The Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave
True West Magazine’s Museum of the Year – 2010

A Brief History

Did Buffalo Bill Visit Your Town?

History & Research

A Brief History of William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody

From Childhood to Fame
William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody was born in LeClaire, Iowa in 1846. While he was still a child, his family moved to Leavenworth, Kansas. Cody left home at the young age of eleven to herd cattle and work as a driver on a wagon train, crossing the Great Plains several times. He went on to fur trapping and gold mining, then joined the Pony Express in 1860. After the Civil War, Cody scouted for the Army and gained the nickname "Buffalo Bill" as a hunter. Cody’s life in the West offered the stuff from which legends were made and he soon was popularized in newspaper accounts and dime novels.

Buffalo Bill on Stage
Buffalo Bill’s show business career began on December 17, 1872 in Chicago; he was age twenty-six. "Scouts of the Prairie" was a drama created by dime novelist Ned Buntline, who appeared in it with Cody and another well-known scout, "Texas Jack" Omohundro. The show was a success, despite one critic’s characterization of Cody as "a good-looking fellow, tall and straight as an arrow, but ridiculous as an actor." Other critics noted Cody’s manner of charming the audience and the realism he brought to his performance. Actor or not, Buffalo Bill was a showman.

The “Combination”
The following season Cody organized his own troupe, the Buffalo Bill Combination. The troupe’s show "Scouts of the Plains" included Buffalo Bill, Texas Jack, and Cody’s old friend "Wild Bill" Hickok. Wild Bill and Texas Jack eventually left the show, but Cody continued staging a variety of plays until 1882. That year the Wild West show was conceived. It was an outdoor spectacle, designed to both educate and entertain, using a cast of hundreds as well as live buffalo, elk, cattle, and other animals.

Buffalo Bill and the Cowboys
"Buffalo Bill’s Wild West" used real cow-boys and cow-girls, recruited from ranches in the West. At first, few people shared Cody's admiration of the cow-boys. Most people regarded them as coarse cattle drivers and used the term "cow-boy" as an insult. By the end of the 19th century, the cow-boy became the much more popular "cowboy," thanks in large part to the Buffalo Bill Wild West shows. The shows demonstrated bronco riding, roping, and other skills that would later become part of public rodeos.

The Wild West in Britain
The Wild West was invited to England in 1887 to be the main American contribution to Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee celebration. "Buffalo Bill’s Wild West" was the hit of the celebration, visited by nobility, commoners, and by Queen Victoria herself. The show was credited with improving British and American relations. "Buffalo Bill’s Wild West" rose to international fame and returned two years later to tour the European Continent.

The Americans
Today there is a lot of confusion about the relationship between Buffalo Bill and the Indians. Cody treated his former foes with great respect and dignity, giving them an opportunity to leave the reservation and represent their culture when many were trying to destroy it. Wild West show posters frequently portrayed the Indian as "The American." Buffalo Bill stated in 1885 that "The defeat of Custer was not a massacre. The Indians were being pursued by skilled fighters with orders to kill. For centuries they had been hounded from the Atlantic to the Pacific and back again. They had their wives and little ones to protect and they were fighting for their existence." These are not the words of an arrogant and bloodthirsty Indian killer, a manner in which he is sometime incorrectly portrayed.

Fair Play in the Wild West
Buffalo Bill had a great love and concern for people, particularly children. Many free passes were distributed to orphanages when the Wild West show came to town. He also was a champion of women’s rights, advocating equal pay and voting rights for women. The women in his show received comparable pay for comparable work to the men in the show. In fact, the women in the Wild West often out-rode and out-gunned the men. Certainly the most famous was Annie Oakley, nicknamed Little Sure Shot by Sitting Bull.

Buffalo Bill and Denver
In spring of 1859 Buffalo Bill made his first trip to Colorado as part of the Pikes Peak Gold Rush. He passed through the new town of Denver on his way to the gold fields near Black Hawk where he searched for gold for two months, meeting with little success. On his return to Kansas he stopped in Julesburg, Colorado, where he was recruited to ride in the Pony Express. Most of his time with the Pony Express was spent in Kansas, although occasionally he traveled across northeast Colorado. The Pony Express route did not go to Denver but cut north into Nebraska and Wyoming.

Cody visited Denver in the 1870s to perform in a local opera house with the Buffalo Bill Combination. He continued to tour through Colorado, performing at the Central City Opera (still in operation) and at another opera house in Georgetown. After Buffalo Bill organized his Wild West show, he visited Denver and Colorado many times. Altogether, Buffalo Bill performed 35 times in Colorado between 1886 and 1916.

End of the Wild West
In 1913 Buffalo Bill borrowed money from Denver businessman Harry Tammen, not realizing the loan would be used to force him to appear in Tammen’s Sells Floto Circus. Cody fell behind in payment of the loan and, when the Wild West stopped in Denver to do a show that July, Tammen had the show seized. The Wild West was sold off at auction in Denver’s Overland Park and Cody was forced to join the Sells Floto Circus. Eventually he got out of that contract but was never able to re-build his Wild West.

Death in Denver
In 1917 Buffalo Bill died while visiting his sister’s home in Denver. According to his wife Louisa it was his choice that he be buried on Lookout Mountain overlooking Denver and the Plains. Despite the claims of the citizens of Cody, Wyoming that he really wanted to be buried near Cody, close friends like Goldie Griffith and Johnny Baker, as well as the priest who administered last rites, affirmed that Lookout Mountain was indeed his choice. On June 3, 1917, Buffalo Bill was buried on Lookout Mountain, a promontory with spectacular views of both the mountains and plains, places where he had spent the happiest times of his life.

The Museum
Louisa, who had married Buffalo Bill back before he became famous, was buried next to her husband four years later. That year, 1921, the Buffalo Bill Memorial Museum was begun by Johnny Baker, close friend and unofficial foster son to Buffalo Bill. Just as millions of people saw Buffalo Bill in his Wild West shows during his life, millions of persons have visited Buffalo Bill’s grave in the years since 1917. Today it is one of the top visitor attractions in Denver and Colorado.

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Did Buffalo Bill Visit Your Town?
During the course of his acting and showman carrier, Cody performed in over 1400 communities in North America and Europe. Did he visit your town? Could your relatives have attended a Wild West performance? Click here for a full listing of Cody’s performance sites and dates. “Did Buffalo Bill Visit Your Town?”

Do you have a camera and GPS locater? Help the Museum document Cody’s travels by Waymarking sites he has visited, monuments placed in his honor, or any other Cody related business or attraction. Visit the online Buffalo Bill Waymarking category here.

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Photo archives
Our photo archives are temporarily offline for system and database upgrades. Please check back for future access through PastPerfect Online. In the meantime, please take advantage these other excellent resources for objects and images related to Buffalo Bill and the Wild West.

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987 1/2 Lookout Mountain Road, Golden, CO 80401
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