William Frederick Cody
William Frederick Cody survived a childhood of tragedy and danger to become a heroic scout and guide for the Army during the Indian Wars, a great showman, and an international spokesman for all the peoples of the American West.
Buffalo Bill Cody's family ancestors were Huguenots (French Protestants) who left France in the 1680's to escape religious persecution and had settled in Massachusetts by 1698. Generation after generation they continued moving westward. Bill's father, Isaac, was born in Ontario, Canada, in 1811 and moved with his parents to Ohio in 1818. Isaac continued west as a surveyor, an Indian trader, and finally as a developer of farms and townsites in the Iowa and Kansas territories. Twice a widower, Isaac married Pennsylvania-born Mary Laycock in Cincinnati in 1840.
- [Editor's note: Our family tree makes it clear that the family settled in Jersey after leaving France, at the latest by 1637. At least three generations of Buffalo Bill's ancestors were born in Jersey, but the family can probably be traced back to the 15th century in the island. They were certainly not Huguenot refugees.]
William Frederick Cody, called Will or Willie by his family, was born on February 26, 1846, in a log cabin west of the Mississippi River in Scott County, Iowa Territory. He was Isaac's fourth child and the second son. Four more children, three daughters and a son, were born to Isaac and Mary in the next ten years.
Will and his family lived in and around Leclaire, Iowa, along the Mississippi until he was seven, then they began to move west. Isaac was determined to establish a Homestead in Kansas as soon as the territory was open to settlement. Isaac took Will along in May, 1854, as he surveyed land for a farm northwest of Ft. Leavenworth. By the end of June Isaac had built a log home for his family in the Salt Creek Valley and had planted a hay crop. The Cody farm was in an area which would soon become a center for pro-slavery settlers from Missouri and the upper South.
The rivalry between "free-soil" states (where the state constitutions prohibited slavery) and "slave" or pro-slavery states grew fierce as the nation expanded westward. In the Missouri Compromise of 1820, Congress had attempted to balance the number of free and slave states and to ban slavery from most of the land obtained in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Congress repealed it in 1854 in the Kansas-Nebraska Act which allowed voters in the territories to decide the issue in their new state constitutions. Because Kansas bordered Missouri, a slave state, it became a battleground for the competing interests. Voter fraud was rampant. People representing both sides, many staying only long enough to cast a vote, streamed into Kansas. Towns such as Lawrence and Topeka attracted mostly free-soilers. Others such as Leavenworth and Lecompton became centers of pro-slavery sentiment. Threats and bullying soon turned into brutality. Violence grew as both sides met in rival constitutional conventions and legislatures (pro-slavers at Lecompton; free-soilers at Topeka). In May, 1856, a pro-slave gang murdered five men at Lawrence. Within days, a gang led by abolitionist John Brown hacked to death four men and a boy at Potawatomi. Gang vengeance escalated into guerrilla warfare as pro-slavery Bushwhackers and free-soil Jayhawkers terrorized and looted farms and villages, killing 200 people by year's end. The so-called "Border War" continued through the Civil War (1861-1865) and reached its bloody pinnacle in 1863 when Confederate guerrilla leader William Quantrill and 450 Bushwhackers sacked Lawrence, burning the town and killing 150 of its citizens.
In September, 1854, at a crossroads not far from his home, Will's father was stabbed through one lung by a pro-slavery fanatic while making a speech in the free-soil cause. Isaac never fully regained his health but refused to be frightened away. He continued to recruit free-soil immigrants, to help develop a new community (Grasshopper Falls, about 30 miles southwest of their Salt Creek Valley home), to participate in the Topeka Legislature, and to hide from Bushwhackers. He died in 1857 after suffering a chill while assisting an encampment of settlers from Ohio and New England.
A boy's life
Willie was just seven when his older brother, Samuel, was killed in a horse-riding accident. It took little urging then for Mary Cody in her grief to agree to leave Iowa. Will was eight years old when his family moved to Kansas, but he was tall and athletic for his age. He accompanied his father on visits to nearby Kickapoo and other Indian villages where he acquired his first horse. Though Mary was afraid for him, Will was taught to train and ride his horse by an older cousin who had been a circus performer. Soon after moving into their log home the Cody's established a school for their own family and neighbor children, including two Kickapoo Indian boys who became Will's playmates and friends. Pro-slavery thugs chased the teacher away, forcing the school to close, and formal schooling for the Cody children was sporadic thereafter. Will and his sister Julia (three years his senior) took care of most of the farm chores--plowing, hauling water, tending the cows, and caring for the younger children. While their father lived, they were often harassed and sometimes threatened by pro-slavery ruffians. There was time for fun, though. Will liked to shoot and trap small game, and he learned to race his horse at neighborhood gatherings such as wedding celebrations and harvest fairs. Isaac Cody had helped organize the first 4th of July barbecue in the Salt Creek Valley in 1854, a day of food and games attended not only by white neighbors but also by Kickapoo and Delaware people from the nearby Indian reservations.
Hardship and responsibility
Death and danger were ever-present in Will's boyhood. His mother never ceased grieving for his brother Sam, who died in 1853. Within four years, Isaac, too, was dead. Only eleven years old, Will took jobs with a freighting company in Leavenworth, herding oxen, carrying messages, and helping to drive big freight wagons across the plains to the Nebraska, Colorado, and Wyoming Territories. He returned from one such expedition in 1858 to find that his half-sister, Martha, had died at age 23. As Mary Cody grew weaker, she relied ever more on Julia to take care of the household and on Will to be the family breadwinner. Besides bullwhacking (using a long whip to drive the oxen that pulled the freight wagons), Will earned money by recovering stray and stolen horses for the Army at Ft. Leavenworth, by trapping beaver, by hunting, and, for a few months, by riding for the Pony Express. Mary Cody died in 1863. Julia, now married, took charge of the family farm, and Will joined the Army in 1864. A short time later, little brother Charles died at age 9. Will and Julia had shouldered a heavy burden of responsibility. They would never fear death or suffering. Their own sorrows had instilled in them a sympathy for the distress of others, and they had learned to be always ready to give or to accept a helping hand. From their mother they imbibed a deep and unshakable faith, and they learned from her to remain cool and unswerving in the face of threats. And she taught them by example to be accepting and forgiving even of those whose beliefs or passions had made them behave as enemies.
The Civil War was a formative event for a whole generation of Americans. From April 1861 to April 1865 more than 600,000 soldiers from the North and South died in the fight to preserve the Union and abolish slavery. Will had already served as guide to a volunteer cavalry regiment, and he participated in several horse-stealing raids with Jayhawkers until his mother shamed him into quitting. Just before his 18th birthday in 1864 he enlisted as a "veteran recruit" in the 7th Kansas Cavalry and fought to the end of the war as a private in the Union Army.
Life on the Plains
In 1866 Will married Louisa Frederici in St. Louis. They returned to Kansas to start a family and establish a livelihood. After driving a stagecoach, attempting to manage a roadside inn, hunting buffalo, and plunging briefly into townbuilding near Ft. Hays, Will found his calling as a scout and guide for the Army in the West. He and Louisa made their home on a succession of military posts in Kansas and Nebraska until Will embarked on a successful theater career in 1873. Four children were born to them by 1883, three girls and a boy.
Many frontiersmen were influenced by the popular stories of chivalry and tales of knights on horseback. They also admired the heroic and individualistic style of warfare waged by the Indian warriors of the Plains. They came to prize their nicknames -- Wild Bill, Medicine Bill, Texas Jack, California Joe -- as if they were titles of nobility, or names of honor that had been awarded for their deeds. Will was not only a superb horseman, he became famed as a marksman from horseback. In 1867 he was given a contract to supply buffalo meat to the hungry workers building the Kansas-Pacific Railroad. He was so successful at finding herds, and then galloping into them to bring down bison one by one with his single-shot Springfield rifle, that the railroad workers made up a jingle about him: "Buffalo Bill, Buffalo Bill,/Never missed and never will,/Always aims and shoots to kill,/And the company pays his buffalo bill." From then on, to the press and public, he was "Buffalo Bill" Cody.
Scout and Guide
Scouts were the eyes and ears of the Army in the West. Their jobs included guiding soldiers, following trails, carrying messages, locating water and forage, and, of course, finding and fighting their Indian opponents. They were civilian frontiersmen, usually hired for a specific campaign. Buffalo Bill was made a scout for the 5th U.S. Cavalry by Gen. Philip Sheridan in 1868 and was employed continuously for four years, more than any other scout. His commanding officers often singled him out for praise for his skill, his endurance, his intelligence, and his coolness under fire. They also (surprisingly to those who think of him only as a showman) commented on his modesty. In 1872 he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his gallantry in a battle with a war party of Sioux in Nebraska.
The Indian Wars
American soldiers and militia were at war continually with Indians from colonial times to the end of the 19th century. Since Americans felt that Indian people must surrender or sell land that was, to their way of seeing, "unpopulated" and "underutilized," conflict was inevitable. Treaties were misunderstood by both sides. In the Great West alone there were 27 or more distinct tribes speaking as many languages. Agreements with a tribe did not necessarily extend even to all factions of the same tribe, much less to other tribes in the West. When the U.S. government found itself unable or unwilling to enforce limitations on settlement or to prevent incursions on treaty lands by its own citizens, it often tried to renegotiate treaties. Failing that, Americans expected the military to deal with the consequences. Indian resistance to American expansion was hampered by intertribal warfare and shifting alliances among the many different Indian nations. For instance, when the powerful Sioux drove the Crow from the Black Hills of Dakota and the Pawnee from their Nebraska homelands, many Pawnee and Crow people worked with the Army in fighting the Sioux and their Northern Arapaho and Cheyenne allies. The wars on the Plains may be said to have begun in 1854 when an inexperienced and arrogant young officer, 2nd. Lt. John Grattan, ordered his soldiers to fire at a group of Sioux warriors near Ft. Laramie, Wyoming Territory. He and his 30 men were all killed. The Plains conflict continued off and on for almost four decades. The Civil War diverted military attention from the far West, and as late as 1868 there were still only 2600 regular army soldiers assigned to posts on the Great Plains. Battles and skirmishes resulted as often as not in stalemates or Indian victories, most notably in the defeat of Custer and 7th Cavalry at the Little Bighorn, Montana, in 1876. The end of the Indian Wars came with the tragedy at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1890 when nervous and undisciplined 7th Cavalry troopers killed about 300 Sioux people in what even some military observers called a massacre.
Buffalo Bill and the Indians
A reporter once asked Buffalo Bill how to solve the "Indian problem." The answer was simple, Cody replied: "Never make a promise you don't intend to keep." His relationship with Indian people, as with all people, was founded on trust which in turn was founded on mutual respect. America had belonged to the Indians, he said, "And the White Man took it away from them. It was natural that they should resist those whom they regarded as usurpers." Once victorious, Cody argued, the prosperous American nations should keep faith with the Indian people it had confined to reservations and help them become prosperous as well. Like government agents and humanitarian reformers, Buffalo Bill believed that Indian people would eventually be fully assimilated into American life. Unlike most of his contemporaries, however, Cody felt strongly that Indians could not be forced to change. They should be allowed to adapt to new occupations and social arrangements in their own time and in their own ways. In his Wild West show, Buffalo Bill encouraged the Indian performers to preserve their language and customs. "The Indian makes a good citizen, a good farmer, a good soldier. He is a real American," he said. In the conquest and settlement of the West, Buffalo Bill had helped make war on the Indian. In peace he insisted on their rights as Americans and as members of the human family.
The Wild West
In 1872 in New York, Buffalo Bill saw himself portrayed on stage by an actor in a "Border Drama," the theatrical equivalent in those days of modern television westerns. Within a year he had been persuaded to play himself on stage. For the next decade Buffalo Bill spent part of each year on stage, playing himself, and rest of the year in the West, being himself. He finally decided to put what he saw as the genuine people and stories of the West into an arena exhibition and to take it to eastern audiences, thus was Buffalo Bill's Wild West born in 1883. For thirty years it toured North America and Europe with Indians, cowboys, cowgirls, gauchos and vaqueros, mountain men, soldiers, stagecoaches, and buffalo. As many as 600 people and an equal number of animals traveled with the show in some years. All of these elements were assembled into a narrative of the "winning of the West." The show's conclusion was usually a coming together of all performers, celebrating the West as a land of opportunity for people of all races and nationalities. In fact, one reporter once wrote of the "Babel of tongues" he heard spoken in the Wild West camp. Buffalo Bill insisted that all be treated fairly, as equals. Women received pay equal to the men. Indians fared as well as cowboys. All dined together three times a day in giant mess tents. The most famous people who starred in the Wild West, besides Buffalo Bill himself, were Sitting Bull, who toured with the show in 1885; Buck Taylor, the first "King of the Cowboys;" and Annie Oakley, who was a pioneer for women both in sports competition and in entertainment. The most famous acts -- Pony Express, Indian dances and battles, attack on the stagecoach, train hold-up, covered wagon marked "Cody or bust" - became the basis for western movies and an inspiration to artists such as Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell.
What makes a hero?
Buffalo Bill Cody died at the home of his sister May in Denver, Colorado, on January 10, 1917. Newspaper headlines proclaimed "the end of an era." Telegrams poured in from President Woodrow Wilson and other political leaders, from generals, from Indian chiefs, from educators, from people in all walks of life. It was said that he had been the most famous American in the world. But fame is not necessarily the mark or the reward of a hero. Europeans called Buffalo Bill a "nature's nobleman." That is, he was born in the wilderness, yet carried himself as a gentleman. He spoke with eloquence and dealt with all classes and kinds of people with grace and generosity. But "gentleman," as his boyhood experiences taught him, was a matter of behavior, not status. He had learned to treat everyone he met with dignity and respect, to listen to them with sympathy, and to put the people around him at ease. Annie Oakley wrote that Buffalo Bill was "the simplest of men," as comfortable with cowboys as with kings. She said that there was never "a scintilla of difference" from the way he welcomed beggars to the way he welcomed royalty. So, it can be said that it was the way he used his fame and influence that made him a hero. He recognized his responsibility as a role model and tried to live up to public expectations, usually but not always with success. He spoke up for the rights of women. He dealt with his Indian friends and employees -- many of whom had been enemies during the Indian Wars -- as equals, and he made sure that they were treated fairly in the Wild West show. He faced up to problems where he found them, and he was never afraid to seek help when he needed it. In his Wild West show, he refused to allow the strong to take advantage of the weak, and if he learned about bullying, he turned the tables on the bullies. Through his example, the vast and varied cast came to think of themselves as a family.
Finally, the tragedies and dangers of his youth convinced him of the futility of violence and retribution. He believed that problems could be solved through patience and hard work, but only if the problems were acknowledged and confronted. "I have knocked the impossible stiff and cold on more than one occasion," he wrote to his sister Julia, "I never lost heart."