Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show

Anyone who knows me will know that I have an interest in the Wild West, with most sympathy towards the plight of Native Americans. Yet, Buffalo Bill, real name William F. Cody, appears to be someone in the middle of the ‘Cowboys vs Indians’ connotations of the Wild West. I first came across him with a trip to Disneyland Paris when I was little, including seeing the Buffalo Bill Wild West show. As a child, and even going to see it again in the last few years, I watched with wide-eyed wonder. Was this really what the American West was once like? Of course, the part that enthralled me the most was that the famous Chief Sitting Bull was part of the show. More recently, I have begun to question just how ‘real’ the show was, after all it was first and foremost an entertainment show, and how the Native Americans were treated by Buffalo Bill in particular. After all, Buffalo Bill earned his name by his massacre of the buffalo that the Plains Native Americans relied on for their way of life.[1] What a contradiction of a life.

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show was created in 1883 following the popularity of Buffalo Bill as a character, based on the life of Cody, in cheap novels written by Ned Buntline.[2] This character took inspiration from parts of Cody’s life as a frontiersman, scout, Pony Express rider and buffalo hunter.[3] The show portrayed the cowboy as a hero and this status was closely linked to fighting and hunting skills and “his ability to live off the harsh land and to fend of the savages”.[4] This was a fictional and watered down image that removed the reality of violence that existed between the frontiersmen and Native Americans. Buffalo Bill himself played on this and accentuated the ideal life of the cowboy this showed.[5]

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Courier Lithography Company, Buffalo Bill poster, 1900, (National Portrait Gallery/Wikimedia Commons)

However, the story of the show is more complicated than the fictionalisation and accentuated aspects it is full of. For instance, this was not how audiences viewed these shows. Just as I enjoyed watching it in the 21st century, so did the contemporary audiences from all over the world on the various tours around America and Europe. For those who had only heard of and not witnessed the Wild West portrayed in the show, it unwittingly was viewed as a serious attempt to tell the history of the frontier times.[6] It was this belief that helped create the connotations that still exist today about what the American West actually was.[7] In a world where this was often people’s first encounter with Native Americans, it was easy to understand why the simplistic stereotypes of the cowboy as ‘hero’ and the Indian as ‘enemy’.[8] Cody himself was known to respect the Native American performers behind the scenes and it took them away from the inhumane reservations they were forced to live in back home. With this example, it’s evident just how much more complex the reality of the Wild West Show was. It did offer Native Americans, most notably Sitting Bull, a chance to represent all Native Americans to an international audience, but how the accuracy of this representation was totally out of their hands.

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Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Troupe of Indians posed before tepees (c. 1886), Photo by Saron and held by the Library of Congress

The international mass entertainment of Buffalo Bill is perhaps the more important aspect, rather than how real or not. At a time before the internationalisation on a mass scale that we now know, Buffalo Bill was an international celebrity. His celebrity status was helped by the mass advertising and circulating images created for Buffalo Bill and the Wild West Show.[9] The posters in particular often focused on violence between white men and Indians but in a cartoon way that promotes it as entertainment.[10] The press agents who created these images intentionally focused on the romanticism of the frontier that Buffalo Bill specialised in, with hopes that it was reinforce it in the memory of audiences both past and present.[11] It did this in a way that idolised Cody and create a fascination with the women, Native Americans and cowboys who were his performers.[12]

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The Springer Litho. Co., First appearance of Buffalo Bill’s new enlarged and greater wild west and congress of rough riders (c. 1895), held by the Library of Congress

Buffalo Bill was so good at portraying fiction as fact to create entertainment, particularly the insensitive portrayal of Native American culture, it is impossible to untangle.[13] For that reason, this post has only aimed to highlight the different levels of complexity with interpretations of the Wild West Show, rather than try and unpick them. The legends surrounding Buffalo Bill are many and deep to totally understand. By using the example of his educational background, it can be seen in the fact that Cody was often the main person behind such legends, for he always claimed he had never been schooled. The opposite was actually true, he went to a local school with his sisters but didn’t actually make much academic progress.[14]

Regardless of the opinions that exist on whether Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show was a positive or negative thing, it cannot be avoided that it actually helped create the images we now connect with that period of history. The show was created at a time when the frontier lifestyle was beginning to die out and became popular because of nostalgia towards it.[15] However, this idealised version of Buffalo Bill and the show slowly changed and by the 1960s it was solely associated with war and violence.[16] With the dwindling lack of fame, William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody died virtually penniless.[17]

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F. Barry, Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill (c. 1897), held by the Library of Congress

The difficulty of such a show will be forever connected with the oppression of the Native Americans and it could be argued that this type of show accentuated that. Again, even this is complex. Perhaps running the Wild West show had changed Cody’s perception because his friendship with Sitting Bull was well known. When Sitting Bull returned to the reservation he was forced to live on in 1885, after leaving the Wild West Show, it was the beginning of the end. Before long he had been killed by the tribal police who tried to subdue the culture of the Native Americans. Sitting Bull was viewed with contempt by Major McLaughlin who ran the reservation. He used the elderly chief as a scapegoat for the rise of the Ghost Dance movement, which used dance as an expression of the belief that ghosts of the buffalo would return and mark the return of their old way of life.[18] Before Sitting Bull’s death, Cody received a telegram asking him to come and calm the situation, but he only just missed arriving in time.[19] If he had arrived on time, I wonder if he would have been able to save the life of his friend in return for the loyal service many Native Americans had given as performers in his show.

[1] Smith, H. N., ‘Buffalo Bill: Hero of the Popular Imagination’’, Southwest Review, 33.4 (1948), p. 379.

[2] Dickenson, G., Ott, B. L. & Aoki, E., ‘Memory and Myth at the Buffalo Bill Museum’, Western Journal of Communication, 69.2 (2005), p. 86.

[3] Dickenson, G., Ott, B. L. & Aoki, E., ‘Memory and Myth at the Buffalo Bill Museum’, p. 86.

[4] Dickenson, G., Ott, B. L. & Aoki, E., ‘Memory and Myth at the Buffalo Bill Museum’, p. 101.

[5] Dickenson, G., Ott, B. L. & Aoki, E., ‘Memory and Myth at the Buffalo Bill Museum’, p. 101.

[6] R. Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth Century America (1992) cited in Dickenson, G., Ott, B. L. & Aoki, E., ‘Memory and Myth at the Buffalo Bill Museum’, p. 86.

[7] Hodgson, J., Buffalo Bill Scrap Book – A Hidden Treasure of the John Rylands Library, 10 March 2013, https://rylandscollections.wordpress.com/2013/03/10/buffalo-bill-scrap-book-a-hidden-treasure-of-the-john-rylands-library/

[8] Delaney, M., Art and Advertising in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019), p. 10.

[9] Delaney, M., Art and Advertising in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, p. 7.

[10] Dickenson, G., Ott, B. L. & Aoki, E., ‘Memory and Myth at the Buffalo Bill Museum’, p. 99.

[11] Delaney, M., Art and Advertising in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, p. 11.

[12] Delaney, M., Art and Advertising in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, p. 11.

[13] Warren, L. S., Buffalo Bill’s America (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), p. XI.

[14] Russell, D., The Lives and Legends of Buffalo Bill (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979), p. 7.

[15] Wrobel, D., ‘Exceptionalism, Globalism, and Transnationalism- The West, America and the World Across the Centuries’, in Christianson, F. (ed), The Popular Frontier: Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Transnational Mass Culture (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2017), p. 6.

[16] Warren, L. S., Buffalo Bill’s America, p. XI.

[17] Warren, L. S., Buffalo Bill’s America, p. XI.

[18] Stillman, D., The Unlikely Alliance Between Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull, https://www.history.com/news/the-unlikely-alliance-between-buffalo-bill-and-sitting-bull

[19] Stillman, D., The Unlikely Alliance Between Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull, https://www.history.com/news/the-unlikely-alliance-between-buffalo-bill-and-sitting-bull

To find out more about Sitting Bull and the events surrounding his death, please visit: https://voyagerofhistory.wordpress.com/2020/10/24/the-death-of-chief-sitting-bull/ 

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