10 January 2017
Buffalo Bill, 1846-1917
Today - 10 January 2017 - marks 100 years since the death of William Frederick ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody, who perhaps more than any other figure shaped British perceptions of the American West.
Born in Scott County, Iowa, in 1846, Cody apparently got his first frontier job at 10 years of age, riding a mule and carrying messages between wagons for a party travelling to Utah. He later rode for the Pony Express, hunted buffalo, fought for the Union (in 1854 his father had been stabbed while speaking out against slavery), and worked as a civilian scout for the US Army.
On 22 May 1872 Congress awarded Cody the Medal of Honor for gallantry as an Army scout in the Indian Wars. Later that same year – following endless hectoring by publicist Ned Buntline – he agreed to play himself on stage. Arriving in Chicago on 12 December, he learned that with less than a week before opening the play had not been written and the cast has not been chosen. Nevertheless, six days later Scouts of the Prairie opened at Nixon’s amphitheatre. As Cody froze in front of two thousand punters, Buntline (who was also on stage), apparently asked Cody: ‘Where have you been, Bill? What has kept you so long?’ (1). Cody took the cue, wowed the audience with his (sometimes tall) tales of life in the Wild West, and his stage persona was born.
In 1883, after a decade combining scouting and performing, Cody founded Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. Four years later this extravaganza crossed the Atlantic for its first tour of Great Britain.
John M. Burke. Buffalo Bill's Wild West: America's National Entertainment. . Shelfmark 10408.g.25
For Cody, the show was always about entertainment and education. It celebrated the skills of hunters, horseback riders and sharp shooters (including Annie Oakley) through demonstrations and sometimes hair-raising re-enactments. Yet for many the highlight was the inclusion of nearly 100 Lakota Sioux men, women and children. Inevitably, they starred in scenes such as ‘Attack on a Settler’s Cabin’ or ‘Attack on an Emigrant Train’. Yet in ‘Phases of Indian Life’ they showcased aspects of their own culture. Indeed, some later shows highlighted them being ejected from their homeland, and apparently Cody always insisted they were the first group to enter the stadium after him. Astonishingly, more than 2.5 million people are believed to have attended the show’s first run at Earl’s Court, including Queen Victoria who was celebrating her Golden Jubilee and was given two command performances.
The British Library holds a wide variety of contemporary items detailing the show’s British and American tours, including national and local newspaper reports, posters, programmes and sheet music. It also holds Cody’s autobiography, scores of biographies (including one by Buntline), and dime novels either written under Cody’s name or inspired by his exploits.
Buffalo Bill. The Redskin Detective: or, the gold buzzards of Colorado. London: J. Henderson & Sons, 1903. Shelfmark 12604.i.
May Ostlere. Buffalo Bill Polka. London: Metzler & Co., . Shelfmark: Music collections h.3645.(3.)
For more images relating to the American West, see the Eccles Centre’s The American West through British Eyes, 1865-1900.
1. Ronald A. Reis, Buffalo Bill Cody. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 2010, p. 53.