Have Fun, Will Travel: Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show

Show poster of American Native Americans attacking pioneers in wagons. Portrait of William "Buffalo Bill" Cody on right. By Courier Litho. Co., Buffalo, N.Y. c1889 |Courtesy of the Library of Congress

In 1883, William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, famous frontiersman, army scout, and buffalo hunter, opened the doors of his Wild West Show for the first time.1 This show was a fantastical, exaggerated portrayal of life on the frontier, complete with reenactments of famous frontier battles with natives, displays by gifted marksmen (and one woman) and horsemen, and shows of the culture of the various Native Americans in Bill’s employ. This show would capture the hearts and minds of many people in the United States, and later on even in Europe, as Buffalo Bill’s show traveled to many European countries between 1886 and 1906.2

Leaflet showing the location of attractions at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in Neuilly-sur-Siene France, 1889 | Courtesy of the Bibliothèque nationale de France

One of the reasons for the success of Buffalo Bill’s show was its “authenticity.” Bill himself was already somewhat of a celebrity in the west, after having earned his moniker “Buffalo Bill” for killing some 4,280 buffalo for the Kansas Pacific Railroad Company in the 1860s.3 Bill also had the good business sense to employ many of the Lakota Sioux and other Native Americans, including the man famous for the role he actually played at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, Chief Sitting Bull. It was in its depiction of Native Americans that many of his fans were drawn, enamored by the elaborate songs and dances of these peoples, with Buffalo Bill going so far as to say, “My Indians are the principal feature of this show.”4 The depiction of the Native Americans in his show was largely of their warrior culture, war regalia, and dances made for going into battle; however, this was taking place during the closing of the American frontier, when the death of the buffalo herds and the end of the Sioux Wars had largely ended this way of life in the west.

After roughly four months working with Cody, Sitting Bull grew tired of the show and left to return to the Standing Rock Reservation, where he would eventually be killed. Later in 1890, the Massacre at Wounded Knee would take place and many Sioux would be killed by the U.S. 7th Cavalry, the same regiment that fought with Custer years prior, at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.5 With this, the way of life that was shown in Buffalo Bill’s show was all but destroyed.

Chief Sitting Bull in war bonnet photographed with Buffalo Bill | Photograph by David F. Barry c1885 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Even with this, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show continued to be popular up until it went bankrupt and closed in 1916.6 By 1916, the “Wild West” had not truly existed for quite some time; the country had been rapidly industrializing, and the age of both Cowboys and Indians would soon give way to the machine guns and artillery of the First World War. However, it was not the death of the west that ended Bill’s show, but rather the end of interest in the west. Although people praised Bill’s show for its authenticity, it was not authentic to the contemporary west. The show did not feature miles-long slow rides in freezing temperatures on cattle drives, and it did not show subsistence farming. What Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show gave its audience was the same thing that they grew accustomed to from dime novels and stories of the west: rough and tumble cowboys, crack shots, skilled horsemen, and the Natives that made the west so dangerous. With the closing of the frontier and the nation looking outside of its borders to expand, the west was no longer as exotic as it once was in the public’s eye, and was anything but wild.

  1. Stephen G. Hyslop, “How the West was Spun,” American History 43, no. 4 (October 2008): 26.
  2.  Irene Lottini, “When Buffalo Bill crossed the ocean: Native American scenes in early twentieth century European culture,” European Journal Of American Culture 31, no. 3 (October 18, 2012): 187.
  3. Stephen G. Hyslop, “How the West was Spun,” American History 43, no. 4 (October 2008): 27.
  4. Stephen G. Hyslop, “How the West was Spun,” American History 43, no. 4 (October 2008): 33.
  5. Stephen G. Hyslop, “How the West was Spun,” American History 43, no. 4 (October 2008): 33.
  6. Douglas Seefeldt, “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West,” in America in the World, 1776 to the Present: A Supplement to the Dictionary of American History, edited by Edward J. Blum, Vol. 1. (Farmington Hills, MI: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2016), 163.

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24 Responses

  1. Would it be going too far to say Buffalo Bill was the Shakespeare of the Wild West? Probably, but your article was very interesting and informative. It was a little surprising to read about how some Natives took part in the show but seems like such an inclusive way to expose their culture to various types of people. Buffalo Bill and his show seemed to have played a major role in how the Wild West came to be viewed as, whether it was intentional or not, it has truly shaped some core aspects of how that time period is seen today. I also liked that you included a line about how although the play did represent a lot of authentic ways of that way of life, it still didn’t include other aspects of life that were troublesome, like temperature and farming issues.

  2. I enjoyed how this article was written. It is a short article but gets enough information across to make it worth reading. Buffalo Bill was a very interesting person throughout the Wild West. He took what many could only experience through the novels and short stories to something they could see and experience in front of their own eyes. The article does a great job articulating that and how when it came to an end it was not filing for bankruptcy but the views and image of the west was no longer the Wild West.

  3. Great article, I enjoyed reading it. I remember watching a show a few months back were they talked about the life of Buffalo Bill and the Wild West Show that he put on. In a time were most still saw Native Americans, the fact that Buffalo Bill depicted them in a positive light was something few dared to do. For his show to make it to a European audience is something else that few would have been able to do.

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