National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Born Scott County, Iowa
William Cody did more than any single American to popularize the myth of the American West. Before achieving international fame as a showman, he worked a variety of short-term jobs, including serving as a Pony Express rider, an army scout, and a hunting guide. Nicknamed "Buffalo Bill" because of his prowess in hunting buffalo, Cody entered the world of entertainment after a dime novelist in New York wrote a story about his exploits in the West. A subsequent offer to appear on stage led first to a theatrical career and ultimately to the creation of his touring Wild West Show in 1882. For the next thirty years he was the centerpiece of this wildly popular display that combined rodeo, historical reenactment, and other western-themed performances. This photograph dates from the period when Cody first appeared in such plays as The Scouts of the Prairie.