William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody (1846–1917) was neither born in Colorado nor lived in the state. In death, however, he became one of its most famous residents. Cody’s first experience in Colorado came in 1859, when he was a thirteen-year-old participant in the Colorado Gold Rush. Like many other gold seekers, he left Colorado disappointed. He visited many times after that, returning in 1917 to die at his sister’s home in Denver. Just before his death, Cody asked to be buried on Lookout Mountain, above Golden, overlooking the Great Plains. Today, the Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave is a destination for thousands of people from all over the world, who come to pay their respects to one of the nation’s most famous showmen.
William Cody was born near Davenport, Iowa, on February 26, 1846. When he was eight, his father, Isaac, and mother, Mary, moved the family to Kansas Territory. There, young Bill saw his first wagon train and met his first American Indian. Shortly after their arrival, Isaac was attacked while speaking out against allowing slavery in Kansas. His wounds left him weakened, and he died of a fever several years later. At the age of eleven, Bill became the man of the house.
Bill earned money for the family herding cattle, and took his first trip across the Great Plains as a driver on a wagon train. Later, he sought his fortune in the goldfields of Colorado and rode for the Pony Express. He joined the Seventh Kansas Volunteer Cavalry in 1864 and served in the Civil War for a year before it ended. Following the Civil War, Bill earned the nickname of “Buffalo Bill” as a hunter for the Kansas Pacific Railroad and the US Army.
Buffalo Bill scouted for the US Army for nearly six years. He took part in several significant battles during the Indian Wars. In 1868 he was stationed at Fort Lyon in Colorado, where he tracked down horse thieves. In 1869 he fought Cheyenne Dog Soldiers at Summit Springs, near present-day Sterling. Later, in 1872, he was awarded the Medal of Honor by Congress for actions in a battle against Indians in western Nebraska.
Show Business Career
By the time he received the Medal of Honor, Cody’s reputation had spread in the newspapers. A meeting with writer Ned Buntline in 1869 made Cody the focus of a dime novel titled Buffalo Bill: The King of the Border Men, which greatly increased his reputation. In 1872 Buntline recruited Cody to join him and another scout, Texas Jack Omohundro, in a play titled Scouts of the Prairie. The successful play launched Buffalo Bill’s show business career.
Cody traveled the United States for over a decade, appearing onstage in dramatic presentations of life in the West. During this time, he performed in Denver, Boulder, Colorado Springs, Pueblo, and Georgetown and at the Central City Opera House. He found, however, that the stage did not offer enough space to effectively tell the stories of the American West.
In 1883 Cody had an idea. He would create an outdoor show about the American frontier, drawing upon his experiences and contacts in the West. He recruited cowboys and cowgirls, Mexican vaqueros, mountain men, buffalo soldiers, and his former foes from the Indian Wars, now living on reservations, to participate. He arranged for friends like A. H. Patterson of Fort Collins to provide elk, buffalo, burros, and even bears for the show.
The show, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, became an American success story. People were eager to see the person they had read about in newspapers and dime novels. In 1885 a petite young woman named Annie Oakley joined the show, wowing crowds by outshooting everyone. Her shooting attracted Lakota chief Sitting Bull to the show for four months that year. Oakley was with the show for the next fifteen years, second only to Buffalo Bill in popularity.
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West gained worldwide prominence in 1887, when it was invited to be the main American contribution to Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee celebration in London. It was the hit of the celebration, visited by nobility, commoners, and Queen Victoria herself. The show was even credited with improving British and American relations. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West followed this British appearance with a four-year tour of Europe.
During the tour of Europe, Cody met the celebrities of his day—from prime ministers and kings to artists and writers. He even became friends with Thomas Edison. When he returned to the United States, he was invited to take part in presidential inaugurations and society functions. He still preferred, however, to stay on the show grounds with the Indians, cowboys, and frontiersmen he knew best.
By 1893, the show had grown to include more than 650 people, including performers and support personnel. A popular addition to the program was an exhibition of horsemanship from around the world. That year, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World played outside the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. It occupied fifteen acres, had a grandstand that housed 18,000, and played to record crowds.
A Vision for the Future
Over the thirty years that Buffalo Bill’s Wild West toured the United States and Europe, Cody used his celebrity status to speak out on issues ranging from environmental preservation to equal rights. He was not just a showman; he was a visionary.
Cody had encountered the Lakota as enemies during the Indian Wars but shared their mutual respect. He treated his former foes with dignity, giving them an opportunity to both represent and preserve their culture in his show. He advocated for their rights, arranged for them to have audiences with American presidents, and defended their culture at a time when many were trying to destroy it.
Cody also spoke out for women’s rights. He was a supporter of women’s suffrage and went even further, commenting in 1898, “If a woman can do the same work that a man can do and do it just as well she should have the same pay.”
Cody’s vision for the future included development of the West. While he supported the preservation of places like Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, he also advocated settlement, particularly in the Bighorn Basin of Wyoming. There, he helped found the town of Cody, supported large-scale irrigation projects, and created resorts along the route to Yellowstone National Park.
Before he became Buffalo Bill and just after the Civil War, Bill Cody met and married Louisa Frederici in St. Louis. Over the years they had four children: Kit (who died of scarlet fever at age five), Orra, Arta, and Irma. Show business kept Cody on the road most of the year, which made it difficult to maintain a family life.
After living briefly in Rochester, New York, the Cody family found a permanent home in North Platte, Nebraska, in 1878. Louisa ran the household while Bill ran around the country. But the constant travel and pressures of celebrity put a strain on their relationship, and he pressed for a divorce in 1904. The divorce was denied, and after several years of separation, the Codys reconciled and became close in their later years.
End of the Wild West
In 1909 Cody turned sixty-three. He had worked constantly since age eleven and was ready to retire. That year he combined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West with Pawnee Bill’s Wild West. “Pawnee Bill,” whose real name was Gordon William Lillie, had been one of Cody’s first employees in the show before moving on to form his own Wild West company. Cody announced his retirement from show business in 1910 and went on a two-year farewell tour.
The popularity of Wild West shows had declined by 1910, and Cody’s investments in the Bighorn Basin weren’t paying off. Moreover, some mines he had purchased in Arizona were also doing poorly. He realized he did not have enough money to retire. This lack of funds also ended Buffalo Bill’s Wild West.
Colorado was a frequent destination for Cody. Both show business and other business, including visiting his sister, May, in the north part of Denver, regularly took him to that city. In 1913 he visited as a special guest of the National Western Stock Show. While in town, he arranged a loan from Harry Tammen, one of the owners of The Denver Post. When Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Pawnee Bill’s Great Far East arrived in Denver that July, he was several weeks behind on repayment of the debt. Tammen had the show seized and sold off at Denver’s Overland Park. Cody was forced to perform in Tammen’s Sells–Floto Circus for two seasons. He had one more season of show business after leaving the circus, appearing with the 101 Ranch Wild West show.
In early January 1917, a seriously ill Cody traveled to Glenwood Springs to take the waters and visit the doctor. There he was told he had less than two weeks to live. He traveled to Denver to be with his sister, May. William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody died on January 10, 1917, surrounded by his family. He was seventy years old.
On January 14, Buffalo Bill’s casket was pulled on a caisson through the streets of Denver to the Colorado State Capitol Building. His body lay in state while more than 25,000 mourners filed past. After the funeral at the Denver Elks Lodge No. 17, Cody’s body was taken to Olinger’s Mortuary in northwest Denver. It stayed there until June 3, when he was buried on Lookout Mountain. The burial was a major event, with more than 20,000 in attendance, passing by an open casket to see the old scout one more time before he was put in the ground.
His immediate family members insisted that, on his death bed, Cody had asked to be buried in Lookout Mountain Park. People in Cody, Wyoming—the town he helped found—disagreed, saying that he should be buried on Cedar Mountain, near their community. This began a controversy over his burial that continues today.
Four years after the burial, Johnny Baker, a former participant in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, opened the Buffalo Bill Memorial Museum near the grave. Baker first met Cody as a boy and had grown close to the family over the years. Both Buffalo Bill and Louisa referred to Baker as their foster son. He filled his museum with artifacts from Cody’s life and his Wild West show. After Baker’s death, the museum became part of the City of Denver, which owned Lookout Mountain Park.