The concept of shaping your destiny has almost become cliché in our society. We’ve been led to believe, through the dedicated practice of a passion or talent and simple perseverance, people are able to sculpt their own future and find fortune and fame. The child obsessed with baseball can become a pitcher for the Red Sox. The garage band singer can get signed and will headline at the Hollywood Bowl. But the truth is, forging a future rarely comes so directly. Most who truly succeed at shaping their future are able to constantly adapt to presented opportunities and obstacles. Perhaps the child isn’t athletic enough to pitch in the big leagues, but becomes a famous sports writer, instead. The singer never gets signed, but the cartoon squirrel she drew on her guitar leads her to making a fortune with a decal company. Shaping your own destiny often means using something you’re passionate about to open a door for yourself—a door that will lead to your eventual fate. In our history, there is perhaps no better example of this than Buffalo Bill Cody, a man who used his hunting and shooting prowess to not only become one of the icons of the American West, but to shape our country for the better.
William Fredrick Cody was born in February of 1846 on a small farm just outside of what is now Le Clarie, Iowa, just before his family immigrated to Toronto, Ontario. From the very start of his life, Buffalo Bill faced a life of hardship and violence. Upon returning from Canada in 1853, the Cody family settled in Kansas during the pre-Civil War era, when the Territory of Kansas was in the midst of the political conflict over the question of slavery. Isaac Cody, Bill’s father, was staunchly against slavery and was very outspoken on the subject, often giving anti-slavery speeches at town meetings and political gatherings in the town of Fort Leavenworth, where the family had settled. His speeches were so unsettling to the pro-slavery movement that during one of them a man rushed the stage and stabbed Isaac several times with a Bowie knife. Buffalo Bill’s father survived the initial attack, but never fully recovered from the wounds. He passed away a few years later due to complications from the attack, leaving Bill, only 11 years old, as the sole provider for his family.
Realizing his family needed both sustenance and an income, William Cody became a messenger and scout hunter for a freight company, where he delivered meat to workmen and ferried messages from wagon trains to towns. It was during this time that he developed his marksmanship; being given only limited ammunition by the freight company, Bill had to account for every shot he took. Due to his father’s untimely death and the anger he felt towards the pro-slavery movement and the Confederacy, Bill wanted to become a career soldier and fight for what he believed in. His young age prevented him from joining the military, but his success in hunting and talented shooting soon led him to enlist unofficially as a scout for the U.S Army at the age of only 13. During this time he began to build his fame, fighting against the Sioux and hunting elk, deer, and bison for the U.S Cavalry as they advanced toward Utah. Four years later, in 1863, Buffalo Bill officially enlisted with the U.S Army, becoming a teamster for the 7th Cavalry for two years. Yet Bill’s true passion and talents were not in driving wagons but in hunting and scouting, and so along with his close friend Bill Hickok (better known as Wild Bill), Bill Cody reenlisted as a scout and hunting guide. It was during this time that “Buffalo” Bill earned his nickname and realized his destiny.
In 1867, during the construction of the Kansas Pacific Railroad, workers were in dire need of protein. Cody, well known as an accomplished hunter, was granted a leave of absence from his scouting duties to provide meat to the railroad. Cody concentrated his hunting efforts on the most readily available game, the American Bison or “Buffalo.” He was reported to have killed more than 4,200 of the animals during his year-and-a-half-long contract with the railroad. During this time, Bill developed a somewhat famous rivalry with another bison hunter named Bill Comstock. The two men both went under the name “Buffalo Bill,” and upon meeting, set up an official contest for exclusive rights to the name. In an eight-hour contest, the two men went on a bison-hunting rampage, with Comstock killing 48 of the animals using a Henry repeater and Cody killing a barely comprehendible 68 bison with a single-shot Springfield rifle! Buffalo Bill earned his name that day, but what was more, he learned where his talents truly lay. His remarkable hunting skills and marksmanship were not meant for soldiering, but for showmanship. Although he would never become a famous general like he originally set out to be, he could be a famous showman.
In 1869, Buffalo Bill met the writer Ned Buntline, who later published the book, “Buffalo Bill, King Of The Bordermen.” Its incredible success led Bill and Buntline to realize just how starved the country was for tales of “The West,” and so the two soon took to the stage. Buntline wrote plays and shows for Buffalo Bill to act in and demonstrate his shooting ability to sold-out crowds. He soon incorporated other performers such as Native American dancers and his old friend Wild Bill Hickok as a sharpshooter. Soon enough, “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” was born. The group acted as a traveling circus, traversing the country in a caravan and performing shows on their own makeshift stage. Bill brought in horseback performers, poets, and more sharpshooters who became famous in their own right, such as Frank Butler and Annie Oakley. They would perform plays written by Buntline and re-enact famous military engagements such as Custer’s last stand. He included players of all creeds, colors, and walks of life. At the end of every show, Buffalo Bill would speak on the horrors of the Civil War and the importance of diversity and a united country, doing with his wild west show what he couldn’t with the military.
“Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” toured the United States, Canada, and Europe for more than 30 years. It made Buffalo Bill one of the most recognized celebrities on the planet during the early 20th century and shaped how we think about the Old West. His was a show that reflected a period of history, but also one that celebrated diversity and understanding. Bill was extremely outspoken about civil rights and the rights of women, speaking openly during his shows about the importance of freedom for all people. He was a noted conservationist, who, despite gaining fame through the slaughter of bison, stood against hide hunting. Bill spoke often of the importance of wildlife and against over-hunting. He became one of the earliest advocates for the official hunting seasons we have in place today. Buffalo Bill Cody died in 1917 at the age of 70. He was a man who used his hunting talents and passions to forge a true American dream. He left behind a legacy ahead of its time and helped to shape a culture of acceptance and freedom that is still in place today.
Featured image courtesy of truewestmagazine.com.