William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s legacy extends beyond his popular Wild West show.
A Wyoming town and museum named for him preserves his Big Horn Basin heritage. Lesser known is his brief exploration into the oil business.
Cody was a tireless promoter of the frontier town he helped found in 1896 that bears his name.
As a partner in the Shoshone Land and Irrigation Co., he enticed a Chicago railroad to build an extension from Toluca, Mont., to Cody to ensure prosperity of north-central Wyoming.
Always a businessman, he had earlier formed the W.F. Cody Hotel Co. when the railroad reached Sheridan, about 150 miles east of Cody, in 1892. He opened the Irma Hotel (named after his daughter) in Cody in 1902.
Perhaps inspired by the January 1901 oil gusher on Spindletop Hill, Texas, which was launching hundreds of new oil companies, Cody and associate George Beck began searching for oil near Cody.
The fledgling oilmen began by using the same “placer claim” Wyoming applied to gold and silver. State law required that at least $100 had to be spent annually on development of each 160-acre claim.
Although Cody had earlier disappointments in mining, the experience did not hamper his promotion of the venture and search for investors, including Wyoming congressman Rep. Frank Mondell, among others. He and his partners formed the Cody Oil Co. in October 1902.
Cody Oil drilled its first well at an oil springs just two miles from Buffalo Bill’s namesake town.
By August 1903, the well had reached 500 feet and was progressing well enough to prompt spudding another. But water encroachment ruined both well boreholes – and dampened Cody’s enthusiasm.
It would be six years before Cody and his associates returned to the oil business by forming the Shoshone Oil Co. Mondell, undeterred by the failure of the Cody Oil Co., invested in the new exploration venture.
At $1 per share, Cody bought 2,500 shares and his partner Beck bought 46,666 shares of Shoshone Oil. In 1909, they filed 115 oil placer claims south of Cody.
They energetically promoted their “Bonanza Oil District” to potential investors. According to historian Robert Bonner, Cody promoted his enterprises endlessly with anyone who would listen.
“He saw great possibilities in every direction, and he had an unquestioned faith in his personal ability to achieve whatever he set out to do,” Bonner notes in his 2007 book, “William F. Cody’s Wyoming Empire.”
“He always was willing to back up his words with his money,” Bonner adds.
During a visit to New York City, the determined Wyoming oilman carried pocket flasks of oil to show his friends in the East and to interest investors.
“With what degree of seriousness we cannot know,” adds Bonner, noting some of Cody’s eastern friends called him, “Bill, the Oil King.”
Unfortunately for the Shoshone Oil Co., all major oil strikes were north and east of town; nothing of significance was found on the company’s placer claims.
Drilling funds ran out and the business failed. If Shoshone Oil had drilled farther south and a little east of Cody, it may have found the northernmost extension of the prolific Oregon Basin.
Today, Shoshone Oil Company survives only as collectible stock certificates. Just two years before his death, Cody briefly attempted a third visit to the oil patch with the Buffalo Bill Oil & Gas Company.
The world-famous Wild West showman died on Jan. 10, 1917. The Buffalo Bill Center of the West opened in 1927 in Cody.
“Making Hole” is a term for drilling coined long before oil or natural gas were anything more than flammable curiosities.
(Bruce Wells is the founder of American Oil and Gas Historical Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the history of oil and gas. He is a former energy reporter and editor who lives in Washington, D.C.)