You’ve heard of Annie Oakley, Calamity Jane, Chief Sitting Bull, and of course – Buffalo Bill. Those great heroes of the Wild West who created the United States of America. Frontier folk laughing in the face of danger. Battling the fearsome Sioux and Cheyenne. Free spirits living by their own code of honour at the expanding new frontiers of America. A tough life punctuated by gunfights and drinking in saloons.
But is any of this true?
Here’s the argument against the reality of the Wild West, as we think about it, ever having existed. Yes there were cowboys but they weren’t heroic loners writing the rules but poorly paid farm hands leading a life of cow-herding drudgery. Indian tribes existed of course – but far from being routinely murderous, they were manipulated and bullied into ever smaller parcels of land. Pathetic reservations riddled with disease and poverty. Little wonder they occasionally lashed out.
The man who created the myth of the rugged Wild West immortalised later in Hollywood ‘westerns’ was a 19th century showman, Buffalo Bill. His circus-style shows from the 1880s thrilled jaded Victorian audiences with a make-believe world of courage and gritty determination on the American Plains. These shows were only rivalled in scale and ambition by the performances of P.T. Barnum’s troupe of entertainers.
So, the Wild West was a myth then?
Not exactly. The truth is way more complicated and fascinating. Buffalo Bill was a product of the last decades of the Wild West. He did have direct experience of frontier life. Fought against the Indian tribes and also the Confederacy during the Civil War and the Mormons in the Utah War – plus other conflicts. He was also a leading figure in the wholesale slaughter of America’s once enormous buffalo population.
His circus-style shows didn’t invent the Wild West – but turned what he had seen and experienced throughout his life into family entertainment. Let’s find out how.
DISCOVER: Terror of scalping in the Wild West
Buffalo Bill’s early years in the Wild West
William (“Bill”) Frederick Cody (1846-1917) was born on an Iowa farm before the family moved to what is now Canada and then rather unwisely relocated to the Kansas Territory, covering much of what is now Kansas, Colorado, and Nebraska.
This lawless area was yet to be fully incorporated into the United States and in the run up to the American Civil War there were murderous conflicts between pro and anti-slavery settlers. The Cody family opposed slavery. Bill’s father was stabbed after making a strident anti-slavery speech in public and died from complications arising from the attack.
Aged only eleven, Bill Cody had to find his own way in the world. Barely a teenager, he became a scout for the US army during the suppression of a revolt against federal authority by Mormons in what would become the state of Utah. While playing a very minor role in the so-called Utah War, he claimed to have killed a Sioux warrior. “So began my career as an Indian fighter”, he boasted in a later biography.
There’s always a degree of hyperbole in Cody’s account of his life. At one point, he was a messenger boy. But in his telling, he was a courageous rider for the Pony Express. Cody then fought valiantly with the Union in the American Civil War against the rebel Confederate States. In truth, he was the equivalent of a truck driver delivering supplies. Not that this wasn’t needed. But it doesn’t quite fit into his later heroic narrative.
The shameful way he got his name
After the American Civil War, Cody’s attention turned to the herds of buffalo roaming the American plains. His significant role in their mass slaughter would earn him the nickname: Buffalo Bill. In an obituary at his death in 1917, the newspapers were still awestruck by his killing of 4,000 plus buffalo over an eighteen-month period. The reason given for this appalling deed was to feed labourers working on the Kansas-Pacific railroad, then under construction.
However, there was another more sinister agenda behind wiping out the buffalo. The federal and state authorities reckoned that reducing buffalo herds was key to controlling the Indian tribes whose lives had been bound up with the buffalo for centuries. Exterminating these magnificent beasts would force the Indian tribes to settle as farmers or urban dwellers and ditch their hunter lifestyle.
In effect, Buffalo Bill provided the PR to gloss over what was both an ecological disaster and an act of ethnic cleansing. Not that anybody saw it in those terms in the late 19th century. He encouraged wealthy east coast Americans, rich Europeans, and even the son of the Tsar of Russia to journey westwards and join him in the greatest buffalo hunt of all time. This was a manly undertaking turning wimps into heroes!
His dazzling PR worked. Buffalo hunting mania got to such a fever pitch that train passengers would aim out of the windows to take out a buffalo as a way of passing the time on a long journey!
In 1871, Grand Duke Alexis of Russia couldn’t resist the lure of buffalo hunting any longer and came for the experience of a lifetime. American newspapers reported on His Imperial Highness being guided at speed on horseback shooting with incredible skill at terrified animals. His official government hosts were General Sheridan, hero of the Civil War, and General Custer.
Yes, that General Custer…
Buffalo Bill was on hand to provide the showmanship and alongside him were seasoned native American tribal leaders including Spotted Tail, Red Leaf, and Pawnee Killer. The latter earned his name leading a band of so-called Dog Soldiers against both American soldiers and the Pawnee. It seems astonishing to us now but just as Generals Sheridan and Custer alongside Buffalo Bill and tribal chiefs like Pawnee Killer were entertaining the Grand Duke – the Indian Wars were still very much in progress on the Plains.
Wild West reality continues as Buffalo Bill fictionalises it…
In fact, General Sheridan would go on to prosecute wars against the Cheyenne and Sioux while General Custer would die in the Great Sioux War conducting his infamous “last stand” in 1876. This was the Battle of the Little Bighorn that saw a combined force of the Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indians defeat the 7th US Cavalry, led by Custer.
Wild West truth and fiction seemed to coexist in the 1870s. Buffalo Bill acted out what now look like prototypes for his future circus shows – for example the Grand Duke’s buffalo hunt in 1872 – while still fighting in real wars.
Indeed, in the aftermath of Custer’s last stand, Cody was directly involved as a scout in a retaliatory action against the Cheyenne dubbed The Battle of Warbonnet Creek. During this skirmish, Cody shot dead a young Cheyenne chief, Yellow Hair. Taking out his Bowie knife, he then scalped the dead warrior declaring this gruesome (and quite unnecessary) act, “the first scalp for Custer”.
Cody’s mutilation of the Cheyenne youth was a minor incident in the Indian Wars but displaying his talent for self-publicity, Cody/Buffalo Bill commissioned a theatre play about it starring himself and had the scalp displayed in shop windows. It would become a feature of his future circus shows.
Another curious overlap between truth and fiction was the rapidly changing role of Indian chiefs like Sitting Bull (1831-1890) who led the Sioux (Teton Lakota) at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. With Custer dead and United States forces humiliated, Sitting Bull became public enemy number one. Thousands of soldiers were drafted in to capture him and crush the Sioux. Initially he fled to Canada but then returned to surrender.
Then, a couple of years later, the strangest thing happened: Sitting Bull joined Buffalo Bill’s circus show. Transforming himself from the most hated man in America to a national treasure from the Plains making speeches about the need for peace between the Sioux and the white man. Whether he meant a word of it has been debated.
Sadly, Sitting Bull was shot dead on a reservation in 1890 amidst fears he was about to lead a new rebellion.
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show takes to the road
Cody lived his life as a dime novel boy’s own story. Full of acts of bravery and outstanding courage. But he was part of a dying world. And maybe he knew it. In his earlier years, the Wild West was real. By his later years the “frontier” was declared a dead concept.
In 1883, in what can only be described as an act of commercial brilliance, he turned his life story into a stage show. Buffalo Bill was the first modern celebrity. Crafting an identity for himself and creating a heavily fictionalised version of the real Wild West. At least that is how his critics have characterised it.
Yet to me, there was a huge overlap between reality and fiction. Bill Cody was still involved in very real Wild West related life-and-death activity at the same time as his Buffalo Bill alter ego began to develop. For audiences in thoroughly urbanised New York, Chicago, and faraway London in Britain – the charismatic showman brought them a world they knew nothing about. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show delivered, as one newspaper put it, “a murderous attack on a stage coach every night”.
He gave us the vision of the Wild West that is firmly lodged in our heads.
The performances could go awry. The Fitchburg Sentinel reported on October 1, 1883, that at one performance in Cleveland, Ohio the sham fighting gave way to the real thing. A native American from Omaha called Walker, down on the bill as Howling Dog, had fortified himself with rather too much whisky that evening and “started on the warpath”. He laid out several performers with the butt of his revolver before firing at Buffalo Bill:
“The latter successfully dodged two shots and then knocked the red man down with a shovel. Walker will be laid up about ten days.”
Buffalo Bill introduced characters in the show who could best be described as Wild West superheroes, each with their own special powers. Annie Oakley (1860-1926) was a talented sharpshooter who could hit a target firing the gun backwards over her shoulder while looking in a small mirror. Other performers, who had grown up in the Wild West, included Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok.
They would all perform across the US but also to the political leaders of Europe including Queen Victoria, the Kaiser of Germany, and the President of France.
The legacy of Buffalo Bill and his version of the Wild West
The golden age of the shows coincided with the boom in big music hall performances from the 1880s to the First World War in both the United States and Europe. Then the movies changed everything. But Cody lived long enough to see his vision of the Wild West translate on to the screen. In 1889, he struck up a friendship with Thomas Edison, an early pioneer of filmed entertainment.
Edison recognised immediately that the Buffalo Bill shows could form the basis for great stories about the Wild West. In 1894, he shot a series of films based on characters Cody had nurtured including Annie Oakley. And in the same year, captured a group of Sioux performing the Ghost Dance – and it’s still hypnotic (article continues after video).
But other aspects of the Buffalo Bill shows cemented some negative stereotypes of the Wild West. Early shows included African-American cowboys but these disappeared over time creating the false impression that all cowboys were white. On the plus side, Cody created strong female characters like Annie Oakley and it was Hollywood, not Buffalo Bill, that reduced all women to housewives in the Wild West until more recent times.
Cody died in 1917 as the United States was sucked into the First World War. Looking back at the newspaper obituaries, I find them muted. Maybe by this time, the shows had run their course and his light had dimmed. Nevertheless, his body lay in state for a few hours at the Colorado state capitol building in Denver as a mark of respect. He was buried on Lookout Mountain though the whereabouts of his body is disputed.
A curious death
In 1948, Chief Light Moon breathed his last aged 107. The old native American had been admitted to hospital in Nebraska but refused modern medicine for his stomach condition, claiming he’d only ever taken yellow root tea for any ailment. He died shortly afterwards. But before passing away regaled the nursing staff with stories of having fought at Custer’s Last Stand, seen Abraham Lincoln wearing a moth-eaten stovepipe hat in Washington DC, and fought a duel with Buffalo Bill.
He’d “winged” Buffalo Bill in the duel on account of him not being a fast draw. How badly he’d injured the great man we will never know. But it wasn’t fatal.