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William (Buffalo Bill) Frederick Cody

Born: February 26, 1846
Died: January 10, 1917 Buffalo Bill Cody in 1903 Credit: "Buffalo Bill Cody, full-length portrait, seated, facing left, holding rifle." 1903. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

William Frederick Cody, known as Buffalo Bill, was a buffalo hunter, U.S. army scout, and an Indian fighter.  But he is probably best known as the man who gave the Wild West its name.  He produced a colorful show called Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World, which had an international reputation and helped create a lasting image of the American West.  Buffalo Bill was a major contributor in the creation of the myth of the American West, as seen in Hollywood movies and television

Buffalo Bill in Show Business
William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody was an accomplished Indian scout and buffalo hunter when E.Z.C. Judson, a writer who went by the name of Ned Buntline, met him in the summer of 1869. Judson wrote western stories and what were known as "dime novels" (small paperback books that sold for 10 cents.) He helped create "Buffalo Bill" and made him the hero in a number of his books. These stories made Buffalo Bill famous in the East and when he went to New York for a visit, he saw a play based on his adventures.

After his trip to New York, Buffalo Bill went home to Nebraska but decided to try his hand at show business. Ned Buntline adapted the play and together they produced the show, The Scouts of the Plains. Although some critics thought the show was ridiculous, Buffalo Bill was praised because his acting was based on genuine experience.

The following year Buffalo Bill organized his own troop of players, called the Buffalo Bill Combination. In 1883, he came up with the idea for the Wild West show. It was an outdoor spectacle designed to educate and entertain. When Buffalo Bill's Wild West show came to town, it was a big deal. There would be a parade, like the one in this film, which included cowboys, Indians, soldiers on horseback, and horse-drawn carriages

In 1887, Buffalo Bill's show performed at Madison Square Garden in New York City with 100 Indians, Annie Oakley, trick riders, ropers, and shooters as well as many different wild animals. The show was four hours long and included Indian war dances and an "attack" on a stagecoach. The show even went on tour to England and Europe. It was such a success that Queen Victoria saw it three times. Even after Buffalo Bill died in 1917, the Wild West shows continued.

The Buffalo Hunter
Buffalo Bill was known as the champion buffalo killer of the Great Plains, so who better to take an important visitor on a hunt? When the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia came to visit in 1872, it was arranged that Buffalo Bill would lead the wagon train. Buffalo Bill knew many Indians and he was able to convince a famous Sioux Indian named Spotted Tail and his village to join the hunt.

When Buffalo Bill explained to Spotted Tail about the trip, he apparently said, "Great white man wants a big hunt with the Indians." Buffalo Bill also arranged for the Indians to put on a show for the Duke. The Grand Duke, who was 19, had a great time, especially when he went on a mad ride in a stagecoach behind six wild horses with Buffalo Bill holding the reins. All in all, they went on the most famous buffalo hunt ever held.

Although they didn't kill many buffalo on this hunt, Buffalo Bill killed thousands during his lifetime. He killed 4,280 buffalo in 17 months alone. By 1870, the bison (the scientific name for buffalo) population of the Great Plains had been divided into two sections on either side of the Union Pacific railway line--the northern herd and the southern herd. The southern herd was completely killed by 1875 and the northern herd by 1885. By 1889, only 835 bison were left alive in the U.S. Today, one variety, the woodland bison, is still an endangered species while over 20,000 plains bison thrive in managed herds.

Medal of Honor
In 1872 Cody was awarded a Medal of Honor for "gallantry in action" while serving as a civilian scout for the 3rd Cavalry Regiment. In 1917, the U.S. Army, after Congress revised the standards for award of the medal, removed from the rolls 911 medals previously awarded either to civilians, or for actions that would not warrant a Medal of Honor under the new higher standards. Among those revoked was Cody's.

In 1977 Dr. Mary Edwards Walker's medal was restored, and other reviews began. Cody's medal, along with those given to four other civilian scouts, was re-instated on June 12, 1989.

Buffalo Bill's Wild West Shows
In the 1880s Buffalo Bill started producing a theatrical spectacle called the Wild West show. It was wildly popular and one of the most famous acts in his show included a performer known as Annie Oakley. Her real name was Phoebe Anne Oakley Moses, but she was known as "Little Sure Shot" because she had such great aim. At 30 paces Annie Oakley could fire a gun and hit the edge of a playing card or the end of a cigarette held in the lips of her husband, Frank Butler.

  • What other kinds of acts do you think were in the Wild West show?

A show about the Wild West wouldn't be complete without some Indians, and you can bet that Buffalo Bill had some very talented ones. American Sioux Indian dancers in full war paint and war costumes performed the Sioux Ghost Dance that you can see here. This is the very first time that American Indians appeared before a motion picture camera.

  • What's the one other thing that Buffalo Bill had to have in his show?

Buffalo Bill already had Indians in his Wild West show, so he had to have some cowboys!  The cowboy in this film is Lee Martin.  He's riding a bucking bronco -- an unbroken range horse that tended to throw or buck its rider.  This is just one of the exciting acts in the show. Buffalo Bill also had lots of wild animals in the show, including buffalo, elk, deer, bear, and moose.

  • If you had to ride a wild animal, which one would you choose?

Where Was Buffalo Bill Buried?
Cody died of kidney failure on January 10, 1917, surrounded by family and friends at his sister's house in Denver. Cody was baptized into the Catholic Church the day before his death by Father Christopher Walsh of the Denver Cathedral.

He received a full Masonic funeral. Upon the news of Cody's death, tributes were made by King George V of the United Kingdom, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Imperial Germany, and President Woodrow Wilson. His funeral was in Denver at the Elks Lodge Hall.  The Wyoming governor John B. Kendrick, a friend of Cody's, led the funeral procession.

On June 3, 1917, Cody was buried on Colorado's Lookout Mountain in Golden, west of the city of Denver, on the edge of the Rocky Mountains, overlooking the Great Plains.

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