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Native Americans & American Popular Culture

1885-1930: The Wild West Show
When Sitting Bull agreed to join Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in 1885, he probably didn't realize he was about to make a major contribution to the stereotyping of the American Indian and the romanticizing of the American West in the popular imagination. Sitting Bull himself was a major attraction, as thousands of spectators turned out to catch a real-life glimpse of the infamous "Killer of Custer." A photograph of Sitting Bull with Buffalo Bill taken by William Cross in 1885 was one of the most popular souvenirs of the show. Invented in 1883 by Buffalo Bill, the Wild West Show became an enormous entertainment attraction well into the early Twentieth Century, particularly in the Eastern American cities. At the same time the real frontier was coming to a close, Eastern cities were filling up with native-born Americans and European immigrants who were wholly unfamiliar with the unique American frontier experience. Buffalo Bill and others gave it to them in the form of vaudeville-style theatrics that forever mythologized the West with their presentation of that rapidly vanishing way of life. Buffalo Bill even took his show to Europe in 1886, to wild acclaim.

It seems logical that the idea for a Wild West Show would first come to William F. Cody, a man who was himself already mythologized in the East in a dime novel by Ned Buntline called The King of Border Men
Buffalo Bill & Sitting Bull Souvenir Photograph (1895)
(1869). Cody earned a reputation as a good shot and a frontiersman while getting paid to kill buffalo to feed the hungry railroad workers who were building the transcontinental railroad. He served as a scout for the US Army, and was well-paid to guide wealthy Easterners on buffalo hunting trips. Following the publication of Buntline's book, a theatrical version was created, and soon Cody was cast to play himself in the lead role. In 1883 the very first performance of his Wild West Show was conducted in Omaha, Nebraska. Before long Cody had a well-established formula for success. Historical reenactments were a large part of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Specific historical events included the Lewis and Clark Expedition, The Battle of Little Bighorn, and many other battles from the Plains Wars. But the show also performed generic fictionalized events of typical Western life, such as the buffalo hunt, a train robbery, or a wagon train crossing
Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show Banner (c.1899)
the prairie. These reenactments were combined with displays of marksmanship and skill with rope and horse by some truly talented people, including Annie Oakley, Wild Bill Hickok, Bronco Bill, and Will Rogers. Buffalo Bill himself was said to be an excellent marksman, especially with a rifle on horseback.
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Gallery: Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show Artifacts
1899 Ticket
1899 Ticket (2 images)
Program for Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show
Program for Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show
Signed Cabinet Card, 1910
Signed Cabinet Card, 1910
Newspaper ads for Madison Square Garden, NYC
Newspaper ads for Madison Square Garden, NYC (4 images)
Buffalo Bill's Rough Riders v. Cuban Insurgents, c.1898
Buffalo Bill's Rough Riders v. Cuban Insurgents, c.1898
Other Native Americans who performed with the show included Geronimo, Chief Joseph, and Rains In The Face, who reportedly was the Indian who had actually killed General Custer at Little Bighorn. The show featured as many as 1200 performers and hundreds of large animals, including a large herd of buffalo,
one of the last still surviving in the United States. Typically, the show concluded with a grand finale, often a dramatization of savage Indians attacking and burning a White settlement, only to be repulsed by Buffalo Bill and other cowboys.

Buffalo’s Bill’s Wild West Show captivated audiences from 1883-1913. In 1887 Cody responded to a request by Queen Victoria to appear at her Golden Jubilee at Windsor Castle by taking the entire troop overseas on several ships, including 200 passengers, 97 Native Americans, 18 buffalo, 181 horses, 10 elk, 4 donkeys, 5 longhorns (Texas steers), 2 deer, 10 mules, and the deadwood concord stagecoach. The Show toured England for the next six months, and then the following year returned to tour Europe until 1892, and again in 1906. By taking his Show overseas, Buffalo Bill spread the myth of the American West to people whose frontier has been settled centuries before, and who were hungry for the exciting adventure of the American West. To some Europeans, the Wild West show not only represented the west, but all of America, and it likely influenced the decision of many to immigrate to the United States. Bill also created the cowboy as an American icon. He gave the people of England, France, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Netherlands, and Germany a taste of the wild and romantic west.
Buffalo Bill Paris Postcard (1906)
In 1893 the show performed at the Chicago World’s Fair to a crowd of 18,000. This performance represented the peak of the show’s popularity. Thereafter, it saw a steady decline. A series of unfortunate business decisions and the poor economic climate of the country, as well as the invention of the motion picture contributed to the show's end. In 1913 Cody was bankrupt and took down his tents for the last time. Nevertheless, the impact of Wild West Shows on the creation of a mythic past for the United States can hardly be overestimated. Not only did it serve to mythologize America's past, but it forever identified the Plains Indian and his lifestyle as the Indian, and fixed the Euro-American image of the Indian in time. By the late Nineteenth Century, Euro-Americans were well on their way to identifying the Indian as a people of the past.
The success of Buffalo Bill's Wild Show spawned many imitators. By the early 1900s Bill had more than a dozen competitors. A partial list of Wild West Shows includes:
* Allen Bros. Wild West (1929-1934) - Charles and Mert H. Allen
* Arlington & Beckman's Oklahoma Ranch Wild West (1913) - Edward Arlington and Fred Beckman
* Austin Bros. 3 Ring Circus and Real Wild West (1945)
* Barrett Shows and Oklahoma Bill's Wild West (1920)
* Bee Ho Gray's Wild West (circa 1919-1932)
* Broncho John, Famous Western Horseman and his Corps of Expert Horsemen (1906) - J. H. Sullivan
* Buckskin Ben's Wild West and Dog and Pony Show (1908) Benjamin Stalker
* Buckskin Bill's Wild West (1900)
* California Frank’s All-Star Wild West (1911) - Frank Hafley
* Colonel Cummins’ Wild West Indian Congress and Rough Riders of the World - Frederick T. Cummins
* Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show for Kids
* Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders
* Diamond Dick's Wild West
* Fred Akins Real Wild West and Far East Show (1909-1910)
* Gene Autry's Flying A Ranch Stamped (1942)
* Irwin Brothers Cheyenne Frontier Days Wild West Show
* Jones Bros.' Buffalo Ranch Wild West (1910)
* Texas Jack's Wild West (circa 1900)
* Miller Bros. 101 Ranch Real Wild West
* Pawnee Bill's Wild West Show
* Zach Mulhall's Congress of Rough Riders and Ropers
Gallery: Other Wild West Show Artifacts
1890 Newspaper ad for Forepaugh's Show
1890 Newspaper ad for Forepaugh's Show
Col. Cummins' Wild West Indian Congress 1906 Ticket, featuring Geronimo
Col. Cummins' Wild West Indian Congress 1906 Ticket, featuring Geronimo
Kit Carson Show Program
Kit Carson Show Program
Performance of Custer's Death at Pawnee Bill Show, c.1905
Performance of Custer's Death at Pawnee Bill's Wild West Show, c.1905
Poster for Pawnee Bill Shows, c.1903
Poster for Pawnee Bill Shows, c.1903
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Last modified July 20, 2012