History and Culture

Of Cattle and Queens: Buffalo Bill Cody

The founder of Cody, Wyoming called Mark Twain a friend, entertained Queen Victoria, and employed Annie Oakley in his Wild West show.

He entertained Queen Victoria. He called Mark Twain a friend. And Annie Oakley worked for him.

But Buffalo Bill Cody, who was immortalized in popular Buffalo Bill dime-novels and whose Wild West shows brought him tremendous fame, came from humble beginnings. His unlikely rise to international fame seemed to prove that even on the rugged frontier the American Dream was possible.

While he was born William Frederick Cody in LeClaire, Iowa, in 1846, his family moved to Kansas when he was a child. He didn’t stay long. By the time he was 11 or 12, he left home to work as a cattle wrangler. In his early teens, he joined the Pony Express and later fought in the Civil War.

But it was his job hunting buffalo to feed the Kansas Pacific Railroad crews that transformed him from Bill Cody to “Buffalo Bill” Cody. In a little more than the year he worked for the railroad, he said he killed more than 4,000 buffalo.

Buffalo Bill Cody c1880
Buffalo Bill Cody c1880Public Domain

While he was a strong shooter, he was an even better showman. In the early 1880s, he launched his Buffalo Bill Wild West Shows showcasing bronco riding and roping with other entertainment. His shows became extremely popular in the United States and Europe, starring real cowboys and cowgirls like Annie Oakley, the legendary sharpshooter. Even Chief Sitting Bull reportedly appeared in one of the shows. When Queen Victoria celebrated her Golden Jubilee in 1887, his Wild West show was invited as part of the entertainment.

Buffalo Bill Cody c1890
Buffalo Bill Cody c1890Public Domain

In 1901 he founded the town of Cody, Wyoming, because of its proximity to Yellowstone and its development potential. He also founded the Cody Enterprise newspaper, which is still in existence today.

While Buffalo Bill is known for his shows, he also was a family man. He was to married Louisa Frederici for 50 years. They had four kids together, three of whom died before him and one whom died a year after him. Buffalo Bill died in 1917 in Denver at his sister’s house and is buried on Lookout Mountain in Golden, Colorado.

Related: The Irma Hotel (Cody named his hotel after his daughter) | Elephant Head Lodge (cabins built by Cody’s niece) | Buffalo Bill Center of the West