Buffalo Bill Cody enjoys a gondola ride in Venice with a Native American entourage in 1889. (Photo compliments of the Colorado Historical Society. Used by permission.)

William Frederick Cody was a born athlete. From his booming arrival in this world in 1846 to his quiet departure in 1917 he enjoyed success as a army scout, a Pony Express rider, a trapper, an Indian fighter and a buffalo hunter. None of these frontier occupations was mastered by sitting around on the couch watching American Idle.

We’re talking about the ultimate jock here, a man that’s reputedly buried in two places at once: Lookout Mountain, Colorado and Cody, Wyoming. Neither Babe Ruth or even Jim Thorpe can claim that on their resumes or rosters of honors bestowed by adoring fans.

A descendent of Milesius, King of Spain, Will’s ancestors founded the first dynasty in Christian Ireland. In 1747 they moved to the New World, working their way West. Pioneer stock embracing the expansion. Later he would rub elbows with legendary plainsmen, Indian chiefs and the red, white and blue-clad hatchet men of Manifest Destiny.

But was Cody only a curly-haired P.T. Barnum of the Plains or actually a man who walked the walk?

As a child in Iowa he stared down Pawnees, saved a stunned little girl from a charging buffalo and held status as a genuine hero within his family. He also enjoyed scalping his sister’s dolls but that never made the papers.

Buffalo Bill, Will as his siblings fondly called him, was clearly the product of the frontier. His abolitionist father spoke his mind about a Free Soil Kansas while turning a deaf ear to the war on the indigenous tribes all around him. The constant threat of attack by angry Indians in later homes in Kansas made Will grow up fast and hard. It demanded quick thinking and physical strengths beyond his age.

The attention of his family and peers turned the young boy into a local celebrity from the beginning. It also taught him about the power of publicity. In The Last of the Great Scouts his sister, Helen Cody Wetman, recalls her brother’s early stabs at showmanship where younger siblings played the part of trappers, settlers and Indians.

“He staged ferocious battles and choreographed hold-ups all on wooden horses and an expanded imagination,” she says.

These performances were only the beginning of a later career on stage. First he would distinguish himself as an able Indian fighter, claiming his first scalp at the age of 12. Later he worked as a scout for the army, his plainsman skills gaining him the notice of veteran military men. His prowess as a buffalo hunter for the Kansas-Pacific Railroad led him to a tentative position (at age 16) with the newly emerging Pony Express. That’s when the papers picked up on the new mode of communication. General Phil Sheridan’s praise of the young rider’s exploits, a dangerous journey during an Indian uprising, was reported in the papers back east:

“In all,” says the general, “Cody rode three hundred and fifty miles in less than sixty hours, and such an exhibition of endurance and courage was more than enough to convince me that his services would be extremely valuable in the campaign; so I retained him at Fort Hayes until the battalion of the Fifth Cavalry arrived, and than made him chief scout for that regiment.”

Then there was the matter of becoming the legendary Buffalo Bill.

After failures in the real estate business and as a store keeper Will turned back to his athletic abilities to make a living. He signed on with the railroad as a buffalo hunter. His contract called for twelve buffalo per day with his pay set at $500 per month, good money for the time. After a particularly successful kill, where he delivered eleven buffalo in twelve shots without the aid of saddle, bridal or reins, the name Buffalo Bill  was bestowed by a Captain Graham, a cavalry officer from Fort Dodge.

However the title was contested. Friends of Billy Comstock, chief of scouts at Fort Wallace, said their boy was Cody’s superior as a buffalo hunter. A match was arranged near Sheridan, Kansas. Before the day was over the slaughter ended with the tally in favor of Cody 69-48. Comstock’s friends relented and Cody became the champion.

Newspapers all of the country followed Cody’s accomplishments in the field. After several campaigns against the Kiowa, Comanche, Southern Ute and Arapaho his image as Indian fighter and plainsman without equal was cemented into frontier lore. Even former adversaries like the Pawnees granted Will the respect of a great warrior, Pa-Has-Ka, the Long-Haired Chief. He was becoming a super star, by today’s standards and wealth followed suit.

When Russian Grand Duke Alexis visited the American West in 1872 he had already heard of Cody and was anxious to meet him. After a hair-raising wagon ride the duke is said to have exclaimed: “I would not have missed it for a large sum of money; but rather than repeat it, I would return to Russia via Alaska, swim the Bering Straight, and finish my journey on one of your government mules.”

While a member of this royal entourage, which included George Custer, that Cody persuaded Spotted Tail, a Sioux chief, to perform for the Duke.

According to Helen Cody Wetman’s recollections: “Spotted Tail was true to his promise. He and his hundred braves were on hand, shining in the full glory of war paint and feathers, and the war dance they performed was of extraordinary interest to the Grand Duke and his friends. The outlandish contortions and grimaces of the Indians, their leaps and crouchings, their fiendish yells and whoops, made a barbaric jangle of picture and sound not soon to be forgotten. To the European visitors the scene was picturesque rather than ghastly, but it was not a pleasing  spectacle to the old Indian fighters looking on. There were too many suggestions of bloodshed and massacre in the past, and of bloodshed and massacre yet to come.”  

His relationship with royalty precipitated a visit back east where Cody was well received by a population hungry for heroes. One writer, Ned Buntline, even went so far as to pen a play about frontier life with Cody as the star. A novel was to follow. Buntline and Cody became the nucleus for what would later become The Wild West Show. A few months of living far beyond his means in New York caused Cody to first agree, along with Bill Comstock and fabled scout Texas Jack, to portray the West, on stage. After a short theatrical season he was relieved to be called back into the army in 1876.

Despite a treaty with the Sioux gold seekers were swarming into the Black Hills. Soon George Armstrong Custer would be defeated by Sitting Bull at the Little Bighorn River and reprisals would follow. During one battle Cody was challenged to a fight by a Sioux chief named Yellow Hand. Cody won and the word spread of his further prowess.

People in the Eastern States were quite interested in the events of the war and Cody conceived the idea of putting the drama on stage. He returned to New York, hired a troupe, had a play written and opened his season. He even included several Sioux warriors from the Red Cloud Reservation in his caste. In his first literary attempt he admittedly was prone to exaggeration. The raconteur wrote to his publisher:

“I am sorry to have to lie so outrageously in this yarn. My hero has killed more Indians on one war trail than I have killed all my life.”

Success was almost immediate. Audiences, desperate for tales of the West, mobbed the theaters. From Rochester to Leavenworth his theatrics were favorably received although he felt like a fish out of water. According to his sister:

“The feeble pretensions to a stern reality, and the mock dangers exploited, could not but seem trivial to one who had lived the very scenes depicted. Will told me that if I would forgive him such foolishness he would quit forever when the season was over.”

But the show had to go on. Mixing his newfound success in the theater with a continuing military career Cody terminated his acting career in favor of hosting Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, which was now touring to sellouts all over the continent.

His earliest accomplices included Johnny Baker who thrilled crowds with upside-down marksmanship, Calamity Jane, who later fictionalized her own life in dime store novels, even the great chief Sitting Bull was part of the act, and, of course, the famous Annie Oakley, the Peerless Lady Wing-Shot.

Annie Oakley was the big draw. If she wasn’t shooting the ashes off her husband’s cigar she was perfecting her patented mirror shot. Despite run-ins, befitting large egos, Oakley and Cody remained friends and fellow thespians for many years. Others made famous by Cody’s showmanship included his “good angel” Wild Nell “The Amazon of the West” and Pawnee Bill, who would go on to establish his own wild west show, when Cody folded up his tents for good in 1916.

Soon the show included Cossacks, Arabs and French chasseurs along with soldiers and Indians. In 1887 the entire troupe went to Europe to perform for the Crown Heads. Included in the tour were Paris, Madrid, Venice, Florence, Mannheim and the Vatican, where the effort even received a Papal blessing from Pope Leo. Everywhere Cody was received as a celebrity and the reporters continued their feeding frenzy.

Perhaps the high point came when principles met Queen Victoria and presented her with frontier paraphernalia befitting such royalty. History poorly records the exchange of high priced relics soon to be sold at the shows. Custer’s field glasses, a bridal used by the Pony Express, Sitting Bull’s tennis shoes. The possibilities are endless as fame was on a dead run.

Queen Victoria was especially taken with Annie Oakley although the female shootist expressed embarrassment when confronted with the likelihood of kissing the queen’s hand. In addition to presenting the most extravagant display of “Indians” since Columbus returned to the court of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1494, Cody too allowed these same Native Americans to observe the grandeur of Europe.

After further acclaim at the Chicago World’s Fair Cody, like a lot of people who have made it, moved to Colorado where he lived until his death in 1917. His Wild West Show continued to thrill crowds hungry for heroes. Imagine the scene if he would have had television at his disposal. Imagine a parrot-brained TV sports broadcaster giving you the play-by-play, the statistics when Cody hit a three-pointer, intercepted a pass or marched to the plate. Despite what now appear as unenlightened engagements Cody’s charmed life and accomplishments cannot be denied. As we have already pointed out…he has two graves!

His seventy years spanned, if you are on the side of the victors, the winning of the West, and blazed a path that spectator sports would later follow. William F. Cody, the first professional athlete to strike it rich.

– Uncle Pahgre 

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