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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: The Most Famous Man on Earth

By Tom Morrow

During his lifetime, William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody was the most famous man in the world. From Pony Express rider to buffalo hunter to Indian scout and finally showman of the world, Cody filled his life with adventure most could only dream of doing. Arguably, he continues to be the most famous man on earth.

Cody was born Feb. 26, 1846, in what is today Le Claire, Iowa. He grew up for several years in his father’s hometown in Canada before his family moved to the Kansas Territory. After his father’s death, Cody became a rider for the Pony Express at age 14 in 1861. During the American Civil War, he served for the Union from 1863 to the end of the war in 1865. Later he served as a civilian scout to the U.S. Army during the Indian Wars, receiving the Medal of Honor in 1872.buffalo-bill-cody

Cody was Chief of Scouts for the Third Cavalry during the Plains Wars. Part of the time, he scouted for Indians and fought in 16 battles; at other times, he hunted and killed bison to supply the Army and the Kansas Pacific Railroad William F. Cody received the Medal of Honor in 1872 for gallantry as an Army scout in the Indian wars. But it was revoked in 1917, because Congress stated only military personnel could receive the award. However, in 1989 the Army Board for Correction of Military Records ruled that Cody and four other scouts are deserving of the honor and restored their names to Medal of Honor roll.

“Buffalo Bill” got his nickname after the American Civil War, when he had a contract to supply Kansas Pacific Railroad workers with buffalo meat. Cody is purported to have killed 4,282 American bison (commonly known as buffalo) in 18 months, (1867-1868). Cody and hunter William Comstock competed in an eight-hour buffalo-shooting match over the exclusive right to use the name, in which Cody won by killing 68 bison to Comstock’s 48.

In December 1872, Cody traveled to Chicago to make his stage debut with friend Texas Jack Omohundro in “The Scouts of the Prairie,” one of the original Wild West shows produced by Western novelist Ned Buntline. During the 1873-1874 season, Cody and Omohundro invited their friend James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok to join them in a new play called “Scouts of the Plains.” The troupe toured for 10 years. Cody’s part typically included an 1876 incident at the Warbonnet Creek, where he claimed to have scalped a Cheyenne warrior Chief Yellow Hand.

Cody’s Wild West show’s headline performers were well known in their own right. People such as Annie Oakley and her husband Frank Butler did sharp shooting. In 1887, Cody took the show to Great Britain in celebration of the Jubilee year of Queen Victoria.

Cody died on Jan. 10, 1917, surrounded by family and friends at his sister’s house in Denver. Upon the news of Cody’s death, tributes were made by Great Britain’s George V, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II, and President Woodrow Wilson. His funeral service was in Denver. He’s buried atop Lookout Mountain in Golden, Colorado, near Denver.

There has been a continuing controversy as to where he’s buried. Reportedly, he wanted to be buried on Lookout Mountain, but at the time of his death, Cody’s once great fortune had dwindled to less than $100,000. Other family members joined the people of Cody, Wyoming, to say he should be buried in the town he founded. The controversy continues.