In France, he was compared to Napoleon; in England to Robin Hood; and in his home country, there was no equal.
William Frederick Cody was born on a farm northwest of Le Claire in Scott County, Iowa, on February 26, 1846. the fourth of eight children born to Isaac and Mary Ann (Leacock) Cody.
In Bill Cody’s autobiography he alludes to his father’s wanderlust. It was a trait that young William would himself inherit.
When William was five years old, the family moved into Le Claire, a small village on the Mississippi River. Isaac did not make a good farmer, and had better luck as a stage drive between Davenport and Chicago, as a Justice of the Peace, and as a State Legislator. Cody said that his father “was a natural pioneer and his longing for new fields of adventure led him away from the place where his popularity was rapidly extending.”
That longing took the Cody family on to Weston, Platte County, Missouri, in 1853 where Isaac’s brother Elijah was a successful merchant at a trading post in Leavenworth County, Kansas. Gold seekers, Mormons, settlers, cowboys, Indians all traded at Cody’s post along the trails west to California, Utah, and the Oregon Territory.
Young Bill learned a lot about people and the West during these years. His father gave him a pony when he was seven, and it was Bill’s biggest dream to become a true westerner: a great horseman, a crack shot, adept with a bow and arrow, and knowledgeable in the ways of the West.
The issue of slavery tore the Cody family apart in the summer of 1854 when Isaac took an abolitionist stance, and was consequently stabbed by a Missouri man in the employ of his brother Elijah. He recovered enough from the wounds to move on to points just outside the reach of those who sought to kill him—a strategy he used for the next two years while continuing to support his family.
In 1855 when Bill Cody was only nine years old, he was employed by Russell and Majors (afterwards Russell, Majors and Waddell) herding cattle for twenty-five dollars a month, a practice not uncommon in those days.
Isaac went to Ohio during the winter of 1856-57 in order to organize a party of about thirty families for settlement in Kansas. During the trip he caught a severe cold; and in connection with the wounds he had received earlier, died at the family’s home from a kidney disease in April of 1857.
Bill wrote in his autobiography, “This sad event left my mother and the family in poor circumstances, and I determined to follow the plains for a livelihood for them and myself. I had no difficulty in obtaining work under my old employers, and in May, 1857, I started for Salt Lake City with a herd of beef cattle, in charge of Frank and Bill McCarthy, for General Albert Sidney Johnston’s army, which was then being sent across the plains to fight the Mormons.”
From that time to February of 1859, Bill Cody spent most of his time in the employ of the freighters on the trail between Leavenworth, Fort Kearny, and Fort Laramie. He was involved in a number of skirmishes with road thieves, Danites (Mormon raiders), and Indians along the routes. As a wrangler and mounted messenger, Cody had experienced a great many harrowing events before his fourteenth birthday.
Bill attended about two months of school near his home in the early spring of 1859, and then decided to try his luck as a prospector in the Pikes Peak gold rush to the west. Mining was not very successful for him and his group in Colorado, so they rafted down the South Platte River to the trail camp of Julesburg in the summer of 1859. It was there he learned of a new enterprise called The Pony Express.
Bill joined the Pony Express, which advertised for “skinny, expert riders willing to risk death daily.” Already a seasoned plainsman at age 14, he “fit the bill.” He recalled that “fifteen miles an hour on horseback would, in a short time, shake any man all to pieces; and there were but very few, if any, riders who could stand it for any great length of time. Nevertheless, I stuck to it for two months, and then, upon receiving a letter informing me that my mother was very sick, I gave it up and went back to the old home in Salt Creek Valley.”
He returned to the Pony Express service in mid-1860, and remained in the area around Fort Laramie until the spring of 1861 – occasionally riding express, taking care of stock, and surviving several encounters with horse thieves and Indians.
Cody, now all of sixteen years old, returned home and briefly joined a local Kansas militia engaged in the enterprise of crippling the Confederacy in Missouri by stealing horses—a cause he justified in his mind for all of the terror and grief the pro-slavery Missourians had dealt on his family. Bill went to Leavenworth, where he first met William Hickok. Wild Bill was leaving to take the position of wagon master on a government supply train and asked Cody to join on—a decision he made with little hesitation.
In the fall of 1861, Cody began carrying military dispatches, and in buying horses for the government. The next spring he joined an expedition as a scout proceeding to the Kiowa and Comanche country. He became one of the “Red Legged Scouts,” of the noted Kansas Rangers.
Bill’s mother died on November 22, 1863. An older married sister took custody of Bill’s younger siblings, and he was on his own. He enlisted with the Seventh Kansas Cavalry Company H, 7th (The Jay Hawkers) that saw action in Missouri and Tennessee. He was mustered out as a private on September 29, 1865.
He married Louisa Frederici in St. Louis on March 6, 1865, and afterwards ran a hotel for a few months, but he soon took up the trade that gave him his nickname, hunting buffalo to feed the construction crews of the Kansas Pacific Railroad in 1867. By his own count, he killed 4,280 head of buffalo in seventeen months—thus winning his sobriquet, “Buffalo Bill,” from the railroad hands. Again desiring the life of the West, he resumed work in 1868 as an Army scout and dispatch carrier for the 5th Cavalry in Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado. In 1872, he led the famed buffalo hunting party of the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia.