Giving Voice to Children in History
Buffalo Bill was the ultimate showman, the superstar of the fabled Wild West show that toured America, Europe, and Russia for forty years. He was so famous that he performed for the queen of England and was friends with several American presidents.
But who was the person behind that celebrated name?
He was born William Frederick Cody in 1846 and called Billy. When he was eight, his family moved to Kansas Territory to become homesteaders. Kansas was in turmoil over the issue of joining the Union as a free or a slave state. Billy’s father, who opposed slavery, was stabbed by a pro-slaver. He died three years later from his injury, leaving eleven-year-old Billy, the eldest son, to support his mother and six siblings. Jobs were scarce, but Billy was already an expert horseman and a hard worker. A freight company paid him a man’s wages to work on supply wagons headed west. When he was just fourteen, he rode the Pony Express. He learned to be a trapper, trail guide, scout, and fine marksman. These dangerous jobs allowed him to care for his family while doing work he loved.
When the Civil War started in 1861, seventeen-year-old Billy enlisted, becoming a Union soldier, scout, and spy. After the war he worked as a civilian guide for the army, fought in the Indian Wars, and earned the nickname Buffalo Bill from Kansas railroad workers amazed by his skill in downing buffalo to provide meat for them. He used that name when he created a show about the Old West that he loved so much—and which was fast disappearing.
His show debuted in 1883 and was immediately successful. It featured sharpshooter Annie Oakley, hundreds of Native Americans, trick riders, cowboys and cowgirls, a runaway stagecoach, buffalo, and horses galore. People loved it, and Bill grew famous.
So who was he? A showman, yes, but also a generous philanthropist, a conservationist of western lands, and a supporter of women’s rights. When necessary, he fought Native Americans, but also befriended them. He paid them fairly and brought them recognition and dignity by featuring them in his show.
Above all, he was always Billy Cody, a brave boy who cared for his family and fought for his country, a boy who loved the West and brought it to life for millions of enthralled viewers around the world. He was truly an American icon.
To learn more about Buffalo Bill’s childhood, you’ll want to read Andrea Warren’s newest book, The Boy Who Became Buffalo Bill: Growing Up Billy Cody in Bleeding Kansas. Learn more about all her books at AndreaWarren.com.
Andrea Warren is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
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