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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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The elaborate staging fulfilled Buffalo Bill's stated goal of offering "high toned" entertainment, but the acts themselves suggested that the coming of the white man had done little to tame the Wild West. The climactic mining camp episode included a duel between gunfighters and an attack on the Deadwood Stagecoach by bandits, playing much the same role as that performed by marauding Indians in other performances. In the grand finale, the mining camp was blown away by a cyclone, suggesting that if wild men did not defeat those trying to civilize the West, wild nature surely would.

At heart the Wild West extravaganza was less about the triumph of civilization than ceaseless struggle in which "barbarism and civilization have their hands on each other's throat," as one observer put it. Cody could not afford to become so high toned that he robbed the show of the smoke and thunder that many came to see, and he surely welcomed notices like that from a reviewer who promised the public that "Buffalo Bill's 'Wild West' is wild enough to suit the most devoted admirer of western adventure and prowess." At the same time, Cody promoted the show as family entertainment, suitable for women and children. By hiring Annie Oakley, whom Sitting Bull nicknamed "Little Sure Shot," Cody graced his cast with a deadly shot who was so demure and disarming that spectators who might otherwise have been scared away by gunplay were as eager to attend as those for whom fancy shooting was the main draw.

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European blue bloods also found the show enchanting. In 1887 Buffalo Bill and an entourage of 100 whites, 97 Indians, 180 horses, 18 buffalo, 10 elk, 5 Texan steers, 4 donkeys and 2 deer traveled to England to help celebrate the Jubilee Year of Queen Victoria. In addition to staging twice-a-day shows during a five-month stay in London for crowds that averaged around 30,000, the Wild West troupe gave a command performance for the queen in which the Prince of Wales and the kings of Belgium, Greece, Saxony and Denmark rode around the arena in a stagecoach with Buffalo Bill fending off marauding Indians from the driver's seat. In the process, Buffalo Bill's pop interpretation of the American frontier was validated as high culture and for the next five years the Wild West toured the major capitals of Europe.

Despite his warm reception throughout Europe, when Buffalo Bill brought the show home in 1893 he was shunned as too commercial by the organizers of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, a grandiose celebration of civilization in America that featured 65,000 exhibits in an array of gleaming Beaux Arts buildings dubbed the White City. Undeterred, Buffalo Bill camped out across the street and drew an audience that summer of more than 3 million people, including a group of historians who took a break one afternoon from a conference at the exposition to see the Wild West show and later that evening heard their colleague Frederick Jackson Turner deliver his landmark essay "The Significance of the Frontier in American History."

Turner portrayed the settling of the West as a largely peaceful process, in which the availability of "free land" on the frontier served as a safety valve, releasing social tensions by providing fresh opportunities for Americans who might otherwise have been stifled in their ambitions for a better life. But Cody, for all the historical distortions in his show, hit on a fundamental truth that eluded the erudite Turner: There was no free land. Everything that American settlers claimed, from the landing at Jamestown to the closing of the frontier in 1890, was Indian country, wrested from tribal groups at great cost. Buffalo Bill's Wild West remains with us to this day because he recognized that fierce competition and strife had as much to do with the making of America as the dream of liberty and justice for all.

Ultimately, it was Indians who lent an air of authenticity to Buffalo Bill's Wild West. He could not hire Indians without the government's permission and faced scrutiny and criticism from officials who argued that his show displayed Indians as bloodthirsty warriors while the government was trying to convert them to a peaceful, productive existence. But he was keenly aware of their importance to the production and tried to ensure they were well treated. Luther Standing Bear, a Sioux who served as chief of the Indian performers on one European tour, expressed gratitude for the support Buffalo Bill showed when he complained that Indians were being served inferior food. "My Indians are the principal feature of this show," he recalled Buffalo Bill telling the dining steward, "and they are the one people I will not allow to be misused or neglected."

Black Elk, whose dictated reminiscences to poet John Neihardt were published in 1932 under the title Black Elk Speaks, shared Luther Standing Bear's appreciation for the way he and other performers were treated by Buffalo Bill, or Pahuska (Long Hair). When Black Elk wearied of life on tour and said he was "sick to go home," Buffalo Bill was sympathetic: "He gave me a ticket and ninety dollars. Then he gave me a big dinner. Pahuska had a strong heart."

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