was featured at Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887 and at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893.

Item #4901940 – A Buffalo Bill First Day of Issue Proof Card.

Cody had passed through the northwestern area of Wyoming in the 1870s and was impressed by its development possibilities. In 1895, he helped found the town of Cody, Wyoming, and built his massive ranch about 35 miles away.  At its peak, the ranch encompassed about 8,000 acres and held 1,000 cattle. Cody spent most of his final years there until he died on January 10, 1917, at his sister’s house in Denver, Colorado.

Click here and here to view video of some of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows.

Click the images to add this history to your collection.

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  1. Thank you for a very interesting story about one of the bright
    stars of the “Wild” West. Your analysis was so well-written that
    I wish I had been around to see the spectacle. You really bring back\
    some wonderful historical events and make history live through
    your very thoughtful research. I hope you put these in a book and
    share with everyone. I know I would purchase one. Thanks!

  2. One of his reenactments in the show was Cody galloping in as a Pony Express rider with a mail pouch and exchanging horses and galloping out again. This reinforced his (questionable?) claim that he was an actual Pony Express rider in 1860-61. The Pony Express carried express mail from St Joseph MO to San Francisco as an attempt to get the regular mail contract from Congress. Wells Fargo, who took over from the original freight company shut down the Pony Express after 18 months when the telegraph line was completed to San Francisco in Nov 1861. And no, they failed to get the mail contract. But Cody popularized the Pony Express around the world in the 1880s and 90s. Otherwise it would have been short-lived footnote in western history. But it did prove that the central route route was feasible, and Butterfield Overland Coach which had the mail contract and was using a southern route to get around the Rockies soon used the central route, and it then became the railroad route in 1869, followed today by I-80.

    1. Questionable Claim – Having read his autobiography (up to Pony Express days); his sister’s book “The Last Scout” (up to Pony Express days); and reviewing Kansas history I am definitely convinced of his “hiring on” as a rider.

      Wikipedia has also listed William Cody was baptized in Ontario, Canada in 1847 where he and his family lived for several years.

      A stamp collector and research historian (amateur) for many years I enjoy “checking things out”. And being a Canadian I like to search for this connection.

  3. Your brief article about Cody was time well spent. It was Cody’s show, and others like it, that fixed on the American mind the picture of the old or Wild West. As a young boy I listened to my Great Grand Mother who went to the Dakotas to do her Christian duty to spend as year teaching in a girls’ school. This was in the mid 1880s. From her I learned that many views of the old west were quite true. Saturday night was indeed lawless as cowboys and cavalrymen came to town to visit the saloons and houses of ill-repute (to use a Victorian phrase). While we see the old west on the movie screen or big TV we must also recall the damage that men like Cody and Comstock did to the Buffalo herds, etc. But, we must also remember as we explore history that Cody did fix those memories on the American mind. Dr. James J. Cooke, Prof. Emeritus of History (U. of Miss.)

  4. Just pointing out the article says he received medal of honor in 1972. Was it posthumously awarded or is it a typo meant to be 1872?

  5. A sincere thank you for your commentary Dr. Cooke. Today’s article contained graphic and barbaric images that must have been little more than characteristic of the times. It has been abundantly noted that animal and human slaughter as well as our national disgraces (slavery, treatment of native Americans) occurred previous and subsequent to the period mentioned in this article. The actual era of the wild west as depicted in stories, TV series, and movies was a period of time roughly equivalent to the duration of the Viet Nam (war, skirmish, occupation, conflict-pick one), and yes, yet another national disgrace. Our fascination with this period of time, however, makes it seem like it lasted a hundred years and was so colorful even though, as a child, theater and TV depicted everything in black and white. It was so larger than life that 30 years after it was over Cody and company were still serving up the re-enactments and memorabilia to the masses and it continued by many after that. Taking the good with the bad, it was truly a remarkable period.

  6. Two things come to mind — my Great Grandmother stated that on Saturday night there was continual gunfire from men who had too much cheap booze. A shot of rye whiskey was five cents, the going rate from the Mississippi to the west. The men fired their pistols into the air after spending a half dollar. Second, to protect the young ladies at the school Saturday night was filled with praying and Bible studies. A supporter of the school stood guard, armed with a shot gun. By the Spanish American War and the Mexican operation of 1916 the government took steps to end the cheap whiskey and brothels (a prostitute cost twenty five cents) near the camps. The YMCA and Red Cross established huts with soft drinks, coffee, games, etc. in the army camps. This is the origins of the USO of World War II. See my book American Girls, Beer and Glenn Miller, Chapter 1. Prof. James J. Cooke, Professor Emeritus of History (U. of Miss)

  7. If his Wild West Show started in 1883 it would be hard to have Wild Bill Hickok as a star since he was murdered in 1876. I was stationed at Lowry AFB Denver Colorado in 1985 and was able to visit his sister’s house in Denver where he died and his grave on Lookout Mountain in Golden Colorado.

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