10 Things You Might Not Know About Buffalo Bill Cody
“Cody.” Around here, the name alone conjures up iconic images and stories of the American West. From wagon trains to gold rushes, gunslingers to sunset riders — the American West certainly earned its wild reputation. And among all the legends that sprung forth from this era of American history, none is more renowned or revered than William Frederick Cody. Does that name sound unfamiliar to you? Well, you might know him by his nickname — “Buffalo Bill”. As for us, well, we know him as our town founder.
Easily one of the Wild West’s most colorful characters, Buffalo Bill Cody might also be the most misunderstood. So, to honor him — on what would have been his 175th birthday — we’ve put together a list of 10 incredible facts about the showman and pioneer who dazzled millions around the world with “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show”.
Buffalo Bill Cody Was a Proponent of American Indian Treaty Rights
In his younger days, Bill Cody fought in wars against American Indians, but he always spoke of his opponents with great respect. He also advocated for the rights of American Indians, saying, “Every Indian outbreak that I have ever known has resulted from broken promises and broken treaties by the government.”
In his Wild West Show, Cody often cast American Indian performers in central roles. To this day, the reasoning and results of these choices remain debated. However, many scholars suggest providing audiences with authentic displays of songs, traditions, dances, and horsemanship helped preserve many aspects of American Indian culture during a period of considerable assimilation.
He Also Supported the Women’s Suffrage Movement
Having spent years in the presence of legendary women like Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane, it comes as no surprise that Bill Cody was an ardent supporter of women’s suffrage. And he didn’t just talk a big game — he put his money where his mouth was and insisted on equal pay for all members of his traveling shows, regardless of gender. Famously, Cody put it very simply when he said, “What we want to do is give women even more liberty than they have. Let them do any kind of work they see fit, and if they do it as well as men, give them the same pay.” By today’s standards, this may not seem like much, but in the late-1800s, this perspective was practically revolutionary! Cody never backed down from his stance, however. In fact, he took things a step further by saying, “These fellows who prate about the women taking their places make me laugh.”
Never let it be said that Buffalo Bill didn’t have a flare for the dramatic!
After His Father’s Death, He Took a Job at Age 11 to Help His Family
Bill Cody was never afraid of hard work. In fact, he went to work at the early age of 11. Unfortunately, it was to ease the financial burden on his family after the death of his father. The job Cody took was as a wagon train “boy extra”. Today, this is the kind of job that would be done by text message — literally. Cody would ride along the length of the wagon train on horseback, taking and delivering important messages to different drivers throughout the train, ensuring everybody had the most up-to-date information.
He Rode With the Pony Express… Or Did He?
Sometimes, the legend of Buffalo Bill is bigger than the man himself. We suspect he liked it that way. This is why he was happy to tell people that he signed on with the Pony Express at the ripe old age of 14 and, after an apprenticeship building corrals and stations for the burgeoning mail service, became a full-fledged rider. Historians have never truly been able to verify these claims, and contradictions in his own autobiography have raised speculation about their veracity.
Regardless, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show went on to lionize the Pony Express, and his name will forever be synonymous with the service.
Whether he rode the trails or not, one thing is clear — Buffalo Bill was never one to stand in the way of a good rumor.
Cody was a Freemason
Bill Cody was very active in Freemasonry in his later years. In fact, he achieved the rank of Knight Templar in 1889 and 32-degree rank in the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry in 1894. When he passed away in 1917, he received a full masonic funeral — complete with pallbearers dressed in their Knights Templar uniforms.
And speaking of Bill’s funeral…
There Are Conflicting Reports on Where Buffalo Bill is Really Buried
While thousands visit the Buffalo Bill gravesite outside of Denver annually, many Cody residents believe their town’s namesake is actually buried on Cedar Mountain overlooking the town of Cody itself. The legend behind this belief involves a bold plan, a middle-of-the-night trip to a Denver mortuary, and an unlucky ranch hand bearing a likeness to Buffalo Bill. Spend enough time learning about Bill Cody, and you’ll quickly discover that nothing is impossible!
Cody’s Family was Quaker and Vehemently Opposed Slavery
When Bill Cody was a young child, his family moved from Scott County, Iowa, to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas Territory. Arriving in the young territory in 1854, the Cody family was greeted by a hotbed of conflict between slavery advocates and abolitionists. And this is where we learn that Bill’s belief in equal rights was most likely inherited from his father, Isaac Cody.
Not long after arriving in the town of Leavenworth, Issac found himself in Rively’s Trading Post, where a meeting of slavery advocates was taking place. When asked to voice his opinion on the subject, Issac gave an impassioned anti-slavery speech. For his efforts, he was stabbed twice in the chest with a Bowie knife. He survived the attack and remained steadfast in his convictions — passing them on to his son in the process.
Cody Was Once the Most Recognizable Man on Earth
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show was legendary and drew crowds all across the world. The sheer reach of these performances has led some historians to assert that at the height of his traveling show’s fame, Cody was the most recognizable celebrity in the world. This level of notoriety earned him an audience with Pope Leo XIII while the Wild West Show was touring Europe.
What’s in a Name?
In 1893, “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show” expanded and became the even more spectacular (though ponderously titled) “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World.” A true multicultural event, the show featured horsemen from around the globe, including South American gauchos, Arabs, Mongols, and Turks.
Cody Received a Medal of Honor
In 1872, while serving the Third Cavalry Regiment as a civilian scout, Bill Cody was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for “Documented gallantry above and beyond the call of duty as an Army scout”. In 1917, the medal was rescinded — along with 910 others awarded to civilians — when Congress designated the Medal of Honor as the highest military honor it could bestow.
As you might expect, Cody’s living relatives were not happy about this. For years, they voiced their objections and asked Congress to reconsider. These efforts were unsuccessful, until 1989, when a letter from Cody’s grandson helped convince Congress that Buffalo Bill deserved to have his medal restored. In 1989, over 70 years after being taken away, Cody’s award was officially reinstated, and his family could once again proudly call him a Medal of Honor recipient.
Saddle Up, There’s Plenty More to Learn About Buffalo Bill
If you’re eager to learn more about Buffalo Bill and the American West, Cody Yellowstone is the place for you. After all, this is the home of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, where you’ll find five museums full of fascinating history under one roof. At the Center of the West, you’ll be treated to a more well-rounded view of Buffalo Bill: the legend and the man. And, as is often the case with legendary figures, “the truth is sometimes more interesting than the myth.”
Download your complimentary 2021 Cody Yellowstone Vacation Guide today and start planning your unforgettable escape to the West.