Cody's Battlefields

Advertisement for Buffalo Bill's Wild West
Advertisement for Buffalo Bill's Wild West
Title page and frontispiece to William F. Cody's Story of the Wild West and Camp-Fire Chats
Title page and frontispiece to William F. Cody's Story of the Wild West and Camp-Fire ChatsCody, William Frederick, 1846-1917
Heroism of a Pioneer Woman
Heroism of a Pioneer Woman

William “Buffalo Bill” Cody was one of the most popular entertainers to come out of the nineteenth century American West. For nearly thirty years, his Wild West show performed across North America and Europe, helping to popularize a particular image of the American West. Unlike the West of Frederick Turner, Buffalo Bill’s frontier was full of Indians who bitterly contested the advance of white settlement.


At the Chicago World’s Fair, Cody’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World was a popular attraction that drew many more visitors than Turner’s lecture on the “Significance of the Frontier.” Reenacting historical and fictional battles, massacres, and rescues, the Wild West resembled a living documentary. Battle scenes between plains Indians and U.S. soldiers, for instance, often featured the actual people who had fought the original battles—Cody himself and the Sioux leader Sitting Bull, for instance—playing themselves on stage. But these “recreations” of historical events were embellished to fit more closely with popular images of Indian massacres, and soldiers’ “last stands” that portrayed whites as victims of Indian brutality.


Cody’s show presented audiences with a very diverse cast of characters. The Congress of Rough Riders of the World included Russian Cossacks, Argentine Gauchos, Sudanese horsemen, and Mexican vaqueros, as well as American Indians, and Euro-American cowboy’s, scouts, settlers, and soldiers. Defying the gender conventions of the day, the show also hightlighted the shooting and riding skills of Annie Oakley.


But the drama of the Wild West required heroes and villains. As advertisements for the show make clear, some horsemen were more equal than others. Although they shared a mastery of horseback riding, the various cultures depicted in the Wild West were considered savage, barbarous, or civilized. Indians were always savage. Needless to say, William Cody and his white coworkers were always among the civilized.