My Top 5 History Reads of 2022

As an avid reader, I usually can’t name all the books I read in a year, but as the majority of them have a history theme, I thought I would share my top five history books that I’ve read this year. It’s a mixture of different periods and some fiction and non-fiction, so hopefully there’s something for everybody there.

To Hell on a Fast Horse by Mark Lee Gardiner

If you are a fan of the Wild West, this one will be for you. It is a dual biography of the famous outlaw, Billy the Kid, and Pat Garrett, the sheriff that shot him dead in 1881. This book does help address some of those myths in an even and balanced way, particularly in terms of the biography of Billy the Kid, that was written by Pat Garrett himself, as it focused on Pat’s motivations behind his writing. It has a very journalistic and easy to read writing style, despite the many names, events and locations that are mentioned throughout. I would definitely recommend this as I found it very hard to put down. You can find a full review I wrote earlier this year here if you are interested in find out more.

The Earth is All that Lasts by Mark Lee Gardiner

I’ll be honest, this book was by far my most favourite read of the year. I was also lucky enough to be given a review copy of this by the author. It was shipped out to me all the way from America. A huge thank you for that too! I think, just like the book on Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, that this is one of those books you won’t forget reading. This one is another duel biography, but this time of the Lakota chiefs, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. Sitting Bull is one of my favourite historical heroes, so I was very much looking forward to reading this. I wasn’t disappointed in the slightest! It is a very emotive and sometimes uncomfortable read, as it tells of the gruesome reality of how settlers took over the plains. For this reason, as well as it showing the Lakota viewpoint, it is an important read. As I said in my review ‘this is the written equivalent of what Dances with Wolves was for the big screen, in that it very much shows the Lakota viewpoint, which is not shared often enough’. For that reason, I feel this is one of the most vital books to understand the final years of freedom for the Lakota. You can find my previous review of it here.

Black Tudors by Miranda Kaufmann

This book tells the stories of ten Africans who lived in Tudor and Stuart England. Each example shows that whilst they were in a minority, you could find Africans in a variety of different roles during this period. A personal favourite of mine was Jacques Francis, who was a salvage diver for the Mary Rose, the flagship of Henry VIII’s that sank off the coast of Portsmouth. The writing style is incredibly accessible and creates a personal narrative not only for the examples given, but also for those Africans in similar circumstances who can only briefly be discovered in documents such as parish registers. All in all, this is a very entertaining and informative book, which has quite clearly been based on meticulous research. I have written a full review of this here.

A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley

At the beginning of the year, I was reminded of a book I haven’t read since my childhood by an author who once lived in the countryside of Derbyshire, close to where I live. Whilst this is technically a children’s fiction book, it is well suited for all ages, and is based on real life events. First published in 1939, it tells the story of teenage girl, Penelope, who is sent to live on her aunt and uncle’s farm, once owned by Anthony Babington, an important Derbyshire landowner, who became embroiled in a plot to put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne. The girl manages to move between her own time and the 1580s and even meets Anthony Babington himself. Can Penelope alter the course of history or not? It is a slow starter, but once you get into it, this book does become somewhat all consuming and certainly triggers a lot of emotion.

Julian of Norwich: A Very Brief History by Janina Ramerez

This tells the story of Julian of Norwich, a medieval anchoress who shut herself away in a church in Norwich. It discusses her religious writings, as well as providing context to the times in which she lived. Once again, this is another reread, but I loved it just as much this time as I did before. I first came across this book after the author (a favourite historian of mine) did a TV documentary about trying to find the lost original manuscript version of Julian’s text. Sadly it still hasn’t been found, other than a fragment later edited. The author certainly has a special way of explaining things and making things accessible to an audience and this book is no exception. It is especially good at analysing the importance and legacy of Julian, who is now largely a forgotten figure. In the words of Julian herself, All shall be well, all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.

I know this was meant to be a post about my must read books of the year, but as we are on the countdown to Christmas, I thought I must share my favourite historical themed film to watch in time for Christmas.

The Man Who Invented Christmas:

This film showcases how Charles Dickens really wrote A Christmas Carol, which is now synonymous with how we celebrate Christmas. As a Dickens fan of many years, I must admit I love this film and Dan Stevens plays the author very well. It shows off his eccentricities brilliantly, whilst also detailing the tragic backstory of his time in the blacking factory that Dickens himself tried to hide his whole life. I have always been fascinated by the way Dickens kept note of names and places for his books, as well as how he re-enacted his stories to audiences during readings. The film does show this wonderfully. It also has a fantastic cast, full of wonderful British actors. If you have any interest in A Christmas Carol, or Dickens himself, this is a must watch. I have watched this many times and never seem to bore of it!

Book Review of The Earth is All that Lasts by Mark Lee Gardiner

First of all, I would like to personally thank the author, Mark Lee Gardiner, and HaperCollins, for sending me a review copy of this book. I am very grateful for that and it honestly means a lot that I received this.

Despite my love of the history of the Wild West, I must admit that I have always sympathised more with the plight of the Native Americans. Throughout, I have often come across many accounts that make it sound as though the Native Americans ‘deserved’ their fate. For many years I have often wished for someone to correct this narrative and push for the Native American point of view. Whilst I know there have been attempts previously to do this, I feel that Mark Lee Gardiner’s efforts in The Earth is All That Lasts shows at every corner that the white man had lied and cheated its way to get land belonging to the Native Americans, as told through the Lakota chiefs, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. As Sitting Bull has always been a hero of mine, I have read and written quite a bit about him in the past. This prior knowledge did give me a certain excitement, as well as high expectations, before I started reading this book. Whilst my expectations may have been high, I can gladly say that I wasn’t disappointed.

After recently reading one of the author’s other books, To Hell on a Fast Horse, which told the connected stories of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (I would highly recommend it), I had high hopes for this latest book. As I have come to expect with Gardner’s writing, it was easy going, which sounds like a bit of a contradiction considering that the subject matter at times was tough to deal with. I must admit I initially found it hard to get into, as there are lots of descriptions of violence and battles, this is only to be expected as it provides context to the negative relations between the Lakota and the white men, particularly the army and officials, who intended to either fight them or pacify them with treaties that were not understood. At every point the argument that white men had forcibly wanted to get their way by getting land the Lakota lived on, as well as either their assimilation or extermination, is driven home. I utterly commend the author for this as I feel in general that this is not nearly used enough elsewhere. As I was reading, there were many moments that I found were very emotional and poignant, which again shows just how well the whole subject was portrayed.

There is a lot of information, names and locations to take in, but with the easy writing style, as well as a handy map of the forts and battles mentioned at the beginning of the book, there is some help towards this. The amount of information just shows how wonderfully researched this book is, as is mentioned in the acknowledgements, it took the author five years to research and write. For the reader, who may not be that well informed of the culture of the Lakota, I feel that this aspect in particular was very well researched and portrayed. The analysis of the culture that both Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse lived in provides the reader with a better understanding of just what made both of these figures the people they were, rather than just the stereotype of them both being involved in Custer’s Last Stand at the Battle of Little Bighorn.

As previously mentioned, this is not a book for comfortable reading, but it is definitely one that is needed in order to portray the realities of how settlers really came to populate the Great Plains of America. It was done by robbing, lying, cheating, massacring the Native Americans and desecrating their sacred sites and entire way of life. However, this reality is something that needs to be told as far too often, the general narrative is very much about how manifest destiny was a given. This narrative has been written by the white men who eventually ‘conquered’ the West, which is also shown very well throughout the book, but is in stark contrast to the truths that the Native Americans were living. I challenge anyone, whether already sympathetic to the Lakota, like myself, or not, to come away still thinking and believing the whole manifest destiny narrative to be the whole truth.

The epilogue is dedicated to the ones involved in the murders of both Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, showing what happened to them all after these events. I found that the majority of them didn’t actually reap the rewards that they had hoped for, particularly the Lakotas who had chosen to follow the white men governing them when they were forced onto the reservations. One man who did seem to be promoted was James McLaughlin, the agent in charge of the Standing Rock Reservation that Sitting Bull lived on in the last years of his life. From what I had read previously, I found him a very hard man to like, mainly due to his hatred of Sitting Bull. The author showed just how McLaughlin didn’t want to understand the Lakotas he was in charge of, unless they wished to assimilate to a Western way of life. Again, I commend the author for writing about McLaughlin in such a way that shows just how strong his hatred was of Sitting Bull, leaving the reader in no doubt as to what his intentions were towards surrounding the famous chief’s death.

This is yet another book that I would recommend to anyone, whether they have an interest in the final years of freedom for the Lakota or not. I feel very much that this is the written equivalent of what Dances with Wolves was for the big screen, in that it very much shows the Lakota viewpoint, which is not shared often enough. This work is a vital piece to the history and understanding of Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and those final years before the Lakota were forced onto reservations. Most importantly, I feel that those mentioned, whether white men, the US army officers, or any of the Lakotas mentioned, including Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull themselves, had their true characters revealed, whether for good or bad.

Review of To Hell on a Fast Horse by Mark Lee Gardiner

If you are a fan of the Wild West and looking for your next book to read, I would seriously recommend To Hell on a Fast Horse by Mark Lee Gardner. This book tells the joint story of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, the sheriff who shot him dead in a house in Fort Sumner New Mexico one night in 1881. I have always enjoyed tales of the Wild West, but didn’t really know too much about the back story to either Billy the Kid of Pat Garrett. All I really knew was that myth and legend shrouds the backstory to both of these men. This book does help address some of those myths in an even and balanced way, particularly in terms of the biography of Billy the Kid that was written by Pat Garrett himself as it focused on Pat’s motivations behind his writing.

The first few pages of the book are dedicated to other reviews the book has been given. All of these are positive, and at times a little dramatic sounding, so I must admit this gave me some reservations. However, I must admit that not long into the book, I felt I must agree with them. This book really has been one of the best I’ve read this year. The writing style was easy going and action packed, but in a concise way. Whilst this book is a biography, this writing style really did make me feel like I was reading a fiction book, rather than a history book. It certainly meant that the book was very hard to put down. In many ways, it felt as if this book transported the reader right into the middle of the events being described.

I feel I have learnt a lot about what made both men tick, but in a very entertaining and thrilling way. The double narrative could have easily become confusing for the reader, but in fact it was the opposite. It was done in a way that described the outlaw and the lawman not just as individuals, but how their paths crossed at various points along the way. I feel that whether or not the reader knew the outcome of Garrett shooting the Kid, everything does culminate towards that. I had read previously about what happened during the Kid’s death, but had found descriptions of it very confusing. However, I feel the author dealt with what was a confusing event in a very commendable way that made it easy to understand with previous versions I had read. Just taking this example alone does make me applaud the writing style, even though as previously mentioned, it is written well throughout.

The good research and time gone into this topic is evident. Whilst it does have the tone of a fiction book, there are always good references to works by other historians, witnesses who had known Pat and the Kid, and newspapers from the time. By using all of these sources, it does give a well rounded approach to the topic, whilst also giving a wider context to lawless New Mexico, and the Wild West as a whole. I did particularly like the addition of what happened to Pat Garrett after he had killed Billy the Kid. As this book suggests, Garrett hated the fact he was known across America as the one who killed the Kid. By adding these extra facts both before and after Pat knew the Kid, it felt right to respect Pat’s wishes and added to his character. The goes for the exploration of the early life of Billy the Kid. Whilst of course his level of criminality can’t be justified, it goes towards explaining how his life had led him to that point.

The only thing that initially confused me a little was that the first chapter deals with when Pat Garrett first arrested Billy the Kid and others and attempted to take them on a train to meet their justice. This resulted in a shootout and riot with locals who wanted one of the criminals, not Billy the Kid. After reading the rest of the book, the author’s choice to put this in the first chapter makes sense as it places the relationship Garrett and the Kid had straight into the reader’s mind, before the author goes into more detail about the background of both characters.

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone, whether they have an interest in the Wild West or not. It’s journalistic writing style is so easy to read and helps what is a difficult topic in places, in terms of the violence used by the criminals it mentions, but also as the life of Billy the Kid has become very sensationalised in the years since his death, easier to digest. There are many books on the Wild West out there and I genuinely feel that this is one of the best there is. As one of the reviews from the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper suggests “A superbly written story, utterly enthralling and unforgettable”. I would definitely reiterate that statement.

Just so you are aware, an updated edition for the tenth anniversary of this book was published in 2020. I am not sure what updates have been introduced in that version as I was reading the original 2010 one, but if you manage to get your hands on a copy, you’ll have to let me know if there are any differences.

Lew Wallace: The Author of Ben-Hur and His Connections to Billy the Kid

Until recently, I didn’t know that Ben-Hur was a novel written by Lew Wallace, a former Governor of New Mexico and Major General. Instead, I just assumed the famous 1959 film, starring Charlton Heston, was just an original screenplay suited to the epic film genre that was popular at the time. It was only whilst reading a book on Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, the sheriff responsible for the outlaw’s death, that I came across Lew Wallace. After doing further research, I found that Wallace had had an interesting and varied life. Hopefully this post will go some way towards demonstrating that.

Lewis, known as Lew, Wallace was born in Louisiana on 10 April 1927. He father, David Wallace, was a politician and Governor, something which he would pass onto Lewis. However, the pair disagreed a lot as Lew didn’t do well in school. He was more bothered about art and books than his school work, much to the annoyance of his father. At the age of 16, he was thrown out of the family home so he could start earning a living, with the hope this would cure him of his so-called delinquent ways.[1] In some ways it did a little. He went on to become a lawyer, but only to satisfy his father. He still loved his books and carried on reading whenever he had the opportunity, even if it meant reading till very late at night.

Image of Lew Wallace from his autobiography, published in 1906, Wikimedia Commons

Wallace took any opportunity he could to get away from his law practice by becoming a soldier. First in the American-Mexico war of 1846-1848 when he joined the Indiana regiment before joining the American Civil war, where he was first a general, then later a major general. At the Battle of Shiloah in April 1862, he was used as a scapegoat for the Union’s near defeat. He had been ordered to bring his division as reinforcements, but took the wrong route and didn’t get there until the second day of fighting.[2] Sadly, this was something he had to deal with for the rest of his life as people never let him forget and heaped the blame on him. The American Civil War was not the last time he attempted to join the army. In 1898, at the age of seventy one, he tried to join up again so he could fight in the Spanish-American War.[3] His efforts were politely declined.

In September 1878, Lew Wallace was brought in as the Governor of New Mexico in an attempt to create peace following the Lincoln County War, a conflict between two rival factions within the Lincoln County part of New Mexico. As Wallace had previously been one of the members of a military commission that tried the conspirators behind the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, it was thought he would do a good job.[4] There is no denying that Lew did his very best to create peace, but it was a very difficult job with so many outlaws causing havoc throughout the territory. The most notable being Billy the Kid.

Letter to Lew Wallace from Billy the Kid dated March 1881, Fray Angelico Chavez History Library, Wikimedia Commons

The Kid and Wallace met in Spring 1879 when Wallace offered him a pardon in exchange for his witness testimony in a high profile murder case. However, no pardon was ever given, despite Billy writing to Wallace numerous times to remind him of the promise. There were never any replied to these letters, but from Billy’s continued criminal behaviour and the many death threats he made against Wallace, it’s clear why the promise was never fulfilled. Many local newspapers reported on this situation, especially after Pat Garrett arrested Billy in December 1880, who still wanted a pardon. In response, one newspaper directly asked Wallace about it. He said “I can’t see why a fellow like him should expect any clemency from me”.[5] Billy certainly didn’t get it and in April 1881, Wallace signed the death warrant as ordered by the courts, with an execution date set for 13 May. The execution never happened as Billy escaped from jail and was later shot by Garrett on 14 July. Wallace had offered a $500 reward for anyone who recaptured the Kid, but by the time Garrett claimed the reward money, Wallace was no longer the Governor, meaning it took longer to be paid.

The connections to Billy the Kid could easily have become one of the only parts of Lew Wallace’s life that made him an interesting man. However, it was really his writing of the historical novel Ben-Hur, that would become his lasting legacy, even if we now remember it more from the Charlton Heston film, rather than the book itself. When it was published in November 1880, it was an almost instant success. By December, its first print run was completely sold out.[6] By 1900, the novel had been through thirty six English editions and twenty other language editions.[7] Ben-Hur has been described as the “most influential Christian book written in the nineteenth century”, as it outsold every other book in America, except the Bible, until Gone with the Wind was published in 1936.[8]

First Edition of Ben-Hur (1880), Wikimedia Commons

In later life, people of his hometown of Crawfordsville in Louisiana recalled a rather odd old man. They remembered him more of a solider than a writer as he was known to wear his military uniform around town.[9] To many he seemed aloof but those who were close to him, he was thought of as gracious and hospitable.[10] What many did remember though was the beech tree, later known as the Ben-Hur tree, on his land where he was often seen writing under.[11]

There aren’t enough words or time to go into all the details of the life of Lew Wallace, but I hope that this goes some way to show the ‘highlights’ of what was a varied and interesting life. He may be not so well known now, but in his own time, he was one of America’s best-known celebrities. With connections to one of the most infamous outlaws of the Wild West and one of the most famous stories (and later film) of all time, the legacy of Wallace is still around, just as long as you know where to look.


[1] Lifson, Amy, ‘Ben-Hur: The Book that Shook the World’, Humanities, 30.6 (2009), https://www.neh.gov/humanities/2009/novemberdecember/feature/ben-hur-the-book-shook-the-world

[2] Gardner, Mark Lee, To Hell on A Fast Horse: The Untold Story of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett (New York: Harper Collins, 2010), p. 153

[3] McGrath, Nick, ‘Major General Lewis “Lew” Wallace’, On Point, 19.4 (2014), p. 18

[4] Gardner, Mark Lee, To Hell on A Fast Horse, p. 87

[5] Ibid, p. 23

[6] Ibid, p. 154

[7] Lifson, Amy, ‘Ben-Hur: The Book that Shook the World’, https://www.neh.gov/humanities/2009/novemberdecember/feature/ben-hur-the-book-shook-the-world

[8] Ibid

[9] Forbes, John D., ‘Lew Wallace, Romantic’, Indiana Magazine of History, 44.4 (1948), p. 386

[10] Ibid, p. 386

[11] McGrath, Nick, ‘Major General Lewis “Lew” Wallace’, p. 21

Gift Ideas for History Lovers: My Top 5 History Reads of 2021

It can be hard to know what to get the history lovers in your life when it comes to Christmas, especially if, like me, they’re interested in more than one period. If you need a bit of inspiration this year, then here’s a list of my top five history books that I’ve read this year. It’s a mixture of different periods and some fiction and non-fiction, so hopefully there’s something for everybody there.

Jane Austen Investigates: The Abbey Mystery, by Julia Golding

Whilst this is technically a children’s fiction book, it is well suited for Jane Austen fans of all ages. A teenage Jane Austen turns supersleuth when mysterious goings-on happen at Southmoor Abbey, where she has been sent to be a companion of Lady Cromwell for a week. It’s written in a very entertaining way and is a satirical version of a Gothic novel, full of many hints of the real Jane which will be recognised by hardened fans. It’s also a good way to introduce younger readers to the world of Jane Austen. This has definitely been one of my favourite books and I found it quite hard to put down! If you would like to know a bit more, I recently wrote a review for Love British History, which can be found here.

The Real Falstaff: Sir John Fastolf and the Hundred Years War by Stephen Cooper

This book places the Hundred Years War in the context of John Fastolf, the man Shakespeare used as inspiration for his Falstaff character. It successfully blends military history and social history with the personal life of John Fastolf. It gives you a great understanding of how Fastolf fit in and influenced the world around him until his death in the 1450s, including a focus on the homes he built for himself. All in all, a very interesting read and shows just why Fastolf isn’t recognised enough.

Sitting Bull: His Life and Legacy by Ernie LaPointe

In this book, Ernie LaPointe, great-grandson of the legendary Chief Sitting Bull, tells the real story of his famous ancestor. This is a biography with a difference. It’s written in the traditional style of Lakota oral history. This makes it read very differently to other books, but feels true to the person of Sitting Bull. It also makes it easy to read. Again this is up there with one of my favourite books of all time as it is full of emotion but is also education in the respect it shows just how complicated history has portrayed Sitting Bull. I wrote a review of this earlier in the year, so please do take a look here if you’re interested.

Before the Crown by Flora Harding

This is another fiction book, but this time an adult one. I was recently given this by a friend as a gift, so I would definitely recommend gifting this one. It tells the story of how Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip fell in love during the war and the lead up to their wedding on the 20th November 1947. Whilst this isn’t my usual time period, my friend obviously remembered that I have a personal connection to the Queen’s wedding day as my mum was born on the exact same day. I feel this has captured a young Elizabeth and Philip well and is also a very easy read. This would definitely be a good choice for any Royal fan!

Saving Mona Lisa: The Battle to Protect the Louvre and Its Treasures from the Nazis

Again this isn’t my usual time period, but I read this mainly because I have been a regular visitor to the Louvre, but was unaware of the troubles the museum had had during the Second World War. Whilst this is a non-fiction book, it does read more like an action or thriller story as the museum staff risked their lives to protect the treasures in their care. Again this makes it an enjoyable read and really focuses on the individuals involved and their sacrifices, as well as the personal achievements and recognition they had after the war ended. I recently wrote a review of this, which can be found here.

Brushy Bill Roberts: Billy the Kid or Imposter?

After catching the last part of the film Young Guns recently, I suddenly realised I didn’t know the end of Billy the Kid’s life. Being English, I assumed that this was because we have our own outlaws, rather than the cowboys of the American West. However, after beginning to do a little research, some parallels with English outlaws emerged. Most notably that there has been a lot fictionalisation surrounding Billy’s life. This was easy to do as there are little established facts and most of the knowledge known about him has been taken from rumours and speculation found in newspapers and fictionalised accounts at the time.[1] Yet one thing stood out to me as utterly fascinating: in 1950, a man known as Brushy Bill Roberts applied for a pardon for Billy the Kid. Who was this Brushy Bill Roberts, and why was he asking for a pardon for Billy the Kid, real name Henry McCarty, nearly 70 years after the death of the outlaw?

Photograph of Brushy Bill Roberts

Brushy Bill Roberts, real name William Henry Roberts, first came to the attention of a paralegal, William V. Morrison, in 1948 whilst he was helping to settle an estate.[2] He had heard rumours that Roberts knew the true fate of Billy the Kid and wanted to investigate more. Little did he know exactly what he’d find. After some interviews, Roberts admitted he was Billy the Kid and that he was sick of hiding his identity. Morrison was initially unsure as to the truth of the claims, but quickly began to believe them, particularly as some of the activities of Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County War in which he was involved, were too in depth not to be true.[3] Despite these findings, when the story was released to the press, experts on the American outlaw were utterly unconvinced and instead they continued to believe that it was Billy the Kid who had been shot by Pat Garrett in the early hours of 14 July 1881.[4]

Billy the Kid, Wikimedia Commons

There are many loopholes in the story of Billy the Kid’s death, therefore leaving an opportunity not just for Roberts, but a man name John Miller, who died in 1937, to claim to be the outlaw who died young. Garrett had shot a man who had been speaking Spanish in a darkened room of the ranch house of Pete Maxwell, a friend of Billy the Kid. The two deputies who were waiting outside the house, John W. Poe and Thomas McKinney, hadn’t met the outlaw before, so they didn’t know what he looked like. After the incident, Poe is noted to not believe the man who had been shot dead was Billy, insisting that it was the wrong man.[5] This, alongside rumours spread by locals who lived near the ranch, meant some had begun to believe that it was someone else who had been killed that day.

Photograph of Pat Garrett as a Sherriff in the Lincoln County Police, Wikimedia Commons

The day after the shooting, a Coroner’s inquest ruled that the body was that of Billy the Kid and that Garrett had shot him as a justifiable homicide.[6] The body was buried that same day and was fully intact, despite later claims by various people to have kept body parts as relics.[7] It was buried alongside Billy’s mother but the graves have since has flooding issues, so no one knows if the remains are still there. A more recent stone marker has been placed in the graveyard but it’s uncertain whether it lies anywhere near the original grave location.[8] This has meant that any calls for DNA evidence to be analysed has been impossible.

I have purposefully not gone into the full ins and outs of the case for Brushy Bill Roberts either being or not being Billy the Kid, in the hopes that you will investigate it and make up your own mind. I would suggest that as it’s a fascinating topic. However, for me, there is one strange coincidence in the timing of Roberts coming forward as Billy the Kid. Roberts and his wife decided to retire to Texas after moving around between many different southern states because of the low cost of living there. Roberts was on a small state pension and this had to be supplemented by his elderly wife taking on laundry to bring in a relatively small income.[9] He also died of a heart attack in December 1950 after his attempt of a pardon was unsuccessful.

Photograph of Brushy Bill’s Grave, Wikimedia Commons

There is no way to definitively prove or disprove Roberts claims of being the infamous outlaw, but there is no denying that the case has helped perpetuate the outlaw in American history. This started within a year of the Kid’s supposed death after Pat Garrett published a biography of his victim. However, the book was more like a traditional dime novel, which often featured cowboy figures. It was based on entertaining fiction rather than hard facts.[10] Hico in Texas, where Roberts retired to, openly admits his claims were true and has a Billy the Kid Museum to explain this. Whatever your own believes on the matter, it’s true that the outlaw does have continuing appeal and fascination. In terms of Brushy Bill, as has been said, if he wasn’t Billy the Kid, then who was he and how did he know so much about the outlaw and the Lincoln County War?[11] It is possible that even if he wasn’t Billy, Roberts would have known him well and had himself participated in the Lincoln County War.[12]


[1] Kiger, P. J., ‘How Did Billy the Kid Die?’, History, 14 May 2020, https://www.history.com/news/billy-the-kid-death-theories

[2] Jameson, W. C., Billy the Kid: Beyond the Grave (Lanham, Maryland: Taylor Trade Publishers, 2005), pp. 1-2.

[3] Jameson, W. C., Billy the Kid: Beyond the Grave, pp. 5 and 20.

[4] Prassel, F. R., The Great American Outlaw: A Legacy of Fact and Fiction (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996), p. 152.

[5] Jameson, W. C., Billy the Kid: Beyond the Grave, p. XII.

[6] Kiger, P. J., ‘How Did Billy the Kid Die?’, History, 14 May 2020, https://www.history.com/news/billy-the-kid-death-theories

[7] Kiger, P. J., ‘How Did Billy the Kid Die?’, History, 14 May 2020, https://www.history.com/news/billy-the-kid-death-theories

[8] Prassel, F. R., The Great American Outlaw, p. 152.

[9] Jameson, W. C., Billy the Kid: Beyond the Grave, pp. 15-16.

[10] Jameson, W. C., Billy the Kid: Beyond the Grave, p. 7.

[11] ‘Patrolling the Bandit Belt’, T. F. Dawson Scrapbooks cited in Prassel, F. R., The Great American Outlaw, p. 152.

[12] Jameson, W. C., Billy the Kid: Beyond the Grave, p. 20.

Book Review of Sitting Bull: His Life and Legacy

If you are a regular reader of the blog, you may remember a post I did at the end of last year about the murder of Sitting Bull, the chief of the Lakota nation who fought for the rights of Native Americans and their way of life. This is a cause very close to my heart and I have much respect for Sitting Bull and the Native American way of life in general. This post is something a bit different as I’ll be reviewing a book I asked for at Christmas, written by a descendant of Sitting Bull, Ernie LaPointe. I decided to do a book review because I feel the message of the book is a particularly important one and needs to be shared with others.

Sitting Bull: His Life and Legacy by Ernie LaPointe

Ernie LaPointe, the author of Sitting Bull: His Life and Legacy, is a great-grandson of Sitting Bull, and just like his ancestor, is an advocate of the traditional way of life of the Lakota and seeks to tell the truth of the life of the famous chief. I believe this book manages to successfully do both of these things as Sitting Bull’s life is retold in the oral tradition, almost like a story, rather than chronologically. This made it a very easy read and contributed to me not wanting to put the book down.

For me, I have never been so emotionally connected to a book in a very long time. The early parts of Sitting Bull’s life are told in a way which reflects the characteristics highly prized by the Lakota: honour, respect, humbleness and compassion. All of these traits are something I have always associated with Sitting Bull, so I especially liked learning the circumstances he showed these from an early age. The great chief showed these despite the hard times, including the loss of many loved ones, which I find utter commendable.

If you are looking for more information on Sitting Bull’s time in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, you’ll probably be disappointed as this only grants a couple of paragraphs. Personally, I don’t feel that is a problem as the sole purpose of the book is to show the character of Sitting Bull, which of course is not defined by his time in the Wild West Show, but more in the personal moments, of which the book is full of.

The book contains quite a few appendices that may put people off, but I found that these helped explain the animosity that has arisen from the descendants of One Bull, the nephew who was part of the Indian Police who arrested and killed Sitting Bull in 1890, against the direct descendants of Sitting Bull through his children. Perhaps the most useful of these is a glossary explaining the many many Lakota words found in the text. I did quite enjoy learning these words, although I’m pretty sure my pronunciation is terrible.

All in all, I found this a very enjoyable and educational book. It helps to demyth some of the life of Sitting Bull that has been given to us by white historians, rather than through the Lakota oral tradition. This is partly because one of the early historians never visited the children of Sitting Bull, despite the fact they were all present at the time of his murder. I would thoroughly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the life of Sitting Bull, or the way of life of the Native Americans. After reading this, I now have a newfound respect for the chief, even more than I already had. I hope that if you read it too, you would feel the same.

To read more on the murder of Sitting Bull, please have a read of my post on the subject using the following link.

The Death of Chief Sitting Bull

Chief Sitting Bull was one of the most notable advocates for Native American rights in the last part of the nineteenth century. He is probably most known for his appearances in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. For me, he personifies the struggles of the Native American people in their fight to keep their way of life. This was also evident in the circumstances that led up to his murder by the Indian Police, helped by the army, in 1890. They saw this ageing man as the last remaining beacon of hope for all Native Americans who were being forced to leave their once nomadic existence to live reservations. Life on reservations was purposefully meant to stop their traditional way of life. They were no longer free to move as they pleased, were forced hundreds of miles away from their ancestral land and subjected to forced assimilation wherever possible. Especially by sending Native American children to boarding schools so they could ‘unlearn’ their traditions and languages, instead imposing Western education upon them.[1]

In Sitting Bull’s own words on the subject, this was an injustice to his people:

“We were once free to come and go, and to live in our own way. But white men, who belong to another land, have come upon us, and are forcing us to live according to their ideas. That is an injustice; we have never dreamed of making white men live as we live.”[2]

These very opinions made him a much-reviled figure to the American authorities, especially as this was a man who had fought at the infamous Battle of Little Bighorn, where George Custer and the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the U. S. Army were defeated by an army of Native Americans, made up of different tribes, but led by visions Sitting Bull had had.

Sitting Bull photographed and published by Palmquist & Jurgens, St. Paul, Minn, ca. 1884. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/94500412

The bitterness the army and other authorities had towards Sitting Bull stemmed not just from his brave fight at the Battle of Little Bighorn, but from his flee to Canada following the bad winter of 1876-1877. That winter was full of bad weather meaning food was scarce. Many of the Native Americans decided to give in to being put on reservations, believing it would mean a guaranteed food source. Sitting Bull and his people refused to do this and instead fled to Canada, which was viewed as a safe place for the indigenous people. This meant that all the Native Americans still living in America were now all living on reservations.[3] Their time in Canada didn’t last long though as the buffaloes they relied on began to dwindle in numbers. It forced the Chief and his people back to America and onto the Sioux Reservation.

Under the Sioux Act of 1889, the government wanted to reduce the size of the Sioux Reservations into six smaller ones, rather than just one large one. This purposefully sought to reduce the amount of land available for the Native Americans, so that larger parts could be sold on to settlers.[4] You can imagine how Sitting Bull and many other leaders in the community reacted to this. For them, it once again showed how the white man could not be trusted. Many promises given had been broken, and not for the first time. Just as before, their opinions and complaints, despite being just, “and loud, and bitter, but were little heeded”.[5] Out of the ashes of the brokenness this brought, there was one glimmer of hope that began to arise: The Ghost Dance.

The Ghost Dance was a spiritual revival within the Native American communities living on reservations, most notably the Sioux. It believed that through performing this dance, it would prepare the way of a messiah, along with ghosts of the ancestors and buffalo, to save them from their current misery in order to re-establish their old way of life.[6] Whilst the initial ‘prophet’ of this movement was Wovoka, who believed he had had a vision, Sitting Bull played a major part in the movement. Another Sioux Chief named Kicking Bear believed in revelations that the Great Spirit had entrusted Sitting Bull to oversee and conduct the dances.[7]

Ghost Dance of the Sioux Indians in North America, 1891. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2006681363/

These dances caused great concern for those in charge of the Sioux reservation that Sitting Bull lived on. James McLaughlin, the agent in charge of the Standing Rock Reservation, believed that Sitting Bull was the root cause of this new movement and wanted it to end. On the 17th of November 1890, McLaughlin and an interpreter went to one of these dances to gauge how many of the Native Americans were involved. They found 100 people dancing and another 100 people watching.[8] Following this, McLaughlin began negotiations with Sitting Bull about how to stop the dances, despite Sitting Bull’s instances that this was nothing to fear. When the Major invited Sitting Bull to the reservation headquarters at Fort Yates, it was seen as a trap for the elderly chief. Sadly, the authorities responded with punishments that included attempting to starve the warriors. The ghost dancers were also worried and fled into the wilderness away from the camp. Sitting Bull wished to follow to carry on peaceful talks about the situation. Sitting Bull needed permission to do this and had a letter translated for this. However, it was poorly translated and instead looked like a threat.[9] He was told no and instead put under house arrest.

Within a month it seemed like the Chief’s fate was sealed. Orders were given to arrest Sitting Bull and bring him to Fort Yates. Others had sent a warning telegram to Buffalo Bill, a former friend whilst he was in the Wild West Show, was sent, hoping he could be an intermediary. Despite arriving at Fort Yates, he was suspiciously plied with drink and turned away the next day.[10] This was probably to maintain the secrecy surrounding the idea of murdering the Chief. The Indian Police went to the camp early in the morning of 15 December 1890 with a hidden group of soldiers. They dragged Sitting Bull out of his cabin and placed him on a waiting horse. Rather than quietly submit to his fate, Sitting Bull shouted orders to his followers, despite being threatened by the Police with guns.[11] A gun fight ensued between the Police and those in the camp. During the fight, Sitting Bull and two of his sons, Blackbird and Crow Foot, as well as 6 of the Indian Officers, 2 of which died from their wounds afterwards. Another version told at the time was that the Indian Police had shot Sitting Bull and his sons inside the cabin, only to later smash the Chief’s face into pieces.[12]

Kurz & Allison. Capture & Death of Sitting Bull, ca. 1891. Jan. 5. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2003656865/

Despite the death of the famous chief, that was not the end of the story. His body was buried at the cemetery at Fort Yates, but many other stories surfaced about what subsequently happened to the body. The Chicago Tribune reported at the time that the body buried at the fort was a fake and that the real body was in fact “now in a dissecting room”.[13] Others included quicklime being placed into the coffin to disintegrate the remains, his body being taken to Canada, and drunken soldiers stealing a thigh bone before the Fort closed in 1903.[14] All of these rumours complicated the legacy of the once great chief and in some ways meant he was forgotten, even more so when his body was the only one not to be moved when the fort closed.

Fiske, Frank Bennett, photographer. Sitting Bull’s grave / F.B. Fiske. North Dakota, ca. 1906. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/91482751/

The sad part is that the grave was left unattended and unloved. It would have been a sad legacy for him had it not been for his descendants, who were finally allowed to move his body to a spot looking over the Missouri River in April 1953. This was divisive as one granddaughter believed the site chosen was unsuitable because of antisocial behaviour that was known in the area. Yet, it happened, and 2 cars moved the remains to the chosen site in snowy weather. His new resting place now has a bust to commemorate him, which is more than he had whilst buried at Fort Yates.[15]

Whenever I think of the death of Sitting Bull, I feel incredibly sad to know he was killed for what he believed in. My heart has always agreed with the Native Americans, that they have been treated with injustice and still continue to be to a greater extent. Was it really a crime to hope that your life would improve if only you could practise your traditional way of life? I will also leave you questioning whether if Buffalo Bill could have reached Sitting Bull, whether the outcome would have been any different. Whatever may have happened if he had, I like to remember the small kindness in that Buffalo Bill attempted to bring his old friend some of his favourite sweets that he new he loved. What a contrast to the treatment he was given by the Indian Police, one of whom was his nephew, One Bull, who was actually an informant for McLaughlin.

[1] ‘Boarding Schools, https://americanindian.si.edu/education/codetalkers/html/chapter3.html#:~:text=Beginning%20in%20the%20late%20nineteenth,Code%20Talkers%20attended%20boarding%20schools.

[2] ‘This Land Belongs to Us’, in McMaster, G. and Trafzer, C. E. (eds), Native Universe: Voices of Indian America (Washington: National Geographic Society, 2004), p. 92.

[3] Todd, A. M., Sitting Bull, 1831-1890 (Mankato, Minnesota: Blue Earth Books, 2003), p. 24.

[4] Todd, A. M., Sitting Bull, p. 26.

[5] Johnson, W. F., Life of Sitting Bull: And History of the Indian War, 1890-1891, Reprint(DSI Digital Reproduction, 2000), p. 169.

[6] Johnson, W. F., Life of Sitting Bull, p. 169

[7] Johnson, W. F., Life of Sitting Bull, p. 169

[8] 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

[9] 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

[10] 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

[11] Johnson, W. F., Life of Sitting Bull, p. 185.

[12] Johnson, W. F., Life of Sitting Bull, p. 187; Thomas, R., ‘Sitting Bull’s Burials: A History’, Friends of the Little Bighorn Battlefield, 25 February 2007,  http://www.friendslittlebighorn.com/sittingbullsburials.htm

[13] Johnson, W. F., Life of Sitting Bull, p. 188.

[14] Thomas, R., ‘Sitting Bull’s Burials: A History’, Friends of the Little Bighorn Battlefield, 25 February 2007,  http://www.friendslittlebighorn.com/sittingbullsburials.htm

[15] Thomas, R., ‘Sitting Bull’s Burials: A History’, Friends of the Little Bighorn Battlefield, 25 February 2007,  http://www.friendslittlebighorn.com/sittingbullsburials.htm

To find out more about Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, please visit https://voyagerofhistory.wordpress.com/2020/02/11/buffalo-bill-and-his-wild-west-show/

The Public Image of Miss Annie Oakley

Since a teenager, I have been fascinated with Annie Oakley, the sharpshooting ‘cowgirl’ of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. It was mainly because she had found local fame in her native Ohio as a teenager herself, taking part in shooting contests. Yet it was this, as well as touring with her husband Frank Butler, that would eventually lead her to the international fame being a member of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West brought. To me then, as well as now, there is something attractive in the fact this petite woman became respected in a man’s environment. So much so that her own husband saw her skills and backed out of the limelight to let her shine. This is part of what gives Annie Oakley a timeless quality, especially to women.

As Glenda Riley suggests, her image of a respectable woman who had gained her fame through hard work is what gives Annie her universal appeal, both in her own time and long after her death nearly a century ago.[1] She purposefully distanced herself from other performing women at the time as she maintained an air of Victorian femininity. She purposefully wore long skirts with leggings underneath and always used side-saddle for her horse riding tricks.[2] Her look was key to gaining her acceptance in a career that was often thought risqué and degrading, especially for the other cowgirls who donned men’s attire.[3]

Fox, R. K., Copyright Claimant. Annie Oakley – famous rifle shot and holder of the Police Gazette championship medal. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/item/2009631997/

Her skill with a gun was undeniable and she was purposefully marketed by Buffalo Bill’s show as the strong woman, which helped to be an idol for the women coming to watch.[4] Just as Buffalo Bill was the embodiment of the male experience of the Wild West, so Annie became the poster girl for the female experience.[5] As one Glasgow journalist commented on the young woman’s skill with a shotgun and a horse:

Annie “is another living illustration of the fact that a woman, independent of her physique, can accomplish whatever she persistently and earnestly sets her mind to overtake”.[6]

No one would have guessed, despite the obvious signs of shear hard work that had gone into developing her skills, just how bad her childhood had been to force her into learning how to sharp shoot. Her family were very poor farmers and she was one of 7 children by the time her father Jacob passed away from pneumonia in 1866 after he had been caught out in a blizzard. She was passed around different homes and was often physically abused but for the sake of her family hopefully being paid by her work, she taught herself to shoot and trap small animals.[7] The little and destitute Annie Oakley of those days could never have dreamed of finding international fame in later life, but her associations with upper and middle class society allowed her a voice she wouldn’t have been able to use otherwise.

C. mid-1880’s poster for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, advertising “Miss Annie Oakley, the peerless lady wing-shot” (Wikimedia Commons)

She was often quite vocal on training women to shoot, even if only for protection purposes. Given her own background, it is clear why she would have thought this a necessity. Still, there was a need for any woman who chose to learn how to wield a gun to maintain an air of dignity. At the time it was suggested that women should hide guns in their parasols, which sounds as if it could be in a James Bond film. By acting as a female role model in this way, Annie helped broaden the female sphere, showing it was acceptable for women to be independent by learning how to shoot, but whilst still adhering to female ideals at that time. She made sure the best furniture, such as carpets, tables and chairs, were available so that she could invite friends for tea and cake, but always made sure her guns were on display.[8] Many women joined shooting clubs themselves, following on in Annie’s image of the respectable lady shooter, especially many society women she taught to shoot, hunt and camp whilst in London. For this reason, despite not caring in a political form of feminism, just for extending the pursuits of women, “she became and has remained a symbol of the liberated female”.[9] Even during World War 1, when she was nearing her 60s, Annie offered her services. Writing to officials, she offered to be the officer for a regiment of women shooters or to assist in training cadets how to shoot.[10] Unfortunately, both of these offers were rejected. What a story it would have turned out to be if they hadn’t though!

Annie Oakley, with gun Buffalo Bill gave her / staff photo. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/item/00651800/

The pair retired in 1901 following a train crash that left Frank’s back injured, but Annie continued to have letters and messages from nostalgic fans who remembered her in the good old days. She died in 1926 and Frank followed her 18 days later following spouts of ill health for them both. Little Sure Shot, as her adopted father Chief Sitting Bull nicknamed her, was gone, but her ability to combine Victorian dignifying femininity and the Wild West still lingers on and I hope it will for a long time to come.

Despite being the first cowgirl of note, since her death, Annie Oakley has become more associated with the idea of show business rather than her true skill. Whilst there is of course some element of show business to her life, it was all based around her innate handling of a gun. Despite her appearance in many Hollywood films, many seem to forget how her she found a unique sense of Victorian femininity that promoted her in many ways above her husband. For instance, in Annie Get Your Gun (1950), Annie purposefully loses to her future husband Frank in a gun competition. This suggests that as a woman, she shouldn’t defeat a man.[11] In reality, Annie had first met Frank, when she was a teenager, by beating him at a local shooting competition. They did act as partners in a show that showed off their shooting skills following an illness of his show business partner. However, once Annie’s fame grew, it was he that stood back and became an assistant to her, not the other way around.[12]


[1] Riley, G., The Life and Legacy of Annie Oakley (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994)

[2] Riley, G., ‘Annie Oakley: Creating the Cowgirl’, Montana The Magazine of the Western History, 45.3 (1995), pp. 40-41.

[3] Riley, G., ‘Annie Oakley: Creating the Cowgirl’, p. 40.

[4] W. E. Deahl, ‘Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, 1885’, Annals of Wyoming, 47 (1975) cited in Riley, G., ‘Annie Oakley: Creating the Cowgirl’, pp. 34-35

[5] Riley, G., The Life and Legacy of Annie Oakley

[6] Eastern Bells, December 1891, cited in Riley, G., ‘Annie Oakley: Creating the Cowgirl’, p. 38

[7] Riley, G., The Life and Legacy of Annie Oakley

[8] Riley, G., The Life and Legacy of Annie Oakley; Riley, G., ‘Annie Oakley: Creating the Cowgirl’, p. 41.

[9] Kaspar, S., Annie Oakley (Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992), p. 246.

[10] Anderson, A., ‘Annie Oakley (1860-1926)’, National Women’s History Museum https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/annie-oakley

[11] S. K. Schackel, ‘Women in Western Films: the Civilizer, the Saloon Singer, and Their Modern Sister’, in A. P. McDonald (ed), Shooting Stars: Heroes and Heroines of Western Film cited in Riley, G., ‘Annie Oakley: Creating the Cowgirl’, p. 46.

[12] Sayers, I. S., Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show (New York: Dover Publications Inc, 1981); Anderson, A., ‘Annie Oakley (1860-1926)’, National Women’s History Museum https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/annie-oakley

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]

buffalo_bill_poster
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/