Buffalo Bill’s Wild West — Rodeo’s Roots

Chris Ledoux, a World Champion rodeo cowboy turned singer, sang a line that went, “You pull in off the highway to another rodeo. To another crowd of people think it’s just a Wild West show.”

You may not realize but today’s rodeo, does in fact, have roots deep inside the Wild West show arena. None other than Buffalo Bill Cody was the most famous Wild West show producer.

Volumes have been written about William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody (February 26, 1846 – January 10, 1917). So here we will just focus on the Wild West. His show is often credited with being the first of its kind. However, it was not the first Wild West show ever held or even the first cowboy contest (aka rodeo) ever held. But it was the biggest and best of its time.

Buffalo Bill opened his show in 1883 in North Platt, Nebraska. But even Cody himself had already been in show business for some time before that for others. He had gained national fame years earlier, thanks to a dime novel written by Ned Buntline. It was titled, The Scouts of the Plains. Cody was the hero of this highly sensationalized story. Then, in 1872, he traveled to Chicago to star in a theatrical version of the book.

Afterwards, for about the next ten years, Cody was acting (mostly just playing himself) in various plays, often known as “border dramas,” which were really small-scale Wild West shows. They featured real-life frontier characters, Indians, fancy shooting and so on. This is most likely where the idea for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West originated.

From the beginning, audiences loved Cody’s portrayals of frontier events at the Wild West shows. There was an attack on a Deadwood stage, Pony Express relay races and the reenactment of Custer’s Last Stand. Right along with that were displays of the cowboy skills such as steer roping, fancy rope tricks, bronc riding, and marksmanship.

Real working cowboys and frontiersman were hired by Cody to perform in the various events. At one time or another, well known rodeo figures from the early days of rodeo such as Bill Pickett, Will Rogers, Tom Mix, Pawnee Bill, Jess Willard, Antonio Esquibel, and Vicente Oropeza worked in Cody’s Wild West.

In 1893, he changed the name to “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World”. The show evolved over the years. In the 1890s, it was said the show carried as many as five hundred cast and crew members, including many cowboys, cowgirls, and about one-hundred Indians. It took several railroad cars to move it about.

Buffalo Bill’s audience had no limits. In a Letter dated September 10, 1884, to Buffalo Bill Cody, Samuel Clements (Mark Twain), wrote: “Dear Mr. Cody, I have seen your Wild West show two days in succession, and have enjoyed it thoroughly. It brought vividly back the breezy wild life of the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains, and stirred me like a war-song.”

In 1899, the show reportedly went over eleven-thousand miles in two-hundred days doing approximately 350 performances in cities and towns across the United States. The show also toured Europe eight times. It was enormously successful everywhere it went. Cody was an international celebrity and American icon. According to the Buffalo Bill Cody website, the show performed in over fourteen-hundred communities in North America and Europe throughout its tenure.

Twain also once wrote, “…It is often said on the other side of the water that none of the exhibitions which we send to England are purely and distinctly American. If you take the Wild West show over there you can remove that reproach.”

The show influenced many twentieth-century portrayals of “the West” both in film and literature. It also had a lot to do with how early-day rodeo was born.

Many of the show’s “cowboy events” such as roping, riding and bulldogging were popularized in the Wild West arena before finding a permanent place in a rodeo arena. Not that these events weren’t already in rodeos. “Cowboy Contest” had been taking place in the West for many years (one of the earliest being recorded at Santa Fe in 1847). It’s just that the international exposure and popularity of Wild West shows reached far beyond the ability of an annual Fair, or Pioneer Days celebration (which is where most early cowboy contests, aka rodeos, were held). Without the Wild West shows traveling the world, entertaining millions of folk who knew nothing about cowboy skills, rodeo would not have enjoyed the early success it did.

Most of the early-day rodeo stars worked both the “Cowboy Contests” (rodeos) and the Wild West shows. Foghorn Clancy, rodeo’s first professional announcer and earliest historian, described the difference between a “contest” and a “show” as being: in one the cowboys put up an entry fee and competed for prize money and the latter being where a cowboy simply drew a salary for his performance. By the early 1900s however, many shows (rodeos) were a combination of these scenarios. Slowly but surely, cowboys were paid less and less on a salary bases and more on a “winning” basis. This was one of the ways (along with other modifications) that Wild West shows slowly morphed into rodeos by the 1920s or so.

Although there were hundreds of different Wild West shows in business from the late 1800s through the first two decades of the twentieth century, Buffalo Bill’s was by far the measuring stick. All others were judged by how they compared to it.

Just like most good things however, they come to an end eventually. For many reasons, including World War I, the invention of motion pictures, a decline in shooting as a spectator sport (baseball and football were increasingly popular now), the era of the Wild West fizzled out. Riding and roping were now showcased in what was becoming known as “rodeos,” which, at the time were greatly condensed versions of Wild West shows. They were also considerably less of a production and less expensive to produce.

As a sign of the times, Cody’s show began to have financial difficulties. In 1913 he borrowed money from a Denver businessman, Harry Tammen (one of the early manufactures of “tourist” Indian jewelry, but that is another story). Cody fell behind on the payments and when the Wild West stopped in Denver to do a show, Tammen had it seized. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West was sold at auction in Denver to satisfy the debt.

Although occasional adaptations were staged for years afterward, the era of the Wild West is generally said to have died in 1917, along with its greatest showman, Buffalo Bill Cody. Bill died while visiting his sister’s home in Denver. He was buried on Lookout Mountain overlooking Denver and the Plains. It was reported that more than 18,000 attended the funeral.

From that time, and through this day, rodeo is how the public get its “Wild West” fix!