Already appearing as a well-known figure of the Wild West in popular dime novels, Buffalo Bill Cody makes his first stage appearance on this day, in a Chicago-based production of The Scouts of the Prairie.
Unlike many of his imitators in Wild West shows and movies, William Frederick Cody actually played an important role in the western settlement that he later romanticized and celebrated. Born in Iowa in 1846, Cody joined the western messenger service of Majors and Russell as a rider while still in his teens. He later claimed to have worked for the famous Pony Express, during which time he allegedly completed the third longest emergency ride in the brief history of that company. During the Civil War, Cody joined forces with a variety of irregular militia groups supporting the North. In 1864, he enlisted in the Union army as a private and served as a cavalry teamster until 1865.
Cody began to earn his famous nickname in 1867, when he signed on to provide buffalo meat for the workers of the Eastern Division of the Union Pacific Railroad construction project. His reputation for skilled marksmanship and experience as a rapid-delivery messenger attracted the attention of U.S. Army Lieutenant General Philip Sheridan, who gave Cody an unusual four-year position as a scout-a testament to Cody’s extraordinary frontier skills.
Cody’s work as a scout in the western Indian wars laid the foundation for his later fame. From 1868 to 1872, he fought in 16 battles with Indians, participating in a celebrated victory over the Cheyenne in 1869. One impressed general praised Cody’s “extraordinarily good services as trailer and fighter… his marksmanship being very conspicuous.” Later, Cody again gained national attention by serving as a hunting guide for famous Europeans and Americans eager to experience a bit of the “Wild West” before it disappeared. As luck would have it, one of Cody’s customers was Edward Judson, a successful writer who penned popular dime novels under the name Ned Buntline. Impressed by his young guide’s calm competence and stories of dramatic fights with Indians, Buntline made Cody the hero of a highly imaginative Wild West novel published in 1869. When a stage version of the novel debuted in Chicago as The Scouts of the Prairie, Buntline convinced Cody to abandon his real-life western adventures to play a highly exaggerated version of himself in the play.
Once he had a taste of the performing life, Cody never looked back. Though he continued to spend time scouting or guiding hunt trips in the West, Cody remained on the Chicago stage for the next 11 years. Buffalo Bill Cody was the hero of more than 1,700 variant issues of dime novels, and his star shone even more brightly when his world-famous Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show debuted in 1883. The show was still touring when Buffalo Bill Cody died in 1917.