Buffalo Bill Cody: Biography & Facts

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will learn about 'Buffalo Bill' Cody. We will learn why he is famous and what his 'Wild West' show was. We will review his career and reflect on his place in American history.

Introduction and Overview

'Buffalo Bill' Cody (1846-1917) was a famous American 'Indian fighter,' buffalo hunter and entertainer, known best for his 'Wild West' circus-like shows. As a young man Cody served in in the Union army during the Civil War. His 'Wild West' show toured the world between 1883-1906 and was a very popular form of entertainment. The show featured celebrities like Annie Oakley and Sioux chief Sitting Bull. 'Buffalo Bill' Cody died in 1917.


Early Life

'Buffalo Bill' Cody was born as William Frederick Cody in 1846 in what is now Le Claire, Iowa. While a child, his family moved to Canada and then to the Kansas Territory. Kansas was a violent place in the 1850s. Because of this, it was often called 'Bleeding Kansas.' In this rugged environment, Cody learned to ride, shoot, and fight at an early age.

At the age of 11, Cody took a job as a messenger for a freight company. Cody killed a Sioux Indian while still a boy, and at the age of 14 ran off to join the Pony Express. During the Civil War, he joined the Union Seventh Kansas Volunteer Cavalry Regiment where he served as a private until the end of the war.

Buffalo Hunter and Scout

Cody married Louisa Frederici in 1866. During this time, Cody contracted with the Kansas Pacific Railroad to supply it with buffalo meat. Supposedly, Cody killed a record number of buffalo, and earned the nickname 'Buffalo Bill' Cody. He quickly developed a reputation for being an expert shot. From 1868-1872, Cody served as a scout of the U.S. Army where he tracked Indian (Native American) movements. In 1872, he became one of only a handful of civilians to earn the Congressional Medal of Honor for demonstrating valor during the Indian Wars.

Showman and Entertainer
wild west

Evolving into a sort of celebrity who embodied the spirit of the American West, 'Buffalo Bill' began dabbling in theater and show business in 1872. That same year, when Grand Duke Alexis Alexandrovich of Russia visited America, 'Buffalo Bill' served as his personal scout during a highly-publicized hunting expedition. 'Buffalo Bill' went on to become a popular entertainer, touring with friends like 'Wild Bill' Hickok and others.

In 1883, 'Buffalo Bill' formed 'Buffalo Bill's Wild West,' a circus-like show featuring daring feats of skill, horse races, staged battle reenactments, and a host of other attractions. His show toured the U.S. and was particularly popular in the East where the American West remained a curiosity.

Performers in 'Buffalo Bill's' shows included Annie Oakley, Calamity Jane, and Sioux chief Sitting Bull. The 'Wild West' show was immensely popular throughout the 1880s and1890s. The show toured Europe a number of times during which 'Buffalo Bill' performed before numerous royals, such as King Edward VII of England, Queen Victoria, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and many others. By the time his shows ended in 1906, 'Buffalo Bill' was an international celebrity and one of the most famous men in America.

sitting bull

Death and Legacy

Buffalo Bill died on January 10, 1917 of kidney failure. He is buried at the top of Lookout Mountain in Golden, Colorado. In his later years, Buffalo Bill became a supporter of women's suffrage and Native American rights. The Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming, has this to say about 'Buffalo Bill's' legacy:

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