Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show and Images of the Western Frontier

Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show

Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show captured the minds and imaginations of easterners and westerners alike. His show was “the most successful touring show of all times.” (Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Entertainment Holdings), rivaling P.T. Barnum’s Circus at the time (Johns). Many have said that, “Cody did not merely represent the west, but he became the west, in his own mind and in the minds of others.” (Johns) This seems to be true, as his legend lived on in early twentieth century literature. Cody’s exaggerated and theatric portrayals of scenes from the west became the west in the minds of Americans across the nation. They are the images and ideas that “shaped and reflect our history.” (Johns)

The Wild West Show alone could not account for the rapid rise of the mythological west that came to form in the minds of Americans, particularly easterners. The eastern public had “an insatiable appetite…for stories of the west” that was recognized by Cody and author Printiss Ingram who wrote a dime novel series of Buffalo Bill’s  adventures in the wild west, and together, they developed a stage version of the already popular Buffalo Bill myth. When Custer was defeated at Little Big Horn, Cody ended his New York Stage performance with the declaration that he would take a scalp in Custer’s honor. Less than a month later, the rumors flew with the claim that Cody had taken the scalp of Yellow Hand to the Fifth Calvary and myth blossomed into legend. (Johns) His performances portrayed scenes of wagon trains crossing the plains, settlers defending their homesteads, buffalo hunts and Indian battles as events of everyday life in the west, creating a romantic image of adventure and excitement for the public. (Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and Exhibition) In a west that was rapidly changing, many of Cody’s promotions depicted a west that was already dead for the most part, with most Native Americans having been confined to reservations, the Alamo pushing Mexicans back, and the buffalo were all but gone. (Johns)

Presenting himself as the best representative of the Wild West, Cody’s performances emphasized the belief of the Native Americans as savages already held by many, reinforcing stereotypes of the native tribes. To his credit, Cody did promote the Native American as, “The Former Foe–Present Friend, the American” (Johns) and the Sioux warriors that were members of his cast were given status with places in “his ‘Congress of Rough Riders,’ a contingent that represented the finest horsemen in the world.” (Johns), but his portrayals of the American Indian still emphasized the stereotype of the red savage. His show presented the American Cowboy as the real article, and although Vaqueros, (Mexican cowboys after which the American version was fashioned), were a part of the show, they were portrayed more as un-American cowboy wanna-bes. The image of the independent, savvy, confident American cowboy that Cody portrayed was and still remains an American icon. Pheobe Ann Moses’ portrayal of Annie Oakley likewise created an image of the western woman that was nearly as rugged and independent as the cowboy, although they had to be “fallen women” since expectations of the times would not allow for a respectable lady to live in such a manner.

The program that Cody passed out at his show was more than a program, but a source of information, further establishing Cody’s authority on the west. “The program was also a source of information, providing facts about Indian origins of state names, the latest trends in marksmanship, and historical profiles of great Civil War scouts and frontiersmen.” (Johns) In a west that was rapidly changing, many of Cody’s promotions depicted a west that was already dead for the most part, with most Native Americans having been confined to reservations, the Alamo pushing Mexicans back, and the buffalo were all but gone.

References

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Entertainment Holdings Inc. 2004. 21 September 2009. http://www.buffalobill.com/BuffaloBill.02.html

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and Exhibition. 21 September 2009. http://www.bgsu.edu/departments/acs/1890s/buffalobill/bbwildwestshow.html 

Johns, Joshua. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. 11 November 1995. University of Virginia. 21 September 2009. http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/HNS/BuffaloBill/home.html

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