Gift Ideas for History Lovers: My Top 5 History Reads of the Year

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. Major McLaughlin 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]

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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/