Buffalo Bill was a product of both family and place. While his presence on the Great Plains influenced his life to a great degree, so too did his family. Descended from men with a strong pioneer ethos, William F. Cody, and subsequently, his wife and children, became a part of multitudes who continually pushed westward in search of new opportunities. Additionally, the friends and acquaintances he met on the Plains—from Wild Bill Hickok to the dime novelist Ned Buntline—helped to shape both his personal life and his public persona. Ever the humble frontiersman, this is a fact that Cody frequently acknowledges in his autobiography—that he would not have been what he was without the people who surrounded and influenced him throughout his life.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, as the saying goes, and neither were the Great Plains. Settling the Plains was a long process that happened in a variety of different ways and often depended upon the aims and personalities of the people doing the settling. Interestingly, the life of William F. Cody as told in his autobiography reflects these different mentalities, and much more. With the life or death of a new town generally dependent on the railroad, Cody’s first-hand experiences in founding, participating, or living in frontier communities shows the challenges in “civilizing” the West in an era that was dedicated to ruthless expansion and progress.
The sheer expanse of the frontier was something that both intrigued and frightened westering Americans of the mid-nineteenth century. Regarded as both a challenge and an opportunity, settlers first utilized the natural landscape to breach the unknown, traveling by way of river and founding towns along the banks. Eventually, as the settlers learned that the Plains soil was more fertile than they thought, they ventured further westward, generally by horse or by wagon train. The advent of the “Iron Way” across the Plains was almost simultaneous with the Civil War, and by 1869, the first transcontinental rail was finished. William F. Cody experienced these three stages of transportation development in various periods of his life, first as a child moving from Iowa to Kansas, second as a teenage rider for the Pony Express, and third as a hunting contractor for the railroad. His autobiography reveals the importance of transportation in settling the Plains, as well as the continuous drive for "progress" and making the unknown known that characterizes the American ethos during the second half of the nineteenth century.
Although William F. Cody’s life was far from typical of that of most Americans, his experiences on the Great Plains provide some insight into the events that we associate with the dominant legacies of the West. The seemingly endless herds of buffalo offered both food and sport for those who either worked on or toured through the Plains—and even gave Cody his nickname, “Buffalo Bill.” The Plains also set the stage for one of the longest and oftentimes forgotten wars of the Unites States, collectively known as “the Indian Wars.” Although Cody served the U.S. Army during this era as a scout rather than a soldier, his involvement in military conflicts and other encounters with Indians—particularly his “First Scalp for Custer”—helped to make him one of the first truly national celebrities. Cody’s autobiography sheds some like on the tumultuous decades that were the 1860s and the 1870s, and the iconic events that he would later immortalized both in American and Europe with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West.