How Buffalo Bill Invented The Wild West

By Leah Dearborn

Buffalo Bill's Wild West Buffalo Bill's Wild West

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When “Buffalo Bill” Cody died in 1917, more than 18,000 mourners attended his funeral and paid their respects while his body lay out for viewing at the Colorado State House. Even in death the former showman created a stir; it was an event befitting the scope of Cody's large life. “Colonel Cody was the most picturesque figure in American history,” friend and Denver millionaire John W. Springer stated during his eulogy. “He was truly the American home-builder, blazing a trail to the virgin west.”

William Frederick Cody left home at the age of eleven to began his unusual career, first as a cattle herder, then eventually as a civilian scout after the Civil War ended. He even served a stint working for the Pony Express, but it was his experience hunting on the plains that garnered him the nickname “Buffalo Bill” and made him the hero of popular dime novels. The dramatization of one of these narratives landed Cody on a stage for the first time, and he never really left it. Buffalo Bill's Wild West show was officially born on May 19, 1883 in Omaha, Nebraska.

W. F. Cody W. F. Cody

When he began staging exhibitions of Western life in the 1880's, Cody exploited a national thirst for the wild and lawless land. His shows soon became hugely popular in the Eastern United States and around the world. But instead of presenting viewers with a fully accurate depiction of reality on the frontier, Cody gave audiences what they wanted-- glamor, excitement, and gunslinging. And Buffalo Bill himself was glamorous. He hunted the plains with royalty-- the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia used him as a guide in 1871, and Cody loaned him a favorite hunting rifle (which he nicknamed Lucretia Borgia). Prince Albert I of Monaco, wishing to have a true adventure in the Western wilderness, also sought out the famed scout during an informal visit in 1913.

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The frontier acts usually consisted of a medley of battle reenactments, rodeo tricks, and shooting displays. Famed sharpshooter Annie Oakley proved an especially big draw for her ability to hit the edge of a playing card or knock the end of a cigarette from her husband's lips. The show cost as much as $4,000 per day to finance, according to the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, and included a cast of over 500 in the 1890s. In one year alone, Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show gave 341 performances and traveled more than 10,000 miles. Only as the First World War approached did audiences finally begin to dwindle, and Cody's show was forced into bankruptcy in 1913.

Buffalo Bills Last Victory Buffalo Bills Last Victory

Buffalo Bill may have created the most famous Wild West show of all time, but his wasn't the only one to traverse the country. There was Gordon William Lillie, otherwise known as “Pawnee Bill,” a former cowboy and Pawnee interpreter who briefly partnered with Cody to form a unified act. Will Rogers also began his career in 1905 by performing roping tricks in a themed vaudeville act, and Cody's vision of the West lived on in countless twentieth century television shows and movies.

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