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How the West was Spun - Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show

By Stephen G. Hyslop 
Originally published by American History magazine. Published Online: August 05, 2008 
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Buffalo Bill became so famous that posters announcing his shows needed no explanation. Courtesy Library of Congress.
Buffalo Bill became so famous that posters announcing his shows needed no explanation. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Buffalo Bill wanted an epic production with theatrical flair that defined the West and drew viewers into it.

When fabled bison hunter William "Buffalo Bill" Cody first staged his Wild West show in 1883, he needed more than heroic cowboys, villainous Indians, teeming horses and roaming buffalo to transform it from a circus into a sensation. He needed star power. And there was one man who guaranteed to provide it: the Sioux chief widely blamed for the uprising that overwhelmed George Armstrong Custer's 7th Cavalry at the Battle of Little Bighorn only a decade earlier. "I am going to try hard to get old Sitting Bull," Cody said. "If we can manage to get him our ever lasting fortune is made."

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It took two years, but Cody finally got his man. In June 1885, Sitting Bull joined the Wild West show for a signing bonus of $125 and $50 a week—20 times more than Indians who served as policemen on reservations earned. Buffalo Bill reckoned his new star would prove to be an irresistible draw. With the Indian wars drawing to a close, and most Plains Indians confined to reservations, Buffalo Bill set the stage for a final conquest of the frontier. Since accompanying an army patrol as a scout shortly after the Battle of Little Bighorn and scalping the Cheyenne warrior Yellow Hair, he was known as the man who took "the first scalp for Custer." As the man who now controlled Sitting Bull, he symbolically declared victory in the war for the West and signaled a new era of cooperation with the enemy. Cody excluded the chief from acts in which other Indians made sham attacks on settlers and then got their comeuppance from heroic cowboys. All Sitting Bull had to do was don a war costume, ride a horse into the arena and brave an audience that sometimes jeered and hissed.

Sitting Bull's mere presence reinforced the reassuring message underlying Cody's Wild West extravaganza, as well as the Western films and novels it inspired, that Americans are generous conquerors who attack only when provoked. At the same time, Cody's vision of the West spoke to the fiercely competitive spirit of an American nation born in blood and defined by conflict on the frontier, where what mattered most was not whether you were right or wrong but whether you prevailed. The lesson of his Wild West was that sharpshooting American cowboys like Buffalo Bill could be as wild as the Indians they fought and match them blow for blow. The real frontier might be vanishing, but by preserving this wild domain imaginatively and reenacting the struggle for supremacy there, he gave millions of Americans the feeling they were up to any challenge.

Buffalo Bill's Wild West depended on Cody's ability to draw shrewdly on his frontier experiences to make himself a commanding figure. He earned his nickname, he claimed, by killing 4,280 buffalo during an 18-month stint for the Kansas Pacific Railroad in the late 1860s. Indiscriminate hunting was encouraged by the army as part of a campaign to wipe out buffalo herds that gave subsistence to free-roaming Plains Indians. The Indians did not take well to having this food supply annihilated. Cody told of being chased once by 30 Indians on horseback. Cavalry guarding the tracks came to his aid, and together they killed eight "redskins," he said, expressing sympathy only for a horse one of the warriors was riding, killed by a shot from his trusty rifle Lucretia: "He was a noble animal, and ought to have been engaged in better business."

Later in life Cody mused that Indians deserved better. But his early exploits on the Plains and his autobiographical account of those feats, designed to portray him as a classic frontier enforcer, came first. His crowning claim involved the rescue of a white woman from the clutches of Indians. In July 1869, he was serving as a scout for the 5th Cavalry when it surprised hostile Cheyennes in an encampment at Summit Springs, Colorado Territory, where one white woman held captive was killed in the ensuing battle and one rescued. Official records give credit for locating the camp to Pawnee scouts—who volunteered to serve the army against their traditional tribal foes—and make no mention of Buffalo Bill. But Cody boasted of killing Cheyenne Chief Tall Bull during the engagement after creeping to a spot where he could "easily drop him from the saddle" without hitting his horse, a "gallant steed" he then captured and named Tall Bull in honor of the chief.

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