.Buffalo Bill's Wild West


The largest and most ambitious exhibition ever presented by the Royal Armouries, Buffalo Bill's Wild West, was recently  on display at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage. An unprecedented collection of Show items draw on the holdings of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, and those of prominent American and British collectors. 

For many around the world, Bufallo Bill's Wild West show was their only exposure to the American West. 100 years later, this exhibit offered generations barely aware of the name, a similar glimpse into that era. An original 1867 Deadwood Stagecoach Buffalo Bill used, Annie Oakley's  gold-plated single-shot rifle and a gold and diamond pendant presented by Queen Victoria were a few of the treasures on view. 

One of the most successful traveling shows ever during the late 19th and early 20th centuries provided action-packed entertainment based on actual events.   Cody recruited people from the West to perform in what he envisioned as a fast-passing reality or living museum.

Mark Twain concurred in 1886 when he wrote:  "The show is genuine...It is wholly free from sham and insincerity, and the effects it produced upon me were identical to those wrought upon me a long time ago by the same spectacles on the frontier."

William Frederick Cody was born on February 26, 1846, in LeClaire, Iowa. He was one of eight children who lost a father during their formidable years. Bill was just 7 years old when his dad died and this meant that even though "mom" insisted they continue education, most the children would also work to help support the family. 

He got the nickname, Buffalo Bill, at the age of 19 or 20, when he sold buffalo meat to railroad workers hungry for some good food. Bill had served in the army and would return to earn the highest Medal of Honor.  He was an excellent shot and was able to hunt and take down a buffalo with ease. 

Such skill brought him additional income and another venture, leading gentlemen's hunts.  Patrons included noblemen and dukes from around the world who heard about the wonder and wanted to share companionship with a man who chased animals on horseback and shot them at close range.

After gaining a name and some capital under his belt, Cody opened the Wild West in St. Louis, Missouri in May 1884. It lasted for 30 years. Buffalo Bill was the focal point of the show. He presented topical acts relating to current events, famous personalities, bronco busting, trick shooting, horseback riding, roping, shoot-outs and  Indian "battles." In a time when the loss of the Old West was already being mourned, his show captured its essence and spirit.

800 employees, 180 horses, 18 buffalo, 10 elk, 10 mules, 5 Texas steers, donkeys and two bears were part of the touring group. Annie Oakley, the Cowboy Band and Little Johnny Baker, the crack shot, were some of the names featured in his shows.

Not ready to quit, William Cody died on January 10, 1917 at the age of 71, while planning his next event.  As you see the posters and play bills and read about his life, you realize the magnitude of his stardom. The international super star was bigger than life to many who knew him and saw his shows.  Posters and art, a life size bust and mementos gathered from the Royal Armouries of Great Britain were included in the traveling museum exhibit.  On sale was a full color and affordable souvenir book documenting the exhibit contents and Cody's life titled, Buffalo Bill's Wild West. A "Further Reading" section includes six additional references, perfect for students.  Published by the Trustees of the Armouries, Great Britain, 1999,  ISBN 0 948092 39 4