He was born William Frederick Cody on Feb. 26, 1846, in a log cabin near LeClaire, Iowa, an area just west of the Mississippi River. He would grow up to become “Buffalo Bill,” an icon of the American West; a man described by Annie Oakley as “the simplest of men, as comfortable with cowboys as with kings.” It was an apt description. During his life, Cody was able to count President Theodore Roosevelt, Frederic Remington, Mark Twain and Sitting Bull among his friends.
Cody’s childhood was less than idyllic. Following his older brother’s death (the result of falling off a horse), his family moved to Kansas, where tragedy continued to haunt them. His father, Isaac, was stabbed while making an antislavery speech, leaving 11-year-old William Cody as the man of the house. His education ended with the fourth grade.
To support the family, Cody signed on as a messenger boy with the wagon trains of Majors and Russell at age 12, initially traveling to Fort Laramie and later, along the Oregon Trail to Colorado. At age 15, he became a rider in the newly formed Pony Express.
Following his mother’s death in 1863, Cody enlisted in the Union Army and served as a scout for the Union’s 7th Kansas Cavalry during the last years of the Civil War. Three years later, he married Louisa Frederici, a union that lasted until his death, and produced four children: Arta Lucille, Kit Carson, Orra Maude and Irma Louise.
In 1867, Cody began hunting buffalo for Kansas Pacific work crews. It was here that his expert marksman earned him the moniker “Buffalo Bill.” The stint led to his employment as a civilian scout and guide for the US Army.
It was Cody’s reputation as both a buffalo hunter and a skilled frontiersman that led to his eventual career as a Wild West entertainer. Accompanied by Gen. Phillip Sheridan and Brevet Major Gen. George Custer, Buffalo Bill guided visiting dignitaries on lavish hunting expeditions.
Upon hearing of Buffalo Bill, dime novel author Ned Buntline began writing fictional stories about Buffalo Bill, and in 1872, Buntline persuaded Cody to perform on stage. The success of the show and Cody’s flair for performance led to the formation of a “combination” troupe the following year. The group was comprised of several authentic Western characters, including James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok and Texas Jack Omohundro.
Although items from Buffalo Bill’s early years are rare, they occasionally come to market. At Brian Lebel’s 16th Annual Cody Old West Show & Auction (www.codyoldwest.com) in June 2005, a cabinet card photograph, circa 1874, sold for $2,128 (all prices include 15 percent buyer’s premium).
In June 1876, during the height of the Plains Indians resistance to white settlement, Cody returned to the prairies to scout for the Fifth Army. On July 17, 1876, just three weeks after Custer and the Seventh Cavalry were defeated at Little Big Horn, Cody’s regiment intercepted a band of Cheyenne warriors. In doing so, Buffalo Bill the frontiersman proved that Buffalo Bill was more than just another actor.
In 1877, Cody purchased Scout’s Rest Ranch in North Platte, Neb., and it was there that he made his 1882 comeback in entertainment. Heavily promoted with handbills, the show was a virtual extravaganza of bronco busting, horse racing, riding feats and shooting exhibitions. Hugely successful, the show served as a template of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West.
The first show was held in Omaha on May 19, 1883, and Cody had left no marketing opportunity unturned. There were bucking broncos, saddle horses, stage coaches, animals, cowboys and even Indians, secured with the approval of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It proved to be a timeless formula, lasting for more than 30 years.
“Buffalo Bill was a consummate promoter,” said Wes Cowan, president, Cowan’s Auctions. “He understood that people were fascinated with the Wild West, and he created a phenomenon by promoting the heck out of it. His passion for publicity has given us an abundance of great ephemera, including posters and handbills, photographs, cabinet cards and three dozen different programs. In addition, many collectors are interested in the other performers on his show, such as Annie Oakley.”
Oakley was one of the 200 people and 200 animals Cody took on his first overseas trip, arriving in England in 1887, in celebration of the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. He brought an arsenal of color lithographic posters to advertise the event, and it paid off. The May 11 show was a smash success; the troupe were invited back for a command performance in June.
Buoyed by his success in England, Cody took his Wild West to Paris in 1889, announcing his tour to the French in grand style, with a poster boldly exclaiming “Je Viens” (I’m Coming). The show received considerable acclaim, and appeared for seven months at the Paris Exposition Universelle. This was followed by a four-year tour throughout France and Italy.
Buffalo Bill returned home in 1893, where he formed the Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World. Designed to display expert horsemanship from nations all over the world, the ensemble had 640 members and almost 500 horses. It played at exhibition grounds to enormous crowds.
According to the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, the Wild West show purchased 1,000 or more large-scale Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders posters for the 1898 season at approximately $4 each. Times have changed: At Brian Lebel’s 16th Annual Cody Old West Show & Auction in 2005, a poster advertising the Rough Riders rode in at $11,200.
Despite a lucrative career, Cody had made a series of ill-advised and unproductive investments. To increase revenue, he started advertising farewell Buffalo Bill shows, but although popular, they couldn’t save the day. His financial troubles led to bankruptcy in 1913, and the sale of the Wild West show at public auction.
Nonetheless, the aging Cody continued to perform for others. In 1914 and 1915, he was the main attraction of the Sells-Floto Circus, and in 1916, he was a featured member of the 101 Ranch Show. He died in 1917, worn out, penniless and in debt.
Buffalo Bill’s legacy and the lure of the Wild West have remained constant through the years, creating an active collectors’ market of all things Buffalo Bill. It’s also created an opportunity for fakes and forgeries.
“The most common items faked are cabinet cards (photographs),” said Brian Lebel, a specialist in Buffalo Bill/Wild West memorabilia. “The other area of ephemera where there is a proliferation of fakes is playing cards, printed as a souvenir of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Virtually all the ones I have ever seen advertised online are completely bogus. The tip-off is the use of the word ‘show.’ Buffalo Bill would have fired anyone for using that term for what he did. Just look at his posters – never once does the word ‘show’ appear after Buffalo Bill’s Wild West.”
The final area of concern is the rifles and guns that supposedly belonged to Buffalo Bill. Lebel warns that there are many old guns with engraving that has been added on later to increase value, noting that, “There is always the story that the person was a relative or friend of Buffalo Bill. Unless the seller can prove provenance beyond a reasonable doubt, walk away.”