Before ‘cowboys and Indians’ arrived on the silver screen, Colonel William F Cody staged outdoor spectaculars around the UK, starring hundreds of human and animal performers, as Nick Smurthwaite discovers
When Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show arrived in the UK for the first time in 1887, the excitement it inspired in the public rivalled that seen during Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee celebrations in the same year.
A reporter from the Globe newspaper was despatched to Gravesend to meet the SS State of Nebraska as it came in to dock, carrying 176 horses, 16 buffalo, nine elk and the original Deadwood stagecoach – made famous by Doris Day in the film Calamity Jane – not to mention the cast of 200 real-life cowboys, Native Americans, Mexican vaqueros, sharp-shooter Annie Oakley and the imposing figure of Colonel William F Cody, Buffalo Bill himself.
“The living freight on board the State of Nebraska is probably as curious and certainly as mixed as was ever sent afloat,” the reporter wrote. “There stood the Redskins, mute and immovable. Haughty in mien, graceful in manner, picturesque in dress, the Red Indians of the Wild West show and the Last of the Mohicans are one and the same.”
Long before the cinema immortalised the Wild West with endless accounts of the battles between ‘cowboys and Indians’, Cody brought his live spectacular to Britain again and again over a period of seven years, staging some 300 open-air shows in 130 towns and cities, playing to 2.5 million people. Queen Victoria herself was a big fan, ordering two command performances. After meeting Cody she recorded in her diary that he was “a splendid man”.
The fascinating story from the show’s origins in Nebraska in 1882 through to Cody’s last appearance in Portsmouth, Virginia, almost 35 years later, is told in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West: The First Reality Show in Essex by the veteran BBC journalist and historian David Dunford.
The account paints Cody as a great showman. It also reveals he was as accomplished at re-enacting events such as the Battle of Little Big Horn, as he was at handling the logistical feat of recruiting hundreds of cowboys and Native Americans, taking care of them and transporting them, with vast amounts of kit, around the country.
Crowds would gather just to see the show’s arrival in town, Dunford says, taking up three quarters of a mile of rolling stock. The Ilford Guardian gasped: “On Tuesday next there will arrive in Ilford the most remarkable train freight that has ever been brought here by the Great Eastern Railway Company.”
Added to his other skills, Cody was a tireless self-promoter, making sure whichever town they were playing was fired up by posters, flyers, newspaper adverts, interviews and articles extolling the wonders of the Wild West ahead of their arrival.
Four days before the show opened in Chelmsford, the Essex Chronicle wrote: “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West has never been to this town before and can never return. It is not a circus but consists of genuine representatives of different races and nations, associated with perfection of horsemanship and military skill.”
Cody’s own credentials as a warrior, horseman and crack shot were genuine enough. Growing up in Salt Creek, Iowa, he became the family breadwinner in his early teens, following the death of his father, working first as a cowboy, then as a wagon train messenger, liaising between westward-bound freight wagons headed for California.
Cody was a tireless self-promoter – posters extolled the wonders of the Wild West ahead of the show’s arrival
He graduated to the Pony Express which carried messages across the country, from New York to San Francisco. There were numerous encounters along the way with hostile Native Americans.
Three years into the American Civil War, aged 18, Cody joined the Union Army as an undercover scout, disguising himself as a Tennessee farm boy with a southern accent – showing his flair for performance even then. Later, after the war, he found a job as a peacetime scout under General Custer’s command.
The nickname Buffalo Bill derived from a later job supplying meat to railway builders, which involved shooting hundreds of buffalo. He led groups of rich adventurers on buffalo hunts, which introduced him to the upper echelons of East Coast society, including the writer Ned Buntline whose New York Weekly article with the headline “Buffalo Bill, The King of the Border Men” glorified the 23-year-old Cody’s reputation.
A series of published adventures followed, with a stage play, Scouts of the Plains, in 1872 in which Cody himself appeared.
According to Dunford, the play was considered dreadful by every reviewer. Cody couldn’t remember his lines so he ad-libbed about a recent Wild West adventure, and the public flocked to see it.
Cody’s last great real-life adventure came in 1876 when he returned to the service of General Custer, as chief scout, to help deal with the Native American uprising that culminated in the legendary Battle of Little Big Horn in which 268 soldiers died alongside Custer.
The reported number of Native American casualties varies from about 30 to more than 300. During the skirmish, Cody allegedly shot and killed a Cheyenne chief named Yellow Hand at close range, although he later dismissed the story as apocryphal.
However, this did not stop him re-enacting the battle – and his own heroism – in his Wild West show. Extraordinarily, only six or seven years after these savage encounters Cody started to employ and work alongside the very Native Americans he had spent years trying to repel. That alone speaks volumes for his charisma and diplomacy.