How the West was Spun – Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show

By Stephen G. Hyslop
8/5/2008 • American History, Annie Oakley, Battle of Little Bighorn, Sitting Bull

This fabricated tale demonstrated Cody’s knack for translating the grim realities of Indian fighting into rousing adventure stories in which he symbolically appropriated the totemic power of defeated warriors by claiming their scalp, horse or captives, much as Indians did in battle. But he took care to distinguish his bravery from the bravado of warriors who refused to fight fair and targeted women and children. Left unmentioned in his account of the Battle of Summit Springs—which, like the Battle of Little Bighorn, he incorporated as an act in his Wild West show—was that women and children were among the more than 70 Cheyennes killed or captured.

After returning with the cavalry from Summit Springs to Fort Sedgwick in Colorado, Buffalo Bill met Edward Judson, who was looking for Western heroes to celebrate in the dime novels he wrote under the name Ned Buntline. His fiction did so much to create and inflate the reputation of Buffalo Bill that actors were soon playing him on stage. “I was curious to see how I would look when represented by some one else,” Cody recalled, so while visiting New York in 1872 he attended a performance of Buffalo Bill: The King of the Border Men and was called on stage. He soon realized that he could succeed in the limelight simply by being himself, or by impersonating the heroic character contrived by Buntline.

“I’m not an actor—I’m a star,” he told an interviewer soon after making the transition from frontier scout to itinerant showman. Crucial to his ascent to stardom was his awareness that he needed to become something more than a stereotypical Indian fighter or “scourge of the red man.” He never renounced that role and continued to bank on it throughout his career, but his genius as an entertainer lay in softening his own image—and that of the Wild West—just enough to reassure Americans that the conquest he dramatized was a good clean fight that had redeeming social value without robbing this struggle for supremacy of its visceral appeal.

Buffalo Bill’s first appearance on stage in Chicago gave little hint of the bright future that awaited him in show business. He and other ornery frontiersmen blasted away at Indians ludicrously impersonated by white extras in a murky plot concocted by Buntline. One reviewer called the acting “execrable” and concluded that such “scalping, blood and thunder, is not likely to be vouchsafed to a city a second time, even Chicago.” Nonetheless, the show proved commercially successful, and Buffalo Bill made $6,000 over the winter, substantially improving his take in seasons to come by forming his own troupe called the Buffalo Bill Combination.

For several years, he combined acting with summer stints as a scout or guide, honing his skills as an entertainer by conducting wealthy dudes from the East and European nobility on hunting expeditions and diverting them with shows of skill that sometimes involved Indians hired for the occasion. Buffalo Bill enjoyed “trotting in the first class, with the very first men of the land,” and came away convinced that a Wild West spectacle involving real cowboys and Indians could appeal to all classes and become, as it was later billed, “America’s National Entertainment.”

Other showmen of the era tried to mine that same vein by mounting Wild West themed circuses in which sharpshooters and bronco-busters demonstrated their skills. But when Buffalo Bill launched his Wild West show in 1883, he set his aim higher. He wanted an epic production with theatrical flair that defined the West and drew viewers into it. After a lackluster first season, marred by his drunken escapades with a fellow sharpshooter and business associate named Doc Carver, he teamed with Nate Salsbury, a shrewd theater manager, and hired director Steele MacKaye to make the production more than a series of stunts by creating a show within the show called The Drama of Civilization. First staged in the winter of 1886 in New York’s Madison Square Garden, where it was viewed by more than a million people, the pageant was set against painted backdrops and included four acts that purported to represent the historical evolution of the West from “The Primeval Forest,” occupied only by wild Indians, to “The Prairie,” where civilization appeared with the arrival of wagon trains, setting the stage for further progress in the form of “The Cattle Ranch” and “The Mining Camp.”

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