by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
With the arrival of Major John M. Burke in town, Winnipeggers knew that Buffalo Bill and his troupe of entertainers were finally making an appearance in the prairie city along the banks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers. The publicist extraordinaire was the advance man for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Pawnee Bill’s Far East Show. His mission, he said, was to explain “how the exhibition was given,” since it was the “first and only visit of Col. W.F. (William Frederick) Cody, ‘Buffalo Bill,’ to Winnipeg.”
“Only” was emphasized by Burke, since Buffalo Bill had announced he would be retiring from show business at the end of the “farewell tour” of North America. In fact, his Winnipeg appearance was billed in posters and newspaper ads as the “First, Last and Only Appearance of Buffalo Bill — Positively Farewell Tour.”
Burke’s amiable personality and widespread connections with the press, from San Francisco to New York to London to Berlin, played a great role in making Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, the greatest entertainment extravaganza of its era, although by the time the troupe reached Winnipeg, the attraction of such romanticized live versions of America’s long-past “Wild West” frontier on a grand stage were beginning to lose their appeal. In particular, movie westerns, rodeos, in which riding and shooting could be better showcased (the Calgary Stampede is the most famous example), and the popularity of outdoor sports such as baseball and football were taking their toll on gate receipts.
In addition, the shows were very expensive enterprises, involving hundreds of employees and the transportation of staff, props and animals to cities by rail or ship. In order to make its appearance in Winnipeg, the promoters had to hire an entire train from the Canadian Pacific Railway and another from the Great Northern Railway. As the result of the financial strain of staging such epics, the merger of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show with Pawnee Bill’s Far East Show became a necessity to ensure the very survival of this form of entertainment spectacle.
Pawnee Bill, a.k.a. Major Gordon W. Lillie, already had a brush with financial disaster, but the union of the two shows in 1908 gave both men renewed optimism that they could again succeed in bringing the Wild West show back to its once dominant position in the popular entertainment industry. In fact, when Buffalo Bill appeared in Winnipeg in August 1910, he was still regarded as an entertainment “superstar.”
“I’m not an actor — I’m a star,” Buffalo Bill once told an interviewer after he made his transition from frontiersman to the stage.
“Col. W.F. Cody, ‘Buffalo Bill,’ the story of whose career is identified with actual history of frontier wars in the far west of America,” continued Burke in an article that appeared in the August 10, 1910, Manitoba Free Press, “and whose reproduction of the same scenes with genuine characters has held the attention of the world for the thirty years, will be present in person to salute the spectators and bid them farewell from the saddle.”
The article is reputed to be the result of an interview a Free Press reporter had with Burke. Most of the article contains paragraph after paragraph of lengthy quotes attributed to the Buffalo Bill publicist. The impression given is that article was actually written by Burke, who was noted for providing his own copy to newspapers.
Burke would never had admitted to the press that the life of a cowboy on the western plains was far from glamourous, and involved hard labour for long hours and little pay.
By the time of the Wild West shows began touring urban centres, the advent of barbed wire had turned the range into a series of small pasture, “and autonomous long-distance riders and ropers into poorly paid ‘Ph.Ds’ — posthole diggers — who suffered the same long hours and the same low pay the industry always offered,” wrote Louis S. Warren in his book, Buffalo Bill’s America: William Cody and the Wild West Show.
Wild West Show cowboy, Harry Webb, described the cowboy’s lifestyle as involving, “Frost-bitten noses and fighting cattle in blizzards and belly deep snow ...”
In addition, the railroads had made it more convenient for ranch owners to ship their cattle to market, ending the era of long cattle drives by cowboys, such as along the historic Chisholm Trail.
As a result, many cowboys wanted to escape eking out a poor existence on the plains by appearing in Buffalo Bill’s romanticized version of the American West for a hefty pay cheque of up to $125 a month.
But even a job in the show also involved hard labour. “By the end of three weeks several riders decided there were easier ways of living than bronco riding and had gone home and a couple of others had been fired because they were troublemakers,” according to Webb.
The New York Times on April 7,1901, described Burke’s real position with the Buffalo Bill show as “something unique in amusement aggregations. He is a sort of general exploiter of the wonders of the performance, and he has been exploiting Col. Cody ever since 1872 ... when Buffalo Bill ... became an actor.”
The newspaper said Burke was press agent and diplomat rolled into one. “He goes ahead of the show when it is on the road, and by liberal entertainment of everybody in sight and glorious pictures of the wonderful sights to come he excites an amount of eagerness which contributes very materially to the subsequent success.”
Burke was blessed with the gift of blarney, claiming to have been a “descendant of Irish kings,” which, of course, was far from the truth. And, he wasn’t even a major, although he did live in the “Indian Territory” of the American West. Even the initial “M” for his middle name was an invention and stood for nothing.
In a world where fabulous tales of frontier adventure in dime-store novels were eagerly devoured by the masses, Burke wasn’t adverse in mixing fiction with fact when relating the exploits of Buffalo Bill. He was the ultimate flatterer when it came to anything involving Cody, which is best exemplified by the book he wrote in 1893 entitled, Buffalo Bill: From Prairie to Palace.
Burke was building upon the earlier aggrandizements of Ned Buntline, who wrote the article, Buffalo Bill: King of the Bordermen, that appeared in the New York Weekly in 1869. This publicity helped Cody to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. In 1872, Cody appeared in the successful touring play written by Buntline called The Scouts of the Prairie.
Cody explained in his 1879 autobiography that his live outdoor show arose from a need to expand upon his years of stage experience. He said that “the theatre was too small to give any real impression of what the western life was like. Only in the arena where horses could be ridden at full gallop, where lassos could be thrown, and pistols and guns fired without frightening the audience half to death, could such a thing be attempted.
“It was because of my great interest in the West, and my belief that its development would be assisted by the interest I could awaken in others, that I decided to bring the West to the East through the medium of the Wild West show. How greatly I was to succeed in this venture, I had no idea when it first occurred to me.”
His first Wild West Show was in Omaha in 1883. “After getting together a remarkable collection of Indians, cowboys, Indian ponies, stage-coach drivers, and other typical denizens of my own country under canvas I found myself almost immediately prosperous.”
When talking about Buffalo Bill’s entertainment extravaganza coming to Winnipeg, Burke preferred to use the word “exhibition,” rather than “show,” which was the common appellation of the entertainment medium.
Burke said the combined shows were “the same exhibition, with larger scope.”
He told the Free Press that the addition of Pawnee Bill’s Far East brought to audiences “genuine primitive people from Oriental countries, who like the reproductions of the wild west scenes with Indians, cowboys, scouts, etc., will be seen in action — not exhibition in still life (as in museums of the era), but in action — in the sports and pastimes of their native countries and showing all their racial characteristics. In other words, some of the people in the organization are mere performers,” but representatives of their race.
“The Indian is a real Indian,” he continued, “the Cossack is a real Cossack, and so down the line, including representative rough-riders from across the world.
In 1893, the exhibition had been changed to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World. Burke explained to the New York Times that when the troupe was in England in 1887, criticism arose that Cossacks and South American gauchos could “ride as well as our cowboys. So in 1892, when we returned from England, we decided to get some of those horsemen. We secured some Cossacks and gauchos. Then we had our Mexicans, and we added some Arabs to the aggregation. Then was coined the phrase ‘Rough Riders of the World,’ which has since been used in so many different ways.”
Among the “different ways” was Teddy Roosevelt’s adoption of the term from the Wild West Show. He used “Rough Riders” to describe the men he led in the charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba on July 1, 1898, during the Spanish-American War.
Buffalo Bill’s and Pawnee Bill’s “Rough Riders of the World” went on to also include English lancers, German cuirassiers and Irish dragoons.
Burke said the scenes reproduced from the Wild West were from the actual experiences of Buffalo Bill. “When the pony express is ridden, he was in the wild days, its most celebrated participant. When the stage coach is attacked and rescued, he took part in such scenes in actuality,” according to Burke.
Cody was a Pony Express rider at the young age of 14, but his real claim to fame was to be the youngest rider — all riders had to be “not over 18” — hired by the short-lived company, which only delivered mail for 18 months between 1860 and 1861.
As an 11-year-old lad, Cody took a job as a “boy extra” for a freight carrier, riding up and down the length of a wagon train to deliver messages to drivers and workmen. During an Indian (a name for aboriginal people still used in the U.S.) raid on the wagon train, Cody allegedly shot one of the attackers and people began to call him “the youngest Indian slayer of the plains.”
Not quite an attack on a stage coach, but close enough to satisfy the criteria used for the establishment of the “legend” of Buffalo Bill.
In 1869, Buffalo Bill was alleged to have also killed and scalped Tall Bull in an encounter with the Cheyenne chief when Cody was a scout under General Eugene A. Carr, according to Burke. He then claimed Tall Bull’s horse and named it after the Cheyenne chief.
The tale is that Cody led the 5th Cavalry to a Cheyenne encampment at Summit Springs, Colorado Territory, to rescue a white woman captive. Unfortunately, the woman was killed in the engagement.
Official records attribute Frank North and his Pawnee scouts with leading the calvary to the camp and there is no mention of Buffalo Bill in the dispatches.
“This fabricated tale demonstrated Cody’s knack for translating the grim realities of Indian fighting into rousing adventure stories in which he symbolically appropriated the totemic power of defeated warriors by claiming their scalp, horse or captives, much as Indians did in battle,” wrote Stephen G. Hyslop in How the West was Spun — Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, American History magazine, August 5, 2008. “But he took care to distinguish his bravery from the bravado of warriors who refused to fight fair and targeted women and children. Left unmentioned in his account of the Battle of Summit Spring — which, like the Battle of Little Bighorn, he incorporated in his Wild West show — was that women and children were among the more than 70 Cheyennes killed or captured.”
In essence, reality was not allowed to get in the way of a good story that could be used to promote Buffalo Bill. In later years, Buffalo Bill acknowledged, “Every Indian outbreak that I have ever known has resulted from broken promises and broken treaties by the government.” Despite the depiction of native Americans in his show as bloodthirsty savages, Cody recognized their value to his success. He referred to them as “the former foe, present friend, the American.”
When they were being given inferior meals by the show’s cook, Cody stopped the racially-motivated practice, saying, “My Indians are the principal feature of this show, and they are the one people I will not allow to be misused or neglected.”
Burke told the New York Times in 1901 that it was initially difficult to obtain native Americans for the show, “because many of the tribes were at any time liable to break out in fighting. Their chiefs objected to their going. And they themselves were afraid. It was a wonderful experience in the lives of these redmen when they appeared before the crowds of 10,000 palefaces and saw they were not massacred. They could not understand such humanity. They went back and told their fellow-redmen about it, and it has all had a tremendous influence in pacifying them.”
The Sioux working with the show could be excused for mistrusting “palefaces,” as the massacre at Wounded Knee had occurred just a few years earlier in 1891. At Wounded Knee, 150 Sioux, many of them women and children, had been killed by Custer’s old regiment, the 7th Cavalry. Charles Eastman, a mixed-blood Sioux physician who searched among the victims for survivors, said Wounded Knee exposed the lurking “savagery of civilization” (Hyslop).
Among the legends about Buffalo Bill, Cody said his famous nickname was on the line during an eight-hour shooting match from horse-back against another buffalo hunter named William “Medicine Bill” Comstock.
For years, Cody had been a buffalo hunter for the U.S. Calvary and the Kansas Pacific Railway. Buffalo were being indiscriminately slaughtered on the plains for their meat and pelts, which was a practice encouraged by the U.S. army to keep the plains tribes in check by destroying their traditional food supply. During an 18-month stint from 1867 to 1868 with the Kansas Pacific, Cody claimed to have killed 4,280 buffalo to feed railway workers, earning the moniker, “Buffalo Bill.”
“Billy Comstock ... had the reputation, for a long time, of being a most successful buffalo hunter, and the officers in particular, who had seen him kill buffaloes, were very desirous of backing him in a match against me," Cody wrote in his 1879 autobiography, The Life of Hon. William S. Cody: Known as Buffalo Bill, the Famous Hunter, Scout and Guide.
According to Cody, whoever shot the most buffalo would be dubbed “Buffalo Bill.”
“The wager was a hefty $500, but the stakes for Cody were much higher. His celebrated moniker hung in the balance” (Medicine Bill Comstock — Saga of the Leatherstocking Scout, by Susan K. Salzer, Wild West magazine). “Comstock's weapon of choice was his 16-shot Henry rifle, while Cody was armed with his beloved Lucretia Borgia, a Springfield Model 1866 .50-caliber breechloading rifle known on the frontier as a needle gun.”
“He (Comstock) could fire a few shots quicker than I could, yet I was pretty certain that it did not carry powder and lead enough to do execution equal to my caliber 50,” wrote Cody.
“As it turned out, he was right. Buffalo Bill won the contest with 69 kills, while Medicine Bill finished with 46,” wrote Salzer. “Other contemporary references to this event are non-existent, although Cody said the railroad ran a special excursion train from St. Louis for more than 100 spectators, including Cody's wife and infant daughter, and champagne cocktails were enjoyed by contestants and onlookers alike.”
The entire crew for the Wild West and Far East shows was scheduled to arrive in Winnipeg on August 21, 1910, with the twice daily shows (2 and 8 p.m.) slated for Monday, August 22, and Tuesday, August 23, at the grounds at the North Main and Matheson Avenue.
Burke said the exhibition in the open air had a seating capacity for 12,000 people. “The seats are covered with waterproof canvass sheds, perfect protection against sun and rain, and the performance is given, whether it is clear, cloudy, raining or snowing.”
Admission was 50-cents per person and 25-cents for children nine and under. Reserve seats were 75-cents and $1 extra, “according to location.”
Burke said that: “The grand entry is a picture that should not be missed and is the key to all.” But, he added, “There will be no street parade given (a usual feature of the Wild West Show) as Colonel Cody reserves every energy of horse and rider in order to give as spirited a performance as possible.”
What Burke didn’t mention was that Cody wasn’t in the best of health and was 64 years old when he appeared in the Winnipeg show. His days of remaining in the saddle for any great length of time were numbered.