As the world pivoted from the 19th to the 20th century, few men alive, certainly no American alive, was better known than William Frederick Cody. He was a frontiersman and soldier turned entertainer and entrepreneur who thrilled crowds all over the globe by giving adoring patrons an authentic — well, mostly authentic — taste of the American West.
"Buffalo Bill" and his Wild West show played before rapt throngs of people (more than 3 million in 1893 alone) for more than 20 years, offering the paying public an up-close look at real honest-to-goodness cowboys and Indians. Sharpshooting exhibitions, trick riding and recreations of buffalo hunts (with real buffalo) and stagecoach holdups were all regular parts of the program. The show was so ambitious that it took hundreds of people to stage it. To move the show from one place to another, two trains — totaling 50 or more cars — were required.
The Wild West show — officially, "Buffalo Bill's Wild West" — was so popular that it went international, first touring England for almost a year in 1887. Cody and his band of showmen (and women) spent large chunks of the decade after that playing in front of sold-out venues in several other spots in Europe.
Of course, the show, strictly speaking, wasn't the real thing. It's difficult to shoot a glass ball out of the air with a pistol, hold up a stagecoach with guns blazing, fight with Indians you're paying to be there, or slaughter buffalo with a rifle in front of a crowd of meek city folks and foreigners.
Still, Buffalo Bill sure was the real deal. Well. Mostly.
"I think the key reason why he was so successful is they never billed the show as a circus," says Jeremy Johnston, the historian for the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Buffalo Bill's namesake town of Cody, Wyoming. "It was always billed as an historical exposition, or an historical reenactment, this unusual combination of drama and authenticity.
"For people watching the show, you're watching Buffalo Bill and many other performers who were actually in the American West and actually fought in the Indian Wars. You're seeing these individuals who were there at the events reenacting what they did. It just really had to leave quite the impression."
The Backstory of Buffalo Bill
To help out his struggling family, William Cody (born in 1846 in Iowa) was forced into work before he hit his teens. He became a cattle driver in Kansas. He worked on train routes to the American West. He moved from those jobs into (historians wrestle with how true this is) a short stint as a Pony Express rider. Later, he enlisted as a cavalryman in the last year or so of the Civil War and, after the war, became Chief of Scouts for the Fifth Cavalry, where he took part in several fights in the Indian Wars.
He earned his nickname in 1866, according to the William F. Cody Archive, for his skills at hunting buffalo to feed railroad workers. By his count, he killed more than 4,000 bison on the plains in around 18 months as a buffalo hunter.
All the riding and roping and shooting earned him his bona fides among those in the West. And when he began to embrace a certain persona — wearing his hair long, dressing in buckskin, sporting a floppy sombrero, later fashioning a huge handlebar mustache — his legend grew with it.
In 1869, prolific dime novelist Ned Buntline (dime novels of the time fed the public's insatiable appetite for stories of the Wild West) penned "Buffalo Bill: The King of Border Men," one of literally hundreds of stories that would feature Buffalo Bill in the decades to come. Cody was barely 23. He soon would become a household name.
Here's a passage from that first "novel," recounting a fictional account of "Wild Bill" Hickok (a real-life friend to Cody) talking to Cody's mother:
Only a few years later, Buntline (the pseudonym of Edward Zane Carroll Judson) encouraged Cody to take up stage acting, pushing him into a role he was born to play: himself. And Cody played it to the hilt, touring in plays with Hickok and others when he wasn't scouting or leading hunting parties in the West.
In 1884, he formed "Buffalo Bill's Wild West," a circus-like spectacle that at times featured real-life Lakota Chief Sitting Bull, made a star of sharpshooting Annie Oakley, and generally tried to portray Native Americans and others in a positive light.
"He was a natural showman, really. He took to it, and he did develop," Johnston says. "We have two audio recordings of Buffalo Bill [you can hear them here] and his voice was very deep, resounding. He almost sounds like a Shakespearean actor. You could really tell that this was a guy who really perfected his speaking voice and could really project to a large crowd."
Will the Real Buffalo Bill Please Stand Up?
Historian Louis S. Warren, in his 2005 biography of Cody titled, "Buffalo Bill's America: William Cody and the Wild West Show," found himself where biographers of Cody often are: stuck between truth and fiction, between the real man and the one presented to the adoring public.
"William Cody's methods of promoting his real achievements was to mingle them with colorful fictions," Warren wrote, "making his own life and myth almost (but not quite) indistinguishable to a public that was sometimes awestruck, sometimes skeptical, but almost invariably amused by his artistic pose as the real embodiment of public fantasy."
Cody tried other ventures throughout his life, including mining and ranching. He founded the town of Cody in 1895. Many of his investments failed, biting heavily into his fortune. After "Buffalo Bill's Wild West" went bankrupt, he continued to perform in other shows, until shortly before he died in 1917.
"He got tired of it, being on the road constantly. And of course that didn't help his family life ... it was a tough life," Johnston says. "I really think he was hoping he could strike it rich, sell the show for millions. But, unfortunately, the booms and the busts of the economy got to him."
Though Cody's life was one of the most well-chronicled of the time, some aspects of it (including his supposed stint as a Pony Express rider) are still disputed. Historians also now bat about the propriety of celebrating a man who killed Native Americans, contributed to the near-extinction of the buffalo, and seemed mostly a failure as a husband. (His scandalous divorce proceedings in 1904 included a charge that his long-suffering and oft-abandoned wife poisoned him.)
However he's viewed now, though, this is indisputable: For millions of people at the turn of the 20th century, Buffalo Bill Cody was the living, breathing personification of America's Wild West.