William "Buffalo Bill" Cody (1846–1917) lived during a time of significant change on the Great Plains. Non-Natives were settling the West in great numbers, the stagecoach and the Pony Express made daily trips across the country, and the railroad was cutting through Indian lands. One of the Indians' primary sources of food, the buffalo, was being hunted to extinction. As a boy, Cody herded cattle, rode for the Pony Express, and drove the stagecoach. As a young man, he killed buffalo for the railroad men. The latter half of the nineteenth century saw many major Indian wars in the West, and William Cody played an important part as a civilian scout for the Army during much of this time. He later recruited many Indians for his famous Wild West Show.
William Frederick Cody was born on February 26, 1846, in Scott County, Iowa. He was one of eight children and a son of Isaac and Mary Ann (Lay-cock) Cody. The family moved to Kansas in 1853 and Cody's father died in 1857. At eleven years of age, Cody decided to find work to support his mother and siblings. He pursued a job with Majors and Russell (later Russell, Majors, and Waddell), a freighting firm in Leavenworth, Kansas. He was first hired as a messenger boy and later helped to herd oxen. He claimed to have shot his first Indian while returning to Fort Kearney in Nebraska with a group of bullwackers (ox team drivers). He was heralded the "youngest Indian slayer of the Plains."
During this time he met James "Wild Bill" Hickok. They would remain good friends until Hickok's death in 1876. In 1859, Russell, Majors, and Waddell started the Pony Express, and Cody was hired as a rider. He rode for the company on and off until it went out of business in October 1861. In 1862, he joined the Ninth Kansas Volunteer Cavalry as a civilian guide and scout. He later became one of the Red Legged Scouts (the name coming from the red leggings they wore), an informal (some say vigilante) militia acting on the side of the Union. In 1863, he joined the Seventh Kansas Cavalry, also as a civilian scout. He married Louisa Maude Frederici on March 6, 1866. They first settled in Salt Creek Valley, Kansas. During their marriage they had four children: Arta born in 1866, Kit Carson (named after the famed Kit Carson) in 1870, Orra in 1872, and Irma in 1883. After a failed attempt at running a hotel, Cody returned to scouting. It was during this time that he met George Armstrong Custer.
In 1867, with a partner, Cody tried his hand at establishing a town near Fort Hays in anticipation of the coming of the railroad. Named Rome, it flourished until the Kansas Pacific Railroad established a town nearby and Rome slowly declined. Cody was then hired to kill buffalo for the workmen who were building the railroad. They required twelve buffalo daily to feed the employees. He claims to have killed 4,280 buffalo in eighteen months, and it was at this time that Cody was christened "Buffalo Bill." His job hunting buffalo ended in the spring of 1868 when the building of the track was done.
Cody immediately returned to scouting. In 1869 he was appointed chief of scouts for the Fifth Cavalry that was going up against the Dog Soldiers, a band of Cheyennes. On July 11, 1869, General Eugene A. Carr, Major Frank North, three companies of the Fifth Cavalry, and two companies of Pawnee soldiers, with William Cody as chief scout, surprised the Dog Soldiers' encamped near the South Platte River at Summit Springs, Colorado. This battle is significant because it broke the back of the Dog Soldiers and virtually ended their raids on the Colorado settlers. Cody claims to have killed many Indians during his career as a scout. One of these, Chief Tall Bull, he claims to have ambushed and killed for his horse in 1869 at Summit Springs. Another, Chief Yellow Hair (also called Yellow Hand), he killed in 1876 at War Bonnet Creek (Hat Creek) and then claimed to have cried, "The first scalp for Custer." In 1872, Cody won the Medal of Honor for gallantry in action on April 26, 1872, in the battle at Loup Fork on the Platte River in Nebraska. In the fall of 1872 he was elected to represent the Twenty-Sixth District in the legislature of Nebraska, thus adding the title "Honorable" to his name.
During this time, Cody was being urged by a friend to represent himself on stage. He declined at first but eventually agreed and started on his career as a performer. In 1873, he organized his own theatrical company known as the Buffalo Bill Combination, which included Wild Bill Hickok that first season. Cody moved his family to Rochester, New York, to be closer to the show. In April 1876, his only son died of scarlet fever. Heartbroken, Cody closed the show early and returned to scouting for the Fifth Cavalry. Shortly thereafter, he received word that General George Custer had been killed in the Battle of Little Bighorn. In 1877, Cody went into the cattle business with his friend, Major Frank North. Cody's ranch was near North Platte in Nebraska, and in 1878 his family moved from Rochester to settle there.
In 1883, Cody started a new venture, which he called Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. In it he depicted all of the history that he had experienced during his life on the Plains: the buffalo hunt, the first settlers, the Pony Express, the Deadwood stage, the wagon trains, the soldiers and scouts, and the Indians. It was highly successful in the United States, and in 1887 he took his show to England where he played before the Queen. He made several more trips to London and other European cities.
Cody returned from one of his European tours in November 1890 to find continuing warfare in Sioux Country. Because of his intimate knowledge of the Badlands of North Dakota, he was immediately summoned to Chicago by General Nelson Miles. He was also asked, because of his prior friendship with Sitting Bull, to go to him and try to quell the imminent uprising. Before Cody could reach Sitting Bull, however, the order was rescinded by President Benjamin Harrison. Sitting Bull was killed on December 15, 1890. On December 29, 1890, the massacre occurred at Wounded Knee, at which Miniconjou Chief Big Foot and about 300 Indian men, women, and children were killed by U.S. soldiers. Shortly thereafter, Cody negotiated with the government to take 100 Indians, including prisoners from Wounded Knee, to tour with his show.
Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show ran from 1883 to 1913. For the most part it was a great success. Nevertheless, due primarily to an extravagant lifestyle that included numerous affairs and much drinking, William "Buffalo Bill" Cody ended up penniless and bankrupt. Cody died on January 10, 1917, while visiting his sister in Colorado. His wife Louisa died in 1921. They are buried together on Lookout Mountain in Colorado.
In his second autobiography (published after his death), Cody expresses his sentiments about Indians:
I . . . hope that the dealings of this Government of ours with the Indians will always be just and fair. They were the inheritors of the land that we live in. They were not capable of developing it, or of really appreciating its possibilities, but they owned it when the White Man came, and the White Man took it away from them. It was natural that they should resist. It was natural that they employed the only means of warfare known to them against those whom they regarded as usurpers. It was our business, as scouts, to be continually on the warpath against them when they committed depredations. But no scout ever hated the Indians in general.
Blackstone, Sarah J. 1954. Buckskins, Bullets, and Business: A History of Buffalo Bill's Wild West. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.; Bridger, Bobby. 2002. Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull: Inventing the Wild West. Austin: University of Texas Press.; Carter, Robert A. 2000. Buffalo Bill Cody: The Man Behind the Legend. New York: John Wiley & Sons.; Cody, William F. 1920. An Autobiography of Buffalo Bill (Colonel W.F. Cody). New York: Cosmopolitan Book.; Cody, William F.  1978. The Life of Hon. William F. Cody: Known as Buffalo Bill: The Famous Hunter, Scout, and Guide. An Autobiography. Foreword by Don Russell. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.; Russell, Don. 1960. The Lives and Legends of Buffalo Bill. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.; Wetmore, Helen Cody. 1899. Last of the Great Scouts: The Life Story of Col. William F. Cody "Buffalo Bill" as Told by His Sister Helen Cody Wetmore. Duluth, MN: Duluth Printing Services.; Yost, Nellie Irene Snyder. 1979. Buffalo Bill, His Family, Friends, Fame, Failures, and Fortunes. Chicago: Sage Books.