Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show

By his twenties, William F. Cody had already mined for gold, run for the Pony Express and fought with the Union in the Civil War. It was a stint hunting bison for the workers of the Kansas Pacific Railway that earned him his immortal moniker - Buffalo Bill - which became synonymous with the Wild West show that he toured. Along with the likes of Annie Oakley, Sitting Bull, and Canadian Metis rebel Gabriel Dumont, Cody staged this melodramatic recreation of Western life all over North America and in Europe, including a Jubilee performance for Queen Victoria.

Besides acting out the story of the Wild West as it was being written, and then acting it up in his Wild West show, Cody was a near shameless self-promoter. Evidently understanding the power of the media, he wrote autobiography after autobiography, and allowed other authors to write up to 1,700 dime novel stories of his exploits, real and imagined. The archetypal one is the briefly biographical Adventures of Buffalo Bill from Boyhood to Manhood, published in 1882 as the first issue of Beadle's Boy's Library of Sport, Story and Adventure and written by prodigious Cody chronicler Col. Prentiss Ingraham.

Click on the cover to read this story, as presented online by the marvellous site Dime Novels and Penny Dreadfuls.

A newfangled part of the media that Buffalo Bill turned to his use was the kinetoscope. Next, we have a collection of footage of the Wild West Show as shot by Thomas Edison's filmographers. The Library of Congress has preserved four such films here, though I have also compiled them below:

Buffalo Bill Cody, in one of his posthumously published autobiographies, gives a wonderful hymn to this age that passed from history to eternity:
I am about to take the back-trail through the Old West—the West that I knew and loved. All my life it has been a pleasure to show its beauties, its marvels and its possibilities to those who, under my guidance, saw it for the first time.

Now, going back over the ground, looking at it through the eyes of memory, it will be a still greater pleasure to take with me the many readers of this book. And if, in following me through some of the exciting scenes of the old days, meeting some of the brave men who made its stirring history, and listening to my camp-fire tales of the buffalo, the Indian, the stage-coach and the pony-express, their interest in this vast land of my youth, should be awakened, I should feel richly repaid...

The buffalo has gone. Gone also is the stagecoach whose progress his pilgrimages often used to interrupt. Gone is the pony express, whose marvelous efficiency could compete with the wind, but not with the harnessed lightning flashed over the telegraph wires. Gone are the very bone-gatherers who laboriously collected the bleaching relics of the great herds that once dotted the prairies.

But the West of the old times, with its strong characters, its stern battles and its tremendous stretches of loneliness, can never be blotted from my mind. Nor can it, I hope, be blotted from the memory of the American people, to whom it has now become a priceless possession.

1 comment:

Christopher Corbett said...

Very nice.

Alas, there is some doubt as to whether Bill Cody rode for the Pony Express. He saved the memory of the Pony Express for America in any case - putting in his show for four decades!

Christopher Corbett
Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express (Random House/Broadway Books).