Bill Cody was born in Iowa back in 1845, the fourth of eight children. When he was 7, the family departed for Kansas. They built a little log cabin up Salt Creek Valley, about three miles west of Fort Leavenworth.
Bill Cody’s life changed when his father died, and he found himself the man of the house at 12 years old. He had to find work to help feed the younguns. That began his fantastic experiences out West when he hired on as a messenger boy for a wagon train delivering supplies for the Army on the western frontier.
Young Cody became a pretty good with a rifle, and it wasn’t long before he was offered a much better paying job as a buffalo hunter for the Union Pacific Railroad as it was building tracks out of Omaha, across the plains and mountains to drive that famous golden spike. He shot 4,280 buffalo to feed the work crew, and that is where he picked up the handle “Buffalo Bill Cody.”
Cody went on to make history when he created Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and hit the arenas back East.
A little 15-year-old girl signed on with the show, named Annie Oakley, and she soon stole the show. A tiny thing, she only stood about 4-foot-11, but she was a natural with a gun. There was no trickery with Annie’s shooting – she was genuine and she was accurate.
Lakota Chief Sitting Bull joined the show and had so much respect for her shooting ability that he “symbolically adopted” her and gave her the handle “Little Miss Sure Shot,” a name that stuck with her throughout the rest of her 16-year career with the show.
Annie Oakley married Frank Butler, and he became her manager. He trusted Annie so much that he would hold a dime between his thumb and forefinger and she would shoot the dime out every time. They did many such crazy stunts together.
In March 1887, “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show” sailed out of New York Harbor for Europe, where they would spend the next nine years. There were a little over 200 actors on board, and about 90 Lakota men, women and children. Below deck were about 100 horses, a small herd of buffalo, mules, Texas Longhorn steers, donkeys, and even a few American deer and elk.
There was much excitement in London about the show, and Queen Victoria commanded a private showing for herself. One newspaper headline referred to Buffalo Bill as the “World’s Most Famous American” – and was probably the most photographed man of his time.
A couple of years into Europe, they were playing in Berlin at the Charlottenburg Race Course where the German emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, attended. It’s been speculated that Annie Oakley could have possibly prevented World War I. She announced she would shoot the ashes off the Havana cigar of any man in the audience.
Normally her husband would step out of the audience as part of the act before anybody else raised a hand. But on that day, the Kaiser beat Frank to the punch.
Because nobody normally volunteered, Annie was taken aback. But since she made the dare she couldn’t back down, so she calculated the distance and took great aim with her pistol and blew the tip right off the Kaiser’s cigar.
Had she missed – and hit him – he might not have been around to support Austria-Hungary 25 years later, which might have avoided World War I in 1914. When the Great War began, Annie wrote the Kaiser asking for a second chance, but he did not respond.
Reference: “Buffalo Bill’s America: William Cody and the Wild West Show,” by Louis S. Warren, and the Caldwell County News, June 13, 2012.
Reach Ted W. Stillwell at Ted@blueandgrey.com or 816-896-3582.