Wait… Who Actually Was Buffalo Bill?

The Aspire Team
February 22, 2024

First things first – yes, Buffalo Bill was a very real person. Undoubtedly, his name is familiar, but do you know anything about this Wild West icon? If we’ve sparked your curiosity, read on.

Born 176 years ago on February 26, 1846, William Frederick Cody, more commonly known as Buffalo Bill, was a showman, an entrepreneur, a sharpshooter, and a symbol of all things American West. 

Buffalo Bill made his name in the West but was born a bit further east in Le Claire, Iowa. His early years were marked by hardship and adventure: at just eleven years old, he took on the responsibility of providing for his family after his father's death. At just 11, in 1857, he worked as a rider for the Pony Express. 

Since Cody was a great shot from a young age, under his contract, he was tasked with providing Kansas Pacific Railroad workers with bison, often incorrectly referred to as buffalo (of which there are none in North America) to eat. Young William Cody killed a whopping 4,282 bison in just eighteen months, earning himself the nickname "Buffalo Bill."

Shortly after, in 1959, Buffalo Bill made his way to Colorado for the first time as part of the Pikes Peak Gold Rush. He ventured to the towns of Cripple Creek and Black Hawk where he was unsuccessful in his search for gold. For his next adventure, in 1861, Cody joined the army as a Union scout during the Civil War, and his legend began to take shape. His talents as a scout, tracker, and fighter earned him widespread acclaim and the Medal of Honor.

In 1866, at 20 years old, Buffalo Bill married Louisa Frederici. The two met in 1865 when Cody traveled to St. Louis, Frederici’s hometown, at the close of the Civil War to end his army duties. Cody was enamored: in his autobiography, he stated upon meeting her, "I now adored her above any other young lady I had ever seen." Things didn’t stay on that high note, though. While the two stayed together until Cody’s death, their marriage was anything but smooth sailing, marked by two stillborn children, arguments, infidelities, family strife, and failed divorce attempts.

While his marriage wasn’t all peachy, his career blossomed. At 23, a young, adventurous Buffalo Bill Cody met Ned Buntline, a writer who spun tall tales in newspapers and novels about Cody's adventures, mixing fact and fiction. Those stories caught fire and almost overnight, Buffalo Bill became a household name.

The Buffalo Bill Wild West Show was a spectacle of history and showmanship, captivating audiences with reenactments of frontier life and daring feats. Lasting 3-4 hours, each show drew crowds of thousands, beginning with a grand parade on horseback featuring all performers. Over the years, well-known Wild West figures like Annie Oakley, Will Rogers, Pawnee Bill, and Bill Pickett all toured with the show. In total, over 1,200 performers and a multitude of animals including one of the last surviving herds of bison, mules, Texas steers, elk, deer, bears, and even moose took the stage.

Spectacles like the Bison Hunt, Train Robbery, and Indian War Battle Reenactment thrilled audiences, ending in dramatic scenes where Buffalo Bill emerged as the hero. Shooting competitions showcased remarkable skill with rifles, shotguns, and revolvers. The rodeo showcased bronco riding and hunts staged with buffalo herds. Races added to the excitement, pitting cowboys, Native Americans, and Mexicans against each other in various contests.

Since Buffalo Bill played a significant role in shaping the perception, his legacy doesn’t come without controversy. His treatment of Native Americans has been the subject of criticism, and his portrayal of the West as a place of unbridled freedom and adventure overlooks the darker realities of conquest and colonization. While the show glorified cowboys such as himself Buffalo Bill, critics argue Cody often portrayed historical scenes inaccurately which villianized Native Americans, Mexicans, and Black people. 

While running his show, Cody made his physical presence in the Wild West known. His ranch up in Cody, Wyoming, Scout's Rest Ranch, served as the home base for his show and was one of the first settlements in the area. He is credited as the founder of the town and even started the first newspaper there. As for Colorado, throughout the 1870s, Buffalo Bill visited Denver and various mountain towns, taking his show to the Central City and the Georgetown Operas 35 times. 

Eventually, Cody wasn't content with just conquering the American stage. In 1887, Bill took his show to Europe for the first of eight tours, dazzling audiences from London to Paris, including Queen Victoria and Pope Leo XIII. He was a worldwide sensation. According to novelists like Larry McMurtry and historians such as R. L. Wilson, at the turn of the 20th century, Cody was the most recognizable celebrity on Earth.

After a life of adventure and fame, on January 10, 1917, after a brief battle with kidney failure, Buffalo Bill passed away. His casket was paraded through the streets of Denver, where over 25,000 mourners paid their respects. He was laid to rest atop Lookout Mountain in Golden, Colorado, a scenic overlook in the Front Range’s foothills with vast views of the Denver metro area and the beginnings of the Rocky Mountains. According to his widow Louisa and many close friends, Cody wanted to be buried on the mountain overlooking the Great Plains.

Visitors are welcome to pay respects to Buffalo Bill and see his resting site, as well as explore the Buffalo Bill Museum, which offers visitors a glimpse into the life and times of Buffalo Bill through exhibits, artifacts, and interactive displays. The site where Buffalo Bill still rests today, Lookout Mountain, is the last stop on our Denver, Red Rocks, and Beyond Tour. So, if Bill has captured your attention, we have the perfect tour for you. 

Buffalo Bill was an essential figure in shaping the vision of the West that captivated the American imagination and continues to influence our perception of the Western US. To this day, Colorado remains a pinnacle of exploration and adventure. We’re forever grateful that Buffalo Bill made it known just how special this part of the country is, and we hope you agree. To see it for yourself, join us on one of our many incredible Colorado adventures. 


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