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Wild West Shows

Wild West Shows


Colorful Effects. From 1883 to 1916 Buffalo Bills Wild West Show enjoyed a place as the National Entertainment. Ownership and the shows title changed several times, but the show always contained cowboys performing feats of skill and daring, stereotyped Indians attacking white settlers, and well-staged battle scenes between the U.S. Cavalry and Indian warriors. After seeing the show Mark Twain wrote: It brought back to me the breezy, wild life of the Rocky Mountains, and stirred me like a war song.

Codys Achievement. This type of entertainment started as a frontier celebration held in North Platte, Nebraska, in 1882 by William F. Cody. A former army scout and hunter, he claimed to have killed 4,280 buffalo in an eight-month period, thus earning the nickname Buffalo Bill. The success of the 1882 performance encouraged Cody and Dr. W. F. Carver, a crack marksman, to organize a travelling show named the Wild West, Rocky Mountain and Prairie Exhibition. The first performance was given 17 May 1883 in Omaha, Nebraska, and featured Capt. A. H. Bogardus and his four sons as a sharpshooting family. By that summer the show was in Brooklyn, New York. The next year Buffalo Bills Wild West Show was established as a permanent touring show that performed for extended periods in amusement parks, at worlds fairs, and in similar places. In 1885 Annie Oakley joined Codys show, as did Sitting Bull. During Queen Victorias Golden Jubilee (1887) the I queen and her family were thrilled by the performers; six years later the show appeared successfully outside the Worlds Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Makeup of the Show. For almost thirty years the show toured the United States and Europe. It featured horses and riders and held equal appeal for American crowds and European royalty. It was a logistical nightmare transporting, feeding, costuming, and organizing hordes of cowboys, Indians, sharpshooters, horses, buffalo, and hundreds of other elements necessary to evoke a world of parades, races, and reenactments such as stagecoach robberies and Custers Last Stand. Later, the show dramatized such historical epics as the Charge at San Juan Hill and the creation of the Congress of Rough Riders of the World.

Western Propaganda. As a master showman, Cody displayed to his audiences that the West was a place of glory and adventure, an enormous territory reserved for the equestrian exercises of Indians, cowboys, and outlaws. As his own best publicist, Cody built on his life as a child of the West and as a genuine scout and hunter, adventures fictionalized in dime novels and in his own embellished autobiographies. His interpretations of the West were accepted as genuine and authentic, especially from audiences on the East Coast and in Europe. It is undeniable that Cody was a friend of the American Indian, but he devised his show to coincide with contemporary opinions of cowboys and Indians; the Wild West Show did little to raise the Indians image in the publics esteem. It has even been argued among historians that the Wild West Show and its portrayal of the Western frontier shaped the American psyche since violence and the white mans superiority were constant themes of the show. This theory has weakened with time, but the stories and legends that Cody and his show perpetuated continue to be a part of the American myth.


Phoebe Anne Oakley Moses was born on 13 August 1860 and was one of the most phenomenal shots in the history of firearms. She first gained national attention when she won a shooting match in Cincinnati against a crack shot named Frank E. Butler, whom she later married. Until 1884 she and her husband made tours of vaudeville shows and circuses. In that year Oakley auditioned for Buffalo Biirs Wild West Show. Buffalo Bill was immediately smitten with this pretty but shytwenty-four-year-old woman who could sight with a hand mirror and shoot backward as her husband threw glass balls in the air. (She could also shoot them from the back of a galloping pony.) At thirty paces she could shoot the thin edge of a playing card, a dime tossed in the air, or the lit end of a cigarette. She toured with the Wild West Show for seventeen years, with Buffalo Bill giving her top billing as the Peerless Lady Wing-Shot. Buffalo Bill himself called her Littie Missy while Sitting Bull, the Lakota tribal leader, adopted her as a member of his tribe, giving her the name Watanya Cicilla, or Little Sure Shot During the European tour of the Wild West Show in 1887, the Prince of Wales presented Oakley with a medal. In Berlin she obliged Crown Prince Wilhelm by shooting a cigarette from his lips, (After the prince became Kaiser Wilhelm II and World War I erupted in Europe, Annie was quoted as saying, I wish Fd missed that day.) The holes punched into complimentary tickets reminded people of the bullet holes she fired into playing cards, and free tickets became known as Annie Oakleys. In 1935, nine years after her death, Hollywood made a movie of her life, and in 1946 Irving Berlin made her the subject of a successful Broadway musical, Annie Get Your Gun.

Sources: John Culhane, The American Circus: An Illustrated History (New York: Holt, 1990);

Shtri Kasper, Annie Qakley (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992).


Buffalo Bill and the Wild West (Brooklyn, N.Y: Brooklyn Museum, 1981);

Rupert Croft-Cooke and W. S. Meadmore, Buffalo Bill: The Legend, the Man of Action, the Showman (London: Sampson Low, Marston 1952);

The Cultures of Celebrations, edited by Ray B. Browne and Michael T. Marsden (Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1994).

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Wild West Show


WILD WEST SHOW. The Wild West show was a popular, uniquely American form of entertainment that

promoted the image of a romantic and dangerous western frontier from its beginning in 1883 until the 1930s.

William "Buffalo Bill" Cody staged the first Wild West show in 1883. Cody's experiences as a performer as well as a Pony Express rider, army scout, buffalo hunter, and participant in Indian wars preceded his first show. In 1872, while serving as a hunting guide for the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia, Cody recruited the Brulé Sioux Spotted Tail and members of his tribe to entertain the duke with war dances and participate in a buffalo hunt. Dime novelist Ned Buntline wrote four novels and a magazine serial featuring "Buffalo Bill," a hero based on Cody. Cody played himself in Buntline's play The Scouts of the Prairie (1872) and continued to appear in plays until he began his Wild West shows.

In 1882, Cody held the "Old Glory Blow Out," a Fourth of July celebration and predecessor of the Wild West show in North Platte, Nebraska, featuring riding and roping competitions. The first show billed as "Wild West" was Cody's "Wild West, Mountain, and Prairie Exhibition" on the Omaha, Nebraska, fairgrounds opening 19 May 1883. It included a demonstration of Pony Express riding, an Indian attack on a Deadwood stagecoach, a glass ball shooting competition, and buffalo roping. Sharpshooter Annie Oakley joined Cody's "Wild West" in 1884, and the Sioux chief Sitting Bull joined the following year. Cody hired hundreds of "Show Indians" to perform in his exhibitions, despite charges by social reformers and Bureau of Indian Affairs officials that the show exploited the Indians and emphasized savagery.

Wild West shows remained popular through the 1890s. Two other popular shows were "Pawnee Bill's Historic Wild West," which opened in 1888, and the "101 Ranch Real Wild West," beginning in 1907. Cody's "Wild West" toured Europe in 1887, 1889, and 1902, and performed for Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee in 1887. In 1891, Cody's show became "Buffalo Bill's Wild Westand Congress of Rough Riders of the World," expanding to include Russian, Mexican, Argentine, and Arab horsemen as well as American cowboys and Indians. The show reached the height of its popularity in 1893 with performances in conjunction with the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. To the exposition performances, Cody added a reenactment of "Custer's Last Charge," which became a standard feature of the Wild West show.

As life on the frontier became more settled, Cody and other Wild West showmen began to dramatize contemporary events, including the Spanish-American War and the Boxer Rebellion in China. The shows declined in popularity during World War I. The "101 Ranch" made a comeback in 1925, and Wild West performances continued into the 1930s as circus acts. The last major show was "Colonel Tim McCoy's Real Wild Westand Rough Riders of the World," which ran for only one month in 1938.

Wild West shows sustained the romantic image of frontier life in well into the twentieth century. Although few Wild West shows survived World War I and the Great Depression, their influence continues in rodeos and television and film westerns.


Moses, L. G. Wild West Shows and the Images of American Indians, 1883–1933. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.

Reddin, Paul. Wild West Shows. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.

Russell, Don. The Wild West: A History of Wild West Shows. Fort Worth, Tex.: Amon Carter Museum of Western Art, 1970.


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