Buffalo Bill Cody: Like a Movie Star

Before the Wild West Shows

Before the Wild West exhibitions produced by a man called Buffalo Bill swooped the nation and Europe exciting crowds with performances like trick horseback riding, shooting exhibitions, and so much more, a man named William Frederick Cody packed more action into his life than most people can imagine living today by age 23. (1)

William Frederick Cody was born in Scott County, Iowa, near the town of LeClaire. He took a job carrying messages for a freight company at only 11 years of age. He fought in the Civil War, scouted for the Army, fed the railroad crews, and earned the Congressional Medal of Honor. He acquired the nickname of Buffalo Bill by killing 4,280 buffalo.


Buffalo Bill Visits Texomaland

Even in Oklahoma and Texas, famous for cowboys, Indians, and a historical part of the American Western heritage, “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” was one of the most exciting events to happen, ever! People living their hard lives on the farms and ranches and the town people going through their daily grinds went crazy when this show came to town in the west.

“Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” came to Ardmore, Oklahoma, twice, on September 29, 1909, and October 6, 1914, Durant once, on October 9, 1914, Denison, Texas twice, on October 13, 1902, and October 8, 1914, Gainesville three times, on October 9, 1900, October 9, 1902, and October 7, 1914, and Sherman three times, on October 15, 1900, October 31, 1908, and Nov. 13–14, 1910.



Buffalo Bill: Super Star of the 19th Century

Buffalo Bill was one of the world’s first known stars, long before silent films and talkies. Before “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West”, a writer named Ned Buntline met 23-year-old Bill Cody in 1869. Ned wrote a story loosely based on Bill’s adventures, and “Street and Smith’s New York Weekly” ran it.

Next came the Chicago Tribune’s serialized story, Buffalo Bill, King of the Bordermen. Ned continued to write stories and then a play that cemented Buffalo Bill’s fame. Bill’s first live “Wild West” exhibition was born in 1883 near North Platte, Nebraska.

The excitement of when “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” finally rolled into a town embodied what a state fair, a Hollywood movie premier, and a pop concert all rolled into one are today. First, Bill’s promoters showed up, secured 10 to 15 acres and licenses near the train tracks, bought all the supplies for the performers and staff, and publicized the event.


When “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” Came to Town

By 1895, when the trains pulled in with “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” in 50 or more train cars, crowds gathered and the excitement grew exponentially until the event took place. Hundreds of show and draft horses plus sometimes 30 buffalo walked down ramps off the train cars. Around 500 people worked these shows, and they unloaded grandstand seating for 20,000 people.

Cowboys, cowgirls, and Indian men, women, and children completed the crew. The performers staged a parade and then a two-hour show. What a parade! Buffalo Bill rode on horseback, tipping his hat to the spectators. The cowboys and Indians, and the Congress of Rough Riders followed on horseback and in horse-drawn carriages carrying flags.

The performers strolled through the streets on their way to the show grounds while people anxious with anticipation gathered on both sides and followed along. In big cities, Bill’s parades created mayhem with the crowds mixing in with the performers and livestock and children running wild all over the place.



“Buffalo Bill’s Wild West”

Buffalo Bill’s grandstands were equipped with miles of canvas to cover them in case of inclement weather, but the show was out in the open. As the crowd took their seats, the show started.

All the performer’s horses danced into the arena with dressage precision. The spectators would have seen reenactments of a buffalo hunt, the capture of a stagecoach, a Pony Express mail run, Indians attacking wagon trains, fancy shooting exhibitions, and trick horseback riding.

Young boys idolized Buffalo Bill and reenacted the show’s antics througout their childhoods long after the show left town. Thomas Edison produced a few silent shorts of the parades, but really brief clips, and there are silent shorts in the U.S. Library of Congress which it has published on YouTube.

Over the years, the crowds witnessed stars like James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok, Texas Jack Omohundro, Dr. W.F. Carver, Pawnee Bill, and “Buckskin Joe” Hoyt. Female attractions included: Calamity Jane, Luella-Forepaugh Fish, the Kemp Sisters, May Lillie, Lucille Mulhall, Annie Oakley, Lillian Smith, and Tillie Baldwin.

Famous Native Americans included Chiefs Geronimo, Red Cloud, Red Shirt, and Sitting Bull, plus notable black cowboys like Bill Pickett and his brothers, and Voter Hall. Mexican Joe and Esquivel Brothers from San Antonio took part in the exhibitions. The Congress of the Rough Riders, one of Bill’s most popular exhibits, showcased the expertise of horsemen of several nationalities and included the American cowboy, American Indian, Cossack, Mexican Vaquero, Riffian Arab, and South American Gaucho, plus Filipino, Costa Rican, and Hawaiian showmen.



How Buffalo Bill Came to Be

Bill’s large-scale productions began when James A. Bailey of Barnum and Bailey Circus joined Bill’s outfit and turned Bill’s shows into the rolling, high-energy packed spectacle of what the west was all about in 1895. But, Bill’s escapades into show business began in 1872.

Americans and Europeans truly believed Bill’s exhibitions genuinely portrayed life in the American West. William Frederick Cody was born on February 26, 1846, on a farm outside of LeClaire, Iowa, to Isaac and Mary Ann Bonsell Laycock Cody. Isaac was a surveyor and real estate investor.

The Cody family held anti-slavery ideologies and was regularly persecuted by pro-slavery factions. By 1854, the Cody’s lived in Leavenworth, Kansas. Kansas was the battleground of the pro-slavery—anti-slavery movements for the nation based on State’s Rights. Isaac was stabbed twice in the chest when asked to give his opinion there at a pro-slavery meeting at Rively’s Trading Post.

Isaac died from the stab wounds three years later, and Bill went to work to support his family. Most historical accounts report that Buffalo Bill’s first job at age 11 was as a Pony Express rider. The Smithsonian Magazine disputes this account and released research that Bill dispatched messages on horseback for the freighting firm Major and Russell. Then Bill worked for a wagon train headed west to Ft. Laramie, Wyoming Territory, the next year in 1858.

Bill served as a Union Army scout in campaigns against the Kiowa and Comanche tribes in 1861. In 1863, he joined the Seventh Kansas Cavalry which fought against the Confederacy in Missouri and Tennessee. After the Civil War in 1867, Bill earned his name, Buffalo Bill, by hunting buffalo to feed the ever westward expanding railroad workers.

By 1868, he was back with the U.S. Army as Chief of Scouts for the Fifth Calvary where he fought in 16 battles against different Indian tribes and was presented with the Congressional Medal of Honor for his efforts to subdue the Indians. A talented writer named E. Z. C. Judson who went by the penname of Ned Bluntine seized opportunity and began writing Buffalo Bill stories that were more fiction than fact.



A Star and His Industry Is Born

1872 saw Ned Bluntine writing a play, The Scouts of the Plains, and convincing Buffalo Bill to star in it. Bill continued acting for 11 more years and published his first autobiography in 1879 plus many of his own dime novels to boot. Colonel Prentiss Ingraham also published Buffalo Bill novels under the Buffalo Bill copyright when Bill grew tired of writing.

Between working in the theaters during this time, Bill took elite Europeans and Easterners on Western hunting exhibitions and scouted for the army again after Custer’s Last Stand. So famous was Buffalo Bill that General Phillip Sheridan asked Bill to escort Russia’s Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich on a buffalo hunt at Red Willow Creek in Nebraska in 1872.

Bill’s excursions were as well publicized as are today’s A-list celebrities and their exploits. By 1880, Bill epitomized the equivalent of today’s A-list celebraties. Bill and his friend and dentist, Dr. W. F. Carver, opened “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” on May 19, 1883 in Omaha, Nebraska. The show was subtitled, “Rocky Mountain and Prairie Exhibition”. Bill did not use the word “show” in his promotions.

Bill did not want people to see his productions as acting performances, but to view them as actual portrayals of historical accounts and the lifestyle of the American West. Bill toured Europe and put on the show of the century for the  Queen Victoria and London’s American Exhibition in 1887. Imagine packing up 83 saloon passengers, 38 steerage passengers, 97 Indians, 180 horses, 18 buffalo, 10 elk, 5 Texas steers, 4 donkeys, and 2 deer on a steamship named State of Nebraska and heading across the Atlantic Ocean for England.

Many more companies put on traveling exhibitions depicting the “Wild, Wild, West”, but none matched the size and scope of Bill Cody’s productions after John Bailey joined up with Bill as partner of the company in 1895. Buffalo Bill Cody went bankrupt in 1913. This outdoor western venue survived until Colonel Tim McCoy produced the last known western exhibition in 1938.

Cowboy movie star Tom Mix produced Wild West shows, and the 101 continued to tour the U.S. through the 1920s. The Miller Brothers "101 Ranch Real Wild West" tour had the unfortunate fate of playing in England in August 1914 and lost their horses to the WWI war effort. Audiences wavered unfavorably as the talkies (movies) became all the rage. Popularity with the sport of shooting decreased as baseball and football reigned supreme in stadiums across the U.S. Rodeos took over as king in exhibiting roping and riding expertise. The Industrial Revolution had come full term.



In Death

The world no longer saw Buffalo Bill’s world as exotic, fascinating, or avant garde by 1940. William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody died on January 10, 1917, in Denver, Colorado, of kidney failure. By the time Bill died, he had updated his will which stated that he wanted to be buried on top of Lookout Mountain near Denver.

Bill’s love for showmanship did not end when he died. Buffalo Bill could not be buried until June 1918 because Lookout Mountain was impassable in January. Thousands attended his funeral. Later, Bill’s foster son, Jody Baker, reburied Buffalo Bill under concrete to stop grave robbers from the state of Wyoming.

Wyoming, the Cowboy State, wanted Bill buried outside of Cody, Wyoming, the town Buffalo Bill founded. Legends and rumors continue today that Bill Cody may be secretly buried in Wyoming, but they are unfounded and highly improbable. In 1948, American Legion Post members in Cody, Wyoming, offered $10,000 to anyone who could steal Bill Cody’s remains. So, the Colorado National Guard was stationed on Lookout Mountain at Buffalo Bill’s grave to protect him. The Denver Public Library reports that in 2006 the Wyoming legislature “debated waging a ‘clandestine’ effort to retrieve Buffalo Bill”.

Buffalo Bill considered Lookout Mountain to encompass one of the “most spectacular views in all of the west”. He toured Texomaland several times, and I have to believe that we all wish we could have been there to see the spectacular showmanship of Buffalo Bill and his performing artists.


Buffalo Bill's Wild West Parade


Spotlight: Buffalo Bill Poster

Young Buffalo Bill


Buffalo Bill and Chief Sitting Bull

Buffalo Bill with Native American Performers

Mature Buffalo Bill


1. http://www.buffalobill.org/pdfs/buffalo_bill_visits.pdf
2. https://centerofthewest.org/learn/western-essays/wild-west-shows/
3. https://showmensmuseum.org/wild-west-shows-list/
4. http://buffalobillproject.unl.edu/research/roughriders/rrindex.php#:~:text=Cody%20used%20his%20exhibit%20to,comparison%20with%20the%20American%20riders.
5. https://www.britannica.com/biography/William-F-Cody
6. https://www.fictiondb.com/author/prentiss-ingraham~321979.htm#:~:text=Colonel%20Prentiss%20Ingraham%20(1843%2D1904,have%20written%20over%20600%20novels.
7. https://www.ulib.niu.edu/badndp/ingraham_prentiss.html
8. https://press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/732428.html
9. https://history.denverlibrary.org/news/buffalo-bill-cody-really-buried-lookout-mountain#:~:text=On%20January%2010%2C%201917%2C%20while,Cody%20died%20from%20kidney%20failure.

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