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Rare footage shows Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show in 1908

Ian Smith

One of the most colorful figures of the American Old West, Buffalo Bill started performing in shows that displayed cowboy themes and episodes from the frontier and Indian Wars. He founded hisBuffalo Bill’s Wild West in 1883, taking his large company on tours throughout the United States and, beginning in 1887, in Great Britain and Europe.

 

“Buffalo Bill” received his nickname after the American Civil War, when he had a contract to supply Kansas Pacific Railroad workers with buffalo meat. Cody is purported to have killed 4,282 American bison (commonly known as buffalo) in eighteen months, (1867–1868).Cody and hunter William Comstock competed in an eight-hour buffalo-shooting match over the exclusive right to use the name, in which Cody won by killing 68 bison to Comstock’s 48. Comstock, part Cheyenne and a noted hunter, scout, and interpreter, used a fast-shootingHenry repeating rifle, while Cody competed with a larger-caliber Springfield Model 1863, which he called Lucretia Borgia after legendary beautiful, ruthless Italian noblewoman, the subject of a popular contemporary Victor Hugo play of the same name. Cody explained that while his formidable opponent, Comstock, chased after his buffalo, engaging from the rear of the herd and leaving a trail of killed buffalo “scattered over a distance of three miles”, Cody – likening his strategy to a billiards player “nursing” his billiard balls during “a big run” – first rode his horse to the front of the herd to target the leaders, forcing the followers to one side, eventually causing them to circle and create an easy target, dropping them close together.

In 1869, Cody met Ned Buntline. Afterward, Buntline published a story for Street and Smith’s New York Weekly which was based on Cody’s adventures (largely made up by Buntline). Then Buntline published a highly successful novel, Buffalo Bill, King of the Bordermen. Many other sequels followed, by Buntline, Prentiss Ingraham and others from 1870s through the early part of the twentieth century. Cody became world famous for his Wild West Shows, which toured in Great Britain and Europe. Audiences were enthusiastic about seeing a piece of theAmerican West.Emilio Salgari, a noted Italian writer of adventure stories, met Buffalo Bill when he came to Italy and saw his show; Salgari later featured Cody as a hero in some of his novels.

In December 1872, Cody traveled to Chicago to make his stage debut with friend Texas Jack Omohundro in The Scouts of the Prairie, one of the original Wild West shows produced by Ned Buntline.During the 1873–1874 season, Cody and Omohundro invited their friend James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok to join them in a new play called Scouts of the Plains.

The troupe toured for ten years. Cody’s part typically included an 1876 incident at the Warbonnet Creek, where he claimed to have scalped a Cheyennewarrior.

In 1883, in the area of North Platte, Nebraska, Cody founded “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West”, a circus-like attraction that toured annually. (Despite popular misconception, the word “show” was not a part of the title.)With his show, Cody traveled throughout the United States and Europe and made many contacts. He stayed, for instance, in Garden City, Kansas, in the presidential suite of the former Windsor Hotel. He was befriended by the mayor and state representative, a frontier scout, rancher, and hunter named Charles “Buffalo” Jones.

In 1893, Cody changed the title to “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World”. The show began with a parade on horseback, with participants from horse-culture groups that included US and other military, cowboys, American Indians, and performers from all over the world in their best attire.Turks, Gauchos, Arabs, Mongols and Georgians, displayed their distinctive horses and colorful costumes. Visitors would see main events, feats of skill, staged races, and sideshows. Many historical western figures participated in the show. For example, Sitting Bull appeared with a band of 20 of his braves.