Wild West Shows
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Wild West Shows
Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World - Circus poster showing cowboys rounding up cattle and portrait of Col. W.F. Cody on horseback. c.1899

Wild West shows were traveling vaudeville performances in the United States and Europe. The shows introduced many western performers and personalities, and a romanticized version of the American frontier, to a wide audience with many different members.


Poster for The Great Pawnee Bill shows. The only genuine Wild West. Touring America ... c1903

The mythology and legends of the American West evoke images of adventure filled with cowboys, Indians, wild animals, wild parties with outlaws, and stagecoaches. The real American West of the 19th century was not nearly as glamorous as often depicted. Cowboys, Native American Indians, army scouts, outlaws, and wild animals did truly exist in the West. However, gunfights, stagecoach attacks, and train holdups were not an everyday ordeal. The dramatic myth of the Wild West as we see it today is really a "puffed-up exaggeration"[1] of the real western frontier. The shaping of this myth of western life was aided into creation by films, dime novels, live performances, paintings, pulp magazines, sculptures, and television. The first and prototypical Wild West show was Buffalo Bill's, formed in 1883 and lasting until 1915.[2]

Wild West shows celebrated the achievement of the frontier movement as being an important accomplishment in American history. The shows were a combination of history, patriotism, and adventure which managed to create an enduring spirit of the "unsettled" west and capture audience's hearts throughout America and Europe.

Wild West shows contained a lot of action. Wild animals, trick performances, theatrical reenactments, and all sorts of characters from the frontier were all incorporated into the show's program.

Theatrical reenactments included those of battle scenes, "characteristic" western scenes, and even hunts. Shooting exhibitions were also in the line up with extensive shooting displays and trick shots. Competitions that came in the form of races between combinations of people or animals exhilarated and stimulated the audience. Equally exciting were rodeo events, involving rough and "dangerous" activities performed by cowboys with different animals. In short, Wild West shows began to include any type of "western" event that could in any way appeal to the audiences.

Wild West shows were popular start of the 20th century. Within two years of the first Wild West show, over 10,000,000 spectators had seen it and it had a profit of $100,000. The shows preserved the disappearing world of the "unsettled" and "untamed" west and brought it to life for audiences.[3]

Buffalo Bill's Wild West

Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World - Circus poster showing Buffalo Bill's congress of rough riders and Cuban insurgents in battle, c. 1898

Buffalo Bill was born William Frederick Cody on February 26, 1846. He lived until January 10, 1917. Cody grew up on the frontier and loved his way of life. As he got older, some of his titles he earned included buffalo hunter, U.S. Army scout and guide, and showman, as well as Pony Express Rider, Indian fighter, and author. Cody's fame began to spread to the East when an author, Ned Buntline caught wind of him and wrote a dime novel about Buffalo Bill, called Buffalo Bill, the King of Border Men (1869). Buntline's novel was turned into a theatrical production which greatly contributed to his success and popularity in the east.

Before long, Cody ended up starring as himself in Buntline's play. Soon after, he started his own theatrical troupe. It wasn't until 1883 when Cody first got his idea for a Wild West show. That same year, he launched Buffalo Bill's Wild West show in Omaha, Nebraska. With his Wild West show in hand, nobody could deny Buffalo Bill's fame. "At the turn of the twentieth century, William F. Cody was known as 'the greatest showman on the face of the earth'".[4]

William F. Cody is known for being the inventor of the Wild West show. His motivation to produce the show was to preserve the western way of life that he grew up with and loved. Driven by his ambition to keep this way of life from disappearing, Cody turned his "real life adventure into the first and greatest outdoor western show".[5] Cody did not want to see his way of life vanish without remembrance. Consequently, Cody became the first real Westerner to cash in on the western myth, which others had been writing literature, dime novels, and plays about for some time. Arizona John Burke served as the press agent and publicist for Cody's Wild West Show from 1883 until Cody's death 1917. He would travel ahead of the company meeting with reporters and employed innovating techniques at the time, such as celebrity endorsements, press kits, publicity stunts, op-ed articles, billboards and product licensing, that contributed to the success and popularity of the show.[6]

Show content

Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill, 1885

In creating the Wild West show, Cody also created the myth of the adventuresome, exciting, and outright wild western frontier. Cody helped pitch-in to give the West its image as we see it today. He also was the first to establish the format and content of Wild West shows.

The shows consisted of reenactments of history combined with displays of showmanship, sharp-shooting, hunts, racing, or rodeo style events. Each show was 3-4 hours long and attracted crowds of thousands of people daily. The show began with a parade on horseback. The parade was a major ordeal, an affair that involved huge public crowds and many performers, including the Congress of Rough Riders. The Congress of Rough Riders was composed of marksman from around the world, including the future President Theodore Roosevelt, who marched through the parade on horseback.

Among the composition of the show were historical scenes. "The exact scenes changed over time, but were either portrayed as a 'typical' event such as the early settlers defending a homestead, a wagon train crossing the plains, or a more specific event such as the Battle of the Little Bighorn".[7] In both types of events, Buffalo Bill used his poetic license to both glorify himself or others while heightening the villainous mischievousness of the "bad guys" (outlaws or Indians) and to embellish each situation for theatrical enhancement. Typical events included acts known as Bison Hunt, Train Robbery, Indian War Battle Reenactment, and the usual grand finale of the show, Attack on the Burning Cabin, in which Indians attacked a settler's cabin and were repulsed by Buffalo Bill, cowboys, and Mexicans.

A more specific historical event in the show might have been a reenactment of the Battle of Little Bighorn also known as "Custer's Last Stand". This event was made into a famous act performed in the show, with Buck Taylor starring as General George Armstrong Custer. In this battle, Custer and all men under his direct command were killed. After Custer is dead, Buffalo Bill rides in, the hero, but he is too late. He avenges Custer by killing and scalping Yellow Hair (also called Yellowhand) which he called the "first scalp for Custer".[8] This reenactment is exciting for the audience and also stresses Buffalo Bill's importance, as it suggests that were he to ride in on time, Custer and his men may have been saved.

Re-enactment of Native American warrior stabbing General Custer. c.1905

Shooting competitions and displays of marksmanship were commonly a part of the program. Great feats of skill were shown off using rifles, shot guns, and revolvers. Most people in the show were all good marksmen but many were experts. Buffalo Bill himself was an excellent marksman. It was said that nobody could top him shooting a rifle off the back of a moving horse.

The show also demonstrated hunts executed by Buffalo Bill, cowboys, and Mexicans, which were staged as they would have been on the frontier, and were accompanied by one of the few remaining buffalo herds in the worlds. "People throughout North America and Europe who had never seen buffalo before felt the rush of being in the middle of the hunt."[9]

Animals also did their share in the show through rodeo entertainment, an audience favorite. In rodeo events, cowboys like Lee Martin would try to rope and ride broncos. Broncos are unbroken horses that tend to throw or buck their riders. Other wild animals they would attempt to ride or deal with were mules, buffalo, Texas steers, elk, deer, bears, and moose.

Races were another form of entertainment employed in the Wild West show. Many different races were held, including those between cowboys, Mexicans, and Indians, a 100 yd foot race between Indian and Indian pony, a race between Sioux boys on bareback Indian ponies, races between Mexican thoroughbreds, and even a race between Lady Riders.

Tour history

Buffalo's Bill's Wild West show continued to captivate audiences and tour annually for a total of 30 years (1883-1913). After opening on May 19, 1883 in Omaha, Nebraska, the show was on what seemed to be a perpetual tour all over the east of America. The show "hopped the pond" in 1887 for the American Exhibition, and was then requested for a command performance at Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee in 1887 at Windsor Castle, in England. The whole troupe including 200 passengers plus 97 Natives, 18 buffalo, 181 horses, 10 elk, 4 donkeys, 5 longhorns (Texas steers), 2 deer, 10 mules, and the Deadwood Concord stagecoach crossed the Atlantic on several ships. They then toured England for the next six months and the following year returned to tour Europe until 1892. With his tour in Europe, Buffalo Bill established the myth of the American West overseas as well. To some Europeans, the Wild West show not only represented the west, but all of America. He also created the cowboy as an American icon. He gave the people of England, France, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Netherlands, and Germany a taste of the wild and romantic west.

In 1893 the show performed at the Chicago World's Fair to a crowd of 18,000. This performance was a huge contributor to the show's popularity. The show never again did as well as it did that year. That same year at the Fair, Frederick Turner, a young Wisconsin scholar, gave a speech that pronounced the first stage of American history over. "The frontier has gone", he declared.[10]

Other shows

Texas Jack's Wild West show toured South Africa with Will Rogers

Over time, various Wild West shows were developed. They included Bee Ho Gray's Wild West, Texas Jack's Wild West, Pawnee Bill's Wild West, Jones Bros.' Buffalo Ranch Wild West and "Buckskin Joe" Hoyt.[11]

The 101 Ranch Wild West Show featuring African Americans such as Bill Pickett, the famous bulldogger and his brothers Voter Hall who billed as a "Feejee Indian from Africa".[12]

The Esquivel Brothers from San Antonio. [12]


Indian congress - A large group of Native Americans mounted on horseback during a Wild West show at the Pan-American Exhibition, Buffalo, N.Y. c.1901

Wild West shows contained as many as 1,200 performers at one time (cowboys, scouts, Indians, military, Mexicans, and men from other heritages), and a large number of many animals including buffalo and Texas Longhorns. Performers in the show were often popular celebrities of the day such as Wild Bill Hickok, a well known gunfighter and marshal, and he was also an established dime novel hero. His name on the playbill gave a great draw of audiences because they knew him from dime-novels, and he was a genuine scout. Some of the recognizably famous men who took part in the show were Will Rogers, Tom Mix, Pawnee Bill, James Lawson, Bill Pickett, Jess Willard, Mexican Joe, Capt. Adam Bogardus, Buck Taylor, Ralph and Nan Lohse, Antonio Esquibel, Capt. Waterman and his Trained Buffalo, and Johnny Baker. Johnny Baker was nicknamed the "Cowboy Kid" and considered to be Annie Oakley's boy counterpart. Some notable cowboys who participated in the events were Buck Taylor (dubbed "The First Cowboy King"), Bronco Bill, James Lawson ("The Roper"), Bill Bullock, Tim Clayton, Coyote Bill, and Bridle Bill.

Women were also a large part of Wild West shows and attracted many spectators. One such performer was Annie Oakley who first gained recognition as a sharpshooter when she defeated Frank Butler, a pro marksman at age 15, in a shooting exhibition. She became the star attraction of Buffalo Bill's Wild West show for 16 years, under the management of Frank Butler, whom she ended up marrying. Annie was billed in the show as "Miss Annie Oakley, the Peerless Lady Wing-Shot".

Calamity Jane was another distinguished woman performer.[12] Calamity Jane was a notorious frontierswoman who was the subject of many wild stories- many of which she made up herself. In the show, she was a skilled horsewoman and expert rifle and revolver handler. Calamity Jane appeared in Wild West shows until 1902, when she was reportedly fired for drinking and fighting.

Other notable females in the business were Tillie Baldwin, May Lillie, Lucille Mulhall, Lillian Smith, Bessie and Della Ferrel, Luella-Forepaugh Fish,[13] the Kemp Sisters,and Texas Rose as an announcer.[14]

Native Americans were also a part of Wild West shows. They participated in staged "Indian Races" and historic battles, and often appeared in attack scenes attacking whites in which their savagery and wildness was played up. They also performed talented dances, such as the Sioux Ghost Dance. In reality the performance of the ghost dance meant that trouble was brewing and about to break out, but it wasn't portrayed as such in the show. The Native Americans always wore their best regalia and full war paint. Audiences were impressed by the presence of Native Americans in the show because they were extraordinarily "simultaneously exotic and accessible people".[15]

Chief Sitting Bull joined Cody's Wild West show for a short time and was a star attraction alongside Annie Oakley. It was said that he only agreed to join the show because he was fascinated with Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill assured him that if he joined, he could see her perform all the time.[] During his time at the show, Sitting Bull was introduced to President Grover Cleveland, which he thought proved his importance as chief.[] He was friends with Buffalo Bill and highly valued the horse that was given to him when he left the show. Other familiar Native Americans names who performed in the show were Red Cloud,[12]Chief Joseph, Geronimo, and the Modoc War scout Donald McKay.

Decline of show

The Lussiure New of England predicted "The Business will degenerate into the hands of men devoid of Buffalo Bill's exalted simplicity, and much more eager to finger the shillings of the public than to shake the hand of Mother Nature."[16] By 1894 the harsh economy made it hard to afford tickets. It did not help that the show was routed to go through the South in a year when the cotton was flooded and there was a general depression in the area. Buffalo Bill lost a lot of money and was on the brink of a financial disaster. Soon after, and in an attempt of recovery of monetary balance, Buffalo Bill signed a contract in which he was tricked by Bonfil and Temmen into selling them the show and demoting himself to a mere employee and attraction of the Sells-Floto Circus. From this point, the show began to destroy itself. Finally, in 1913 the show was declared bankrupt. "Cody was forced to take his tents down for the last time".[17]

Western shows "generated a passion for Western entertainment of all kinds."[18] This passion is still evidenced in western films, modern rodeos, and circuses. Western Films in the first half of the 20th century filled the gap left behind by Wild West shows. The first real western, The Great Train Robbery was made in 1903, and thousands followed after. Contemporary rodeos also still exist today as major productions, still employing the same events and skills as cowboys did in Wild West shows.

21st century Wild West shows

Native peoples have a modern pow-wow culture.

Wild Westers still perform in movies, pow-wows, pageants and rodeosThere remains a great interest in Native peoples through much of the United States and Europe in pow-wow culture of native people. Some events are open to outside tourist who are able to observe traditional Native American skills; horse culture, ceremonial dancing, food, art, music and crafts.

There are several on-going national projects that celebrate Wild Westers and Wild Westing. The National Museum of American History's Photographic History Collection at the Smithsonian Institution preserves and displays Gertrude Käsebier's photographs, as well as many others by photographers who captured the displays of Wild Westing.

The Carlisle Indian School Resource Center of the Cumberland County Historical Society in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, houses an extensive collection of archival materials and photographs from the Carlisle Indian School. In 2000, the Cumberland County 250th Anniversary Committee worked with Native Americans from numerous tribes and non-natives to organize a pow-wow on Memorial Day to commemorate the Carlisle Indian School, the students and their stories.[19] Today though many most of the population have changed their view on western culture as it has become less interesting.

See also


  1. ^ Zadra; Keely (1988), p. 23.
  2. ^ Utley (2003), p. 254.
  3. ^ Champlin (2015), p. 153.
  4. ^ Pendergast (2000), p. 49.
  5. ^ Pendergast (2000), p. 49.
  6. ^ Gazette Staff (Apr 12, 2017). "Grave of Buffalo Bill's promoter will finally get headstone". Billings Gazette. Retrieved 2017. 
  7. ^ "Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and Exhibition". Bowling Green State University. 
  8. ^ Sorg (1998), p. 26.
  9. ^ Swanson (2004), p. 42.
  10. ^ Sonneborn (2002), p. 137.
  11. ^ "Buckskin Joe". Arkansas City Republican. 1878-1888. 
  12. ^ a b c d Fees, Paul - Former Curator. "Wild West shows: Buffalo Bill's Wild West". Buffalo Bill Museum. 
  13. ^ Dinkins (2009), p. 71.
  14. ^ George-Warren (2010), p. 33.
  15. ^ Kasson (2000), p. 162.
  16. ^ Sorg (1998), p. 52.
  17. ^ Sonneborn (2002), p. 117.
  18. ^ Swanson (2004), p. 42.
  19. ^ Witmer, Linda F. "Carlisle Indian Industrial School (1879 - 1918)". Cumberland County Historical Society. 


  • Zadra, Dan; Keely, John (1988). Buffalo Bill: Of the Wild West 1846-1917 (We the People). Mankato: Creative Education Inc. ISBN 9780886821944. 
Further Reading

  This article uses material from the Wikipedia page available here. It is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.



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