You who live your lives in cities or among peaceful ways cannot always tell whether your friends are the kind who would go through fire for you. But on the Plains one's friends have an opportunity to prove their mettle.
William Frederick Cody was born in the town of Le Claire in the Iowa Territory on February 26, 1846 though his family quickly left the Hawkeye State, moving first to Ontario, Canada and then to Fort Leavenworth in the Kansas Territory by 1853. Over the course of these moves, the young Cody became a fair horseman, who enjoyed pitting his horse against others in races, a sport he would continue to enjoy most of his life. Cody’s father Isaac was an abolitionist, and was stabbed after making an anti-slavery speech at a pro-slavery meeting spot. Isaac attempted to recover away from his family to help ensure their safety, but he was weakened by a combination of his wounds and kidney failure and died in 1857, when his son was 11 years old.
Cody’s older brother Samuel had already died after being thrown from an unruly mare, and Bill was suddenly thrust into the role of bread winner for the family, trying to provide for his mother and six sisters. His father’s death having left the family without income, Bill immediately began working as a “boy extra” for a local shipping company, riding messages and notes up and down the wagon trains between the workers and the drivers. His first assignment was to take messages three miles between the dispatch office and the telegraph station at Fort Leavenworth. On his first day on the job, when his boss saw the young man walk into the office in the morning he scolded the boy for being late, only to have Cody hand him the replies to that morning’s dispatches. Bill had arrived early and had set off with the day’s dispatches, and was retuning with his day’s tasks done.
He joined a wagon train herding beef towards Salt Lake City to feed General Albert Sidney Johnston’s troops as they headed out to face down Brigham Young and his Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who military sources in Washington believed was preparing to rebel against the federal government. It was on this unsuccessful trek that Cody encounter his first hostile Indian on the plains:
I being the youngest and smallest of the party, became somewhat tired, and without noticing it I had fallen behind the others for some little distance. It was about ten o'clock and we were keeping very quiet and hugging close to the bank, when I happened to look up to the moon-lit sky and saw the plumed head of an Indian peeping over the bank. Instead of hurrying ahead and alarming the men in a quiet way, I instantly aimed my gun at the head and fired. The report rang out sharp and loud on the night air, and was immediately followed by an Indian whoop, and the next moment about six feet of dead Indian came tumbling into the river. I was not only overcome with astonishment, but was badly scared, as I could hardly realize what I had done. I expected to see the whole force of Indians come down upon us. While I was standing thus bewildered, the men, who had heard the shot and the war-whoop and had seen the Indian take a tumble, came rushing back.
"Who fired that shot?" cried Frank McCarthy.
"I did," replied I, rather proudly, as my confidence returned and I saw the men coming up.
"Yes, and little Billy has killed an Indian stone-dead—too dead to skin," said one of the men, who had approached nearer than the rest, and had almost stumbled upon the corpse. From that time forward I became a hero and an Indian killer. This was, of course, the first Indian I had ever shot, and as I was not then more than eleven years of age, my exploit created quite a sensation.
Returning from this adventure, Cody signed up with Lewis “Lew” Simpson as an “extra man” for a wagon trek to Salt Lake despite the protests of his mother, who feared that the next Indian encounter would end with her young son buried on the prairie. Mrs. Cody was right to worry, it turned out, but not because of Indians. Lew Simpson’s wagon train was captured by Major Lot Smith’s Mormon troops and burned, leaving Simpson, Cody, and crew to spend the winter at Fort Bridger in present day Wyoming, where Cody spent time observing and learning from the bullwhackers and troops stationed there. According to Cody, as he got to know the men who were working on the wagon train, one man stood out, and the two became a life-long and intimate friends:
His real name was James B. Hickok; he afterwards became famous as ‘Wild Bill, the Scout of the Plains’—though why he was so called I never could ascertain…He was ten years my senior —a tall, handsome, magnificently built and powerful young fellow, who could out-run, out-jump and out-fight any man in the train. He was generally admitted to be the best man physically, in the employ of Russell, Majors & Waddell; and of his bravery there was not a doubt.
Having a common friend in ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok was one of the bonds that Cody and Omohundro found they shared when they first met in Fort McPherson. Another was the shared experience of having left home to seek wealth on the western frontier. Where Omohundro had set his sights on Texas and cattle, Cody initially tried his hand as a fur trapper and later as a gold prospector along with many others who rushed to Pike’s Peak in 1859, though Cody had enjoyed little luck. He and his friends attempted to build a raft to navigate down the Platte River, only to wreck and become stranded until a wagon train passed. Cody, who knew the wagon-master, was hired by the man and worked until he could return home to Leavenworth.
With the money Cody was sending home to his mother, the family purchased a home they called “the Big House,” planning to run it as a hotel. Setting out with a trapper named Dave Harrington that winter, Cody slipped on some ice and suffered a bad broken leg when a rock subsequently fell on him. His friend set his broken bone and cut enough wood for twenty days of fire, leaving Cody with provisions while he set off to get help. Cody spent twelve days alone in the woods, drinking snow melt and reading the Bible before being awakened by a touch on his shoulder by an Indian in full war paint. As more Indians approached, an old man made his way towards Cody, telling the other braves that he knew the man. The elderly man was Rain-in-the-Face, who Cody had previously met at Fort Laramie. Rain-in-the-Face convinced the others to spare Bill’s life, but they took most of his provisions and gear, along with his weapons when they left.
When the Indians left, the snow came, continuing for three days until the small dugout Cody was using as shelter was covered in several feet of drift. The snow also delayed his hunting partner, and when he finally made his way back to Cody with a wagon, it was twenty-nine days after he had set off for help.
According to Bill, the following year, at the age of 14, he answered an advertisement looking for “skinny, expert riders willing to risk death daily,” joining the Pony Express. The express, first run on April 3, 1860, cut the time it took a message to get from Missouri to California from twenty-four to ten days. From St. Joseph, the easternmost terminus of the route, messages could be telegraphed to Chicago, New York, and Washington D.C. Cody rode the forty-five-mile route, changing horses three times on each ride to ensure that the messages arrived as quickly as possible. He rode with the Pony Express at Julesburg station for two months before receiving a letter from home informing him that his mother was ill.
After riding with another wagon train to Fort Laramie, Cody was employed with the Pony Express again at Horseshoe Station. It was here that Cody would make his most famous Pony Express ride. Cody’s route from the Red Buttes station to the one at Three Crossings was 76 miles. Cody set off on his route, and when he arrived at its terminus he discovered that that station’s rider had been killed in a drunken fight the night before. Without pausing to reflect, he hopped onto the fresh horse waiting at the station and made that man’s ride as well. Over the course of twenty-one hours and forty minutes, and riding twenty-one different horses, Cody covered just over three hundred and twenty-two miles, one of the longest rides made by a Pony Express rider during its existence.
After the Civil War consumed the nation in 1861, Cody joined the militia group of a man named Chandler, seeking to avenge his father’s death with his fellow anti-slavery Jayhawkers. Cody rode with the outfit for around eighteen months, until the federal government sent detectives to track down the horse thieves within the group. After being told by his mother that his activities with the jayhawkers was, “neither honorable nor right, and she would not for a moment countenance any such proceedings,” he left the group. Having subsequently promised his mother that he wouldn’t sign up for military service while she was alive, he went with Wild Bill Hickok with a wagon train to St. Louis where the pair lost most of their money racing horses. Hickok spent the last of his money buying a steamboat ticket for Cody back to Leavenworth while he continued on to Springfield.
Back at home, Cody joined the Red Legged Scouts, also known as simply the Red Legs because of the red sheepskin leggings they wore. This militia unit was ostensibly allied with the Union, though it had little of the code of conduct and structure that marked military regiments in government service. Here, Cody recorded that the Red Legs spent time carrying messages between the the government forts at Dodge, Gibson, and Leavenworth, as well as in skirmishes with the Younger brothers, who would later associate with notorious bandits Frank and Jesse James. Cody was contracted to escort a mail train to Denver, and it was while there that he received a letter from his sister Julia informing him that his mother was terminally ill. He rushed home to spend what time he could by his mother’s side before she died on November 22, 1863.
After his mother’s death, a disconsolate Cody spent two months drinking and gambling in Leavenworth. On February 4, 1864, the Seventh Kansas Volunteer Cavalry arrived in town on furlough. According to Cody:
Among them I met quite a number of my old comrades and neighbors, who tried to induce me to enlist and go south with them. I had no idea of doing anything of the kind; but one day, after having been under the influence of bad whisky, I awoke to find myself a soldier in the Seventh Kansas. I did not remember how or when I had enlisted, but I saw I was in for it, and that it would not do for me to endeavor to back out.
Cody, like Texas Jack Omohundro and a quarter of the soldiers who volunteered to fight during the course of the Civil War, was under eighteen. As Robert E. Lee’s Confederates were battling Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac in the battles of the Wilderness in Virginia, General Sherman was preparing his troops for their advance from Chattanooga to Atlanta. While most of the troops had been driven out of the area between the Ohio and the Mississippi Rivers, cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest and his mounted troops remained, causing substantial problems for the Union forces in Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.
Cody was with the Seventh on July 14, 1864, when the Union troops under General Andrew Jackson Smith fought the Confederates under the command of Forrest and General Stephen D. Lee at what would be called the Battle of Tupelo. The defeat of the Confederate troops here spelled the end to Forrest’s ability to do serious harm to Union infantry, minimizing his impact on the rest of the war. Years later, when Cody’s Wild West show played Tupelo, Mississippi, he wrote to his sister, “Busy day here. The people found out that I had been in the Battle of Tupelo—and a committee of leading citizens took me out to the battlefield to explain to them the positions of both armies as I am the first Northern Soldier to do it who was in the battle.”
Cody was involved with fighting at Hurricane Creek, and an assault on Oxford, Mississippi, before repairing to Memphis to prepare for a defense of Missouri against an expected Confederate attack by troops under Major General William S. Rosecrans, who had been transferred to the Department of Missouri after his defeat at Chickamauga. On the way to reinforce St. Louis, Cody and the Seventh were involved in a conflict against the troops of Major General Sterling Price, with the action centered around Independence, Missouri.
When the Seventh arrived in St. Louis, Cody met Louisa Frederici, who Cody later wrote, “I adored above any young lady I had ever seen. “According to Cody, the first time the pair met Louisa slapped him under the impression she was his cousin after Cody startled her in the middle of a nap. One practical joke lead to another, in which a young admirer of Louisa’s was convinced by the pair that she and Cody had been engaged for some time. They agreed to marry when Cody received his discharge papers.
After the war ended at Appomattox Courthouse, Cody found work as a scout with General William Tecumseh Sherman on a tour from Fort Riley to Fort Kearney. When the party’s chief scout admitted to Sherman that he was unsure of the route, Cody took control of the party, leading it for the remainder of the trek to Council Springs, where Jesse Leavenworth, son of the Fort’s namesake, made treaties with the Kiowa and Comanche Indians. Cody remained with Sherman for the trip to Fort Kearney and then to Leavenworth.
Cody returned to St. Louis and married Louisa Frederici, leading to a contentious and sometimes unhappy marriage. Author Don Russell, in his biography The Lives and Legends of Buffalo Bill, estimates that, “It is doubtful that Will in his entire married life stayed home for longer than six consecutive months.” Unwelcome in Missouri where he was recognized as a Kansas jayhawker, Cody and his new wife returned to Leavenworth, where they were greeted by a score of Cody’s friends and a brass band. The Cody’s rented a house and attempted to run it as a hotel, calling it the Golden Rule House. Like many of Cody’s business ventures, it was a failure, the victim of Cody’s notorious generosity. He refused to turn away those who could not pay, and this, combined with his warm personality and charm as a host, ensured the financial ruin of the establishment. While Cody headed west to find work, his wife headed back to her family in St. Louis.
At Junction City, Cody again met Wild Bill Hickok, who was working as a scout at Fort Ellsworth. Hickok brought Cody to the Fort, where the younger man found that work as a scout agreed with him. Cody was eventually stationed at Fort Fletcher, fifteen miles south of present day Hays, Kansas, and was there when General Custer came through on his way to join General Hancock in the spring of 1867. On Custer’s return trip to see his wife, an unauthorized visit for which he was later court-martialed, Cody guided his group, beating the soldiers on their horses from the back of his own mule across the sandy hills near the Smoky Hill River.
On December 16, 1866 Bill and Louisa Cody welcomed their first child, a daughter they named Arta, into the world. For a time, Bill left scouting work behind in a bid to enter domestic life. Cody partnered with a grading contractor named William Rose to establish a town on the spot where the Kansas Pacific Railroad was to cross Big Creek near Fort Hays. The partners hired a railway surveyor to plot the town, which the pair named Rome. They purchased supplies and opened a general store and saloon, and Cody brought his family there. According to Cody, within a month two hundred frame and log house, four stores, a hotel, and a number of saloons graced their little town. Soon a man named Dr. William Webb appeared in town, asking the men to accept him as a partner in their venture. When they refused, the Doctor laid out his own town of Hays City a mere mile from Cody and Rose’s town, and informed the Romans that his new town would see the establishment of a roundhouse and machine shops for the Kansas Pacific. Cody’s town was abandoned three days later. Again, Mrs. Cody retreated to St. Louis with Arta, and Bill found work as a buffalo hunter.
Cody had recently acquired a horse he named Brigham from a Ute Indian, and was riding him when five officers from Fort Hays saw the rider and steed and laughed at what they presumed was a man mounted on a work horse in buffalo country. The soldiers offered to give Bill some meat after they took down a nearby buffalo, as “it required a fast horse to overtake the animals on these prairies.” Joining the men, Cody waited until they approached the herd before allowing Brigham to run, taking down eleven buffalo with twelve shots of his rifle, Lucretia Borgia. One of the men, Captain Graham, took to calling Cody, “Buffalo Bill.”
Cody was soon employed as a buffalo hunter for the Goddard Brothers, who boarded the rail workers, providing meat to the hungry crews laying the rails of the Kansas Pacific Railroad as it raced westward across the plains. To provide enough to feed the railroad workers meant bagging buffalo, and Cody proved himself up to the task. His initial contract was to provide twelve buffalo a day, which would pay him five hundred dollars a month. In addition to the risk of trample by buffalo, the job carried a significant downside in its risk of encounter with hostile Indians. Cody worked as a hunter for eighteen months, during which time he claimed to have killed 4, 280 buffalo. Biographer Don Russell put the time closer to eight months and the total of animals killed at 2,928. Cody’s reputation as a hunter lead to a rhyme the men in the rail camps would recite:
Buffalo Bill, Buffalo Bill,
Never missed and never will;
Always aims and shoots to kill
And the company pays his buffalo bill.
Cody also entered a competition against another renowned buffalo hunter named Billy Comstock, the result of which was Cody killing sixty-nine animals to Comstock’s forty-six, and being proclaimed “champion buffalo hunter of the plains.” During the course of his buffalo hunting period, Cody had several more encounters with hostile Indians, most notable a band of Kiowa he encountered while on a hunt alone and a group he encountered while riding with a butcher to retrieve the meat from the animals he had shot.
Newspaper mentions of Cody as a “noted guide and hunter” began to pop up in Kansas and then Missouri, eventually reaching Louisa Cody in St. Louis. In March of 1868, a notice in the Topeka Leader remarked that “W.F. Cody, government detective, and Wm. Haycock, Deputy U.S. Marshal, brought eleven prisoners and lodged them in our calaboose on Monday last.” Hickok had asked his old friend to assist him in the recovery of army deserters charged with theft of government property.
With the completion of the rail line to Sheridan in May of 1868, Cody’s time as a professional buffalo hunter was over, and Cody found work as a courier and scout, initially for General William B. Hazen, then superintendent of Indian affairs on the Southern Plains, and later for Major Armes at Fort Hays. When General Sheridan requested “fifty first-class hardy frontiersmen to be used as scouts against the hostile Indians,” Cody hastily heeded the call, and was part of an escort leading General Hazen from Fort Larned to Fort Zarah, near present-day Great Bend, Kansas. Returning alone, Cody was captured by a band of Kiowa, but escaped after convincing Chief Satanta that he had been sent to look after cattle that had been issued to the Kiowa.
Cody was sent to Fort Hays to inform General Sheridan that both the Kiowa and Comanche were on the warpath. Sheridan immediately knew he had to get word to Fort Dodge, ninety-five miles away, but fear of hostile attack meant that his own scouts were unwilling to make the trek. According to Sheridan, “Cody, learning of the strait I was in, manfully came to the rescue, and proposed to make the trip to Dodge, though he had just finished his long and perilous ride from Larned.” Cody filled his canteen with brandy and set out for Dodge. Altogether, Cody rode some 290 miles in fifty-eight hours, narrowly avoiding the Indians along the way. His actions earned him the job of scout with the Fifth Cavalry stationed at Fort Hays.
On one scout with the Fifth, Cody was asked by his commanding officer to hunt a few buffalo to provide meat for the troops. Cody gladly accepted, and asked the officer to send a wagon to transport the meat back to camp. The man responded that he wasn’t going to send a wagon until he was sure there was meat. “Kill your buffaloes first, and then I’ll send out the wagons,” he told Cody. Cody downed six buffalo and came back to camp for the wagons to transport them. The next day on the hunt, he came across a small herd. Cody wrote that, “I managed to get seven of them headed straight for the encampment, and instead of shooting them just then, I ran them at full speed right into the camp, and then killed them all, one after the other in rapid succession.” When the commanding officer demanded an explanation, Cody replied, “I didn’t care about asking for any wagons this time, Colonel; so I thought I would make the buffaloes furnish their own transportation.”
Most of Cody’s time with the Fifth was spent under the command of General Eugene Carr, who promoted Cody to chief of scouts. Cody earned Carr’s respect on one of their first excursions together when the General asked his scout for the distance to the headwaters of the Beaver River. Cody reckoned that they were twenty-five miles from the spot, and eight miles from a spot they could water their horses behind a series of beaver dams. Other scouts told Carr that there was no water in that direction, and when Cody’s instinct proved correct, General Carr named the creek they crossed “Cody’s Creek.”
With the Fifth, Cody saw action again with Wild Bill Hickok, and in the deep winter managed to kill ninety-six buffalo over the course of two days to provide fresh meat to the hungry, cold, and weary troops. The bruising and swelling of his shoulder due to the recoil of his Springfield rifle meant that for the next several days, Cody couldn’t put on his coat unassisted. After requesting a leave of absence to visit his family in St. Louis, Cody returned to Fort Hays, where he got into a fight with the Fort’s quartermaster, who had accused Bill of selling a government horse. Just after this, Cody was tasked with recovering animals stolen from the government.
In the spring of 1869, Cody was involved with the Fifth in pursuit of Cheyenne Indians as they retreated across the Republican River in Nebraska. Here he was wounded by a shot fired by a hostile Cheyenne, but managed to make an overnight ride to Fort Kearny, covering fifty miles under the cover of darkness. General Carr’s official report mentioned that, “Our Scout William Cody, who has been with the Detachment since last September, displayed great skill in following (the trail) and also deserves great credit for his fighting in both engagements, his marksmanship being very conspicuous. He deserves honorable mention for this and other services and I hope to be able to retain him as long as I am engaged in this duty.” Carr also recommended that Cody be awarded a bonus for extraordinary good services. When the Fifth Cavalry officially left the Department of the Missouri, every scout was relieved of duty except for Cody, who was transferred to Fort McPherson and assigned a job tending to government stock. Cody was no cowboy, and was relieved to make friends with a man who had arrived in the area just before he had, having driven 5,000 head of cattle north across the plains from Texas. That man was Jack Omohundro.