William Frederick "Buffalo Bill" Cody
The Cody family can trace their ancestors back to the Channel Islands in the later part of the seventeenth century. In 1698 Philip and Martha Cody traveled to America and purchased a home in Beverly, Massachusetts. Five generations later, Isaac Cody was born in Toronto Township, Canada. In 1840 Isaac married Mary Ann Bonsell Laycock, a descendent of Josiah Bunting who had been born in Derbyshire, England. The couple traveled to Iowa and established their home in LeClaire. William Frederick Cody was born there on February 26, 1846. During William's early childhood, his father served as a farm manager for William F. Brackenridge. In 1854 Isaac moved his family to the Kansas Territory and established a homestead in the Salt Creek Valley.
The Cody family were among the first legal residents of Kansas and may even have been the very first. At the same time a number of squatters also lived in Kansas. Many of these people were from Missouri and favored bringing Kansas into the Union as a slave state. Isaac attempted to remain aloof from the slavery argument, but was eventually drawn into it as one opposed to making Kansas a slave state. In 1854 Isaac was beaten and stabbed in the lung by a pro-slavery mob. He lived through the incident, but his wounds contributed to his early death three years later. The Cody family remained in Kansas and Isaac gradually became more and more associated with the anti-slavery forces in the state. He helped found the town of Grasshopper Falls (later known as Valley Falls).
On March 30, 1855 an election was held for the first Kansas legislature. Pro-slavery forces carried the day, but their opponents claimed election fraud and held their own election on January 15, 1856. Isaac Cody was elected as the representative of the Twelfth District. Isaac was active in the legislature and pro-slavery activists continually harassed him and his family. On March 10, 1857, Isaac died of pneumonia and eleven year old William Cody became the principal breadwinner for his family. He drove oxen for a neighbor, helped with the farm chores, hunted small game for the family table, and was hired as a messenger boy for a freighting company owned by Alexander Majors and William H. Russell. His early education was haphazard at best. While accompanying a Russell and Majors wagon train to Salt Lake City, William claims to have shot and killed his first Indian during an attack by hostile Indians on the wagon train. It was at this period that he first met James Butler Hickok also known as "Wild Bill" Hickok. In later years the two became good friends.
Cody had numerous adventures while working as a teamster and became quite skilled in handling wagons whether pulled by oxen, horses, or mules. During the winters, at his mother's insistence, he attended school in Leavenworth, Kansas, but, according to his autobiography, never took a liking to "the three Rs." His various trips as a young freighter gave him an excellent grasp of the geography of the western territories and introduced him at an early age to many of the principal figures on the frontier, including men like Jim Bridger and Kit Carson. As a very young teen he tried his hand at gold mining and fur trapping, but was successful in neither endeavor. At one point, while 125 miles from the nearest settlement, he broke his leg and was forced to lay up alone in a winter dugout for over a month before being rescued. During that episode his supplies were raided by Indians and his life was spared only because he happened to know one of the Indians in the party - Chief Rain-in-the-Face.
In 1860 Russell, Majors, and William Bradford Waddell, organized the Pony Express and advertised for riders:
WANTED - young, skinny, wiry fellows, not over 18.
Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily.
Orphans preferred. Wages $25 a week.
Although there are some who doubt it, it would appear that Cody rode for the Pony Express in Colorado for two months in early 1860 before returning to Kansas to visit his mother. He rode for the Pony again later that same year in Utah. During the Utah stint he once made a ride of 322 miles - the third longest Pony Express ride in history. It was during this period that he was involved in an altercation with a group of outlaws during which he was forced to kill one - the only time on record that he used his guns on a non-Indian. In June 1861 Cody returned to Kansas to visit with his family. With the advent of the civil war, Cody joined an independent company of militia which operated across the Missouri line as guerilla raiders and horse thieves. After his mother complained that this activity was not honorable, Cody joined Wild Bill Hickok briefly as a teamster supporting Union forces in the area. Later he worked as a messenger and again as a teamster. In 1862 he participated in an engagement against Indians along the old Santa Fe Trail as a guide and scout. Later that year he joined the Red Legs, a group of irregulars which operated primarily in Missouri.