Codys on the Plains
Whether he knew it or not, William F. Cody was descended from a line of pioneers, of movers who continually breached frontiers in search of opportunity and success. The Cody Family from which Buffalo Bill descends arrived in North America as early as 1698. The characters most crucial to the story of William Cody begin with his grandfather, Philip Cody. Born in Massachusetts in 1770, Philip grew to maturity on his family’s farm before moving to central New York where he was married. He then immigrated to Canada, purchased land in Ontario within ten miles of what would eventually become Toronto, and began a farm of his own. His venture as a farmer was short-lived, however, and he sold his farm two years after its purchase in order to buy land in Toronto onto which he built a tavern. But his position as tavern manager would not be permanent—he leased his tavern in order to become a surveyor and take up the buying and selling of land, as well as being an active member of the community, serving on juries and being appointed constable several times. Yet Philip was seemingly dissatisfied with these successes in Canada, and around 1826, he and his family reentered the United States and settled in the growing frontier town of Cleveland, Ohio, perhaps seeking to take advantage of the wide-open economic possibilities of a land no longer under imperial rule.
Traveling with Philip to Ohio was seventeen-year-old Isaac Cody, who became a surveyor like his father. Consistent with the mobility of the Cody family, Isaac’s older brother Elijah decided to emigrate further into the expanding nation, settling in western Missouri, near the border of the future state of Kansas. Isaac journeyed with Elijah as far as Cincinnati where he met the woman who was to be his third wife, schoolteacher Mary Ann Laycock. Mary Ann became stepmother of Martha, Isaac’s child by his first wife, Martha Miranda O’Connor. While Isaac had been widowed twice by the time he was twenty-nine, his marriage to Mary Ann would last until his own death and produce seven children.
Several months before their 1840 marriage, Isaac bought land near Davenport, Iowa from his younger brother Philip who had intended to be among the first settlers of the new territory. However, life as a pioneer had proven too difficult for Mary Ann’s poor health, and they returned east to the comfort and stability of civilization. Traveling by steamship, Isaac and his family settled in Scott County, Iowa, where six of the couple’s children were born, including William Frederick Cody.
My parents, Isaac and Mary Ann Cody, who were numbered among the pioneers of Iowa, gave to me the name of William Frederick. I was the fourth child in the family. Martha and Julia, my sisters, and Samuel my brother, had preceded me, and the children who came after me were Eliza, Nellie, Mary, and Charles, born in the order named ("Childhood").
Not only was the Great Plains the setting of William F. Cody's home during childhood but it was also where he settled in marriage and raised children of his own. To hear the two of them tell it, one of the major events of the Civil War was the meeting and courtship of William Cody and Louisa Frederici. According to her memoirs, Louisa and her future husband met on May 1, 1865; according to Cody, they became acquainted over the winter of 1864-5. While Cody was in St. Louis doing special duty as an orderly, they were introduced through her cousin, Will McDonald. Immediately their connection was playful, even mischievous: they pretended to be engaged at a social gathering to play a practical joke one of Louisa’s other suitors. Cody was thoroughly enchanted (although much later, he would refute his own story and claim he was tricked into marriage) and continued to court Louisa until the end of the war.
The war closing in 1865, I was discharged, and after a brief visit at Leavenworth I returned to St. Louis, having made up my mind to capture the heart of Miss Frederici, whom I now adored above any other young lady I had ever seen. Her lovely face, her gentle disposition and her graceful manners won my admiration and love; and I was not slow in declaring my sentiments to her. The result was that I obtained her consent to marry me in the near future, and when I bade her good-bye I considered myself one of the happiest of men. ("A Wedding")
Cody and Louisa were engaged for a year before for they were finally married on March 6, 1866. Although Cody recalled his pride and making a “most fortunate choice for a life partner” during the ceremony, an incident during their honeymoon illustrates that they may not have been quite the perfect match he believed them to be. While taking an excursion on a riverboat, a group from Missouri frequently excluded the Codys from various social events simply because they recognized Cody as being a soldier from Kansas, a slight that did not escape Mrs. Cody’s notice:
I noticed that my wife felt grieved over the manner in which these people had treated me. Just married, she was going into a new country, and seeing how her husband was regarded, how he had been shunned, and how his life had been threatened, I was afraid she might come to the conclusion too soon that she had wedded a "hard customer." So when the boat landed at Kansas City I telegraphed to some of my friends in Leavenworth that I would arrive there in the evening. My object was to have my acquaintances give me a reception, so that my wife could see that I really did have some friends, and was not so bad a man as the bushwhackers tried to make out ("A Wedding").
By all accounts, Louisa Cody was a very genteel woman who was accustomed to respectability and did not adjust well to life on the plains. As a newlywed, Cody decided to “abandon the plains” and settle down with his wife in Salt Creek Valley, Kansas, but his resolve only lasted so long. By the winter of 1866, Cody set out west, believing he could make more money scouting than he was currently as a landlord, but he went west alone. Louisa and Arta, the Codys first child born on December 16, 1866, later joined Cody in Rome, Kansas, during its brief revival. The rest of Cody and Louisa’s fifty-one-year marriage exhibited a similar pattern, one where Cody would leave the homestead in North Platte for a significant period of time, only to return or to send for his family for a short period of time before he ventured off again.
As a result, their marriage was not a particularly happy one, although it did produce four children: Arta (1866-1904), Kit Carson (1870-1876), Orra Maude (1872-1883), and Irma Louisa (1883-1918). Of the four, only two survived to adulthood: Orra died in 1883 of an unspecified illness, and Kit died in 1876 of scarlet fever. The loss of Kit, the only boy, was particularly devastating to Cody, who wrote to his sister Julia Cody Goodman after the tragedy:
The messenger seems not to have been satisfied by plucking the brighte flower. and is still hovering near by. thinking whether he shall take the others or not. for the same fever. has taken hold of our little Girls but so far only lightly. But with Kitty it claimed him from the first. Lulu is worn out and sick. I am it is now three oclock in the morning. I am sitting by the bed side of our sick babys. I was hundreds of miles away when. Lulu telegraphed me. and I only got home a few hours before Kitty died. he could not speak. but he put his little arms around my neck. as much as to say. Papa has come ("Letter from William F. Cody to Julia Cody Goodman").
Unfortunately, this was not the last tragedy to befall Cody’s family. Arta died in 1904, shortly after her second marriage. Understandably, their children’s deaths exacerbated an already strained relationship between Louisa and Cody, so much so that each nearly resulted in divorce. The couple separated after an emotional confrontation at Arta’s funeral, which eventually culminated in Cody filing for divorce in March of 1905. Depositions were taken on both sides, with Louisa citing Cody’s drinking and suspected adultery as the cause of her unhappiness, and Cody claiming she was ruining him financially (and that she had tricked him into marriage). Louisa blocked the proceedings from granting the divorce one way or another, and the matter was never settled. The Codys reconciled in 1910 and maintained their marriage until his death on January 23, 1917. Their youngest daughter, Irma, survived her father by one year, while Louisa lived until 1921. Upon her death, Louisa was buried next to her husband on Lookout Mountain above Golden, Colorado.