William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody officially started Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show in May 1883 in Omaha. It was a natural place to start what would become an entertainment business generating hundreds of thousands of dollars. Cody spent much time in Nebraska, eventually purchasing a 4,000-acre ranch near North Platte in 1886. The ranch, named Scouts Rest, included an 18-room mansion and a large barn for winter storage of the show’s livestock.
Cody initiated a genre of wildly popular outdoor entertainment that endured for decades and introduced the fabled wild west culture to scores of Americans and Europeans.
Cody and his first-season partner, sharpshooter Dr. William Frank “Doc” Carver—who later introduced horse diving shows—pioneered the genre, but by the early 1900s, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show had more than a dozen competitors.
“Buffalo Bill performed in the Midwest, of course, but he had lots of performances along the East coast and in Europe—places where western culture was seen as exotic and otherworldly,” says Carrie Wieners Meyer, director of Curatorial and Education Services at The Durham Museum.
In 2016, The Durham hosted its “From Nebraska to the World: Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” exhibit, which chronicled the show’s “highly dramatic, highly romanticized glimpse into the fading frontier of the American Old West” and its “depiction of cowboys, Indians, sharpshooters, and rough riders.”
“The idea of wild west culture is really based on mythic representations that Wild West shows exhibited through displays of sham battles, rodeos, and other arena tricks,” says Elaine Marie Nelson, assistant professor of history at the University of Nebraska-Omaha and incoming executive director for the Western History Association. “While Buffalo Bill claimed his show was educational, it was not. It was today’s equivalent of a wild west circus performance.”
“[Cody’s] Wild West show in effect created the modern image of the ‘cowboy’ that exists today—guys in white hats who can handle a horse and gun, and always save the day,” says Wieners Meyer. “Unfortunately, the cowboy had to have a villain against whom he won and that part was portrayed by Native Americans … this is one of its more unfortunate legacies.”
Nelson says the shows provided a distorted view of cowboy culture. While Americans who knew real cowboys viewed them as distrustful, immoral, and violent, Cody’s performers flipped such stereotypes.
“The creative imaginations of Cody and his audiences saw cowboys as romantic heroes who ushered civilization into the supposed wild frontier lands. They quickly became essential to Cody’s dramatization of the frontier and pioneer history,” she says. “Men, women, boys, and girls cheered as characters like Buck Taylor, Billy Bullock, and Bronco Bill Irving performed acts of bravery by riding at full speed across the arena stage. These cowboys stole people’s hearts. Buck Taylor set a standard for later cowboys who joined the show. Real working cowboys, plucked off ranches like those in western Nebraska, turned into performing showmen.”
“The Wild West shows were sensationalized,” says Wieners Meyer. “These were not the activities of everyday life in the West. Still, the shows served to educate [audiences] about the animals of the plains, they could see some aspects of Native American culture, and they could appreciate the talent and skill of the performers.”
Nelson says horses were incredibly significant to the lives of everyone in the American West, from the Spanish who introduced them, to Native American tribes who immediately saw horses’ utilitarian value and greatly revered the animals, to the farmers, ranchers, and even urban population who used horses for labor, travel, and entertainment.
She adds that horses were a major player in Wild West shows, and were used by all characters regardless of their “hero” or “villain” status.
“The cavalry used horses to attack Native Americans on horses, and vice versa. Settlers in wagons used horses to travel to their new destinations. Mexican vaqueros and cowboys used horses to show skills that the arena audiences had never before witnessed,” says Nelson. “One rarely ever saw Cody in the arena unless he was atop a horse. Horses elevated the show and made each performance more realistic. In retrospect, one could argue that horses were the actual ‘heroes’ of Cody’s Wild West.”
Nebraska was granted statehood on March 1, 1867. In March 2017, Omaha Magazine published a collection of horse-related articles that appear in the Longines FEI World Cup Jumping and FEI World Cup Dressage Finals held in Omaha. This was the second of those articles. The other articles in this series are: