Wild West shows:
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West
By Paul Fees, Former Curator
Buffalo Bill Museum
William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody opened Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show on May 19, 1883 at Omaha, Nebraska. His partner that first season was a dentist and exhibition shooter, Dr. W.F. Carver. Cody and Carver took the show, subtitled “Rocky Mountain and Prairie Exhibition,” across the country to popular acclaim and favorable reviews, launching a genre of outdoor entertainment that thrived for three decades and survived, in fits and starts, for almost three more.
The idea had been around for a long time. The earliest antecedent to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show may actually have been staged in France in the middle of the sixteenth century when fifty Brazilian Indians were brought to Rouen to populate a replica of their village. Elevated walkways enabled royal visitors to watch the Indians play at real life. Exotic elements of Native American life later became staples of European and American circuses.
Horse shows and menageries with exotic animals had been popular in America since the eighteenth century. The “Indian Gallery” of artist George Catlin featured American Indians with native dress and accouterments to complement his paintings. Medicine Shows employed frontiersmen and Indian people to help sell tonics and other “natural” cures.
In 1872, legendary plainsman Wild Bill Hickok joined several cowboys and Indians in a “Grand Buffalo Hunt” staged at Niagara Falls. Buffalo Bill Cody himself had already been in show business for a decade, staging plays known as “border dramas,” which actually were small-scale Wild West shows featuring genuine frontier characters, real Indians, fancy shooting, and sometimes horses.
The birth of the Wild West as a successful genre was largely a product of personality, dramatic acumen, and good timing. The golden age of outdoor shows began in the 1880s, and with his theatre experience Buffalo Bill already was skilled in the use of press agentry and poster advertising. His fame and credibility as a westerner lent star appeal and an aura of authenticity. Most important, Cody gave the show a dramatic narrative structure.
Features such as the Pony Express, the wagon train, or the attack on the stagecoach recreated specific and well-known events. Spectacles such as “cowboy fun” or the “tableau” of American Indian life usually served as prelude to a dramatic event, such as a battle scene. Skill acts such as sharp shooting (with pistol and rifle), wing shooting (with shotgun), roping, and riding not only showcased star performers, the show’s narration linked those skills to survival in the frontier West. An orator boomed the script to the audience from an elevated platform in the arena. The circus band became the “Cowboy Band” and backed the arena action with appropriate mood-setting music. The same skits and music later were easily adapted to film and television “Westerns.”
Buffalo Bill once said that his favorite literary passage was Bishop George Berkeley’s “Westward the course of empire takes its way.” In New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1886, Cody and his partners re-staged Buffalo Bill’s Wild West as “The Drama of Civilization.” Theater and arena were now merged, and America’s westward progress thus became an explicit theme in the show even when it returned to its more familiar Wild West format.
One of the biggest names in American circus, Adam Forepaugh, jumped into the Wild West business in 1887. Forepaugh may have been first to stage a re-enactment of “Custer’s Last Fight” as a regular act. The Battle of the Little Big Horn had been featured in many stage melodramas and was an obvious event for the Wild West both for its audience appeal and its narrative power. Buffalo Bill did not re-enact Custer’s Last Stand until a year later, apparently in deference to the feelings of General Custer’s widow, Elizabeth. She saw it performed in Cody’s show in 1888 and wrote him appreciatively, describing her emotional reaction to it “terrible” realism. The Last Stand became a regular feature in Cody’s and other shows, sometimes even employing actual battle participants from both sides.
The next 20 years saw the rise and fall of dozens of smaller-scale Wild Wests. Some, such as Buck Taylor’s Wild West, were started by Buffalo Bill alumni. Others, such as the Cole Younger and Frank James Wild West attempted to capitalize on famous names or events. “Indian Congresses,” usually in conjunction with major fairs or expositions, brought representatives of various tribes together with famous frontier characters. The most successful was Col. Fred Cummins whose congress at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, in 1901 included both Calamity Jane and the great Sioux leader Red Cloud.
The role of Indian people was both essential and anomalous in the Wild West. At least in the big shows, they generally were treated and paid the same as other performers. They were able to travel with their families, and they earned a living not possible to them on their reservations. They were encouraged by Buffalo Bill and others to retain their language and rituals. They gained access to political and economic leaders, and their causes were sometimes argued in the published show programs. Yet they were stereotyped as mounted, war-bonneted warriors, the last impediment to civilization. Thus they had to re-fight a losing war nightly; and their hollow victory in the Little Big Horn enactments demonstrated over and over to their audiences the justification for American conquest.
Women also played several roles in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. Annie Oakley broke ground when she and her husband/manager, Frank Butler, joined Buffalo Bill early in 1885. Not only could she outshoot most men, she did it while remaining entirely feminine, even girlish. Shooter Lillian Smith toured as a teenager with Buffalo Bill, disappeared for a while from public view, then resurfaced in Mexican Joe’s and other Wild Wests as “Princess Wenona, the Indian Girl Shot.” Pawnee Bill’s wife, May Lillie, was a Smith College graduate from Philadelphia who earned fame as a sharpshooter in her husband’s show.
Woman riders at first used sidesaddles, but by the 1890s they were appearing as regular “rancheras,” or cowgirls. Lucille Mulhall gained fame in her father’s show as a roper and Rough Rider. By the turn of the century, it was not uncommon for women like Tad Lucas to ride bucking broncos in the arena. Women also played traditional dramatic roles as “prairie Madonnas” or as Indian captives. Although there were fewer places for women in the shows, surviving records indicate that Buffalo Bill, at least, paid women equally with the men.
Roles for persons of color changed subtly during the first decade of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. At first they were well represented among the cowboys. Some attained minor fame; for example, Voter Hall was facetiously billed in 1885 as “a Feejee Indian from Africa.” As the popular image of the cowboy crystallized, black cowboys virtually disappeared from the arena, and others with dark skins were assigned to different roles. The famous Esquivel brothers of San Antonio, for instance, were presented as vaqueros. However, contingents representing the all-black 9th and 10th U.S. Cavalry regiments appeared with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and other Wild Wests, and the concert bands seem to have remained integrated. The most famous black cowboy, and perhaps the most famous of all Wild West show cowboys, was the 101 Ranch’s bulldogger, Bill Pickett.
During the tour in Europe in 1892, Buffalo Bill’s partner, Nate Salsbury, created “the Congress of Rough Riders of the World.” Mounted military troupes from many nations drilled in the arena alongside the American cowboys and Indians. Public interest in American military adventures abroad led to the addition of Hawaiian cowboys and Cuban, Philippine, and Japanese cavalry units.
The logistics of the show were formidable. The biggest of them all, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, in the late 1890s carried as many as 500 cast and staff members, including twenty-five cowboys, a dozen cowgirls, and one hundred Indian men, women, and children. They all were fed three hot meals a day, cooked on twenty-foot-long ranges. The show generated its own electricity and staffed its own fire department. Performers lived in wall tents during long stands or slept in railroad sleeping cars when the show moved daily. Business on the back lot was carried on in what one reporter called “a Babel of languages.” Expenses were as high as $4,000 per day.
Circus great James A. Bailey, of Barnum & Bailey, joined Cody and Salsbury in 1895 and revolutionized their travel arrangements. The show was loaded onto two trains totaling fifty or more cars. Strings of flat cars could be linked together with ramps for loading wagons from the back forward. Besides performers and staff, the trains transported hundreds of show and draft horses and as many as thirty buffalo. The show carried grandstand seating for twenty thousand spectators along with the acres of canvas necessary to cover them. The arena itself remained open to the elements. Advance staff traveled ahead of the show to procure licenses and arrange for the ten to fifteen acres required for the show lot, preferably close to the railroad; to buy the tons of flour, meat, coffee, and other necessities; and to publicize and advertise.
In 1899, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West covered over 11,000 miles in 200 days giving 341 performances in 132 cities and towns across the United States. In most places, there would be a parade and two two-hour performances. Then the whole (show) would be struck, loaded, and moved overnight to the next town. Europeans (and their armies) were often as fascinated by the ingenuity and efficiency behind the scenes as they were by the show itself. Not many shows could match Buffalo Bill’s in scale, but all subscribed to similar regimens.
In the 1890s, Wild Wests began to add sideshows and other circus elements. If the West seemed too familiar, “Far East” acts such as Arabian acrobats or dancing elephants and thrill acts such as bicyclists and high divers might inject sufficient novelty to draw new spectators.
For several reasons, the decade just before America’s entry into World War I saw audiences decline. Motion pictures captivated public attention—the West could seem more real on the screen than in the arena. Shooting declined as a spectator sport while the popularity of baseball and football soared. Riding and roping could be better showcased in rodeos, which were considerably less expensive to produce than Wild West shows. The old Western stars were fading as well—even Buffalo Bill seemed a relic—and Indian people appeared to be quietly confined to reservations. The “old West” was no longer so exotic nor, at the same time, so relevant to a world of heavy industry and mechanized warfare.
Cody’s show went bankrupt in July 1913. In a sign of the times, he immediately obtained backing to make a five-reel film, “The Indian Wars.” The Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Real Wild West had the bad luck to be in Great Britain in August 1914, losing the show’s horses to the war effort. The 101 continued intermittently to tour the States through the 1920s. Western film stars such as Tom Mix started short-lived Wild Wests, and in 1938 Col. Tim McCoy produced probably the last great traditional Wild West show. It folded after less than a month on the road.
Although occasional revivals and adaptations are staged in the United States and abroad, the era of the Wild West can conveniently be said to have died in 1917 along with its greatest proponent, Buffalo Bill Cody. The most pervasive legacy of the Wild West shows has been the narrative vision of romance and conquest, based on real people and events that they created and disseminated so successfully across boundaries of race, class, and geography.
Learn more about the Buffalo Bill Museum
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- Bruce, Chris, editor. The Myth of the West. Seattle, 1990.
- Fox, Charles P. and Tom Parkinson. Billers, Banners and Bombast: The Story of Circus Advertising. Boulder, Colo., 1985.
- Grossman, James R., editor. The Frontier in American Culture. Berkeley, 1994.
- Katzive, David, editor. Buffalo Bill and the Wild West. Pittsburgh, 1981.
- Russell, Don. The Wild West: A History of the Wild West Shows. Fort Worth, 1970.
- Slotkin, Richard. Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America. New York, 1992.
- Warren, Louis S. Buffalo Bill’s America: William Cody and the Wild West Show. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.
- Wood-Clark, Sarah. Beautiful Daring Western Girls: Women of the Wild West Shows. Cody, Wyoming, 1983; rpt. 1992.