In 1885, Annie Oakley and Frank Butler joined Buffalo Bill Cody's traveling Wild West show. Cody had started his popular entertainment in 1883, hiring real Indians and cowboys for elaborate productions that evoked the untamed -- and mostly disappeared -- American frontier.
Cody's Wild West show always drew crowds in New York City, conjuring the myth of the west for an eager Eastern audience. Through the last half of the 19th century, white settlers had been steadily displacing Native Americans, destroying a centuries-old way of life. The building of the Transcontinental Railroad accelerated the process. Deadly conflicts erupted between American forces and Native American tribes -- the so-called "Indian wars" -- and U.S. government policies confined Native Americans to reservations. The Wild West show offered a nostalgic look at a disappearing world.
Buffalo Bill Cody kicked off a summer 1886 season at Erastina in Staten Island with an elaborate parade through Manhattan on June 26. The show began the following day at a new amphitheater constructed by the Staten Island Amusement Company. Steamboats and trains transported thousands of visitors to the spectacle every day. Annie Oakley was sick during the kick-off parade and missed the first few days of the show's season. Lillian Smith, a 15-year-old sharp-shooting rival, garnered press in Oakley's absence.
The New York Herald, June 26, 1886
THE WILD WEST -- ITS HEROES ON STATEN ISLAND
Buffalo Bill's Wild West show was let loose down on the south shore at Erastina, and it just "whooped things up" in a way that made good its name...
MANY HAPPY PEOPLE
How they did swarm in! Train after train packed full of sweltering humanity. The stream poured in over the new platform between the clean, high fences, and pretty soon the two big stands were black... On three sides were rolling hills clothed in fresh greenness and walled with dark woods. In front was the shimmer of the sea. There are fifty acres in the grounds devoted to the exhibition arena and the camp. Everything is on a big scale. The arena is like a monster circus ring. Around it the long rows of seats rise high one above another. Gleaming in a grove at one side are the white tents of the Indians, painted over with fantastic designs.
MUSIC AND REVOLVERS
A band composed of cowboys tightened their belts, cocked their six-shooters and struck up some cowboy music. Mr. Frank Richmond strode in front of the grand stand, doffed his white sombrero and said it was to be an exhibition of skill, tact and endurance by men who had gained their livelihood on the plains. Then way back from the further end of the ground, where was stretched some lava bed scenery, trooped forth in single file a procession that was very Western -- Indians, cowboys, Mexicans and scouts. Into a trot, a canter and a run they broke; forming platoons and squares; sometimes in the saddle and sometimes out, they flew by like the wind. With a sudden halt they drew up in line in front of the grand stand. With a flourish of trumpets, "Buffalo Bill," the chief scout of the United States Army and the avenger of [Gen. George] Custer, dashed down in front.
"Are you ready? Go!" he shouted, and in an instant the field looked like an animated crazy quilt. Indians in their war paint, with feathers flying, riding full tilt at gaudily attired Mexicans. Shouts, warwhoops, barking of revolvers and cracking of carbines. It made the blood tingle, the faces of ladies in the audience blanch and the children hide their heads...
An old stage coach, drawn by six mules, rattled out. It was the Deadwood mail. An ambuscade of yelling redskins pounced down upon it, and for half a mile it ran the gantlet of their fire. Then, with a cheer and a clatter came the cowboys to the rescue, chasing the savages away and leaving the dead and wounded on the field. It went ahead of any dime novel that ever spoiled a boy for commonplace life.
The New York Herald, June 27, 1886
WAR PAINT ON FIFTH AVENUE
The invaders had come up from their camp on Staten Island in unromantic ferryboats instead of birch canoes, and landing at Twenty-third street and proceeding to Forty-second street, swept down the length of Manhattan Island to the Battery, a lurid line of copper-colored complexions and long-haired ponies. It was the Wild West showing the mild East what glories there are in life pure and simple. Men held onto their scalps, ladies blushed because the Indians were painted clear down to their waists, the small boy yearned to follow the tomahawk and car drivers swore.
At the head rode "Buffalo Bill," and for the time he owned the town. At least, he looked so. Then came cowboys in woolen shirts and a general trimming of revolvers, Mexicans with broad brimmed sombreros and fringe down their trousers, and Indians carrying spears and looking very bloodthirsty. In the procession were buffalo, dogs and an Italian with a monkey and a hand organ, who got in there by mistake. Then there were canoes, the Deadwood mail coach, the pony express and other western historical bric-a-brac. The long procession passed by, floated away to its island home and the city was left unscalped and unburned.
The New York Herald, June 29, 1886
THE BUFFALO BILL SHOW
FIRST PUBLIC PERFORMANCE YESTERDAY -- MR. BERGH ON THE INDIANS AND THEIR ANIMALS.
The Indian and cowboy riding and shooting and the wild buffalo chase elicited great applause. The attack on the Deadwood mail coach brought the vast audience to their feet with cheers. Mr. Henry Bergh, of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, was on the grounds with several of his officers, and after the performance he said:--"I am very much pleased. The performance is very interesting and instructive. I have no fault to find with it in any way. I never saw so many real Indians together in my life, and they ride with great spirit, and are very careful of their horses and other animals." During the evening another performance was given, the arena being illuminated by electric lights. Another immense audience greeted the equestrians and marksmen, the flashing of the revolvers and rifles adding increased interest to the weird scenes. The Indian camp under the lofty trees of the grove formed a striking picture.
The New York Times, June 29, 1886
BUFFALO BILL'S BONANZA
The show was a decided success, and the sham fights between the cowboys and the red men and the scalping of the fallen Indians were events that filled the dime novel boy's heart with delight and elicited from him yells that drowned even those of the Comanche and other Indian performers. In the race between a Mexican cowboy and an Indian the latter met with an accident that, but for the tough material out of which Indians are made, might have ended fatally. While at full gallop the Indian's horse stumbled, turned a somersault, and rolled over the Indian. When the horse got up his rider remained stretched on the ground. Several Indians and cowboys ran to his assistance, and after helping him to his feet, set him on another horse and he galloped around the field again. Miss Lillian Smith, the champion girl shot, hit the bull's eye every time she fired at it, and broke some 20 glass balls that were arranged on a swinging target without missing one ball. The bucking mustangs, the trick mule, and the high-kicking bulls made the boys roar with laughter, and the representation of an attack upon a white settlement by Indians and their rout by cowboys, which ended the entertainment, pleased both young and old.
The Brooklyn Eagle, July 4, 1886
BUFFALO BILL AND THE WILD WEST
The breezy sail to Staten Island and the fine realistic exhibition of "a town of the frontier" at Erastina Woods, Mariners' Harbor, constitute an entertainment that can be best appreciated by a trial. Buffalo Bill's Wild West presents a view of life beyond the prairies which cannot be obtained short of a journey across the continent.
The Brooklyn Eagle, July 27, 1886
There is not the slightest diminution in the crowds which flock to Staten Island to view the wonders of the West as they find solution by the performances of the real Indians, real buffaloes and real everything. The passion for the realistic cannot be gratified more fully anywhere than at this extraordinary show. The incidents of frontier and Far West life are brought out vividly...
Madison Square Garden
Buffalo Bill Cody retooled the Wild West show for an indoor season during winter 1886 at Madison Square Garden, employing renowned stage manager Steele MacKaye to write the production. MacKaye created a show titled Dawn of Civilization, with four acts or "epochs." Elaborate special effects transformed the indoor arena into the windswept plains of the West, complete with a tornado.
The New York Times, November 25, 1886
BUFFALO BILL IN DRAMA FOUR WILD WEST EPOCHS AT MADISON-SQUARE GARDEN
Patriotic playgoers crowded Madison-Square Garden last evening to applaud the first performance of Mr. Steele Mackaye's last great drama, which was acted with great spirit and power by Buffalo Bill, several dozen cowboys, cowgirls, and genuine greasers, besides a hundred and fifty Indians of various tribes in full fig and feather.
Mr. Mackaye's drama is divided into four "epochs," named on the bills as follows: 1. The Primeval Forest. 2. The Prairie. 3. The Cattle Ranch. 4. The Mining Camp. The first epoch is supposed to be that preceding the discovery of America. The primeval forest is shown... Two timid deer peer from behind the trees, then come forth, followed by a herd of elk. As they are gathered by the spring, several Indians steal upon them and a shower of arrows is fired. The sun rises. A band of Sioux and a band of Cheyennes meet. The great chiefs, Blooming Thunder and Hole-in-the-Ground hold a pow-wow and make peace. The war dance follows, interrupted by the onslaught of a band of Pawnees under the fierce sachem No-Bugs-on-Me, and a rough and tumble massacre closes the scene.
The second act shows the prairie. A dozen live buffalo are at the water hole. Suddenly Buffalo Bill's wild yell shrills through the silence, and the cheerful pop of the Winchester stimulates the herd in its mad flight to safety. The emigrant train comes on: the prairie schooners and their oxen, burros and mules; the going into camp; the supper and preparations for night.... Darkness comes. All are sleeping. Suddenly a distant glow on the horizon, brightening and widening -- nearer and nearer till the prairie is a sea of rushing fire -- then the wild yell of alarm -- the fighting of fire with fire -- the stampede -- deer, buffalo, mustangs, Indians, and emigrants -- all fleeing together -- a stirring scene.
The third epoch ... is the cattle ranch, illustrating the cowboy in his glory, riding the bucking mustang and lassoing the bounding and bumptious steer. Suddenly comes the curdling whoop of the Comanchee and Kiowas, led by Seven-Fleas, Son-of-a-Gun, Loaded-for-Bear, Busted-Flush, Peach-Blow-Spittoon, Two-Buckets-of-Red-Paint, and other famous chiefs, who go into the hair-raising business with a painstaking enthusiasm which fanned the audience to an uproar. Just at the most exciting point of the massacre, a troop of cowboys arrive and the noble red men are sent to the happy hunting grounds in a body.
The fourth "epoch" is devoted to the incidents of a mining camp.... There is considerable fun, according to the frontier notion of fun, including a duel to the death with revolvers. The lighting-like arrival and departure of the pony express and some rather tame rifle shooting are among the incidents... A dark and dangerous canon is shown. Passing here the stage[coach] is "jumped" by a band of road agents, who go through mail, express, and passengers, with that cheerful skill and celerity for which the Western road agent is famous. The scene shifts back to the mining camp. Thunder is crashing and lighting flashing... Suddenly comes a roar, the tents sway and then are leveled, several dummies are whirled wildly in midair, and then curtain drops upon what is supposed to be the terrific destruction of the camp by a cyclone.
The New York Herald, November 25, 1886
THE WORLD OF AMUSEMENT
"Here they come! Here they come!"
The "they" were a vicious, disgusted looking lot of redskins, mounted upon trim and wiry little ponies, and the speaker, or rather crier, was a youngster with a wonderful pair of lungs, who loved a real, live Indian better than his supper. He stood upon the curb facing the Madison avenue entrance to the "Garden."
The long talked of, anxiously looked forward to Wild West show was parading the streets. It was a collection of fiercely painted, gayly gotten up Sioux, Pawnees, cowboys, vaqueros, et al., which compose what the versatile "Bill" styles the Wild West camp.
A vision of flowing locks, flowing trousers, flowing hat brims, and, in fact, everything on the flow style, a clatter of hoofs upon the pavement and a loud murmur of applause, together with a fierce shriek of delight from the curb, and the immortal Buffalo Bill, his "leading man," familiarly known as Buck Taylor and all his feminine stars, six in number, well shaped, natty looking girls, sitting well upon their horses, flashed into view. The "principals" were certainly a fine looking lot, and they "caught on," for all along the line hands were clapped and hats were waved.
THE OPENING PERFORMANCE
...Dream first was called "the Primeval Forest of America Before Its Discovery By the White Man"...
...a silver tongued orator..., appeared in a sort of pigeon loft to the left of stage. His words were set in the rich, fanciful setting of Mr. Mackaye's gold tinged vocabulary. Personally, he appeared attractive, but he would have been more enjoyed had he made the heart grow fond by absence. He was a chorus whose lines sadly needed cutting.
"The grand introduction of Indians, cowboys, Mexicans, girl riders and individual celebrities" was very effective and formed quite a novel pageant. The dancing of the Indians, in consequence of their sanguinary inclinations, aroused particular attention. The frescoed sons of the forest tossed off their blankets and the fair sex did not know whether to look with interest upon the dancers or to glance at the roof. Sixty almost entirely nude braves, with their hides tinted according to the latest thing in war paint, danced to the accompaniment of some very weird music.
The New York World, November 25, 1886
THEY ALL LIKE THE INDIANS
Gov. Bill, Gen. Sherman and Rev. Mr. Beecher Go to the Wild West
More than five thousand people filled Madison Square Garden early last evening and waited anxiously to see how the Wild West show would bear transplanting to New York. The Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, with Mrs. Beecher and a party of friends, sat in a box from which a fine sight of the show could be had. Henry Bergh, looking decorously pleased, sat near by, and not far off were Pierre Lorillard, Lawrence Jerome and Major Barrett. Everyone looked at a gray-bearded, brown-haired old gentleman who sat with a party of ladies in one of the western boxes. He was Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, and a long-haired scout who had seen service under him years ago came around and chatted with the veteran warrior. Gov. David H. Hill was not far away in another box, and hundreds of lorgnettes were leveled at him during the evening.
The curtain rose on a richly painted forest scene and herds of elk appeared. According to the programme they were "going to the pool to drink." One big bull elk forgot his cue, though, and wandered from behind the loose netting that separated the wilderness from civilization. He sauntered slowly down the arena, inspecting the pretty girls in the boxes with critical stares and gazing at the rest of the spectators in a tired way. A Sioux warrior in full paint and feathers trotted out after awhile in pursuit. He came close to the elk, held up his painted arms, and said, "Sh! Sh!" in good English. The elk lowered his horns and charged. The warrior climbed nimbly over the high rail into the nearest box, and badly frightened a pretty brown-eyed girl in a while tailor-made jacket. Then the elk trotted over to Nym Crinkle's box and held up his head to be stroked. A pretty little girl patted it approvingly, and he went on receiving congratulations until a red-shirted cowboy, with curly hair, galloped out and drove him away.
The usual amount of fancy shooting, hard riding and cowboy feats filled out the entertainment.
The New York Times, November 28, 1886
Buffalo Bill's new "Wild West" is fairly under way in Madison-Square Garden. The long waits and hitches in the programme that could not be very well avoided the first night are things of the past. The performance now runs along rapidly and smoothly. All the ponderous machinery used in the working of Matt Morgan's grand scenery is in perfect trim and works to a charm. The patent "hurricane raiser"-- a huge and complicated apparatus that serves to send a gale of wind across the space devoted to the stage with a velocity of 60 miles an hour, and with a roar as if 100 buildings had simultaneously crashed to the ground -- is a feature introduced in the cyclone on the prairie that creates a sensation nightly.
By 1894, Buffalo Bill Cody expanded the scope of his Wild West show to include more international attractions. The show opened on May 12, 1894 in Ambrose Park, Brooklyn and played to large crowds through October.
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 10, 1894
EXPERT ROUGH RIDING
Performed by the Indians and Cowboys with Buffalo Bill
These days have returned to Brooklyn, and may be enjoyed at Ambrose Park, or more explicitly, Third avenue and Thirty-seventh street, where the Wild West show of Buffalo William has pitched its tepees and corralled its ponies. There the wonderful west of a few years ago has been revived in all its rugged and romantic splendors. Its plains, prairies and mountain passes, the log cabin of the frontiersman, the wigwam of the Sioux, the burly bison, the pony express, the lumbering treasure coach of the overland route to Deadwood, the Mexican with his lariat, the cowboy with his broncho and the cavalry troops of the United States army; all are there in picturesque grouping... and finally, chief figure of them all, is William F. Cody, ex-scout, ex-colonel and ex-legislator, the handsome, long-haired, mustached and imperialed Buffalo Bill, the object of more hero worshiping by young America than any other character in national history....
The riding of the cowboys, Indians and cavalrymen was as exhilarating as a sea fight. It made the observers' blood tingle and nerves vibrate to see these specimens of hardy manhood sit in saddles or on bare backs and never see daylight under them while the horses plunged and ran like stags before the hounds.
The New York Times, May 13, 1894
DELIGHTED TWENTY THOUSAND
Buffalo Bill's great Wild West Show opened at Ambrose Park, South Brooklyn, yesterday afternoon, in a blaze of glory and amid a shower of ringing coin thrown by the 20,000 people who occupied seats in the grand stands.
Col. Cody had unquestionably in this exhibition surpassed all his former efforts in the show line, and to miss seeing his Congress of Rough Riders of the World, in their most wonderful and daring feats of horsemanship, which, by the way, are perfectly natural, and contain no circus play, is to miss one of the finest educational exhibitions ever given...
The entertainment consisted further of rifle shooting by the celebrated woman rifle shot, Miss Annie Oakley; horse races between a cowboy, Cossack, Mexican, Arab and Indian on the horses of their native lands; an exhibition of the famous old pony express, an immigrant train attacked by Indians on the plains, exhibitions of horsemanship by Riffian Arabs, cowboys, Mexicans, and others; hurdle races, races between Indian boys on ponyback, the battle of the Little Big Horn, illustrating Custer's last stand; the attack on the Deadwood coach and settlers' cabins by Indians; buffalo hunts, a military musical drill, the cavalrymen of all nations, and Col. Cody's wonderful exhibitions of sharp-shooting at glass balls with a rifle while riding at full speed.
The New York World, May 13, 1894
ONLY ONE BUFFALO BILL
The Wild West is no longer a sufficient title for Buffalo Bill's extraordinary caravansary, for it is now lengthened and decorated with the hairy South, the swarthy East and ferocious North. If the twenty thousand people who assembled yesterday in South Brooklyn to welcome Col. Cody expected to see Indians and cowboys only they got more than their money's worth, for this tremendous caravan, which has been moving over the entire face of the earth since we last saw it here, has gathered into its tents every specimen of trained horseman that the world furnishes, and the dramatis personae of the outdoor drama now offers us in its groups a stupendous picture that must remind anybody of those once popular canvases that loved to suggest to us a congress of the nations.
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle,May 13, 1894
WILD WESTERN SPORTS
Sixteen thousand persons went to Ambrose park, at Thirty-seventh street and Third avenue, yesterday afternoon to witness the first performance of Buffalo Bill's Wild West show. The brilliant sunshine and balmy air quickened the appreciativeness of the audience and soothed the savage breasts of the red skinned children of the prairies who have learned to gaze complacently upon the thousands of well dressed scalp locks and regard them as representing so much cash at the box office instead of trophies to be hung in the lodge. It was a most satisfactory opening day to both the audience and the managers. The grounds on which the show is pitched are larger and more thoroughly laid out than any others which it ever has occupied. The cowboy orchestra has toughened the tympanums in the grand stand while the 450 rough riders of all nations came dashing into the areas in companies and assembled for the grand preliminary review. They included 185 Indians and 40 each of cowboys, United States cavalrymen, French, Irish and German troopers, Cossacks and Arabs.
After their various evolutions, came an exhibition of dexterous fancy shooting by Miss Annie Oakley, then a horse race between a cowboy, Cossack, Mexican, Arab and a Gaucho....
The old, old original Deadwood coach, that has been cared for like a baby and preserved in a ramshackle picturesqueness ever since the show was organized, was next brought in, with old John Nelson sitting on the roof behind the driver and popping off the redskins, who circled about in attack, till the cowboys came to the rescue and routed them...
After this Buffalo Bill made a grand entrance alone, and was cheered to the echo. He rode at full speed on his grand looking Kentucky thoroughbred, and cracked glass balls in the air with an off hand pace that made his precision the more wonderful. An imitation buffalo hunt with a herd of ten bison in the arena came next, and then, after an Indian attack on a settler's cabin, the company entered again for the parting salute.
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.