Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Of all the big personalities to come out of the American West, none was perhaps bigger than William F. Cody, popularly known as Buffalo Bill. An Army scout, Indian fighter, Pony Express rider, and gold miner all by the time he was fourteen, Cody made a name for himself as first a buffalo hunter and, later, as one of the greatest showmen of the nineteenth century. His travelling circus, Buffalo Bill's Wild West, not only gave audiences across the United States and Europe a taste of life on the vanishing frontier, but also became the template for how popular culture would forever after depict life in the West—the enduring story of savagery conquered by civilization. In the process of the show's nearly three-decade run, Cody became a living legend, and his actors and performers, both cowboys and Native peoples, became the icons of a much romanticized and often exaggerated, uniquely American era.

Summary Overview

Of all the big personalities to come out of the American West, none was perhaps bigger than William F. Cody, popularly known as Buffalo Bill. An Army scout, Indian fighter, Pony Express rider, and gold miner all by the time he was fourteen, Cody made a name for himself as first a buffalo hunter and, later, as one of the greatest showmen of the nineteenth century. His travelling circus, Buffalo Bill's Wild West, not only gave audiences across the United States and Europe a taste of life on the vanishing frontier, but also became the template for how popular culture would forever after depict life in the West—the enduring story of savagery conquered by civilization. In the process of the show's nearly three-decade run, Cody became a living legend, and his actors and performers, both cowboys and Native peoples, became the icons of a much romanticized and often exaggerated, uniquely American era.

Defining Moment

The latter half of the nineteenth century in the American West is arguably the most romanticized era in United States history. A great amount of sentimentalized art, literature, and film has depicted the “Old West” as a place of villainous bandits, wild savage Natives, and heroic cowboys. Few have helped shape this image more than William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody.

A prodigious showman and self-promoter, Cody lived and worked a myriad of jobs throughout the western United States during the 1860s and 1870s, at the very height of the settlement expansion. Thanks in part to his many, often exaggerated experiences, Cody was able to touch on nearly every aspect of life in the American West. Theatrical by nature, and having tasted the interest of eastern audiences for tales of life on the frontier, in 1883, Cody packaged his exploits (making some up as he went along) and founded Buffalo Bill's Wild West. The show, a traveling circus of western attractions, featured performances by both cowboys and Native peoples. Among the large, shifting troupe were such notables as sharp-shooters Annie Oakley and Lillian Smith; cowboys Will Rogers and Wild Bill Hickok; and Native Americans, including Chief Sitting Bull (Lakota), Chief Joseph (Nez Perce), and Geronimo (Apache).

Each show would follow a somewhat standard format, beginning with a parade on horseback, followed by “historical reenactments,” such as a bison hunt or train robbery. In some shows, Cody would stage a reenactment of the Battle of Little Bighorn, in which General Custer dies the last man standing, gloriously fighting his Sioux attackers to the bitter end, after which Cody himself would appear to take revenge for the fallen hero. Shooting demonstrations, cowboy tricks, rodeo events, and races were all featured throughout. Finally, every show would then conclude with an Indian attack on a “burning cabin,” a scene in which, again, Buffalo Bill would emerge as the savior.

Buffalo Bill's Wild West toured throughout the New and Old World, with special performances even given to many of the crown heads of Europe, most notably the British royal family, including Queen Victoria herself. The show was a spectacular success, drawing large crowds wherever it went. It also struck a nerve with a public fascinated by a place and a time that was quickly disappearing. By the time the last of Buffalo Bill's performances closed in 1908, his story of the West became the story of the West.

Author Biography

William F. Cody was born in Iowa in 1846. Following the death of his father, Cody, barely a teenager, struck out to support his family, finding odd jobs as a freight carrier, unofficial scout during the Utah War, gold miner, and even as a rider in the famed, albeit short-lived, Pony Express. In 1863, Cody joined the Union Army and, following the defeat of the Confederacy became a scout for the reconstituted United States Army. In short order, Cody made a reputation for himself as not just a talented scout and tracker, but also as famed buffalo hunter, having shot as many as 4,282 bison in a period of eighteen months for the Kansas Pacific Railroad, thus earning for himself the nickname, “Buffalo Bill.” In 1872, Cody began to perform in Wild West shows and, in 1883, established his own, Buffalo Bill's Wild West. In addition to his travelling circus, Cody was a tireless self-promoter, writing multiple autobiographies and self-aggrandizing histories. He was also a land speculator and sometime investor. Cody died in 1917, one of the most famous men in America, if not the world.

Historical Document

[from Buffalo Bill's Life Story]

It was because of my great interest in the West, and my belief that its development would be assisted by the interest I could awaken in others, that I decided to bring the West to the East through the medium of the Wild West Show. How greatly I was to succeed in this venture I had no idea when it first occurred to me. As I have told you, I had already appeared in a small Western show, and was the first man to bring Indians to the East and exhibit them. But the theater was too small to give any real impression of what Western life was like. Only in an arena where horses could be ridden at full gallop, where lassos could be thrown, and pistols and guns fired without frightening the audience half to death, could such a thing be attempted.

After getting together a remarkable collection of Indians, cowboys, Indian ponies, stage-coach drivers, and other typical denizens of my own country under canvas I found myself almost immediately prosperous.

We showed in the principal cities of the country, and everywhere the novelty of the exhibition drew great crowds. As owner and principal actor in the enterprise I met the leading citizens of the United States socially, and never lost an opportunity to “talk up” the Western country, which I believed to have a wonderful future. I worked hard on the program of the entertainment, taking care to make it realistic in every detail. The wigwam village, the Indian war-dance, the chant of the Great Spirit as it was sung on the Plains, the rise and fall of the famous tribes, were all pictured accurately.

It was not an easy thing to do. Sometimes I had to send men on journeys of more than a hundred miles to get the right kind of war-bonnets, or to make correct copies of the tepees peculiar to a particular tribe. It was my effort, in depicting the West, to depict it as it was. I was much gratified in after years to find that scientists who had carefully studied the Indians, their traditions and habits, gave me credit for making very valuable contributions to the sum of human knowledge of the American native.

The first presentation of my show was given in May, 1883, at Omaha, which I had then chosen as my home. From there we made our first summer tour, visiting practically every important city in the country.

For my grand entrance I made a spectacle which comprised the most picturesque features of Western life. Sioux, Arapahoes, Brulés, and Cheyennes in war-paint and feathers led the van, shrieking their war-whoops and waving the weapons with which they were armed in a manner to inspire both terror and admiration in the tenderfoot audience.

Next came cowboys and soldiers, all clad exactly as they were when engaged in their campaigns against the Indians, and lumbering along in the rear were the old stage-coaches which carried the settlers to the West in the days before the railroad made the journey easy and pleasant.

I am sure the people enjoyed this spectacle, for they flocked in crowds to see it. I know I enjoyed it. There was never a day when, looking back over the red and white men in my cavalcade, I did not know the thrill of the trail, and feel a little sorry that my Western adventures would thereafter have to be lived in spectacles.

Without desiring to dim the glory of any individual I can truthfully state that the expression “rough riders,” which afterward became so famous, was my own coinage. As I rode out at the front of my parade I would bow to the audience, circled about on the circus benches, and shout at the top of my voice:

“Ladies and gentlemen, permit me to introduce you to the rough riders of the world!”

For three years we toured the United States with great success. One day an Englishman, whose name I never learned, came to see me after the show.

“That is a wonderful performance,” he told me. “Here in America it meets with great appreciation, but you have no idea what a sensation it would be in the Old World, where such things are unheard of.”

That set me to thinking. In a few days, after spending hours together considering the matter, I had made up my mind that Europe should have an opportunity to study America as nearly at first-hand as possible through the medium of my entertainment.

Details were soon arranged. In March, 1886, I chartered the steamer State of Nebraska, loaded my Indians, cowboys, horses, and stage-coaches on board, and set sail for another continent.

It was a strange voyage. The Indians had never been to sea before, and had never dreamed that such an expanse of water existed on the planet. They would stand at the rail, after the first days of seasickness were over, gazing out across the waves, and trying to descry something that looked like land, or a tree, or anything that seemed familiar and like home. Then they would shake their heads disconsolately and go below, to brood and muse and be an extremely unhappy and forlorn lot of savages. The joy that seized them when at last they came in sight of land, and were assured that we did not intend to keep on sailing till we fell over the edge of the earth, was something worth looking at.

At Gravesend we sighted a tug flying the American colors, and when the band on board responded to our cheers with “The Star-Spangled Banner” even the Indians tried to sing. Our band replied with “Yankee Doodle,” and as we moved toward port there was more noise on board than I had ever heard in any battle on the Plains.

When the landing was made the members of the party were sent in special coaches to London. Crowds stared at us from every station. The guards on the train were a little afraid of the solemn and surly-looking Indians, but they were a friendly and jovial crowd, and when they had recovered from their own fright at the strange surroundings they were soon on good terms with the Britishers.

Major John M. Burke, who was my lifetime associate in the show business, had made all arrangements for housing the big troupe. We went to work at our leisure with our preparations to astonish the British public, and succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. The big London amphitheater, a third of a mile in circumference, was just the place for such an exhibition. The artist's brush was employed on lavish scale to reproduce the scenery of the Western Plains. I was busy for many days with preparations, and when our spectacle was finally given it was received with such a burst of enthusiasm as I had never witnessed anywhere.

The show began, after the grand entry, with the hour of dawn on the Plains. Wild animals were scattered about. Within their tents were the Indians sleeping. As the dawn deepened the Indians came out of their tents and went through one of their solemn and impressive war-dances. While this was going on the British audience held its breath. You could have heard a whisper in almost any part of the arena.

Then in came a courier to announce the neighborhood of a hostile tribe. Instantly there was a wild scramble for mounts and weapons. The enemy rushed in, and for ten minutes there was a sham battle which filled the place with noise and confusion. This battle was copied as exactly as it could be copied from one of the scrimmages in which I had taken part in my first days as a scout. Then we gave them a buffalo hunt, in which I had a hand, and did a little fancy shooting. As a finish there was a Wild Western cyclone, and a whole Indian village was blown out of existence for the delectation of the English audience.

The initial performance was given before the Prince and Princess of Wales, afterward King Edward and his Queen, and their suite. At the close of the program the Prince and Princess, at their own request, were introduced to all the leading members of the company, including many of the Indians. When the cowgirls of the show were presented to the Princess they stepped forward and offered their hands, which were taken and well shaken in true democratic fashion.

Red Shirt, the most important chief in the outfit, was highly pleased when he learned that a princess was to visit him in his camp. He had the Indian gift of oratory, and he replied to her greeting with a long and eloquent speech, in which his gestures, if not his words, expressed plainly the honor he felt in receiving so distinguished a lady. The fact that he referred to Alexandria as a squaw did not seem to mar her enjoyment.

That the Prince was really pleased with the exhibition was shown by the fact that he made an immediate report of it to his mother. Shortly thereafter I received a command from Queen Victoria to appear before her.

This troubled me a good deal—not that I was not more than eager to obey this flattering command, but that I was totally at a loss how to take my show to any of the great residences occupied by Her Majesty.

Finally, after many cautious inquiries, I discovered that she would be willing to visit the show if a special box was prepared for her. This we did to the best of our ability. The box was placed upon a dais covered with crimson velvet and handsomely decorated. When the Queen arrived I met her at the door of the box, with my sombrero in my hand and welcomed her to “the Wild West of America.”

One of the first acts in the performance was to carry the flag to the front. This was done by a soldier. Walking around the arena, he offered the Stars and Stripes as an emblem of the friendship of America to all the world. On this occasion he carried the flag directly to the royal box, and dipped it three times before the Queen.

Absolute silence fell over the great throng. Then the Queen rose and saluted the flag with a bow, her suite following her example. There was a wild cheer from everyone in the show, Indians included, and soon all the audience was on its feet, cheering and waving flags and handkerchiefs.

This gave us a fine start and we never put on a better performance. When it was all over Her Majesty sent for me, and paid me many compliments as well as to my country and the West. I found her a most gracious and charming woman, with none of the haughtiness which I had supposed was inseparable from a person of such exalted rank. My subsequent experiences with royalty convinced me that there is more real democracy among the rulers of the countries of Europe than you will find among the petty officials of a village.

It was interesting to watch old Red Shirt when he was presented to the Queen. He clearly felt that this was a ceremony between one ruler and another, and the dignity with which he went through the introduction was wonderful to behold. One would have thought to watch him that most of his life was spent in introductions to kings and queens, and that he was really a little bored with the effort required to go through with them. A second command from the Queen resulted in an exhibition before a number of her royal guests, including the Kings of Saxony, Denmark, and Greece, the Queen of the Belgians, and the Crown Prince of Austria.

The Deadwood coach, one of the features of the show, was of particular interest to my royal guests. This was a coach with a history. It was built in Concord, N.H., and sent by water to San Francisco to run over a route infested with road-agents. A number of times it was held up and robbed. Finally, both driver and passengers were killed and the coach abandoned on the trail. It remained for a long time a derelict, but was afterward brought into San Francisco by an old stage-driver and placed on the Overland trail.

As it worked its way East over the Overland route its old luck held steadily. Again were driver and passengers massacred; again it was abandoned. At last, when it was “hoodooed” all over the West and no independent driver or company would have anything to do with it I discovered it, bought it, and used it for my show.

One of the incidents of my program, as all who have seen it will remember, was an Indian attack on this coach. The royal visitors wanted a real taste of Western life—insisted on it, in fact, and the Kings of Denmark, Greece, Saxony, and the Crown Prince of Austria climbed to the box with me.

I had secretly instructed the Indians to throw a little real energy into their pursuit of the coach, and they followed my instructions rather more completely than I expected. The coach was surrounded by a demoniac band of shooting and shouting Indians. Blank cartridges were discharged at perilously close proximity to the rulers of four great nations. Looking around to quiet my followers, I saw that the guests of the occasion were a trifle pale, but they were all of them game, and came out of the affair far less scared than were the absolutely terrified members of the royal suites, who sat in their boxes and wrung their hands in wild alarm.

In recognition of this performance the Prince of Wales sent me a souvenir consisting of a feathered crest, outlined in diamonds, with the words “Ich dien” worked in jewels underneath. A note in the Prince's own hand expressed the pleasure of his guests in the entertainment I had provided for them.

After a tour of the principal cities we returned to America, proud of our success, and well rewarded in purse for our effort.

The welcome to America was almost as elaborate as that from England. I quote from the description of it printed in the New York World:

The harbor probably has never witnessed a more picturesque scene than that of yesterday, when the Persian Monarch steamed up from Quarantine. Buffalo Bill stood on the captain's bridge, his tall and striking figure clearly outlined, and his long hair waving in the wind; the gaily painted and blanketed Indians leaned over the ship's rail; the flags of all nations fluttered from the masts and connecting cables. The cowboy band played “Yankee Doodle” with a vim and enthusiasm which faintly indicated the joy felt by everybody connected with the “Wild West” over the sight of home.

Shortly after my arrival I was much pleased by the receipt of the following letter:

FIFTH AVENUE HOTEL, NEW YORK.

COLONEL WM. F. CODY:

Dear Sir—In common with all your countrymen, I want to let you know that I am not only gratified but proud of your management and success. So far as I can make out, you have been modest, graceful, and dignified in all you have done to illustrate the history of civilization on this continent during the past century. I am especially pleased with the compliment paid you by the Prince of Wales, who rode with you in the Deadwood coach while it was attacked by Indians and rescued by cowboys. Such things did occur in our days, but they never will again.

As nearly as I can estimate, there were in 1865 about nine and one-half million of buffaloes on the Plains between the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains; all are now gone, killed for their meat, their skins, and their bones. This seems like desecration, cruelty, and murder, yet they have been replaced by twice as many cattle. At that date there were about 165,000 Pawnees, Sioux, Cheyennes, and Arapahoes, who depended upon these buffaloes for their yearly food. They, too, have gone, but they have been replaced by twice or thrice as many white men and women, who have made the earth to blossom as the rose, and who can be counted, taxed, and governed by the laws of Nature and civilization. This change has been salutary, and will go on to the end. You have caught one epoch of this country's history, and have illustrated it in the very heart of the modern world—London—and I want you to feel that on this side of the water we appreciate it.

This drama must end; days, years, and centuries follow fast; even the drama of civilization must have an end. All I aim to accomplish on this sheet of paper is to assure you that I fully recognize your work. The presence of the Queen, the beautiful Princess of Wales, the Prince, and the British public are marks of favor which reflect back on America sparks of light which illuminate many a house and cabin in the land where once you guided me honestly and faithfully, in 1865–66, from Fort Riley to Kearney, in Kansas and Nebraska.

Sincerely your friend,

W.T. SHERMAN.

Our next descent on Europe was made in the steamer Persian Monarch, which was again chartered. This time our destination was France. The Parisians received the show with as much favor as had the Londoners.

Everything American became the fad during our stay. Fashionable young men bought American and Mexican saddles for their rides in the Bois. Cowboy hats appeared everywhere on the street. There was a great cry for stories of the Plains and all the books that could be found that dealt with the West were translated into the French language. Relics from the Plains and mountains, bows, moccasins, and Indian baskets, sold like hot cakes in the souvenir stores….

I have now come to the end of my story. It is a story of “The Great West that Was,” a West that is gone forever.

All my interests are still with the West—the modern West. I have a number of homes there, the one I love best being in the wonderful Big Horn Valley, which I hope one day to see one of the garden spots of the world.

In concluding, I want to express the hope that the dealings of this Government of ours with the Indians will always be just and fair. They were the inheritors of the land that we live in. They were not capable of developing it, or of really appreciating its possibilities, but they owned it when the White Man came, and the White Man took it away from them. It was natural that they should resist. It was natural that they employed the only means of warfare known to them against those whom they regarded as usurpers. It was our business, as scouts, to be continually on the warpath against them when they committed depredations. But no scout ever hated the Indians in general.

There have been times when the Government policy toward the Indians has been unwise and unjust. That time, I trust, has passed forever. There are still many thousand Indians in the country, most of them engaged in agricultural pursuits. Indian blood has added a certain rugged strength to the characters of many of our Western citizens. At least two United States Senators are part Indian, and proud of it.

The Indian makes a good citizen, a good farmer, a good soldier. He is a real American, and all those of us who have come to share with him the great land that was his heritage should do their share toward seeing that he is dealt with justly and fairly, and that his rights and liberties are never infringed by the scheming politician or the short-sighted administration of law.

Glossary

moccasins: a shoe made of deer skin or other soft leather.

squaw: a Native American woman.

tenderfoot: slang for an inexperienced person.

war-bonnet: a feathered headdress worn by members of tribes from the American Plains

Document Analysis

This selection from William F. Cody's autobiography details the European tours of Buffalo Bill's Wild West, with special emphasis given to the many prestigious guests who attended the performances. We get a sense of Cody's boastful nature and his real pride over the success of his shows in Europe, but we also glimpse some sadness at the loss of the frontier and his inherent contradictions about Native peoples. Most importantly, we witness his role in crafting the narrative of the American West.

Cody believes that he's offering audiences an authentic experience. Whether it be in the form of a war-bonnet from the Great Plains or a stagecoach from the Black Hills, Cody spares no expense in securing artifacts from the West to use in his show. At the same time, he has an obvious flare for showmanship, crafting spectacle with grand entrances and fake gunfire. He wants to dazzle audiences, while also giving them something of what they already expect. His aim is to make real what they've imagined the West to be. He takes special delight in entertaining royalty, who shower him with gifts and praise and, according to Cody, often seem more “democratic” than many of the elected officials he's met. In fact, Cody loves his tours of Britain, where his show finds bigger success than in the United States—not surprising considering that, at the time, Victorian Britain controlled the largest empire in the world.

Throughout Cody's account his depiction of his Native American performers is most interesting. While he professes his respect for his Native American performers, going so far as to say that Native peoples had every right to defend themselves against “the white man,” and that the policies of the US Government were “unwise and unjust,” he's still not above using his Native American performers to play on the stereotypes of the audience. The Native peoples in this Wild West show are the aggressors, whooping and screaming, the savage hordes come down on an unsuspecting wagon train or log cabin. Cody often seems amused when his Native performers seem out of their element. Respect them though he might, Cody obviously considers Native peoples quite primitive.

Overall one gets the sense from the document that Cody is very conscious of the frontier's imminent demise. The West is fading from memory, and never again will there be anything like it. The best that Cody can do is to try and recreate something of it through his over-the-top, larger than life performances. Through his shows in Europe, all things of the American West have become trendy. Cody might argue that what he's created is authentic and realistic, but in truth, it's just it's just a caricature, and he knows it. As he laments several times throughout his account, and indirectly through the inclusion of a letter from W. T. Sherman, all that was is gone, and only spectacle remains.

Essential Themes

William F. Cody was an adventurer, a performer, and an imperialist, and it was all three of these traits that shaped the way we remember the American West. A rough and tumble character, full of the kind of get-rich-quick zeal that defined western expansion, Cody spent his young life pursuing one western dream after another. What he didn't experience himself, he borrowed from others. The fact and fiction of the frontier coalesced in his mind to produce Buffalo Bill's Wild West, a loud, gaudy, boisterous, spectacle full of savage Indians and heroic cowboys. A show tailor-made for the sensibilities of a Victorian world that thought itself as the pinnacle of civilization, in which Native peoples, whether they be in the American West, South America, Asia, or Africa, were primitives in need of protection. For all the pomp and ceremony, the central theme throughout Buffalo Bill's Wild West was that of savagery tamed by the forces of white civilization. It was a celebration of conquest, in which the conqueror was also the victim, forced to defend himself at every turn. And it was this story more than any other that became the standard narrative about the American West: civilization versus savagery, conquest without guilt. As the show traveled the nation, and crisscrossed Europe, this message was broadcast and appropriated by the heads of state who came to watch. Today we still see this theme in art, literature, and film. It pervades our culture. But whatever the American West really was, it was not as Cody presented it because, in the end, Buffalo Bill did not care about celebrating the story of the settlement of the frontier as much as he cared about celebrating himself.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Blackstone, Sarah J. The Business of Being Buffalo Bill. New York: Praeger, 1988. Print.
  • Bridger, Bobby. Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull: Inventing the Wild West. Austin: U of Texas P, 2002. Print.
  • Carter, Robert A. Buffalo Bill Cody: The Man Behind the Legend. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2000. Print.
  • Warren, Lois S. Buffalo Bill's America: William Cody and the Wild West Show. New York: Random House, 2005. Print.
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