buffalo bill’s wild west show -- 10/23/20

Today's selection -- from Wyoming: A History of the American West by Sam Lightner Jr. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Buffalo Bill Cody was among the most famous people in the world, and his Wild West show was perhaps the most popular theatrical event in the country:

"Custer's defeat at the Little Bighorn had brought about the end of Great Sioux War of the 1870s. The Lakota and Cheyenne scattered, with Sitting Bull and his people running to Canada until 1881 when they moved onto the reservation. By that time, Buffalo Bill was a household name, and the dime novels he starred in occupied everyone's bookshelf. No longer having scouting as an option, Buffalo Bill decided to parlay his fame into wealth, and he did so in a grandiose way. As the novels had shown, the world was hungry to see what the 'Wild West,' was like. Books could create a mental image, but Cody wanted to take it to a new level, so in 1883, he created Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. A combination of traveling circus and western legend, the show was an instant success. 

"Cody played the leading role in the show, but really the biggest star was the mental image Americans had of the 'Wild West' as it had been created in dime novels and newspapers for the past forty years. Usually performed at fair grounds or other large venues, a 440-foot-by-fifty-foot painted mural, showing scenes of mountains and prairies and all sorts of western lore, was erected as a backdrop. Props, including likenesses of a log cabin, an army fort, a covered wagon, and a stagecoach, were moved in and out of the show depending on the scene depicted. Almost five-hundred people were employed, two hundred of them as actors and components of the show, with the others providing support behind the scenes. 

Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill

"The show started with Buffalo Bill coming out, he and his horse taking a bow and welcoming the guests, and then introducing Annie Oakley, shooting various targets including one held by her husband, as the first act. A buffalo hunt, with trained bison, was followed by the many Lakota hired by the event to perform ceremonial dances. For a number of years, Sitting Bull himself had a starring role in the show. There was a horse race and a number of horse showmanship displays, like cattle roping and picking up a friend at a dead run. Bill would come out and show off his marksmanship by shooting glass balls tossed in the air (yes, with real bullets). Despite his dislike of George Custer, Bill recognized that the man's fate was as popular as anything the 'West' had ever produced. A re-enactment of the Battle of the Little Bighorn was conducted with real Lakota warriors who had fought in the battle attacking an actor who screamed valiant orders to the end. Both cavalrymen and their horses, trained to pretend they had been shot, fell in the final minutes. As a grand finale, Bill would ride in, look over the sad scene of Custer's defeat, and exclaim 'too late,' then put his hat over his heart and bow his head in sadness. 

"A key component to the marketing of Buffalo Bill's show was the use of the real celebrities of the West as its stars. At one time or another, famed big-game hunters such as Charles Jones, and western 'gunfighter' personalities including Calamity Jane, worked in the program. For a number of years, Sitting Bull led his Lakota in their ceremonial dances. Annie Oakley and husband Frank Butler were already famous, but Bill made them bigger than life. His show was two hours of everything America ever wanted from the 'Wild West,' all for fifty cents (twenty-five for children)."

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Sam Lightner Jr.


Wyoming: A History of the American West


Sam Lightner


March 2020
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