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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Buffalo Bill Cody Born, February 26, 1846

Today in 1846, William Frederick Cody was born in Scott County, Iowa. Known to the world as Buffalo Bill, Cody helped define the image of the Old West with his work as a showman and became one of the best-known celebrities of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Cody was just 11 when the death of his father and his family's subsequent financial difficulties forced him to take a job as a messenger for a freight company. He would ride back and forth along the length of wagon trains and deliver messages from group to another. It was his first chance to see the open prairie. He soon found himself acting as a scout for a contingent of the US Army as it made its way to Utah to put down a non-existant rebellion by Mormons in Salt Lake City. He was barely a teenager.

At the ripe old age of 14, Cody took the decision to seek his fortune as a prospector. On his way west, however, he met a representative of the Pony Express. He went to work for the service, first as a builder of way stations and then as a rider. This job was cut short by news of his mother's grave health. He hurried home to find his mother recovering. He then tried to enlist in the Army, but was turned away for being too young.

Cody's mother's health failed again, and she died in 1863. With the Civil War raging and his age now 17, Cody enlisted with the 7th Kansas Cavalry Regiment. He fought on the Union side with this unit for the rest of the war. While stationed in St. Louis, he met Louisa Frederici, the woman who would become his wife. The two were married in March, 1866. They would have four children, but two of them died while still very young. Bill and Louisa's marriage was full of trials and tribulations, but the two remained together for the rest of the Bill's life.

Cody became a civilian scout for the US Army for the next several years. It was during this time he earned his nickname "Buffalo Bill" for his ability to supply bison meat for the Kansas Pacific Railroad. Incredibly, Cody was not the first person to have this nickname. That honor goes to William Averill Comstock, chief of scouts and an interpreter at Fort Wallace, Kansas. The two eventually squared off in Monument, Kansas to see who was the better hunter. In the end Cody killed 69 bison while Comstock bagged 46. The prize was $500 and the exclusive use of the nickname "Buffalo Bill".

Cody's time with the Army saw many skirmishes with Native Americans, one of which resulted in his being awarded the Medal of Honor for "gallantry in action" in 1872. His time in the national spotlight began soon thereafter when Ned Buntline, the creator of the dime novel, wrote a dramatized biography of Cody, who was not yet 30.

His growing reputation convinced Cody that show business was in his future. In 1873, he formed a touring company called the Buffalo Bill Combination which recreated scenes from Cody's adventures. His group remained together ten years and for one season included Wild Bill Hickok, a war hero, army scout, lawman and legendary gunfighter.

In 1883, Cody formed the company that would make his name familiar all over the world: Buffalo Bill's Wild West. Circuses were all the rage at this time, and Cody's show was similar in many ways. But whereas circuses offered curiosities, Cody offered recreations of the Wild West that many people never got to experience in real life. With as many as 1200 performers at a time, the show would always begin with a horse parade full of US calvary men, Native Americans, Arabs, Mongols, Cossacks and Turks, all in full uniform or costume. Then would come races, shooting competitions featuring the likes of Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane, and reenactments of battles between the US Army and Native American tribes. The shows most often ended with a recreation of Custer's Last Stand with Cody playing General Custer.

Buffalo Bill's Wild West toured for 20 years, touring Europe and performing in front of Queen Victoria and Pope Leo XIII. He was not allowed to be a part of the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, so he instead set up shop right outside the fair's gates. Most visitors to the fair assumed the show was part of the fair, especially since the Native Americans he employed brought their families on tour and lived just as they had in the west in plain sight of attendees.

In 1895, Cody helped found the town of Cody, Wyoming. Today, it is a city of 8,900 people. As the 20th century dawned, Cody was one of the most famous people in the world, but the west that he loved so much was no longer the Wild West of his show. Native American tribes had been forced onto reservations, train tracks crisscrossed the countryside and ranchers were fencing in once open prairie. Buffalo Bill's Wild West came to an end in 1903, after which Cody used his continuing fame to speak out on causes he supported, such as Native American rights and the need for conservation of natural resources.

Bill Cody died on January 10, 1917 at his sister's house in Denver, Colorado. Many have said that he was destitute when he died; while this is not true, most of his enormous fortune was gone. He is today buried on Lookout Mountain near Golden, Colorado, from which there is a beautiful view of the Great Plains.

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