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William Frederick Cody

Born: February 26, 1846, Iowa
Died: January 10, 1917, Golden, Colorado

William Frederick CodyWilliam Frederick Cody was born February 26, 1846, in Iowa.  When Kansas Territory was opened up to settlement, the Cody family moved and settled near Leavenworth.  After his father died in 1857, young William took a job with the famous freighting outfit of Russell, Majors, and Waddell.  Later, he joined the Pony Express, making the third longest “emergency” ride in its history.  During the Civil War, Cody served with the Seventh Kansas Volunteer Cavalry.

After the war, he met and married Louisa Frederick in 1866 in St. Louis.  After trying and failing in the hotel business, he and his wife moved to western Kansas in 1867 where William began a lucrative career hunting buffalo for the railroad.  In addition, Cody, his wife, and daughter, settled in the new town of Rome (about a mile north of Fort Hays) where they and a partner, William Rose, opened a store and saloon. However, neither his business nor Rome lasted long and he sent his wife back east while he continued to hunt buffalo and scout for the army. 

It was during this period that he earned the name “Buffalo Bill.”  According to legend, Cody and fellow buffalo hunter William Comstock had a contest to see who could shoot the most buffalo in a day, the winner to be proclaimed the “champion buffalo hunter of the plains” and thus earn the nickname “Buffalo Bill.” Cody himself promoted the story in his 1879 autobiography but there is no evidence such a contest ever took place. Two other stories seem more plausible, however. While grading for the railroad not far from Fort Hays, word of a herd of buffalo nearby caused Cody to give chase on his horse; he was riding bareback. He met a group of officers from the fort who took him for a rube and challenged him to a hunt.  Cody shot 11 buffalo before the officers could shoot one and from that point on they referred to him as “Buffalo Bill.” The other less romantic story is that he earned it while selling buffalo meat on the streets of Hays City. Whether any of these accounts are truthful is unknown but by 1869, if not earlier, he was being called “Buffalo Bill.”

In addition to supplying meat for the railroad, Cody also worked as a scout and courier for the army.  In 1868 he carried a dispatch from Fort Larned to General Philip Sheridan at Fort Hays, then to Fort Dodge, back to Larned, and back to Hays, a perilous trip of 360 miles in less than 60 hours!  He went on to serve with several Indian Wars officers such as General William B. Hazen, General Nelson A. Miles, and General Eugene Carr of the Fifth Cavalry, with whom he remained friends all his life.  General George A. Custer specifically requested Cody to accompany him as a guide on a hunting trip with the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia in 1872.

In 1869 Cody met Edward Zane Carroll Judson, a.k.a. “Ned Buntline” who wrote of Cody in one of his “dime novels.”  It was the first in a string of very successful novels with Buffalo Bill as the hero. Buntline also convinced Cody to appear in a melodrama on stage in Chicago in 1872. By the 1880s, Cody was an accomplished showman with his “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show” that toured the world and made him an international star.  He continued with the show for more than 30 years.  Cody died January 10, 1917, and is buried atop Lookout Mountain, in Golden, Colorado.

Entry: Cody, William Frederick

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: November 2011

Date Modified: April 2013

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.