Long before John Wayne brought the world that walk; long before Clint Eastward flicked his poncho as the Man With No Name, long before the old West was immortalised on the big screen, it had already been framed in the minds of generations of men and women – in a rather peculiar way. But in their heyday – from 1890 through to the 1930s – the Wild West shows running under the monikers of their famed or colourful impresarios such as Buffalo Bill, Texas Jack, Mexican Joe or Pawnee Bill, had massive casts and even bigger audiences.
The most prominent remains William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody, a former bison hunter and pony express rider born in 1846 who fought in the American civil war and was awarded the US’s most prestigious military honour, the Medal of Honor, in 1872 for his conduct as a scout during the ‘Indian wars’. Then he went into showbusiness, eventually founding Buffalo Bill’s Wild West (‘show’ was never part of its name) in 1883. Soon he was touring the USA.
The focus was on recreating scenes of the old West – often with a finale depicting Custer’s Last Stand or a shoot-out at a log cabin to which Cody would lead cowboys to the rescue. As well as Cody and those like him (other stars included the frontierswoman Martha Cannary, aka Calamity Jane, and the sharpshooter Annie Oakley), there was also men who had fought on the other side: the Native Americans. Drawn by the good money and the celebrity that came with it, an estimated 1,000 Plains Indians alone took part in Cody’s show over some 30 years.
Known as ‘Show Indians’ their number also included several individuals who are now legends of the West and what one might properly regard as the doomed struggle in the 1860s and 1870s by Plains Indians to preserve their traditional way of life. They included Sitting Bull, the strategic genius behind the victory at Custer’s Last Stand, the Apache leader Geronimo, and Chief Flying Hawk, another veteran of the Little Bighorn, who ‘Wild Wested’ for three decades until 1930, dying in 1931 aged 77. His intriguing story certainly inspired my new book, Ghosts of the West, which features a fictional Colonel Grant’s Wild West show and an elderly Indian chief named Black Cloud.)
In 1887, Buffalo Bill’s Wild Westers arrived in London, making more than 300 performances and selling an astonishing 2.5 million tickets. Then they went to Birmingham (wowing the Brummies from 6-26 November 1887) before taking Manchester by storm (running from 17 December to 30 April 1888). They returned to US for a summer tour after a final performance in Hull on 5 May. They sailed for New York the next day.
Back for Europe, they wowed Paris in 1889 for the Exposition Universelle, (when the French unveiled Eiffel Tower) and had dates in Spain and Italy where members of the show had an audience with the Pope, before the tour continued to Astro-Hungary and Germany.
Another Buffalo Bill Wild Wester was Black Elk, an Oglala Lakota Indian who aged about 13 was at the Battle of Little Bighorn and described his experiences in Black Elk Speaks, the story of his life written by John Neihardt in 1930. He was part of the show when it performed in London at the 1887 Jubilee celebrations for Queen Victoria (the Prince of Wales also had a private viewing). ‘One day we were told that Majesty was coming,’ recalled Black Elk. ‘I did not know what that was a first, but I learned afterward. It was Grandmother England… She came to the show in a big shiny wagon, and there were soldiers on both sides of her, and many other shining wagons came too. That day other people did not come to the show – just Grandmother England and some people who came with her.’
Unusually there was no shooting in the show that night – just dancing and singing. ‘We stood right in front of Grandmother England. She was little but fat and we liked her, because she was good to us.’
Afterwards, the Queen-Empress told the cast: ‘I am 67 years old. All over the world I have seen all kinds of people, but today I have seen the best-looking people I know. If you belonged to me, I would not let them take you around in a show like this.’
There followed a tour of Europe in 1889, and Buffalo Bill’s crew were back in 1892 for a six month run in London (they did another show for Queen Victoria, too), and they toured Britain from 1902-1906, before returning to the Continent.
After seeing the show two nights’ running in 1884 Mark Twain famously wrote to Cody, telling him that the performance was ‘wholly free from sham and insincerity’. He added: ‘It is often said on the other side of the water that none of the exhibitions which we send to England are purely and distinctively American. If you will take the Wild West show over there, you can remove that reproach.’
Cody and many others like him did just that. They also made a pile of money in the process, and created and cultivated a mythology of the Old West that persists to this day. And whatever else we might feel about it now, the shows also made stars of the Native Americans involved, helping to spread their culture and identity around the world, and quite possibly engendering sympathy too – and not just from Queen Victoria.
Aspects of History Issue 5 is out now