Buffalo Bill and His Wild West Show

“No circus ever called together such a crowd as that which found its way to the Agricultural Park yesterday afternoon and evening on the occasion of Buffalo Bill’s first visit to Santa Barbara,” reported the Morning Press on September 23, 1902. About 7,000 people, more than Santa Barbara’s population, rushed to find seats in the covered stands surrounding the open enclosure of the arena that the Wild West Show had set up in the middle of the race track that lay between Cabrillo Boulevard and Salisipuedes, Montecito, and Santa Barbara Streets. The crowd, augmented by a special train carrying nearly 400 Venturans, included residents from the country areas who traveled in hundreds of wagons and carts.

Major John M. Burke, the Wild West’s publicist, had come to town earlier in September to make arrangements, order provisions from local businesses, and publicize the Wild West by taking out an ad in the local paper, plastering the town with posters, and granting interviews to the local press. Burke assured reporters that everything in the show was real and genuine. The Cossacks were real; not Americans “rigged out for the part.”

Col. William F. Cody (Buffalo Bill) dubbed his show Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World at its inception in 1883. In 1898, the press corps borrowed the term “Rough Riders” and bestowed it upon Roosevelt’s Cavalrymen during the Spanish American War. Afterwards, the Wild West hired 16 veterans of Roosevelt’s regiment for the show, so for the 1902 performance in Santa Barbara, the “Battle of San Juan Hill” was the featured closing spectacle, replacing “Custer’s Last Stand.”

A special train from Bakersfield arrived in Santa Barbara the night before the performance, and the army of cowboys, Sioux Indians, sharpshooters, lariat throwers, Cuban patriots, Bedouin Arabs, etc. set up camp. Several hundred head of livestock, including one of the largest groups of bison still left in the nation, were corralled. The show’s electric power plant was set up, and two 20-foot long portable ranges fed the 400-member cast and crew three hot meals a day. The entertainment arena was the largest in the world, capable of seating 16,000 people. So efficient was the Wild West’s system that Kaiser Wilhelm had assigned special agents to the show to learn how to move armies efficiently.

Creation of a Legend

Born in Scott County, Iowa in 1846, William Frederick Cody embarked on his adventurous life at age 11 after the death of his father. Young Cody set out to augment the family income by working as a bullwhacker for the railroad and then as a mounted messenger for a freighting firm. At 13, he joined the Colorado gold rush, panning unsuccessfully for placer gold, and then trapped beaver for a season. In 1861, at the tender age of 14, he became a pony express rider. At 15, he joined a jayhawker group, a guerrilla group loyal to the Union. Ashamed of his participation in this seamy operation, in 1864, he enlisted in the regular Army with the 7th Kansas Volunteer Cavalry.

After the war, he married Louisa Frederici and tried to settle down as a stage driver and then as a hotel manager. He quickly gave up the sedate life, however, and hired on as a buffalo hunter for the railroad, shooting 12 head a day from horse back at a sporting run and earning the nickname “Buffalo Bill.” In 1868, he became chief of scouts for the 5th U.S. Cavalry and was responsible for the U.S. victory at Summit Springs during the Indian Wars.

His reputation caught the imagination of the East, and Ned Buntline became the first to write one of nearly 700 dime novels about Buffalo Bill’s exploits. When the army saw Cody’s potential as a public relations boon, they commissioned him to guide European dignitaries on excursions and hunting trips throughout the West. None was grander than the full-scale media event surrounding the visit of the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia. Cody’s career took a new turn; he started touring the country in stage plays which portrayed his past exploits.

The Wild West Show

In 1883, anticipating Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis by a decade, Cody developed Buffalo Bill’s Wild West in Omaha, Neb. In 1893, Turner claimed, “. . . the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history.” Cody wanted to make sure the frontier was remembered and created an extravaganza that was an appealing mix of documentation and showmanship. Claiming absolute authenticity, the show presented the public with wagon trains, pony express riders, Sioux Indians, elk, bronc-busters and sharpshooters. Famous battles were recreated, settler’s cabins attacked and the Deadwood stage was ambushed.

After seeing the show, Mark Twain wrote Cody and said, “It brought back to me the breezy, wild life of the Rocky Mountains and stirred me like a war song. The show is genuine – cowboys, vaqueros, Indians, stagecoaches, costumes, the same as I saw them in the frontier years ago.”

The show traveled to London in 1887 for the American Exhibition and the Europeans went wild. In 1889, the Wild West returned to that civilized continent for a four-year tour which was immensely popular. Rosa Bonheur, the famous painter of animals, frequented the Wild West camp in Paris, making sketches and taking notes. She painted the famous image of Cody atop his white horse, Tucker, which, in one form or another, graced many subsequent advertising posters.

The show was no less popular in the Eastern states where the dangers and rough life of the frontier had faded into legend. With the Indian menace gone, it was safe to admire the bold unfettered life, which was especially appealing in light of Victorian strictures. That the Wild West would wait nearly 20 years before making its debut in the Far West is no surprise. The Far West had to be tamed and civilized before it could look back with nostalgia. The Morning Press’ droll assessment, however, was, “the West learned much about itself as it is presented by Buffalo Bill and Company.”

Cody’s publicists gave him credit for teaching the artistic community that horses were not stiff creatures standing on two legs and they never galloped with their legs spread wide in the air. Apparently both Remington and Schreyvogel, among dozens of others, owed Cody a great debt. Today, some historians credit Cody with perpetuating the folklore of the West and inventing superstardom. Others say he laid the foundation for the entire western genre of books and movies in the 20th century.

The Wild West in Santa Barbara

In 1902, Santa Barbarans and their visitors were not interested in scholarly analysis and debate. Instead, as September 22 dawned, a feeling of childlike anticipation pervaded the town as the street cavalcade of stagecoaches and wagons and the world’s mounted warriors wended their way up State Street. The public marched alongside and exuberant young boys broke into leaps and sprints of excitement.

Each of the two shows in the magnificent arena opened with Buffalo Bill’s Cowboy Band playing the Star Spangled Banner, long before it became the national anthem in 1931. (Another possible credit to the Wild West Show). Clad in wide-brimmed hats, chaps, boots, and long-sleeved shirts and studded gun holsters, the band played march tunes, ragtime and popular songs. The music accompanied the show, filling in during the change of acts and influencing audience response to the performances by expressing the moods of each scene.

From the safety of their seats, Santa Barbarans witnessed incredible feats of horsemanship and the colorful costumes of the South American gauchos and Russian Cossacks. The sharpshooters and lariat throwers amazed, the Marine Drill instructed, and the Indian dancers invoked a primal pulse. The recreation of the Battle of San Juan Hill inspired patriotism, but best of all was the riding and shooting of Buffalo Bill.

The ad poster had warned, “First, Last and Only Visit,” and, indeed, it was since the show returned to Europe for four years in 1903. In 1913, after 30 years of delighting audiences, the company went into receivership. Though Cody joined the Selles-Floto Circus and returned to Santa Barbara in 1914 and 1915, the days of the Wild West were over. Bufflao Bill died in January 1917 and was buried atop Lookout Mountain in Colorado.

Paul Libman and Dave Hudson’s lament for the musical, Dust and Dreams, expresses the loss, not just of Cody himself, but, by extension, the frontier as well.

“Buffalo Bill is gone;

Everyone knows the score.

Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show

Won’t be thrilling our hearts no more.”

Thus ended an era that shaped the nation and the national consciousness.

(Sources: contemporary newspapers, various articles from the Buffalo Bill Historical Center Web site).