Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show

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Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show

The mythology of the Old West is an essential part not so much of American history as American folklore. While much of this vision derives from countless dime novels (inexpensive, melodramatic books that originally cost ten cents) and Hollywood movies that depict the settling of the American West, the origin of this mythology may be traced to one man: William F. Cody (1846–1917), more commonly known as Buffalo Bill. Cody was a U.S. cavalry scout, buffalo hunter, Indian fighter, Pony Express rider, gold miner, ox team driver—and entertainer. He created Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, a traveling extravaganza that celebrated and glorified the settling of the American West.

Legend has it that Cody was dubbed "Buffalo Bill" after being hired to help supply buffalo meat to workers building the cross-country railroad; he claimed to have killed 4,280 buffalo. His fame was spread by Ned Buntline (1823–1886), a dime novelist who made him the hero of a series of stories published in The New York Weekly. Buntline was not a chronicler of Cody's real-life deeds; he fictionalized and exaggerated them, thus creating the mythology surrounding his subject.

In 1872, Buntline persuaded Cody to act in his play, The Scouts of the Plains, which was Buffalo Bill's entry into show business. Supposedly, upon observing a Nebraska Independence Day celebration in 1883, Cody concocted the idea of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, which recreated a Pony Express ride, a stagecoach attack, and various rodeo events. The finale included a spectacle involving cowboys, Indians, and stampeding animals. Wherever possible, Cody hired real-life Western notables to appear in his show.

For an 1884 appearance at the Cotton Exposition in New Orleans, Louisiana, Cody acquired the services of his top drawing card: Annie Oakley (1860–1926), the famed sharpshooter. The following year, he hired Sitting Bull (1831–1890), fabled chief of the Teton Sioux Indians, who had led the final major Indian resistance against western settlement. In retrospect, Cody's employment of Indians is controversial. Although he was one of the few who dared hire Native Americans, his depiction of them attacking stagecoaches and settlers perpetuated the image of the Indian as a dangerous savage.

Cody's extravaganza reached its height in popularity in 1887, when he took it to London, England, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the reign of Queen Victoria (1819–1901). Two years later, Cody toured throughout Europe, beginning with a performance in Paris. After returning to the United States in 1893 and savoring one last successful season, Cody's show began to decline. Its luster faded because of competition from similar traveling extravaganzas and internal upheaval. However, Cody did manage to keep the show afloat until his death in 1917.

—Rob Edelman

For More Information

Buffalo Bill and the Indians, Or Sitting Bull's History Lesson (film). United Artists, 1976.

Cody, William F. An Autobiography of Buffalo Bill (Colonel W. F. Cody). New York: Cosmopolitan Book Corporation, 1923.

Cody, William F. The Business of Being Buffalo Bill: Selected Letters of William F. Cody, 1879–1917. New York: Praeger, 1988.

Leonard, Elizabeth Jane. Buffalo Bill, King of the Old West. New York: Library Publishers, 1955.

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