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Category: The Life of Hon. William F. Cody, Known as Buffalo Bill, the Famous Hunter, Scout and Guide An Autobiography
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My début upon the world's stage occurred on February 26th, 1845. The scene of this first important event in my adventurous career, being in Scott county, in the State of Iowa. 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.

At the time of my birth the family resided on a farm which they called "Napsinekee Place,"--an Indian name--and here the first six or seven years of my childhood were spent. When I was about seven years old my father moved the family to the little town of LeClair, located on the bank of the Mississippi, fifteen miles above the city of Davenport. Even at that early age my adventurous spirit led me into all sorts of mischief and danger, and when I look back upon my childhood's days I often wonder that I did not get drowned while swimming or sailing, or my neck broken while I was stealing apples in the neighboring orchards.

I well remember one day that I went sailing with two other boys; in a few minutes we found ourselves in the middle of the Mississippi; becoming frightened at the situation we lost our presence of mind, as well as our oars. We at once set up a chorus of pitiful yells, when a man, who fortunately heard us, came to our rescue with a canoe and towed us ashore. We had stolen the boat, and our trouble did not end until we had each received a merited whipping, which impressed the incident vividly upon my mind. I recollect several occasions when I was nearly eaten up by a large and savage dog, which acted as custodian of an orchard and also of a melon patch, which I frequently visited. Once, as I was climbing over the fence with a hatful of apples, this dog, which had started for me, caught me by the seat of the pantaloons, and while I clung to the top of the fence he literally tore them from my legs, but fortunately did not touch my flesh. I got away with the apples, however, by tumbling over to the opposite side of the fence with them.

It was at LeClair that I acquired my first experience as an equestrian. Somehow or other I had managed to corner a horse near a fence, and had climbed upon his back. The next moment the horse got his back up and hoisted me into the air, I fell violently to the ground, striking upon my side in such a way as to severely wrench and strain my arm, from the effects of which I did not recover for some time. I abandoned the art of horsemanship for a while, and was induced after considerable persuasion to turn my attention to letters--my A, B, C's--which were taught me at the village school.

My father at this time was running a stage line, between Chicago and Davenport, no railroads then having been built west of Chicago. In 1849 he got the California fever and made up his mind to cross the great plains--which were then and for years afterwards called the American Desert--to the Pacific coast. He got ready a complete outfit and started with quite a party. After proceeding a few miles, all but my father, and greatly to his disappointment, changed their minds for some reason and abandoned the enterprise. They all returned home, and soon afterwards father moved his family out to Walnut Grove Farm, in Scott county.

While living there I was sent to school, more for the purpose of being kept out of mischief than to learn anything. Much of my time was spent in trapping quails, which were very plentiful. I greatly enjoyed studying the habits of the little birds, and in devising traps to take them in. I was most successful with the common figure "4" trap which I could build myself. Thus I think it was that I acquired my love for hunting. I visited the quail traps twice a day, morning and evening, and as I had now become quite a good rider I was allowed to have one of the farm horses to carry me over my route. Many a jolly ride I had and many a boyish prank was perpetrated after getting well away from and out of the sight of home with the horse.

There was one event which occurred in my childhood, which I cannot recall without a feeling of sadness. It was the death of my brother Samuel, who was accidentally killed in his twelfth year.

My father at the time, being considerable of a politician as well as a farmer, was attending a political convention; for he was well known in those days as an old line Whig. He had been a member of the Iowa legislature, was a Justice of the Peace, and had held other offices. He was an excellent stump speaker and was often called upon to canvass the country round about for different candidates. The convention which he was attending at the time of the accident was being held at a cross-road tavern called "Sherman's," about a mile away.

Samuel and I had gone out together on horseback for the cows. He rode a vicious mare, which mother had told him time and again not to ride, as it had an ugly disposition. We were passing the school house just as the children were being dismissed, when Samuel undertook to give an exhibition of his horsemanship, he being a good rider for a boy. The mare, Betsy, became unmanageable, reared and fell backward upon him, injuring him internally. He was picked up and carried amid great excitement to the house of a neighbor.

I at once set out with my horse at the top of his speed for my father, and informed him of Samuel's mishap. He took the horse and returned immediately. When I arrived at Mr. Burns' house, where my brother was, I found my father, mother and sisters there, all weeping bitterly at Samuel's bedside. A physician, after examining him, pronounced his injuries to be of a fatal character. He died the next morning.

My brother was a great favorite with everybody, and his death cast a gloom upon the whole neighborhood. It was a great blow to all of the family, and especially to father who seemed to be almost heart broken over it.

Father had been greatly disappointed at the failure of his California expedition, and still desired to move to some new country. The death of Samuel no doubt increased this desire, and he determined to emigrate. Accordingly, early in the spring of 1852, he disposed of his farm, and late in March we took our departure for Kansas, which was then an unsettled territory. Our outfit consisted of one carriage, three wagons and some fine blooded horses. The carriage was occupied by my mother and sisters. Thus we left our Iowa home.

Father had a brother, Elijah Cody, living at Weston, Platte county, Missouri. He was the leading merchant of the place. As the town was located near the Kansas line father determined to visit him, and thither our journey was directed. Our route lay across Iowa and Missouri, and the trip proved of interest to all of us, and especially to me. There was something new to be seen at nearly every turn of the road. At night the family generally "put up" at hotels or cross-road taverns along the way.

One day as we were proceeding on our way, we were met by a horseman who wanted to sell his horse, or trade-him for another. He said the horse had been captured wild in California; that he was a runner and a racer; that he had been sold by his different owners on account of his great desire to run away when taking part in a race.

The stranger seemed to be very frank in his statements, and appeared to be very anxious to get rid of the animal, and as we were going to Kansas where there would be plenty of room for the horse to run as far as he pleased, father concluded to make a trade for him; so an exchange of animals was easily and satisfactorily effected.

The new horse being a small gray, we named him "Little Gray."

An opportunity of testing the racing qualities of the horse was soon afforded. One day we drove into a small Missouri town or hamlet which lay on our route, where the farmers from the surrounding country were congregated for the purpose of having a holiday--the principal amusement being horse-racing. Father had no trouble in arranging a race for Little Gray, and selected one of his teamsters to ride him.

The Missourians matched their fastest horse against him and were confident of cleaning out "the emigrant," as they called father. They were a hard looking crowd. They wore their pantaloons in their boots; their hair was long, bushy and untrimmed; their faces had evidently never made the acquaintance of a razor. They seemed determined to win the race by fair means or foul. They did a great deal of swearing, and swaggered about in rather a ruffianly style.

All these incidents attracted my attention--everything being new to me--and became firmly impressed upon my memory. My father, being unaccustomed to the ways of such rough people, acted very cautiously; and as they were all very anxious to bet on their own horse, he could not be induced to wager a very large sum on Little Gray, as he was afraid of foul play.

"Wa-al, now, stranger," exclaimed one of the crowd, "what kind o' critter have you got anyhow, as how you're afraid to back him up very heavy?"

"I'll bet five to one agin the emergrant's, gray," said another.

"I'm betting the same way. I'll go yer five hundred dollars agin a hundred that the gray nag gits left behind. Do I hear any man who wants to come agin me on them yer terms?" shouted still another.

"Hi! yer boys, give the stranger a chance. Don't scare him out of his boots," said a man who evidently was afraid that my father might back out.

Father had but little to say, however, and would not venture more than fifty dollars on the result of the race.

"Gentlemen, I am only racing my horse for sport," said he, "and am only betting enough to make it interesting. I have never seen Little Gray run, and therefore don't know what he can do;" at the same time he was confident that his horse would come in the winner, as he had chosen an excellent rider for him.

Finally all the preliminaries of the contest were arranged. The judges were chosen and the money was deposited in the hands of a stake-holder. The race was to be a single dash, of a mile. The horses were brought side by side and mounted by their riders.

At the signal--"One, two, three, go!"--off they started like a flash. The Missouri horse took the lead for the first quarter of a mile; at the half-mile, however, he began to weaken. The Missourians shouted themselves hoarse in urging their horse, but all to no avail. The Little Gray passed him and continued to leave him farther and farther behind, easily winning the race.

The affair created a great deal of enthusiasm; but the race was conducted with honor and fairness, which was quite an agreeable surprise to my father, who soon found the Missourians to be at heart very clever men--thus showing that outside appearances are sometimes very deceptive; they nearly all came up and congratulated him on his success, asked him why he had not bet more money on the race, and wanted to buy Little Gray.

"Gentlemen," said he, "when I drove up here and arranged for this race, I felt confident that my horse would win it. I was among entire strangers, and therefore I only bet a small amount. I was afraid that you would cheat me in some way or other. I see now that I was mistaken, as I have found you to be honorable men."

"Wa-all, you could have broke _me_" said the man who wanted to bet the five hundred dollars to one hundred, "for that there nag o' yourn looks no more like a runner nor I do."

During our stay in the place they treated us very kindly, and continued to try to purchase Little Gray. My father, however, remained firm in his determination not to part with him.

The next place of interest which we reached, after resuming our journey, was within twenty miles of Weston. We had been stopping at farm houses along the road, and could not get anything to eat in the shape of bread, except corn bread, of which all had become heartily tired. As we were driving along, we saw in the distance a large and handsome brick residence. Father said: "They probably have white bread there."

We drove up to the house and learned that it was owned and occupied by Mrs. Burns; mother of a well-known lawyer of that name, who is now living in Leavenworth. She was a wealthy lady, and gave us to understand in a pleasant way, that she did not entertain travelers. My father, in the course of the conversation with her, said: "Do you know Elijah Cody?"

"Indeed, I do," said she; "he frequently visits us, and we visit him; we are the best of friends."

"He is a brother of mine," said father.

"Is it possible!" she exclaimed; "Why, you must remain here all night. Have your family come into the house at once. You must not go another step today."

The kind invitation was accepted, and we remained there over night. As father had predicted, we found plenty of white bread at this house, and it proved quite a luxurious treat.

My curiosity was considerably aroused by the many negroes which I saw about the premises, as I had scarcely ever seen any colored people, the few, being on the steamboats as they passed up and down the Mississippi river.

The next day my father and mother drove over to Weston in a carriage, and returned with my Uncle Elijah. We then all proceeded to his house, and as Kansas was not yet open for settlement as a territory, we remained there a few days, while father crossed over into Kansas on a prospecting tour. He visited the Kickapoo agency--five miles above Weston--on the Kansas side of the Missouri river. He became acquainted with the agent, and made arrangements to establish himself there as an Indian trader. He then returned to Weston and located the family on one of Elijah Cody's farms, three miles from town, where we were to remain until Kansas should be thrown open for settlement. After completing these arrangements, he established a trading post at Salt Creek Valley, in Kansas, four miles from the Kickapoo agency.

One day, after he had been absent some little time, he came home and said that he had bought two ponies for me, and that next morning he would take me over into Kansas. This was pleasant news, as I had been very anxious to go there with him, and the fact that I was now the owner of two ponies made me feel very proud. That night I could not sleep a wink. In the morning I was up long before the sun, and after an early breakfast, father and I started out on our trip. Crossing the Missouri river at the Rialto Ferry, we landed in Kansas and passed along to Fort Leavenworth, four miles distant.

 

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