Historical Comprehension: Buffalo Bill's Wild West Shows
Buffalo Bill was born William Cody in 1846 in Iowa, on the frontier between European American settlement and Native American homelands. As settlement pushed west, Cody participated in the most iconic aspects of the movement. In his youth, he rode with wagon trains, cattle drives, and the Pony Express. Later, he served as a scout in the Civil War in Kansas and in Plains Wars with Custer's Fifth Cavalry. He earned his nickname hunting buffalo to feed the Kansas Pacific Railroad workers.
In 1869, a New York magazine writer, Ned Buntline, went to Nebraska in search of a model for a protagonist for stories of the West. He zeroed in on Cody and later that year introduced his hero to the readers of the New York Weekly in "Buffalo Bill, the King of the Border Men." Over 500 Buffalo Bill dime novels followed.
The success of the Buffalo Bill stories led Cody to develop a stage version of the hero's exploits in the 1870s. Cody was working on the production in New York in 1876 when Custer was defeated at Little Big Horn. On the night of his last show, Cody swore to return to the West and avenge Custer's death. A month later, Cody rode with Custer's Fifth Cavalry at Warbonnet Creek, Nebraska where he killed the Cheyenne Leader, Yellow Hand, and took his scalp in revenge.
The legend of Buffalo Bill grew and Cody expanded his production, which culminated in the popular Wild West shows that debuted in 1883. The shows depicted the dramas of frontier life in Native American horse races, buffalo hunts, and battle scenes, such as Custer's defeat at Little Big Horn and the fight at Warbonnet Creek. It also included a review of the world's best gunmen.
Cody employed a large crew and cast of cowboys, Native Americans, and performers to present what was billed as an authentic and historical portrayal of the West. A search on Buffalo Bill or Wild West shows provides nearly a thousand images of this popular entertainment. One image, from a program for the show, promises potential audience members that they will see:
"A Living Picture of Life on the Frontier . . . Indians, Cowboys, and Mexicans, as they lived . . . an Indian Village, transplanted from the Plains . . . Indian Warfare depicted in true collors [sic]. . . a Buffalo Hunt in all its realistic details."
- How does the program try to appeal to potential audience members? How does the program depict the show and what it has to offer?
- According to photographs, what was the subject matter of Buffalo Bill's Wild West shows? What kinds of people appeared in the shows? What activities and events were depicted?
- Why do you think that these subjects were selected?
- Who was hired to perform in the Wild West shows?
- How do Native Americans seem to have been depicted in these shows? What reasons might Native Americans such as Sitting Bull have had to join Cody's cast?
- Why do you think that Buffalo Bill's Wild West shows were so popular in the U.S. and in Europe?
- Do you think that these theatrical performances accurately represented important historical events? How authentic do you think the shows actually were and why?
- To what extent did the Wild West shows' depictions of historical events influence popular perceptions of western history?