On May 9, 1887, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show opened in London, England – thrilling the British public with action-packed performances by cowboys, Native Americans and with heart-stopping recreations of tales from the American frontier.
It is improbable to imagine that Queen Victoria, celebrating 50 years on the throne, would request a private royal performance from a cowboy who had grown up on the prairies of the American West. However, the life of “Buffalo Bill” Cody was anything but predictable.
William Frederick Cody, was born on an Iowa farm in 1846. At the age of seven he moved with is family to Fort Lawerence in the Kansas Territory. His father, Isaac Cody, was a committed abolitionist and was attacked in Kansas for his anti-slavery views.
Following his father’s death, young William Cody helped to support his family by delivering messages up and down wagon trains. Cody later worked as a scout assisting the U.S. Army and, at the age of 14, he headed west to the California Gold Rush.
Historians dispute many of Cody’s claims about his colorful life, but according to Cody’s autobiography, he left behind dreams of striking it rich in the California gold fields to become a rider for the Pony Express.
Whatever the facts, Cody certainly knew how to entertain with tales of western adventures. His nickname, “Buffalo Bill” came from his fame hunting buffalo to supply workers with meat during the building of the Kansas Pacific Railroad line.
By his early 20s, Cody’s life had become a source of entertainment. Writer Ned Buntline published stories and a novel based on “Buffalo Bill” which were eagerly read by easterners enthralled with the exploits of American cowboys.
At age 24, William Cody became a Master Mason as he joined Platte Valley Lodge No. 32 in Nebraska. In later years, Cody would become a York Rite Mason. He also joined the Shriners and received the 32 degrees of the Scottish Rite.
Cody was a natural showman and in 1883 he put together a traveling troupe of performers as “Buffalo Bill's Wild West” which proved to be a stupendous hit in cities across America. Displays of horsemanship, marksmanship with sharpshooters like Annie Oakley, stagecoach races, and reenactments of colorful western adventures including attacks by Indians on wagon trains and stagecoach robberies were all part of Cody’s various shows.
To coincide with celebrations of the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria, Cody took his show to Britain. The show was hailed by the critics and drew huge crowds in London.
Her Majesty, Queen Victoria, requested a private command performance and the Buffalo Bill Wild West troupe proudly performed for a royal audience of just 26 including the Queen and her entourage in an arena which could hold 40,000.
Cody would later write about that day, “… there arose such a genuine heart-stirring American yell from our company as seemed to shake the sky,” as Buffalo Bill greeted the Queen, “Welcome, Your Majesty, to the Wild West of America.”
Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West troupe would continue to entertain worldwide audiences until shortly after the turn of the century. In 1895 Cody moved to the Wyoming Territory where he founded the town of Cody, established a ranch and opened a hotel.
Cody died on January 10, 1917 and his life was honored in a Masonic funeral service and the cowboy showman was laid to rest atop Lookout Mountain in Colorado.