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Buffalo Bill's Wild West


Buffalo Bill (1944)
Joel McCrea stars as the legendary frontier scout, Indian fighter and bison killer in William Wellman's sweeping Western epic, one of the first made in color. Follow Bill Cody's career from his role as mediator in the settling of the west to his showman days in his "Wild West Show."

It all started with the texts ... Prentiss Ingraham's prolific series featuring Buffalo Bull's exploits and adventures in the Wild West. In 1872, Cody met with Ned Buntline on a visit to New York following his famed scouting job for the Grand Duke Alexis in 1872, and the two conceived the Buffalo Bill character for Ingraham's novels. Cody took advantage of his occasional trips to New York to indulge in self-promotion, and when he and Ingraham discovered the insatiable appetite the eastern public had for stories of the west, the two developed a stage version of the Buffalo Bill legend. When Custer was defeated at Little Big Horn, Cody was in New York. On his last stage performance, he declared that he would take a scalp in Custer's honor upon his return to the west, and not more than a month after his departure from the east, Cody raised the scalp of Yellow Hand to the Fifth Cavalry. The myth was born, and the classic mixing of the theatrical and the real which would forever color Cody's life and the Wild West Show emerged here: the dramatic speech in New York which vowed revenge, the deed done and duly reported by soldiers and newspapers, and the inevitable exploitation to come: extravagant sets and costumes, melodramatic retellings of the battle, and the cacophony of vibrant romance and invigorating action of the scene which dominated the bare fact of the killing and transformed unadorned truth into the glamorous, mythical, wondrous west of the dime novels. The myth was born, and Cody appropriated it to build his colorful travelling kingdom.

An 1899 book called "The Rough Rider" celebrated the legend of Buffalo Bill. The page entitled "Buffalo Bill, Knight of the West," includes Cody in the chivalric traditions of the knight-errant, a tradition which influences most of our Cowboy Heroes — in movies and in novels. The passages in this book go even further, though, as they desribe Cody as an American Odysseus and Arthur combined in one larger-than-life hero.

The mythology of Buffalo Bill in text and image identified this Cody as the classic mythical hero and sold to the world a picture of the west as Biblical Eden, Renaissance Gloriana, and Odyssean Ithaka. The marketing ploys worked, however, and Cody presided over an entertainment empire which rivalled P.T. Barnum's Circus in its day, and would find equivalents in the mythical music empires of pop stars such as Madonna and Michael Jackson or more directly in the gargantuan entertainment industries of moguls such as Steven Spielberg or Disney's Michael Eisner, who find a model to emulate in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Entertainment today still finds relevance and intrigue in the myth of Buffalo Bill.

After being delayed by two days of hard rain, Buffalo Bill's Wild West opened for the first time at 2:00 p.m. on May 19, 1883, in Omaha. For the next thirty years, only hurricane force winds and a train wreck could postpone performances of the Wild West show. Buffalo Bill's partner during that first season was a sharpshooting dentist named Doc Carver, The Evil Spirit of the Plains, and they subtitled their show, Rocky Mountain and Prairie Exhibition. It was the original of the great Wild West shows, but the idea for it had been around for a long time.

William F. Cody had already been in show business for ten years. Ever since 1872 Cody had been earning relatively "easy" money on stage during the winter months when prairie hunting and scouting were slack. The plays in which he starred were not much more, he admitted, than "rattling good gunpowder entertainment." But they were really small scale indoor Wild West shows with real Indians, genuine scouts and cowboys — even live horses and trick shooting!

One of Cody's stage partners, Wild Bill Hickock, had once been inspired to give an even livelier taste of the Wild West to eastern audiences. He took a small western menagerie, including six buffalo and a bear, to Niagara Falls where they promptly escaped and caused enough damage to bankrupt Wild Bill's scheme.

It is not likely that Cody could have known of that French experiment more than 300 years before, but Buffalo Bill's Wild West was as close to it in spirit as it was to home grown "gun-powder" entertainments. Cody conceived of the Wild West as an educational exhibition of western peoples demonstrating their unique skills and ways of life. Interspersed with the riding, roping, and shooting on the one hand and the tableaux of Indian life on the other were miniature dramas and reenactments of special events — the Pony Express, famous battles, stagecoach robberies, wagon trains crossing the plains, and in some years tornadoes and avalanches.

Cody's elaborate melodrama of the American West required the participation of hundreds in order to stage the showstopping scenes of the Bison Hunt, the Train Robbery, the Indian War Battle Reënactment, and the Grand Finale — The Attack on the Burning Cabin. Besides the numbers of stagehands and laborers needed to load and unload the show's special railcars and assemble the massive sets, Cody needed a large cast in order to achieve his desired effect in many of the show's featured scenes, and each scene, as Cody would often point out, had been dutifully authenticated. For example, in his 1893 tour, he staged a climactic reënactment of Custer's Last Stand, which he noted was approved by Mrs. Custer. Cody even authenticated himself and wrote in his program that he was an "authentic participant, repeating heroic parts played in actual life."

The cast included anyone who wanted to work for Cody: Mexicans, Native Americans, Cowboys, women, and children, along with special performers with expertise in shooting, lassoing, and riding. Cody's portrayal of cast relations was typically rosy and familial, but in reality, he was a demanding boss and a shrewd businessman. He tolerated no frivolity or laziness among his performers, and was quick to terminate anyone who failed to pull his or her own weight, even though the show suffered many tense moments when Cody's alcohol problem left him too drunk to perform. Still, he was generally considered an affable man, generous and willing to offer any assistance to friends who needed it. The problematic relations with Native Americans and Mexicans in his show, while valid concerns, did not trouble Cody. He genuinely believed that he was providing these displaced people with a rewarding and exciting career, and for his time, Cody's treatment of these groups was remarkably liberal.

The sheer size of the show was overwhelming. The barrage of images of the romantic, open west found a receptive and eager audience in the heavily industrialized cities on the East coast who, for the most part, had little but commercialized images of the west to bring with them to the show. Cody's idealized and supposedly "authentic" extravaganza merely confirmed their stereoypical notions of life west of the Mississippi.

Native Americans were the single most important ethnic component in the show. In most of Buffalo Bill's programs, the Indian is identified as "The Former Foe — Present Friend, the American," and Cody went to great lengths to promote the harmony between the whites and the Indians in his show. There were publicity campaigns aimed at promoting the friendly public meetings between 7th Cavalry veterans of Little Big Horn and Wounded Knee and Sioux Indians, posters which depicted Indians on Horseback above a slogan reading "An American," and photos like the one at right, which united Cody and Oglala Sioux chiefs Red Cloud and American Horse in an image of equality and peace.

In Cody's defense, Vine Deloria of the University of Arizona offers two points of fact regarding his relationship with the Indians in his show. First, he points out that Buffalo Bill's position enabled him to employ individuals considered dangerous by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and take them off the reservations to tour with the show. Since many Indian and military officers would rather have imprisoned these men, touring with Buffalo Bill "probably saved some of the chiefs from undue pressure and persecution by the government at home." The second point Deloria mentions is that Cody gave his Sioux warriors status as part of his "Congress of Rough Riders," a contingent which represented the finest horsemen in the world: American cavalrymen, German Cuirassiers, Vanqueros, cossacks, Arabs, Cubans, and Pacific Islanders. "Instead of degrading the Indians and classifying them as primitive savages," Deloria notes, "Cody elevated them to a status of equality with contingents from other nations," and therefore recognized their skills as horsemen and warriors by stressing their patriotism in defending their lands. Although the show operated under the principles of stereotypes and archetypes of the west, this conferred status indicated Cody's transcendent and sophistocated view of the Native Americans.

Another fabled character of the Buffalo Bill show was the cowboy. Cody's view of the cowboy focused primarily on the spirit expressed by this lifestyle: independence, skill, savvy, and brazen self-confidence. Around the world, the image of the cowboy was — and remains to this day — symbolic of life in the American West. The origins of the cowboy are not clear, but it likely emerged from the lifestyle of the young men who drove cattle from the range to market. The romanticized version of the cowboy is a hybrid of these rangers, hired ranch-hands of the post-Civil War West, and the indigenous Vaqueros of the Southwest. Black Americans lately released from the bonds of slavery actually made up a large part of the cowboy population. Bill Pickett is probably the most famous of these men. Black Americans were not as well represented in Cody's show, but their presence in the west was sizeable.

One of the most famous characters of the Wild West Show was Annie Oakley, who joined the show as "Little Sure Shot" in 1884, and remained with the cast until 1901. Oakley was actually a woman named Phoebe Ann Moses. Cody hired Moses to play the dime novel role of Oakley, a role which cast the western woman in nearly the same light as the cowboy: rugged, high-spitited, independent. The crucial difference between the two, as Henry Nash Smith and others are quick to point out, is that Oakley and other wild west heroines are cast also as "fallen women." Their characters are usually motivated by an impossible romantic attraction to a male lead who cannot reciprocate her affections because of her "fallen" status. Oakley drew consistent crowds for the show, however, and is probably the best remembered character in the Wild West show.

In 1893, the year of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Cody added the famed "Congress of Rough Riders of the World" to the roster of attractions. This military feature paraded a top-notch group of expert marksmen and riders of all nations before an audience dazzled by the dynamism of these men in action. Thanks to his friend, Theodore Roosevelt, Cody's theatrical troupe found historical significance when Roosevelt organized his heroic team of Rough Riders to fight in the Spanish-American War. Roosevelt's appropriation of the cowboy myth elevated it to a level of respectability by rendering it in political and patriotic terms. Cody responded by adding to his show a simulated charge on San Juan Hill once Roosevelt had taken office, including in his act a few veterans from Roosevelt's squad. (see Richard Slotkin, "The 'Wild West,'" in Buffalo Bill and the Wild West 27-44) Slotkin examines the "Rough Riders" in his article and discusses the strategic significance of introducing them at the Exposition. As he sees it, the symbolism of the Rough Riders drew a connection between "the imperialism of Europe and of the United States — the Sixth Cavalry with Chasseurs, Indians with Arabs. And leading the whole Congress of imperial and native riders is the American Frontier hero, 'the king of them all.'" Slotkin argues that this comparison extends frontier symbolism into "a new phase of expansion — overseas, industrial, and imperialist." This interpretation remakes the Spirit of the West into the spirit which will make the United States a world power.

Many of the areas of western history which we find so troubling today were celebrated and exaggerated within the confines of the grand circus tents which comprised the theater for Buffalo Bill's show, and many of them constituted the most celebrated acts of the show. Acts like the Indian Races helped to spread the perception of the Native Americans as a savage, wild race that rode fiercely across the plains. The program contains a salutatory by John Burke, manager of the show, which notes that "the pressure of the white man, the movement of the emigrant train, the extension of our railways, together with the military power of the General Government, have, in a measure, borken down the barriers behind which the Indian fought and defied the advance of civilization." The presence of Native American actors in the show served mostly to confirm these notions of "the red-skinned danger" that Burke speaks of in the program, and reinforce the conventional stereotypes of the native tribes.

Another fabled event on the frontier was the bison hunt. The number of these impressive animals roaming wild on the plains numbered in the millions in the early part of the Nineteenth century, but by the latter part, they had been hunted nearly to extinction. The Native Americans were largely dependent on these animals for food, clothing, shelter, and tools, and as Alan Trachtenberg notes in The Incorporation of America, white men were encouraged to kill as many buffalo as they could because "every buffalo dead is an Indian gone." Short of the racial implications involved in the buffalo hunt, the loss of the great herds also signified a part of the tremendous ecological toll westward expansion took on the western landscape.

Smith mentions the colorful costumes of the Vaqueros — the Mexican version of the cowboy who would later influence the dandy dress and the unique customs we associate with our American cowboys. Vaqueros too were a part of the Wild West Show. The program notes regarding the Vaqueros distinguish them from the Cowboy in that "[the cowboy] is usually an American inured from boyhood to the excitements and hardships of his life, and the other represents in his blood the stock of the Mexican, or it may be of the half-breed." The Vaquero, then, is not the precursor to the Cowboy; the reverse is true. The Cowboy is the true original, influenced by the independent American spirit and the wide open lawlessness of the West — the vaquero is un-American, and any comparison drawn between the two must acknowledge the Cowboy as the true source of inspiration.

Many of the features Buffalo Bill's show promoted detailed a world already lost — the buffalo had been exhausted, the Mexicans had been pushed back at the Alamo, the Indians had been defeated in bloody battles and confined to reservations, and the "wilds" of the frontier were already well on their way to "civilization." Even in its heyday, Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show operated under popular myths of an old imagined west which was rapidly changing and a nostalgia for an actual past time when the west was still an unknown territory rich with promise and mystique — a time which had already expired its brief hour of possibility and potential.

Almost all the performers were all real — real cowboys and real Indians (Oakley & Butler being the noted exceptions) — but they were performers and their object was to entertain. By 1913, as movies and spectator sports cut into its audiences, the Wild West's popularity waned. Elements of the show survive, however. The adventure skits have been incorporated into countless westerns. And the demonstrations of cowboy fun have been formalized in modern crowd-pleasing competitions of skill and courage.


Buffalo Bill's Wild West: Celebrity, Memory, and Popular History Buffalo Bill's Wild West: Celebrity, Memory, and Popular History
A century ago, Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show enthralled millions of spectators in the United States, Canada, and Europe. Billboards everywhere made William Cody, the show's originator and star, a world-renowned figure. Joy S. Kasson's important book shows how Cody's image was shaped. Publicity stressed his show's "authenticity," yet audiences thrilled to its melodrama; fact and fiction converged in a performance that instantly became part of American tradition.


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