The Creation of a Western Narrative
- ‘My debut upon the world’s stage’: Born
William Frederick Cody in Iowa in 1846.
- Enlisted in the Union army (Seventh Kansas
regiment) during the Civil War as a scout and
guide. Later stayed with army as a scout,
involved in Indian Wars.
- Buffalo hunter with a prodigious
reputation, quickly established himself as a
showman. Self-promoting from the start.
Became known as the quintessential
frontiersman – adaptable, quick-thinking
etc. Associated with General Philip
Sheridan, who frequently chose him as
scout for hunting tours (e.g. Tour with Grand
Duke Alexei of Russia in 1872).
- Met Ned Buntline (dime novelist) in 1869 and
was the fictionalised hero in Buntline’s novel,
Buffalo Bill, the King of the Border Men.
General dime novel.
- Began an acting career (generally based in
New York & Chicago) in 1872, building on his
dime novel persona – played a popular image
of himself. Plays were effectively dramatised
dime novels, and received terrible reviews:
‘scarcely a vestige of plot…desperately stupid’.
Was very successful commercially.
- Continued scouting work with U.S. Army –
involved in the Great Sioux War of 1876
(Custer’s Last Stand). Kills and scalps a
Sioux warrior named Yellow Hair – ‘first
scalp for Custer.’
- Writes autobiography in 1879.
- Creates The Wild West show in
1883, which performed for 33 years.
Copyrights use of ‘Wild West’ in
1885. Show becomes incredibly
- Performs abroad from 1887-1892,
heightening fame internationally.
Travels to England, Scotland, France,
Italy, Austria, Germany, and
Netherlands. Very successful.
- Dies in 1917 as one of the first
modern celebrities. Had selfperpetuating fame.
- Cody himself star attraction – charismatic and famous.
- Featured exhibitions: rodeo/circus elements – horse-riding, buffalo,
tricks, marksmanship etc.
- Native Americans involvement – exoticism for eastern audiences.
- Set pieces and re-enactments – visual excitement.
- The show as documentary: emphasis on authenticity. Cody
himself, Native Americans, etc. ‘Exhibition’ rather than show.
- Presentation of frontier life maintained throughout –
combination of circus/exhibition aspects with theatrical plot.
- Visual aspects of show not unique - Several other shows featured rodeo elements.
- Individual charisma of Cody himself? Other individuals - skilful management
of Nate Salsbury. Innovative publicity (John Burke), using local media etc.
- Supposed authenticity –considered to be both a visually exciting form of
entertainment while also provided a social/historical insight into Western life:
Brick Pomeroy (journalist): ‘It is not a show. It is a resurrection, or rather an
importation of the honest features of wild Western life and pioneer incidents to
the East, that men, women and children may see, realize, understand, and
forever remember what the Western pioneers met, encountered and overcame.’
- European tour – advertisement of U.S. as a whole. West as a unique aspect of
American life.
- Social context – Kasson: ‘The Wild West sprang into existence at a crucial moment
in the emergence of modern popular entertainment, and it profited from the hunger
of a broad audience for amusements that set their pulses racing and also reassured
them that the rapidly modernizing world was a safe and stable place.’
Sitting Bull – toured briefly with the
Wild West in 1885. Major Native
American figure who had defeated
Custer. Played little role within the
show itself, but his overall presence
reinforced claims of authenticity.
Good relations with Cody?
Annie Oakley – ‘Little Sure Shot’.
Joined the Wild West in 1885,
stayed until 1901. Highly skilled
sharpshooter with several tricks.
Often opened the show – her
femininity was thought to offset
the shock of gunfire.
- Wild West travelled around much of Europe. Came to Britain three times.
- 1887: 28,000 attended exhibition in Earl’s Court. Queen Victoria attended Wild
West shows and was a fan (met Cody). Performed in dozens of towns around
Britain – e.g. Coventry and Leamington (June 20 &23 1903).
- European fascination with Native Americans. Exotic and unknown.
- Display of Americanness – lively and
- Successful for similar reasons to US?
Use of ‘authenticity’.
- Form of American advertising?
Period of growing immigration to US,
presentation of West as glamourous
yet socially advanced.
- Cody’s own history built on exaggeration and self-promotion. Dime
novels, buffalo hunting contests, actor. Autobiography used ‘to take full
possession of his own frontier persona’.
- Shown in aftermath of scalping of Yellow Hair.
- Slotkin: ritualisation of complex social acts into simple theatrical
spectacles, reduced to pre-existing stereotypes. Despite claims of
authenticity, elaborate spectacle was favoured over accuracy?
- The Wild West as a ‘myth-making enterprise’. Focus on the hardy
white settlers, terrorised by Native Americans, nobly battling
against the savage dangers of the frontier.
- Portrayal of white/Native American relations (expanded later).
- Event of the Great Sioux War, June 25/26 1876.
Near Little Bighorn river, Montana.
- Lakota, Cheyenne Arapaho forces, led by Crazy
Horse and Sitting Bull.
- Battle of Little Bighorn – US Seventh Cavalry
were defeated by Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho
forces, 268 US casualties. Custer killed in battle.
- Custer himself led five companies –
every soldier killed.
- Big cultural impact – Custer as ‘preeminent martyr to the cause of
Indian conquest’. Today still very
-July 17, 1876 - Cody engaged in skirmish at Warbonnet Creek, Nebraska,
shortly after Custer’s defeat.
- Kills a Cheyenne warrior Yellow Hair (Hand) and scalps him – proclaims
it ‘the first scalp for Custer’.
- Self-promoted, made into a major symbolic event. Cody keeps scalp and
various items from the battle, uses incident to his own public advantage.
- Connection with Custer – Custer’s Last Stand and First Scalp for
Custer later shown in the Wild West.
-Details of event still unclear. Cody provides vivid account in autobiography. Slotkin:
‘a small skirmish in a dusty, empty place...framed by fiction from start to finish’.
One of the Indians, who was elaborately decorated with all the ornaments usually
worn by a great chief when he engaged in a fight, saw me and sang out:
"I know you, Pa-ho-has-ka! Come and fight with me!“...
The chief was riding his horse to and fro in front of his men, in order to banter me. I
concluded to accept his challenge. I turned and galloped toward him for fifty yards,
and he rode toward me about the same distance. Both of us rode at full speed. When
we were only thirty yards apart I raised my rifle and fired. His horse dropped dead
under him, and he rolled over on the ground to clear himself of the carcass.
Almost at the same instant my own horse stepped into a hole and fell heavily. The fall
hurt me but little, and almost instantly I was on my feet. This was no time to lie down
and nurse slight injuries. The chief and I were now both on our feet, not twenty paces
apart. We fired at each other at the same instant. My usual luck held. His bullet
whizzed harmlessly past my head, while mine struck him full in the breast.
He reeled and fell, but I took no chances. He had barely touched the ground, when I
was upon him, knife in hand, and to make sure of him drove the steel into his heart.
This whole affair, from beginning to end, occupied but little time. The Indians, seeing
that I was a little distance from my pony, now came charging down upon me from the
hill, in the hope of cutting me off.
General Merritt had witnessed the duel, and, realizing the danger I was in, ordered
Colonel Mason with Company K to hurry to my rescue. This order came none too soon.
Had it been given one minute later two hundred Indians would have been upon me,
and this present narration would have had to be made by some one else. As the
soldiers came up I swung the war-bonnet high in the air and shouted: "The first scalp
for Custer!"
- Slotkin argues that connection with Custer was central to the appeal of the Wild
West and Cody himself. Invocation of ‘Custer myth’ as climax of show, makes
personal links between the two men (even appearance).
- Kasson: Custer’s Last Stand ‘connected him to a popularly acclaimed military
hero’ and ‘drew on his association with Custer for the remainder of his career’.
- Argument – an act of Native American aggression represents the central
experience of the frontier.
- Warren refutes this: argues instead that domestic protection was the
thematic core of the show, not Custer. Central issue is ‘frontier
domestication’. CSL only briefly show’s climax.
- Most frequent climax – Attack on a Settler’s Cabin. Defence of the white
family from Native American/Mexican attack. Masculine role as defender,
triumph of safe civilisation over violent Native savagery.
- Both of these interpretations still class Native Americans as the threat to
white expansion.
- Central aspect of the Wild West – ‘defined and authenticated [Cody’s] public role’.
- Portrayal – binary opposition? Audience rooted for white settlers against threat of
Native American attack e.g. Attack on Settler’s Cabin.
- Native Americans as a spectacle – exotic example of the West for Eastern US
and European audiences.
- Clear sense of white superiority. Programme: ‘Every effort has been exhausted to
lift the American aborigine or red man into a higher condition, and to encourage
him to assume the privileges and responsibilities of full citizenship, but in vain.’
- Aspects of Native American culture would be showcased (though sometimes
simplified). Skill with horses, songs, dances etc. Is this cultural expression or
cultural exploitation?
- Many Native Americans were positive about their experiences, continued to
sign up for the shows, and were typically well-treated.
- Cody positioned himself as friendly towards Native Americans – felt they
were ill-treated by the US government.
In concluding, I want to express the hope that the dealings of this
Government of ours with the Indians will always be just and fair. They were
the inheritors of the land that we live in. They were not capable of developing
it, or of really appreciating its possibilities, but they owned it when the White
Man came, and the White Man took it away from them. It was natural that
they should resist. It was natural that they employed the only means of
warfare known to them against those whom they regarded as usurpers. It
was our business, as scouts, to be continually on the warpath against them
when they committed depredations. But no scout ever hated the Indians in
There have been times when the Government policy toward the Indians has
been unwise and unjust. That time, I trust, has passed forever. There are still
many thousand Indians in the country, most of them engaged in agricultural
pursuits. Indian blood has added a certain rugged strength to the characters
of many of our Western citizens. At least two United States Senators are part
Indian, and proud of it.
The Indian makes a good citizen, a good farmer, a good soldier. He is a real
American, and all those of us who have come to share with him the great
land that was his heritage should do their share toward seeing that he is
dealt with justly and fairly, and that his rights and liberties are never infringed
by the scheming politician or the short-sighted administration of law.
- Kasson: The Wild West ‘formulated and disseminated’ its own Western
experience. ‘Buffalo Bill’s Wild West became America’s Wild West.’ Also credits
Cody with creating Stetson hat as icon of the west.
- Created a popular memory that may never have existed.
- The Wild West as a formulation of dime novel fiction?
- Fits in with Turner’s frontier thesis – nostalgia for a declining way of life?