Friday, October 13, 2017

The Wild West Show

In the late 1800s, Wild West Shows began traveling the Eastern states (and eventually even reached Europe). They did so for around fifty years, becoming the unofficial national entertainment of the United States from the 1880s to the 1910s. The showmen who created these extravaganzas -- William "Buffalo Bill" Cody, Gordon William "Pawnee Bill" Lillie, "Buckskin Joe" Hoyt, The Miller brothers, and Dr. William F. Carver among others -- made Great Plains imagery their stock-in-trade. They paraded figures like the Plains Indian, the cowboy, and of course, the faithful frontier scout before audiences nostalgic for the passing of the frontier.

These shows "blended myth and reality in a simplified and patriotic fashion that reinforced popular notions about the nation's Manifest Destiny, identity, and gender roles." The typical Wild West Show was a scripted dramatization about "The Winning of the West," with the frontier scout held up as the model of proper American manhood. Showmen like Buffalo Bill and Pawnee Bill dressed in buckskins and portrayed themselves as sure and quick with wit and weapons. Many of the shows avoided the very term for fear that audiences would think their performances fake or exaggerated. Instead, they billed themselves as exhibitions or expositions.
Conquest of the Native American was central to the idea of Westward Expansion idealized in the shows, so Plains Indians were also an integral part of the experience. Buffalo Bill advertised "Come se the horde of war-painted Arapahos, Cheyenne, and Sioux Indians," while Pawnee Bill employed Osages, Pawnees and Kiowas in his shows. These shows depicted the Indians as the antithesis to "civilized" life -- savages from a wild land (but "with a martial spirit that made them worthy adversaries").

Famous warriors became popular attractions in the Wild West Show. Geronimo joined Pawnee Bill's show and was billed as "The Worst Indian That Ever Lived." Buffalo Bill hired Sitting Bull, which led to the Sioux being the most prized tribe featured in the Wild West Shows. Always, the role of the Native American was to attack whites and to be defeated.
The cowboy hero, "perhaps the most recognized icon of the Great Plains," had his beginnings in the Wild West Shows. The shows made the cowboy a salable figure, and gradually, he elbowed aside the scouts and Native Americans to become the hero of the show. It was on the Miller Brothers' 101 Ranch Show that Bill Pickett introduced audiences to the art of "bulldogging," and easterner Tom Mix learned the skills that later transferred to Western films.

Wild West Shows not only offered entertainment for the "dudes" back East, but offered what was often the best-paying job around for blacks like Bill Pickett, Mexicans, Native Americans and even women. The heyday of the shows ended in 1913 when Buffalo Bill and Pawnee Bill ended their merged Two Bills Show, though Wild West Shows did continue until the 1930's in combination with circuses and rodeos. Financial problems and the rising popularity of the cinema contributed to the shows' demise.
Here's a list of some of the shows available during the time your character might have encountered one:
§   A Girl of the Plains – Texas Nell – Alkali Pete
§  Allen Bros. Wild West (1929-1934) – Charles and Mert H. Allen
§  Arlington & Beckman’s Oklahoma Ranch Wild West (1913) – Edward Arlington and Fred Beckman
§  A. S. Lewis Big Shows (1910)
§  Austin Bros. 3 Ring Circus and Real Wild West (1945)
§  Barrett Shows and Oklahoma Bill’s Wild West (1920)
§  Bee Ho Gray's Wild West (circa 1919-1932)
§  Booger Red’s Wild West Show (1904-1910)
§  Broncho John, Famous Western Horseman and his Corps of Expert Horsemen (1906) – J. H. Sullivan
§  Bros. Wild West Show (1929-1934) – Charles and Mert H. Allen
§  Buck Jones Wild West Show
§  Buckskin Ben’s Wild West and Dog and Pony Show (1908) Benjamin Stalker
§  Buckskin Bill’s Wild West (1900)
§  Bud Atkinson’s Circus and Wild West (early 1900s) – Toured Australia in 1912
§  California Frank’s All-Star Wild West (1911) – Frank Hafley
§  Cole Younger & Frank James Wild West (1903)
§  Colonel Cummins’ Wild West Indian Congress and Rough Riders of the World – Frederick T. Cummins
§  Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show for Kids
§  Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders
§  Diamond Dick’s Congress of World’s Western Champions
§  Fred Akins Real Wild West and Far East Show (1909-1910)
§  Gene Autry’s Flying A Ranch Stampeed (1942)
§  Hardwick’s “Great Rocky Mountain Wild West Show” (1884)
§  Indian Bill’s Wild West and Mexican Hippodrome (1903)
§  Irwin & Hirsig Wild West (1910)
§  Irwin Brothers Cheyenne Frontier Days Wild West Show (1913-1917)
§  Jones Bros.' Buffalo Ranch Wild West (1910)
§  Kit Carson Buffalo Ranch Wild West Show (1913)
§  L. O. Hillman’s Wild West Aggregation (1900-1920)
§  Luella Forepaugh-Fish Wild West Shows (1903)
§  Miller Bros. 101 Ranch Real Wild West (1907-1916 & 1925-1931)
§  Montana Franks Shows
§  Pate Boone Wild West Show
§  Pawnee Bill's Wild West Show
§  Tex And Mex Wild West
§  Texas Jack's Wild West (1901-1905)
§  Tim’s McCoy’s Real Wild West
§  Wiedemann’s Shows (1906-1911)
§  Wiedemann Bros Shows
§  Wiedemann Bros Big American Show and Custer’s Last Charge
§  Wiedemann’s Kit Carson Show
§  Zach Mulhall’s Congress of Rough Riders and Ropers

J.E.S. Hays

Wild West Shows, S. Matthew DeSpain University of Oklahoma
Rodeos, Wild West Shows, and the Mythic American West, Lumen Learning
Wild West Show List from the International Independent Showmen's Museum


  1. Oh, how I would have loved seeing one of these Wild West shows, especially Cody's. Enjoyed this post, my friend.

    1. Yes, today's shows just don't really measure up to the real thing, do they?