February 26, 2015

February 26, 1846: Born, "Buffalo Bill" Cody

Albumen print of William Cody, taken about 1875
At one time, Bill Cody was the most recognizable celebrity in the world. His Wild West shows had made him famous -- and very rich -- as he toured the United States, England, and Continental Europe. He performed before Kings, Queens, Presidents, and Popes, and gave everyone at least an inkling of what the Wild West was all about.

Long before his fame, however, Bill was just a fatherless boy, poor and without prospects. His father had died from complications of a stabbing he'd received at the hands of a pro-slavery man, leaving the family pretty hard up. Bill was only 11, but he was able to find work as a "boy extra" on a wagon train. His job was to ride up and down the train, delivering messages between the workmen.

Pretty soon he got Gold Fever, and headed off to make his fortune, but, on the way he met an agent for the Pony Express. It sounded like a good job to him, so he took it on, until he was called back home to see to his sick mother.

His mother recovered, and Bill's next idea was to join the army, but he was too young and was turned away. Instead he signed on as a teamster with the outfit that delivered supplies to Fort Laramie.

Next he took on scouting for the army. Sometimes he scouted for Indians, and at other times he hunted buffalo, for both the Army and the Railroad. The Army gave him a medal for his service, then took it away, then reinstated it.

He shot so many buffalo in his day that he earned the nickname of Buffalo Bill. At one point, he had to defend it. He was challenged by Billy Comstock, another buffalo scout known for his prowess with the gun. They had a contest to see who could kill the most buffalo. There was $500 at stake, plus, more importantly, the name. Cody won, 69 to 48, and got to keep his nickname. Comstock had to settle for "Medicine Bill", a title that he'd already earned when he'd bitten off the finger of an Arapaho who'd been bitten by a rattlesnake.

Buffalo Bill didn't have the first Wild West show, but it certainly grew to be the most famous. His entertainers were legendary: Annie Oakley and Frank Butler, Sitting Bull and Wild Bill Hickok were just a few of his performers. There were reenactments of Indian attacks, trick riding, and even Custer's Last Stand. He performed before the Prince of Wales, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and the future George V. He met the Pope. He had two command performances before Queen Victoria. And he was a hit everywhere he went.

Buffalo Bill was largely responsible for the founding of the town of Cody, Wyoming, and, when he died, the folk of Cody wanted their hero buried there. But Bill had expressed his desire to be buried at Lookout Mountain, Colorado, and so his wife and family buried him there. In 1948 the American Legion chapter in Cody offered a reward for the "return" of his body. The Denver chapter mounted a guard over Bill's burial spot until he could be buried deeper.

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