Wild West Shows

views updated May 14 2018


Wild West shows played a significant role in imaging the West by transforming the plethora of confusing and conflicting information about life on the western plains into orderly and predicable acts that spectators found informative and entertaining. These shows brought before American and European audiences the representative people and animals of the West and reproduced the sights and sounds of the Plains frontier. Entertainers carefully crafted the "Wild West" as a place where everything was extraordinarily exciting and distinct from the civilized parts of the world. Because these shows emphasized things uniquely "American"—the landscape, the native people, and the triumph of civilization over "savagery"—they became a forum for ideas about the meaning of the American experience and the West's place in national identity. While many such shows existed, William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody, the Miller Brothers of the 101 Ranch in Oklahoma, and Tom Mix dominated the business in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century.


Buffalo Bill (1846–1917) began his Wild West show in 1883, and he remained prominent in the business until his death. His career spanned an age when Americans were intensely curious about the West. Dime novels first brought Cody's name before the public, and from 1883 to 1887, in shows designed specifically for American audiences, he celebrated Manifest Destiny with a potent mixture of history, patriotism, and the blood-and-thunder dime novel tradition. While these elements would remain in the show, its temper changed significantly in 1887, when Cody took the Wild West show first to England and then France, Spain, Italy, Austria, and Germany. His goals were to showcase western hardihood and to make the Old World "esteem us better." Mark Twain (1835–1910), for one, saw Buffalo Bill's Wild West show as a uniquely American enterprise, wished it well, and speculated that it would teach Europeans a thing or two about the New World.

The European tour changed the show as well as the kind of literature it inspired. Buffalo Bill's Wild West show's reputation as "America's national entertainment" made it a spectacle perfectly suited for examining the persistent question, raised by Henry James and others, about what happened when Americans transported themselves and their traditions to the Old World. Buffalo Bill's show played first in London at a world's fair called Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee in 1887. There it stood adjacent to the United States' official exhibits advertising the nation's progress in the arts and sciences. Observers noted that these two American exhibitions were complementary: one showcased American cultural and technological progress, and the other celebrated the "Wild West" and its people. Making all of this even more intriguing was that these "American" things stood in an ancient European city. American newspapers carried detailed accounts of the Wild West show's success in London and on the rest of the European tour. Mark Twain and Bret Harte apparently followed the journalists' observations carefully, because their fiction mirrored the opinions often articulated in the press.

The proposition of an American dropped into English antiquity intrigued Mark Twain, and he explored it in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889). Hank Morgan, the novel's protagonist, would have smiled approvingly at the array of mechanical inventions in the official American exhibit at the fair. In the book he pits American technology, western skills, and simple virtue against Arthurian England's entrenched religious cupidity and corrupt codes of honor. The cultural conflict comes to a climax in the chapter "The Yankee's Fight with the Knights," where the Wild West usurps a medieval tournament. In it, Morgan dispatches his opponents with Wild West show skills, including lassoing and shooting that had captivated audiences at the jubilee.

Perhaps it was Buffalo Bill's return to Europe for a second tour that inspired Twain to return to the idea of Americans in Europe in "A Horse's Tale" (1906). Soldier Boy, Buffalo Bill's favorite horse, narrates much of this account, which explores the civilization-versus-savagery theme. In this short story, "Little Cathy," a diminutive and precocious bundle of energy and civilization from Spain, arrives in the West to live with her uncle and immediately attracts the attention of Cody, who teaches her western skills. As a reward for mastering the ways of the West, he gives her Soldier Boy. Then Cathy's uncle returns the girl to her family in Spain. In this "safer" and more "civilized" country, Soldier Boy is stolen, mistreated, nearly starved, and eventually sold to a scoundrel who puts him in a bull-fight. Cathy, who is a spectator there, attempts to rescue her purloined pet, but the girl and her beloved horse die in the arena. In this story Twain makes it very clear that "savage" and "uncivilized" apply more accurately to the Old World than the American West. This story reflects questioning remarks about bullfighting that Buffalo Bill had made when his show played in Barcelona in 1889 and then repeated during the Spanish-American War.

Buffalo Bill's Wild West show also inspired Twain's friend Bret Harte (1836–1902) to explore the American in Europe theme. In Harte's "The Strange Experience of Alkali Dick" (1898), a rambunctious cowboy finds Europe too confining for his western independence, gets in trouble with the law, and leaves the show while it is at the Exposition Universal in Paris in 1889. At a time when the image of the Wild West show cowboy focused on his natural "nobility," Harte contrasts that nobility with the Old World variety. The story centers on an accidental and innocent encounter between Alkali Dick and Mademoiselle Fontonelles that raises questions about the virtue of the young lady. Enamored of the woman but chivalrous to the end, the American cowboy defends the honor of the young woman and leaves the country because his presence might fuel more speculations about the aristocratic young woman having a "lover." The story demonstrates the superiority of western American nobility over a French "nobility" that is mired in hoary antiquity, despotism, and maintaining appearances.

The cowboy as the prototypical American became a focal point when Buffalo Bill's Wild West show returned from its first European tour and played at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. At this world's fair Cody heralded his tour of Europe as a triumph of Americanism and endorsed the cowboy as a "nature's nobleman" and the representative American westerner. Buffalo Bill interpreted the winning of the West as a Darwinian struggle that proved the superiority of Americans and prepared it to meet the challenges of the twentieth century. This and all else that was good about the heroic cowboy figure had settled comfortably on a Wild West show performer named "Buck" Taylor, billed as "King of the Cowboys."

Owen Wister (1860–1938) modeled the protagonist in The Virginian (1902) after Buck Taylor. The Virginian encapsulates the Wild West show cowboy; he is a nature's nobleman whose rangy and athletic frame is a joy to behold. Like cowboys in Wild West show arenas, he rarely tends cattle, opting instead for exciting "Wild West" tasks such as taming bucking broncos and defending justice. At the end of the novel the Virginian becomes a successful entrepreneur, something that an elderly Cody might have inspired with his well-publicized investments in mining and irrigation. With The Virginian the Wild West show cowboy achieved immortality and transcended the entertainment business.


Buffalo Bill's Wild West show included women; perhaps a dozen had gone as performers on the first trip abroad, but none had attracted as much attention or adoration as Annie Oakley (1860–1926). While show publicity and journalists' accounts adulated her during her Wild West show career, it was not until the 1920s that the Oakley legend achieved its full stature. During this time the Miller Brothers' 101 Ranch Wild West show successfully promoted the "cowgirl" as a worthy counterpart to the cowboy. Show publicity said that cowgirls and flappers shared a strong sense of independence, but it always argued that the vigorous and salubrious western life made its "girls" more wholesome, athletic, and attractive than their sisters in the cities.

The 1946 Broadway musical Annie Get Your Gun, for example, is a title that almost every American recognizes and associates with Annie Oakley. Her image has endured because she embodied so many things: simple western virtue, athleticism, marksman-ship (considered a man's domain in her lifetime), independence, wifely devotion, and celebrity status softened with gentleness and humility. What fault could people in any age find with such a woman?


Like that of Annie Oakley, the Tom Mix (1880–1940) legend moved gracefully from Wild West show arenas to motion pictures. He began his career in the Miller Brothers' 101 Ranch show and then transplanted the Wild West show cowboy into movies in the 1920s, a time when Americans devoured the escapist novels of Zane Grey. Mix's showmanship, boyish good looks, flamboyant clothing, and simple plots in which good triumphs over evil suited most Americans. Other moviemakers adopted these trademarks and added singing when sound became popular. However, the stock market crash in 1929 ushered in a new age that brought economic hardship and despair to America, causing Mix's popularity to plummet. In the era of the Great Depression, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939) reflected the national mood more than Wild West shows and Mix's breezy movies.


Despite going out of fashion in the Great Depression, the shows left a lasting legacy. Cowboys in the style of Tom Mix and the Wild West show dominated western movies into the 1950s. Rodeos, comic books, Indian powwows, pulp magazines, advertising, television, radio, and Euro Disney all owe much to Wild West shows. They provided authors with important themes, such as Americans in Europe, the conflict between civilization and "savagery," "nature's nobleman," and the meaning of "American" as seen in the cowboys and cowgirls. Wild West shows expanded the world's lexicon with the term "Wild West," enriched literature about the West, and added texture to the broad scope of American literature.


Because Buffalo Bill was the preeminent figure in Wild West shows, much of the scholarly literature about this entertainment has focused on him. For a number of years The Making of Buffalo Bill (1928) by Richard Walsh was the most referenced work about Cody. It treated Buffalo Bill as an undistinguished scout made famous by dime novelists and the popularity of his Wild West show. Henry Nash Smith's Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (1950) demonstrated that ideas and images of the West changed over time and that dime novels about Buffalo Bill reflected an evolving process of imaging the West. Don B. Russell's The Lives and Legends of Buffalo Bill (1960) refocused attention on Buffalo Bill himself and depicted him as a truly heroic man who deserved his legendary status. The New Western Historians, such as Richard Slotkin in Gunfighter Nation (1993), argued that such men as Cody exemplified the violence, environmental destruction, and subjugation of native peoples. While recognizing other shows, Leonard G. Moses in Wild West Shows and the Images of American Indians (1996) revised the New Western History perspective by focusing on Buffalo Bill's Wild West show and arguing that it did not exploit Indians but instead provided employment that allowed them to keep alive significant aspects of their culture.

Other scholars have approached the shows as reflections of American values. In this regard Richard White's "Frederick Jackson Turner and Buffalo Bill," in The Frontier in American Culture (1994), credits the shows with creating cultural icons such as the log cabin, a prop in Wild West show acts that became a symbol of the home ownership segment of the American dream. Paul Reddin's Wild West Shows (1999) studies several representative shows and treats them as a century-long experiment to attune the western theme to changes in popular culture and evolving American ideals. Glenda Riley's The Life and Legend of Annie Oakley (1994) contains an excellent chapter on the Oakley legend. While all the works above recognize the connections between Wild West shows and imaginative literature, most focus on the dime novel tradition.

See alsoCircuses; Dime Novels; Theater; The Western


Primary Works

Harte, Bret. "The Strange Experience of Alkali Dick." In Tales of Trail and Town, 1898. Reprinted in The Writings of Bret Harte 16:338–360. New York: Houghton, Mifflin, 1907.

Twain, Mark. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. New York: Charles A. Webster, 1889.

Twain, Mark. "A Horse's Tale." 1907. In The CompleteShort Stories of Mark Twain, edited by Charles Neider, pp. 523–561. Garden City, N.Y.: Hanover House, 1957.

Wister, Owen. The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains. 1902. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1969.

Secondary Works

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

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

Riley, Glenda. The Life and Legacy of Annie Oakley. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994.

Russell, Don B. The Lives and Legends of Buffalo Bill. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1960.

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

Slotkin, Richard. Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of theFrontier in Twentieth-Century America. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.

Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Land: The American West asSymbol and Myth. New York: Random House, 1950.

Walsh, Richard J., in collaboration with Milton S. Salsbury. The Making of Buffalo Bill: A Study in Heroics. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1928.

White, Richard. "Frederick Jackson Turner and Buffalo Bill." In The Frontier in American Culture, edited by James R. Grossman, pp. 7–65. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Paul Reddin

Wild West Shows

views updated May 21 2018


In the 1830s and 1840s, the western artist George Catlin inaugurated Wild West shows by displaying Plains Indians in the United States, the British Isles, and France. However, this form of entertainment did not become a major cultural phenomenon until the late nineteenth century, when Americans and Europeans became intrigued with the rapidly disappearing Plains frontier. Westerners carved their niche in outdoor entertainment by designating the frontier movement as the most important accomplishment in American history, and by forming shows that celebrated this achievement with programs combining history, patriotism, and adventure. Authentic Plains people, animals, and depictions of events involved in the winning of the West enhanced the appeal of shows.

Spectators enjoyed the dash and color of the shows, and the portrayal of a simple, romantic world in which heroic people on horseback enjoyed untrammeled freedom, quickly eliminated evil, and ensured the success of the "American" way. Vocal audiences exerted considerable influence on the direction and content of the shows. By cheering most loudly for vignettes showcasing colorful characters, adventure, and conflict on the Plains, these audiences helped define the concept of the "Wild West," a collaboratively crafted vision where Westerners instructed Easterners and Europeans but developed acts with an eye to satisfying audience expectations. Many elements of the performances remained the same, but the shows evolved over time to satisfy the ever-changing expectations of viewers.

Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and His Successors

William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody dominated the genre, and accurately gauged the changing moods at home and in Europe. He entered the Wild West show business in 1883, and quickly established its Western format. These shows celebrated horses and those who rode them in acts featuring races and bucking broncos. Sharpshooting, from horseback and from the ground, was always a part of the programs. Spectacles combined shooting and horseman-ship in acts, such as one in which Indians attacked a settler's cabin and a band of cowboys brandishing sixshooters arrived just in time to save the family. Another spectacle, the rescue of the Deadwood stagecoach, featured hard-riding, gun-wielding cowboys dispatching Indians or bandits.

An international phase in the show extended from 1887 to 1893, when Buffalo Bill's Wild West show visited Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee in London, and then moved to France, Spain, Italy, Austria, and Germany, before returning to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. During this time, Cody and the show's publicists polished the image of performers—cowboys, in particular—in a way that retained their American vigor but made them less violent, more knightly and gentlemanly, and thereby more acceptable to Europeans. By camping out-of-doors in Europe, these Americans self-consciously played the role of innocent children of nature rejuvenated by contact with nature. This depiction elevated the image of all in the show, but the cowboy image benefited most; from that point forward, the cowboy became an American icon. At the Columbian Exposition, Buffalo Bill's Wild West show reassured Americans that the United States could move confidently into the future because of core values developed on the frontier. By this time, the show contained a "Congress of Rough Riders" that included military units from the great powers of the world and exotic equestrians, such as Cossacks and gauchos. After 1893, Buffalo Bill celebrated militarism and imperialism along with all things western. Before Cody died in 1917, he was encouraging "preparedness" for America's entry into World War I.

Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show

  • • Acts in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show sometimes featured athletes, including a high jumper who jumped over horses, sprinters who raced horses, and Arabians who demonstrated feats of strength and tumbling.
  • • Buck Taylor, a cowboy in Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, probably served as the model for the protagonist in Owen Wister's novel The Virginian (1902).
  • Annie Oakley, who was with the show from 1884 until 1901, encouraged women to become physically fit with activities such as equestrianism, fencing, running, and working out with weights.
  • • The show sold itself as a re-creation of life on the frontier, and among the staged acts that made up the show were scenes known as the Bison Hunt, the Train Robbery, the Indian War Battle Reenactment, and the Grand Finale—The Attack on the Burning Cabin.
  • • In 1893, a new act was added to the show. Called the Congress of Rough Riders of the World, the military-style act featured marksmen from around the world, including future U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt.

The success of Buffalo Bill's show inspired many imitators and competitors. A perusal of the 116 shows listed in Don B. Russell's "Checklist of Wild West Shows" in The Wild West (pp. 121–127) indicates that from 1883 to 1900 there were perhaps twenty other entertainments, often run by men with flamboyant names, such as Dr. W. F. Carver, or "Evil Spirit of the Plains," Pawnee Bill (both partners of Buffalo Bill for a time), Buckskin Joe, and Mexican Joe. From 1900 to 1920 the shows proliferated to over fifty, although many were small, circuslike affairs, such as Buckskin Ben's Wild West and Dog and Pony Show, and Indian Bill's Wild West and Cole and Rogers Circus combined. The celebrated outlaws Cole Younger and Frank James tried the business in 1903 and 1908. The Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Show (the employer of Buffalo Bill, 1916–1917) was the largest show to emerge (1907), and continued, with an interruption for World War I, until the Great Depression. From 1920 to 1940, approximately twenty Wild West shows existed, sometimes headed by movie stars such as Tom Mix, Tim McCoy, and Ken Maynard. After 1940, only a handful of shows appeared, but some included luminaries, such as Gene Autry's Flying A Ranch Stampede. Women occasionally ran Wild West shows, as evidenced by such names as Luella Forepaugh-Fish Wild West and the Kemp Sisters Wild West.

Wild West shows employed thousands of performers, some whose names are recognizable today, such as Annie Oakley, Sitting Bull, Will Rogers, Tom Mix, Bill Pickett, and Jess Willard. During their lifetimes, most Americans knew the names Buck Taylor, Johnny Baker, Antonio Esquibel, Lillian Smith, and Bessie and Della Ferrell. Indians were always conspicuous in Wild West shows, and the entertainment established the popular image of Native Americans as mounted Plains warriors.

The Decline and Significance of Wild West Shows

Wild West shows declined because they fit most comfortably into the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when crowds flocked to tented entertainments and the end of the frontier concerned Americans. But Wild West shows also failed because they had succeeded so well that other forms of entertainment appropriated aspects of their programs. Wild West show performers, such as Tom Mix, transferred the genre's action, horse-manship, and sharpshooting to movies. In addition, rodeos became popular, powwows showcased Native American customs, and dude ranches and trail rides made the Wild West lifestyle available to anyone willing to pay for the experience.

The legacy of Wild West shows remains firmly ensconced in American culture, and in its sport and leisure. Wild West still designates a mythical and uniquely American place populated with lean and hardened men and women engaged in vigorous outdoor activities. Wild West shows introduced rodeo as a spectator sport, and those who saw cowboys and cowgirls such as Lucille Mulhall and Lulu Parr ride bucking broncos saw them as superior athletes. Spectators who saw Annie Oakley and Johnnie Baker shoot regarded guns as "American." Wild West shows stressed that the transcendent inner qualities of westerners matched their physical accomplishments, and that contact with nature sustained them. This attitude exists in contemporary America, and helps popularize camping, hunting, and other outdoor activities.

Wild West shows helped define "American," and they established a national mythology that enriched the nation's leisure activities. As such, these shows are a vital component in studying America's leisure, social, and sports histories.

See also: Rodeos, Western America Leisure Lifestyles


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 B. The Wild West. Fort Worth, Tex.: Amon Carter Museum of Western Art, 1970.

Paul Reddin

Wild West Shows

views updated May 14 2018

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).

Wild West Show

views updated Jun 08 2018


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.