By: Ashley Kath-Bilsky
The history of the American West is filled with larger than life characters. They ventured west (often alone) at a time in this nation’s history where determination and daring feats of bravery often decided a man’s survival.
Some demonstrated a unique strength of purpose or visionary initiative that impressed and influenced others. Frontier men, pioneers, lawmen, Pony Express riders, and soldiers remembered for contributions to their communities or wartime service they provided to their country. Some achieved success during their lifetimes. Some became more famous after their deaths. And others had their names branded in history books as villains or notorious outlaws. Good or bad, many of these characters became the stuff of legend—to such an extent the lines between fact and fiction were often blurred.
Well, when it came to William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody, what you saw was the truth, an honest man who loved the American West and lived an extraordinary life. Although he sometimes embellished certain aspects about his personal escapades for heightened drama as a showman, the fact of the matter remains this man epitomized the spirit of the West. It can honestly be said that people all over the world learned about the Wild West because of Buffalo Bill Cody.
Cody tempted death – often cheating it by the skin of his teeth. Even as a 15-year old Pony Express rider, his tenacity, courage, instinct, and skill as a rider kept him alive. Every situation he faced placed his feet more firmly upon a path of destiny that set him apart from other men.
Today, many people associate (and rightly so) Buffalo Bill Cody with the history, pageantry, and exciting entertainment he brought to worldwide audiences with his Wild West extravaganza. Yet how he came to even be in show business happened because of his larger than life reputation.
Like individual rungs on the proverbial ladder to success, the life lessons he’d acquired helped make the man and his persona. The personality traits for which he would become famous, were founded in boyhood and challenged as a Pony Express rider. Later, he was hired as Chief of Scouts for the Third Cavalry of the US Army during the Plains Wars, for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1872. Even his famous nickname resulted from his skill as a hunter. Hired by the Kansas Pacific Railroad, he hunted buffalo to supply meat for railroad workers.
Every job he’d ever had came about as a result of his love of adventure and need for financial survival. And with grit and determination, he excelled at everything he did. When Russian royalty sought his personal services as a guide in 1872 for a hunting expedition in the American West, it was only a matter of time before Cody decided to take the American West on the road. Of course, the fact he’d befriended many Indians during his lifetime, and had recruited Spotted Tail and his Sioux village to join the Royal Hunt might have helped convince Cody that others needed to see what the Wild West was really about, including the skill and heritage of the American Indians.
On a side note, the Royal Hunt of 1872 opens the second Windswept Texas historical paranormal novel titled SPIRIT OF THE WIND. The story of Ethan Blake (long lost brother to Jordan Blake in WHISPER IN THE WIND) is one where Buffalo Bill Cody plays an integral role.
The fictitious relationship between Cody and reclusive Ethan Blake was essential. I simply couldn’t put a heroine in the path of Ethan too soon. I needed someone who would help put my hero on the necessary trajectory to make peace with himself and the world in which he lived. And I wanted to use someone from history. As guarded and cynical as Ethan Blake had become, trust was a huge obstacle in the crafting of his story.
How do I get a reclusive character from Point A to Point B—and on his own journey toward happiness—and in the path of the woman he is destined to love?
Enter, Buffalo Bill Cody. After all, even Sitting Bull trusted Cody, and called him friend.
Without question, the times in which Cody lived were tumultuous and violent. Still, he also sought to respect and honor people of different cultures. He was a friend and outspoken advocate for Native Americans, and supported their rights. Of their turbulent history with the white men, he once said: “Every Indian outbreak that I have ever known has resulted from broken promises and broken treaties by the government.”
In 1883, after years of performing in theatres as himself, Cody created an entertainment spectacular based on the Wild West. During the history of the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West spectacle (which later became Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World in 1892), more than 1,000 Native Americans were employed by Cody. They were paid good wages, and provided transportation, housing, food, and even cash bonuses and gifts at the conclusion of each season. As part of their employment contract with Buffalo Bill, all performers were required to not drink, gamble, or fight, and to conduct themselves with dignity. When the touring season ended, to ensure they didn’t get into any trouble with the law, the Native American performers and their families returned to their reservations.
Although the Wild West show depicted dramatic recreations of battles and conflicts between the white men and American Indians, Cody also wanted people to see they were more than just warriors. Wives and children accompanied the Indian performers when they traveled. He encouraged them to set up their traditional camps and teepees to show the world the beauty of their culture, artwork, and traditions.
As the son of a man who raised him to oppose slavery and oppression, Cody supported human rights. With regard to the rights of women, he spoke in favor of them being able to do any kind of work they wanted and, “if they do it as well as a man, give them the same pay.”
What I learned from my extensive research about Cody, the historical legend of the American West, was that despite the worldwide acclaim, respect, and notoriety he garnered in his public career—until the end of his days he remained a kind, down-to-earth, and caring man devoted to his beloved wife, Louisa, and his family.
A humanitarian who cared deeply for children, wherever his show performed, Cody ensured that free passes were always given to orphanages.
He was member of the Masonic Order. He believed in God, hard work, honesty, and family values.
Very often in life, especially when we read about famous people, the personal struggles and tragedies in their lives are often overlooked. However, I am a firm believer that the struggles we face and the losses we suffer have a profound effect on shaping the person we become.
Sometimes it is necessary to separate the man from the legend to gain a better perspective of the real person. After all, the positive image projected to the public can be a far cry from a person's true character. Where Buffalo Bill Cody was concerned, however, the public image and the private person were the same man.
When asked her thoughts about Cody, Annie ‘Little Sure Shot’ Oakley said he was “the kindest, simplest, most loyal man” she ever knew. She also considered him one of her staunchest friends, and someone who “personified those sturdy and lovable qualities that really made the West”. Note: Annie Oakley first signed with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West as a sharpshooter on 24 April 1885.
William Frederick ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody worked hard to provide for his family. Often that work took him far away and into dangerous situations. He loved the American West and wanted to share that love and its history with others. But most of all, he loved his family and was a loyal friend to many. And I think it was his personal integrity, relationship with his friends, and his constant devotion to his family that best exemplified the character of this man, and prompted me to feature him as a good influence on Ethan Blake in SPIRIT OF THE WIND.
Much as I liked the idea of featuring Cody, I needed a connection between Cody and Ethan Blake – one founded on trust and understanding. Why would someone as closed off as Ethan Blake confide in Cody about his past? Apart from the similarities in their occupations and experiences in the American West, I needed something powerful, something relatable.
Who better to step in and help a friend whose spirit was more dead than alive, but someone who has also seen far too much bloodshed, and who experienced tragedy and personal loss in their own life?
One cannot help but be moved to tears reading (in Cody’s own words) the helplessness he felt when illness claimed the life of his five year old son, Kit Carson Cody.
In 1876, Buffalo Bill Cody was appearing in a play in Massachusetts (based on events in his life), when he received a telegram from his wife in Rochester, New York. Their only son was dying from Scarlet Fever. Cody caught the overnight train and rushed home. As he held and tried to comfort his little boy, this strong man who’d fought and survived so many life-threatening challenges against daunting odds, could do nothing. Imagine the helplessness of the situation.
On 21 April 1876, Kit Carson Cody died in his father’s arms. At the same time, a devastated Cody and his wife had little time to grieve. Their daughters, Arta (aged 9) and Ooma (aged 4), were also gravely sick with the same illness. His daughters would survive, but tragedy would strike again in 1883 when Ooma (then 11 years old) would die from another illness.
So, what does make someone a legend? Is it fame or the manner in which they lived? Is it the legacy they left behind? The lives they touched? The insight they gave to a moment in history, helping to establish the world’s perception of a place that has all but vanished from most people’s memory?
William Frederick Cody was born on 26 February 1846 in Iowa. He died at the age of 70 on 10 January 1917 of kidney failure whilst visiting his sister in Denver. As requested by Cody, he is buried in Golden, Colorado on Lookout Mountain. For more information about this remarkable legend of the American West, you can visit the Buffalo Bill Museum and Gravesite in Golden, Colorado. There are a number of wonderful books available about Cody as well.
Thanks for stopping by today, and I hope you enjoyed my post about William Frederick ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody. And please check back for more information, release date, and excerpts from SPIRIT OF THE WIND, the second book in the Windswept Texas trilogy. ~ AKB
An Autobiography of Buffalo Bill (Col. W.F. Cody) by: William Frederick Cody (Reprint 2009) Arc Manor Classic Reprints
Buffalo Bill Cody – The Man Behind The Legend by: Robert A. Carter (2000) John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
The Many Loves of Buffalo Bill – The True Story of Life on the Wild West Show by: Chris Enss (2010) Globe Pequot Press
Buffalo Bill – Scout, Showman, Visionary by: Steve Friesen (2010) Fulcrum Publishing, Inc.
The Buffalo Bill Museum and Gravesite, Golden, CO
ABOUT ASHLEY KATH-BILSKY
Ashley Kath-Bilsky is an award-winning, best-selling author of Historical Fiction with Romance, Mystery, Suspense and/or Paranormal elements. She also writes Gothic Historical Young Adult and New Adult fiction. For more information, please visit her website at: www.ashleykathbilsky.com
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