Wild West Shows
The first attempt at a Wild West show may actually have been an odd affair staged in Europe in the middle of the sixteenth century. Fifty Brazilian Indians were imported to Rouen to populate a replica of their South American village. Special elevated walkways allowed the King of France and his entourage to watch the Indians "at home," hunting, dancing, cooking in short, performing as Indians.
The first Wild West show was organized in the 1830s by George Catlin, the world-renowned painter of the Plains Indians. Catlin's show set the model for all of the following shows by using authentic clothing and objects while recreating life on the Great Plains on a vast scale. The show's entourage included hundreds of colorfully costumed Indians on horseback and a herd of buffalo. Action scenes included Indian ceremonial dances, a buffalo hunt, warfare, scalping and remarkable feats of horsemanship. Catlin's purpose in putting together his Wild West show was twofold. First, it was a terrific opportunity for him to make money. Second, and more importantly, he hoped to "rally support for the Great Plains and the Indians and animals who lived there." Catlin regarded the Plains Indians as noble savages who were victims of Euro-American expansion. His show, whether it was presented to the cheering crowds of New York City or London, was designed to educate the public on the plight of the Indians and "their noble natures and do them justice."
Fifty years later, Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show, unlike Catlin's, glorified the frontiersmen rather than the Indians. Cody's shows depicted the courageous and virtuous Americans withstanding repeated Indian attacks until finally the Americans were the clear winners of the west. Indians were portrayed as savages and obstacles to progress. The rattle of gunfire, galloping horses and elaborately staged Indian battles marked Buffalo Bill's show. Cody often starred in the shows, arriving in just the nick of time to save stagecoaches, settlers and wagon trains from annihilation by 'bloodthirsty' Indians. His shows included all manner of horsemanship including racing, roping and riding, and eventually incorporated rodeo-style acts which became the centerpiece of the show. It was Cody, perhaps more than anyone else, who helped popularize the notion of the cowboy. The audiences loved the image of the gun-slinging desperados who rode horses and settled arguments with six-shooters. Like Catlin, Cody brought his show to Europe where crowds cheered the rustic westerners. Even the Pope was swept up in the enthusiasm and offered a papal blessing to mud-splattered cowboys and Indians in full war paint.
The Hollywood and rodeo cowboys got their starts in wild west shows and circuses that became popular around 1900. Three of the more popular wild west shows originated in Oklahoma from the Mulhall Ranch, the Pawnee Bill Ranch and the Miller 101 Ranch. Zack Mulhall's ranch near Guthrie covered 80,000 acres in Oklahoma Territory. He started a wild west show starring his daughter Lucille, the world's first "cowgirl," who became a favorite of President Theodore Roosevelt. Zack Mulhall's Wild West Show toured from 1900 to 1915.
Gordon William Lillie built his ranch near Pawnee and became famous as "Pawnee Bill." This name was given to him by the Pawnee Indians, who made him their "white chief" after he saved the tribe from starvation during a harsh winter.
Pawnee Bill and some of his Indian friends later joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, but in 1888, Lillie started his own. The Pawnee Bill Show featured his wife, May, a refined Philadelphian who learned to ride broncs sidesaddle and became a sharpshooter with guns. Pawnee Bill's show toured the world from 1888 to 1913.
Perhaps the most popular of all wild west shows originated on the Miller Brothers' 101 Ranch near Ponca City, built by Col. George Washington Miller and his three sons. Their show toured the world from 1908 until the Great Depression and even included a team of Cossacks, but it remained true to its western roots with headline acts featuring cowboys and Indians.
The Miller brothers, owners of the 101 Ranch in the Oklahoma Territory, unlike the others, this one was primarily not a traveling road show. Instead, people came to the 101 Ranch to see the show. The Miller's sought to recreate, on their vast ranch, a working replica of what they perceived to be the American West. The 101 Ranch employed hundreds of cowboys and a thousand Indians. Their acts included horsemanship, men and women in marksmanship competitions, buffalo hunts, Indian camp life, Indian attacks on a wagon train, and rodeo events. Unlike Catlin's show where the Indians were the heroes, or Cody's show where the cowboy was king, the Millers sought to elevate the ranch owners as the real founders and heroes of the American West.
Circus great James A. Bailey, of Barnum & Bailey, joined Cody and Salsbury in 1895 and revolutionized their travel arrangements. The show was loaded onto two trains totaling fifty or more cars. Strings of flat cars could be linked together with ramps for loading wagons from the back forward. Besides performers and staff, the trains transported hundreds of show and draft horses and as many as thirty buffalo. The show carried grandstand seating for twenty thousand spectators along with the acres of canvas necessary to cover them. The arena itself remained open to the elements. Advance staff traveled ahead of the show to procure licenses and arrange for the ten to fifteen acres required for the show lot, preferably close to the railroad; to buy the tons of flour, meat, coffee, and other necessities; and to publicize and advertise.
In the 1890s, Wild Wests began to add sideshows and other circus elements. If the West seemed too familiar, "Far East" acts such as Arabian acrobats or dancing elephants and thrill acts such as bicyclists and high divers might inject sufficient novelty to draw new spectators.
For several reasons, the decade just before America's entry into World War I saw audiences decline. Motion pictures captivated public attention â€" the West could seem more real on the screen than in the arena. Shooting declined as a spectator sport while the popularity of baseball and football soared. Riding and roping could be better showcased in rodeos, which were considerably less expensive to produce than Wild West shows. The old Western stars were fading as well â€" even Buffalo Bill seemed a relic â€" and Indian people appeared to be quietly confined to reservations. The "old West" was no longer so exotic nor, at the same time, so relevant to a world of heavy industry and mechanized warfare.
As the Wild West toured the country, advance men travelled one and two weeks ahead of the show to arrange permits and licenses to buy provisions for the staff and feed for the livestock, to publicize and rent advertising space, and to paste up thousands of posters. Buffalo Bill, his show, and his posters helped dramatize the American West. Through actual performances and widespread postings, the Wild West show embodied the action, romance and drama of the West for millions in the United States and Europe. As W.F. Cody was well aware, these posters manifested a spectacle of a passing age.
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