Friday, July 18, 2008

America Comes to London: Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West Show

On 14 April 1887, the steamship, State of Nebraska entered the Thames and anchored at Gravesend fourteen days after leaving the United States. Despite a rousing send-off with, according to Colonel William F. (Buffalo Bill) Cody, thousands there to see the travellers away, the voyage was not easy, with headwinds for much of the trip. But what made this trip unusual was its passengers including nearly 100 native Americans (See image on right). The weather was cold when they arrived in England, there had been snow earlier in the day, and the Indians wrapped themselves in their blankets to greet officials from the American Exhibition.

The newspapers were enthralled with the arrivals who made up a part of "Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show," describing them as "the selected representatives of several nations, including the Sioux, the Cheyennes, and the Pawnees." The chiefs were "reserved and dignified," while the men were "of the highest type of physical humanity, and apparently possess[ed]all the traditional calm associated with the Indian character." Indeed, the "Noble Savage" had come to London which was about to be taken by storm. But the most popular person in the show was Colonel William F Cody, Buffalo Bill, himself (Seen on the left).

Many of the animals which were a part of the show were also new to Europe, and there were more than 160 horses which were to take part under the direction of Cody or "Buffalo Bill" as he was better known. The animals and cast members of the disembarked at Albert Dock from where they went by train to the American Exhibition at West Brompton which was scheduled to open at Earl's Court in May. The American Exhibition had been in preparation for three years and was a privately funded project with one-third of the capital coming from English sources and the remainder from American investors. The "Wild West" show was to be the centrepiece of the exhibition, having "attained unexampled popularity" in the United States. As The Times pointed out on 27 April,

Its great object is to illustrate the wild life of the Western frontier--its Indians and cowboys, its buffalo-huntings and cattle-ranches, its pioneering and its horsemanship, its dangers and its joys.
The next day, on the 28th of April, William Ewart Gladstone and his wife came to the American Exhibition grounds to see the progress being made and especially to visit the Indian campsite. Although it was supposed to be an informal visit, word had been circulated and the workmen on the site received them warmly, while the band of the Wild West Show played, Yankee Doodle. Gladstone was introduced to one of the Indians, Red Shirt, whom he asked "if he liked the English climate." Red Shirt apparently replied with considerable forbearance considering the short time he had been in the country, that "he had hardly had sufficient experience to be able to say." Gladstone then went on to ask Red Shirt if he "thought there was that cordial relationship between the two great sections of the English-speaking race--the people of England and of the United States--that there ought to be between two nations that were so much akin." One can only imagine Red Shirt's thoughts when he replied that he "did not know much about that." It is not difficult to see why Queen Victoria complained that Gladstone always addressed her "as if ... [she] were a public meeting."

But the Wild West Show was only one part of the Exhibition. In addition to Buffalo Bill and his show there were displays of American products and American ingenuity. It was to be an "attractive and instructive exhibition," but despite the reports in the paper it was clear the the central attraction was going to be Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show scheduled to officially open on 9 May. On the 5th of that month, the Prince and Princess of Wales with a party which included members of the Royal Household and a number of other members of the nobility including the Crown Prince of Denmark were treated to a private showing which included the first complete performance of the show on English soil. The guests watched from the Royal Box, duly draped with the English and the American flags.

According to The Times of 6 May, the performance lasted for more than ninety minutes and included

Colonel Cody's throwing of the lasso and shooting at glass balls thrown in the air by an attendant riding by his side, both horses going at full gallop. ... Buck Taylor, king of the cow boys[sic], picked his handkerchief from the ground while riding at full gallop, and also in the same way picked up a rope attached to a runaway horse.
Cody, who had been nervous about the special performance was more than satisfied with the result. He recorded that

the Indians, yelling like fiends, galloped out from their ambuscades and swept around the enclosure like a whirlwind.

The effect was instantaneous and otherwise electric. The Prince rose from his seat and leaned eagerly over the front of the box and the entire party seemed thrilled effectually by the spectacle.
The Prince of Wales was particularly impressed by the shooting of the two young women, Annie Oakley and Lilian Smith congratulating them on their skills. But the high point of the performance was the series of attacks by Indians on a wagon train, a stage coach and a settler's hut and the "gallant rescue in each case by a company of scouts under the command of Buffalo Bill." At the end of the performance, the Royal Party was given a conducted tour of the campsite.

The afternoon of 9 May saw the opening of the American Exhibition and even with the admission set at one guinea, The Times estimated the number of spectators attending at around 28,000. In addition to the Wild West show, the exhibition itself was an attraction. As The Times noted,

The grounds of the exhibition were also an attraction to thousands, the toboggan-slide and the switch railway being extremely popular as long as light lasted. At nightfall the grounds were illuminated in every part with innumerable coloured lamps and Chinese lanterns, while Mr. Dan Godfrey's band provided the necessary music.
Two days after its opening, on 11 May, the Queen herself visited the American Exhibition for a private showing of the Wild West Show. This was all the more remarkable since Her Majesty did not go to events, rather she had them come to her at Windsor. But, as Cody noted, the show

was altogether too big a thing to take to Windsor Castle, and as in the case of Mahomet and the mountain, as the Wild West could not go to the Queen it became absolutely necessary for the Queen to go to the Wild West, if she desired to see it, and it was evident that she did.
The show went according to plan although there was one remarkable event. As the American flag went past the Royal Box, carried by one of the horsemen from the show, "her Majesty arose, bowed deeply and impressively to the banner, and the entire court party came up standing, the noblemen uncovered, the ladies bowed and the soldiers, generals and all, saluted." Needless to say, the Americans were overjoyed. The continuing large numbers at the show were indicative of the good press it received and probably the fact of the Queen's attendance. After the performance, Buffalo Bill was presented to the Queen who, according to The Times of 12 May "expressed herself as greatly pleased" and went on to tell him that "she only regretted that her time was so limited and she would like to come again."

Not everyone was as enthusiastic about the Wild West Show as Queen Victoria. While the behaviour of most of the troupe was exemplary, there were, of course, exceptions. Late in July, Jack Ross, a member of the show, was charged at the Thames Police Court with being drunk and wilfully breaking a plate glass window at the Old House Revived public house. A few days later, in early August, Richard Johnson, billed as "The Giant Cowboy" at the Wild West Show, was charged with assault, including that of two police constables, one of whom had to be hospitalized.

A more serious complaint was laid about the same time by an artist living near Earls Court. He sought an injunction restraining the defendants (the Wild West Show) "from causing a nuisance of noise and smell." He argued that the shouting of the performers and the roars of the crowd, including the sound of the brass band was excessive and the smell, particularly in the hot weather, of the horses and buffaloes was overwhelming. Affidavits and counter-affidavits were offered, and it was argued that the noise could not possibly be any worse than that caused by "the no less than 476 trains [that] daily passed within 50 yards of the plaintiff's house."

In August and September, the millionaire and Circus Entrepreneur, George Sanger, found himself in Court as a result of using "Buffalo Bill" and "Wild West." His defence was, to say the least, disingenuous. His lawyers argued that there was no intent to refer to either Cody or his show, but Cody's solicitor quickly pointed out that

the defendant proposed to publish with the words pictures, being exact copies of the plaintiff's pictures, the same expression of horror on the driver's face, and the real Buffalo Bill, in a blue shirt, riding up to the rescue of the mail.
Sanger was warned that to publish the pictures would put him at serious risk, although "His Lordship considered the programme, standing alone, as unobjectionable, and discharged the order and directed Mr. Sanger to pay the costs of the application." In October, Sanger agreed to a perpetual injunction keeping him from using the words "Buffalo Bill" and "Wild West," but that was in the same month that Cody's great show was closing. It had played to a total audience of over 1,000,000 people and its popularity was so great that it was to return in 1892 and in 1903/04 to once again thrill British spectators.

To download and read Buffalo Bill's autobiography, click here.


John Hopper said...

Thanks for a great and entertaining item!

Belinda Kroll, YA Victorian Romance said...

What a wonderful post! I had read that Buffalo Bill came to England in 1887, but was unable to find out more about it with the resources available to me at the time. Thank you for reminding me!

Unknown said...

Hi Bruce, Can you confirm something for me please. Your fine article insists that the Buffalo Bill show did not display at Windsor Castle for Queen Victorias Golden Jubilee in 1887, but she had a private viewing in London on 11th May of that year.
I have found an article in the New York Times (June 26th 1892) saying that Buffalo Bill and the show performed at Windsor Castle on the East Lawns. The Queen then presented Buffalo Bill with a medal. Grateful if you can confirm that the show came to England a second time and did displat at Windsor for the Queen. I am a warden at Windsor Castle and want to get the chronology right.

Dr Bruce Rosen said...

Hi Phil

Sorry I can't get back to you directly, but you didn't give me an email address. Anyway, check the Court Circular for 25 June 1892 (in The Timesof 27 June 1892, p. 11) for verification of the performance at Windsor.


Anonymous said...

Hi Bruce,
My Great, Great Grandfather came to the UK with the show and stayed when it left. Do you have any information about passenger lists or know how I may be able to find out more information about him.

In anticipation, many thanks

Roger Dean said...

Hi Bruce
My name is Roger Dean and I run a Blog called and I am interested in quoting a couple of paragraphs from this post on my own Blog to accompany a modern photograph. I would of course credit you and give a link to your full article. May be you could take a moment to have a look at a few posts on my Blog and see if you would be happy to allow me to do this.
Thanks in advance.

Angelicspeller said...

Hi there, It was very interesting to read about the American Exhibition in 1887. I was researching an old glass vase I had found that has the date '1887' with the flame of liberty and the American Eagle in cartouches on it. I wonder whether this vase was sold at the exhibition? Nicky (

Angelicspeller said...

Hi there, It was fascinating to read about the American Exhibition of 1887. I have found an old vase with the date 1887 on it and the American eagle and the flame of Liberty in cartouches. I was wondering whether this was sold at the Exhibition? Would you know (

Sugar P. Faery said...

Hello Bruce....according to the story...some 97 natives were on board
the state of nebraska steamship when it sailed to england for the first wild west can I find out those natives you think there is a passenger list somewhere?

many thanks for you help....I'm researching my family tree....and the story goes in my family my great great grandfather is one of those natives who stayed behind and married a gypsy any help/leads would be very much appreciated. Karen

Dr Bruce Rosen said...

Hi Karen (Sugar P Faery)

Please send me an email address and I will be happy to provide what help I can.

mac said...

Hi Bruce, My Father gave me an interest in the Wild West & Buffalo Bill Cody in particular. Family history has it that my paternal Grandfather was employed as a musician in the Show during it's time in UK, & that Granfather apparently abandoned wife & family to go to the USA when they left UK in 1904. Are there any archives that I could search to see if any of this info might be true? Many thanks.

Joyce Barry, said...

Hello Bruce. I just found this comment and am so pleased. I am the family genealogist. My Granduncle, James Allen, and his brother, Henry, played in William Sweeney's Cowboy Band in Buffalo Bill's Wild West. Henry stayed for a year and did not go with his brother on the tours. The band played a private concert before Queen Victoria as I was told by uncle Jim. I was 18 when he died in 1948 and he had many stories to tell the family. He had photographs on horseback which some in the family have kept. He became the music teacher of a private high school band in his home town in Massachusetts. I traveled west "searching" for him in museum photographs and found him in them everywhere, as well as in a book at Cody, WY, and Death Valley Scotty's "castle." It has been an adventure for me to follow his trail. The eBay site has a Western Photograph site and, searching there, I came across a photo of the Band which was labeled incorrectly. I emailed the seller and he corrected it as the Cowboy band with Buffalo Bill instead of only some cowboys. He also pointed out James Allen. If you have any more information, I would welcome hearing about it.
I too am interested in the passenger lists. Joyce Barry

Ashley R. said...

Hello! This was a wonderful read and full of really helpful information.

I'm currently working on a dissertation that deals in part with Cody's show, and I was wondering if you used any sources outside of the periodicals and autobiography listed. Additionally, did you use any specific archival database for your periodical research? Any help would be greatly appreciated as I begin to compile primary sources before launching into my literary critique!

You can reach me on Twitter @ANSRobinson OR asuffle AT uark DOT edu

Unknown said...

My Maternal grandmother saw his show as a young gal she told me when she visited us once in Australia; you did a great job with this blog post, I congratulate you on this well researched article Bruce

Unknown said...

I believe that my paternal great grandfather was one of the native americans in the show....he
fathered my grandmother but her birth certificate names the man my great grandmother married (quite quickly !) Im really keen to try and find a passenger list from the ship they travelled over email is if anyone can help,thank you,great site.

barbara said...

I am doing a research paper at Alfred University. I am interested in , if there are any articles that are directly about the Native Americans that went to Europe on this tour. I am looking to find their personal experiences. if you could contact me that would be greatly appreciated.