Cody, Buffalo Bill, and his Wild West Show

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Cody, Buffalo Bill, and his Wild West Show

Buffalo Bill was not the originator of the Wild West Show or, indeed, the only person to stage one. Frontier extravaganzas had existed in one form or another from as early as 1843. Yet Buffalo Bill Cody is largely responsible for creating our romantic view of the Old West that continues largely unabated to this day. This is due to a combination of factors, not the least of which was Cody's own flair for dramatizing his own real life experiences as a scout, buffalo hunter, and Indian fighter.

The legend of William F. Cody began in 1867 when, as a 21-year-old young man who had already lived a full life as a Pony Express rider, gold miner, and ox team driver, he contracted to supply buffalo meat for construction workers on the Union Pacific railroad. Although he did not kill the number of huge beasts attributed to him (that was accomplished by the "hide hunters" who followed and nearly decimated the breed), he was dubbed Buffalo Bill. He followed this experience with a four-year stint as Chief of Scouts for the Fifth United States Cavalry under the leadership of former Civil War hero Lieutenant General Philip Sheridan. During this service, Cody participated in 16 Indian skirmishes including the defeat of the Cheyenne at Summit Springs in 1869. After this, Cody earned a living as a hunting guide for parties of celebrities, who included politicians and European royalty. On one of these, he encountered the author Ned Buntline who made him the hero of a best-selling series of stories in The New York Weekly, flamboyantly titled "The Greatest Romance of the Age." These stories spread the buffalo hunter's fame around the world.

After witnessing a Nebraska Independence Day celebration in 1883, Cody seized upon the idea of a celebration of the West, and played upon his newfound fame to create Buffalo Bill's Wild West, an outdoor extravaganza that depicted life on the frontier from his unique perspective. The show (although he steadfastly avoided the use of the word) was composed of a demonstration of Pony Express riding, an attack on the Deadwood Stage (which was the actual Cheyenne and Black Hills Stage line coach used on the Deadwood run), and a number of rodeo events including riding wild steers, bucking broncos, calf roping, horse races, and shooting. Whenever he could, Cody also employed authentic Western personages such as scout John Nelson; Chief Gall, who participated in the defeat of Custer at Little Big Horn; and later Sitting Bull, to make personal appearances in the show. The grand finale usually consisted of a spectacle incorporating buffalo, elk, deer, wild horses, and steers stampeding with cowboys and Indians.

In 1884, the show played the Cotton Exposition in New Orleans, where Cody acquired his greatest drawing card—sharpshooter Annie Oakley, who was billed as "Little Sure Shot." The following year, Sitting Bull, the most famous chief of the Indian Wars, joined the show. Ironically, Cody's use of Sitting Bull and other Indians as entertainers remains controversial to this day. To his critics, the depictions of Indians attacking stagecoaches and settlers in a vast arena served to perpetuate the image of the Indian as a dangerous savage. On the other hand, he was one of the few whites willing to employ Native Americans at the time, and he did play a role in taking many of them off the reservation and providing them with a view of the wider world beyond the American frontier.

Yet even as many Indians were touring the country with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, the Indian Wars were still continuing on the frontier. Some of Cody's Indians returned to help in the Army's peacemaking efforts, and Cody himself volunteered his services in the last major Sioux uprising of 1890-91 as an ambassador to Sitting Bull, who had returned from Canada to lend his presence as a spiritual leader to his countrymen. This effort was personally called off by President Benjamin Harrison, and Sitting Bull was shot by Indian police the next day while astride a show horse given to him by Cody. According to historian Kevin Brownlow, the horse, trained to kneel at the sound of gunfire while appearing in the Wild West Show, proceeded to bow down while its famous rider was being shot. When the Indians were ultimately defeated, Cody was able to free a number of the prisoners to appear in his show the following season—a dubious achievement, perhaps, but one that allowed them a measure of freedom in comparison to confinement on a reservation.

Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show reached the peak of its popularity in 1887 when Cody took his extravaganza to London to celebrate Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee. According to sources, one performance featured an attack on a Deadwood Stage driven by Buffalo Bill himself with the Prince of Wales and other royal personages on board. This performance was followed in 1889 with a full European tour, beginning with a gala opening in Paris. It is perhaps this tour, along with Ned Buntline's Wild West novels, that have formed the basis for European idealization of the romance of the Old West.

Returning to the United States in 1893, Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show logged the most successful season in the history of outdoor stadium shows. After that high water mark, however, the show began to decline. Other competitors had entered the field as early as 1887 and Wild West shows began to proliferate by the 1890s. In 1902, Cody's partner, Ante Salisbury, died and the management of the show was temporarily turned over to James Bailey of the Barnum and Bailey Circus, who booked it for a European tour that lasted from 1902 to 1906. After Bailey's death, the show was merged with rival Pawnee Bill's Far East and went on the road from 1909 to 1913, before failing due to financial difficulties. Buffalo Bill kept the show going with several other partners until his death in 1917, and the show ended a year later.

Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show remains important today because it was perhaps the single most significant historical factor in the creation of the romantic notion of the West that has formed the basis for the countless books, dramatizations, and motion pictures that have become part of the American fabric. Though the authenticity of Cody's depictions was somewhat debatable, they were nonetheless based on his personal experiences on the frontier and were staged in dramatic enough fashion to create an impact upon his audiences. The show was additionally responsible for bringing Native Americans, frontier animals, and Western cultural traditions to a world that had never seen them close-up. Whether his show was truly responsible for creating an awareness of the endangered frontier among its spectators cannot be measured with accuracy, but it undoubtedly had some impact. And certainly the romantic West that we still glorify today remains the West of Buffalo Bill.

—Steve Hanson

Further Reading:

Brownlow, Kevin. The War, The West, and the Wilderness. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1979.

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

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

Lamar, Howard R., editor. The Readers Encyclopedia of the American West. New York, Harper & Row, 1977.

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