In 1886, Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show played to over one million people in New York City. It was one of the most elaborate shows on earth. There were cowboys and Indians, sharp shooters including the famed Annie Oakley, hundreds of horses, buffalo, elk and donkeys, with more than two hundred cast members, all moving about in a sweeping western landscape of mountains and plains. Soon after the show's stunning success in New York, it would go on to dazzle crowds in London, Paris, Rome and Barcelona, cementing the legend of the Wild West in the minds of people around the globe. Behind the extravaganza was one man -- a meager plainsman turned international celebrity and frontier hero, whose meteoric rise to fame was made possible only by his genius, and his hucksterism. His name was William Cody, better known to the world as Buffalo Bill.
AMERICAN EXPERIENCE presents a portrait of the man who made the American West into the American story. From filmmaker Rob Rapley, Buffalo Bill is a one-hour documentary that draws upon rich archival materials to explore the man behind the legend, revealing the complexity of William Cody's extraordinary life. "Buffalo Bill was a phenomenon unlike anything the world had seen. He turned the story of the west into a phenomenon as well," says Rapley. "Cody blurred the line between truth and entertainment, history and myth. And he was wildly successful doing it."
For most Americans in the mid 1800s, the Wild West existed only in dime novels and story papers. But for William Cody, it was very real. Raised in pre-Civil War Kansas, in 1868 Cody was recruited by the Army to serve as a scout in another war that was fast heating up -- the war with the Plains Indians. Scouts were crucial to the effort, and Cody was good. He roamed the plains, first tracking down deserters, and eventually taking part in direct combat with Native peoples. In addition to his military prowess, Cody was tall, handsome, had brash confidence and a great deal of charisma. In short, he was the embodiment of how easterners pictured a frontier hero -- struggling to bring civilization to the west and subdue Indian savagery.
And at a time when the frontier was rapidly disappearing, Cody realized that he didn't have to just live his life; he could market it as entertainment. Millions around the world would pay for just a taste of the Wild West.
"The majority of Americans are moving into cities, working in offices, working in factories," explains historian Patricia Nelson Limerick. "Their imaginations are pent up and are wanting some place to run free. Setting our minds west, that turns out to be the thing to do it."
Never was that more evident than at the 1893 Colombian Exposition in Chicago. Even with royal accolades and an international following, Buffalo Bill was rebuffed by the Exposition's high-minded managers. But he was undeterred from sharing his show with the hordes of people who would descend on Chicago. Cody set up shop across the street from the fair, his production rivaling anything that existed inside the gates of the Exposition. By summer's end, more than three million people filed in to see the Wild West, and Cody walked away with over half a million dollars.
But shortly after his stunning Chicago appearance, Cody's fortunes would turn. Buffalo Bill was exposed as an alcoholic, a philanderer, and a blasphemer. The press that had helped create him now fed on him. A string of bad business decisions and misguided investments would dominate the last fifteen years of his life.
Still, the legend of Buffalo Bill and his Wild West was firmly planted in the collective imagination. "Cody takes American history, situates it somewhere in the frontier west, and says, 'this is your story,?" says biographer Louis Warren. "He actually changes the telling of American history." His version of the American story endures today.
"Separating history from myth isn't always easy," says AMERICAN EXPERIENCE executive producer Mark Samels. "Here's an example of a man who not only sets out to share his version of the American West -- he also insinuates himself in the story. In that way, he becomes part of the legend and part of our history."
My American Experience
The legend of the Wild West has been played out in American Popular culture since the start of westward expansion. The real-life people who helped tame the west would shape the western heroes celebrated in film and television for decades.