The Wild West of Buffalo Bill Cody

Buffalo Bill from PBS
Copy of a poster with drawing of William Frederick "Buffalo Bill" Cody riding a horse, from LC
"The Wild West show emerged out of a number of earlier entertainment traditions. The great showman P. T. Barnum had begun popularizing the "wild West" as early as the 1840s when he staged a "Grand Buffalo Hunt" for spectators in New York. At about the same time, Western cowboys began staging versions of the modem rodeo when their cattle drives passed near substantial towns. But the first real Wild West show opened in Omaha, Nebraska in 1883. Its organizer was William F. Cody, better known as "Buffalo Bill." Cody had once ridden for the Pony Express, fought in the Civil War, and been a supplier of buffalo meat to workers on the transcontinental railroad (hence his celebrated nickname). But his real fame was a result of his work as a scout for the U.S. Cavalry during the Indian wars of the 1870s, and as a guide for hunting parties of notable easterners. One of them, a dime-novel writer who published under the name Ned Buntline, wrote a series of books portraying (and greatly exaggerating) Buffalo Bill's exploits. The novels turned Cody into a national celebrity. The Wild West show Cody began in 1883 inspired dozens of imitators, and almost all of-them used some version of its format. Cody's shows included mock Indian attacks (by real Indians) on stage coaches and wagon trains. There were portrayals of the Pony Express. There were shooting, riding, and roping exhibitions. And there was a grand finale- "A Grand Hunt on the Plains"-that included buffalo, elk, deer, mountain sheep, longhom cattle, and wild horses. Later, Cody added a reenactment of Custer's last stand. And later still, he began to include stagings of such nonwestern heroics as Theodore Roosevelt's charge up Kettle Hill during the Spanish-American War. But the effort to evoke the romance of the Old West always remained at the show's center." (quoted from "Patterns of Popular Culture: The Wild West Show" in Alan Brinkley, American History: A Survey, 1999)


Postcard of original painting by French artist Rosa Bonheur depicting William Frederick "Buffalo Bill" Cody on horseback, which she painted in 1889. The painting hangs in the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming, from LC
Stagecoach in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, from LC
Nez Perce Chief Joseph poses with Buffalo Bill, from LC