The name William Frederick Cody, born this day in 1846 in Scott County, Iowa, may not ring a bell. But chances are you know Cody’s nickname, Buffalo Bill.
Cody left home at age eleven, after his father died, and cut a fearless path across the Western frontier. Cowboy, teamster, fur trapper, gold miner, Pony Express rider, Civil War soldier, cavalry scout, Indian fighter—he did it all. He earned his nickname while hunting buffalo to supply meat for railroad work crews—reportedly killing more than 4,000 buffalo in 18 months. A few years later, when he served as a scout for Army troops fighting Indians, the government awarded him the Congressional Medal of Honor for valor in action.
In 1872 Cody decided to take advantage of his growing fame and began a long career as a showman. His “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” spectacular toured the country with hundreds of cowboys, cowgirls, and Indians – including sure-shot Annie Oakley and Sitting Bull – as well as live buffalo and cattle. The show’s mock shoot-outs and round-ups thrilled audiences. Cody even toured Europe and performed for the queen of England. “Buffalo Bill has come, we have seen, and he has conquered,” a British newspaper reported. By the turn of the twentieth century, Cody was perhaps the most famous American of his day.
Buffalo Bill was, in some ways, a man of contradictions. He was an Indian fighter, but also pushed for Indian rights. He hunted buffalo, but later supported their conservation. He loved the frontier, but in promoting it helped it disappear. “The West of the old times, with its strong characters, its stern battles and its tremendous stretches of loneliness, can never be blotted from my mind,” he wrote. “Nor can it, I hope, be blotted from the memory of the American people.”