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Buffalo Bill (W.F. Cody)

American Hunter

1846-1917

A selection from
AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF BUFFALO BILL (COLONEL W. F. CODY)

Narrated by Douglas R. Pratt

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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. I had already appeared in a small Western show, and was the first man to bring Indians to the East and exhibit them. But the theater was too small to give any real impression of what Western life was like. Only in an 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.

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.

We showed in the principal cities of the country, and everywhere the novelty of the exhibition drew great crowds. As owner and principal actor in the enterprise I met the leading citizens of the United States socially, and never lost an opportunity to "talk up" the Western country, which I believed to have a wonderful future. I worked hard on the program of the entertainment, taking care to make it realistic in every detail. The wigwam village, the Indian war-dance, the chant of the Great Spirit as it was sung on the Plains, the rise and fall of the famous tribes, were all pictured accurately.

It was not an easy thing to do. Sometimes I had to send men on journeys of more than a hundred miles to get the right kind of war-bonnets, or to make correct copies of the tepees peculiar to a particular tribe. It was my effort, in depicting the West, to depict it as it was. I was much gratified in after years to find that scientists who had carefully studied the Indians, their traditions and habits, gave me credit for making very valuable contributions to the sum of human knowledge of the American native.

The first presentation of my show was given in May, 1883, at Omaha, which I had then chosen as my home. From there we made our first summer tour, visiting practically every important city in the country.

For my grand entrance I made a spectacle which comprised the most picturesque features of Western life. Sioux, Arapahoes, Brulés, and Cheyennes in war-paint and feathers led the van, shrieking their war-whoops and waving the weapons with which they were armed in a manner to inspire both terror and admiration in the tenderfoot audience.

Next came cowboys and soldiers, all clad exactly as they were when engaged in their campaigns against the Indians, and lumbering along in the rear were the old stage-coaches which carried the settlers to the West in the days before the railroad made the journey easy and pleasant.

I am sure the people enjoyed this spectacle, for they flocked in crowds to see it. I know I enjoyed it. There was never a day when, looking back over the red and white men in my cavalcade, I did not know the thrill of the trail, and feel a little sorry that my Western adventures would thereafter have to be lived in spectacles. Without desiring to dim the glory of any individual I can truthfully state that the expression "rough riders," which afterward became so famous, was my own coinage. As I rode out at the front of my parade I would bow to the audience, circled about on the circus benches, and shout at the top of my voice: "Ladies and gentlemen, permit me to introduce you to the rough riders of the world!"

For three years we toured the United States with great success. One day an Englishman, whose name I never learned, cam'e to see me after the show.

"That is a wonderful performance," he told me. "Here in America it meets with great appreciation, but you have no idea what a sensation it would be in the Old World, where such things are unheard of."

That set me to thinking. In a few days, after spending hours together considering the matter, I had made up my mind that Europe should have an opportunity to study America as nearly at first-hand as possible through the medium of my entertainment.

Details were soon arranged. In March, 1886, I chartered the steamer State of Nebraska, loaded my Indians, cowboys, horses, and stage-coaches on board, and set sail for another continent.

It was a strange voyage. The Indians had never been to sea before, and had never dreamed that such an expanse of water existed on the planet. They would stand at the rail, after the first days of seasickness were over, gazing out across the waves, and trying to descry something that looked like land, or a tree, or anything that seemed familiar and like home. Then they would shake their heads disconsolately and go below, to brood and muse and be an extremely unhappy and forlorn lot of savages. The joy that seized them when at last they came in sight of land, and were assured that we did not intend to keep on sailing till we fell over the edge of the earth, was something worth looking at.

At Gravesend we sighted a tug flying the American colors, and when the band on board responded to our cheers with "The Star-Spangled Banner" even the Indians tried to sing. Our band replied with "Yankee Doodle," and as we moved toward port there was more noise on board than I had ever heard in any battle on the Plains.

When the landing was made the members of the party were sent in special coaches to London. Crowds stared at us from every station. The guards on the train were a little afraid of the solemn and surly-looking Indians, but they were a friendly and jovial crowd, and when they had recovered from their own fright at the strange surroundings they were soon on good terms with the Britishers.

Major John M. Burke, who was my lifetime associate in the show business, had made all arrangements for housing the big troupe. We went to work at our leisure with our preparations to astonish the British public, and succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. The big London amphitheater, a third of a mile in circumference, was just the place for such an exhibition. The artist’s brush was employed on lavish scale to reproduce the scenery of the Western Plains. I was busy for many days with preparations, and when our spectacle was finally given it was received with such a burst of enthusiasm as I had never witnessed anywhere.

The show began, after the grand entry, with the hour of dawn on the Plains. Wild animals were scattered about. Within their tents were the Indians sleeping. As the dawn deepened the Indians came out of their tents and went through one of ¢their solemn and impressive war-dances. While this was going on the British audience held its breath. You could have heard a whisper in almost any part of the arena.

Then in came a courier to announce the neighborhood of a hostile tribe. Instantly there was a wild scramble for mounts and weapons. The enemy rushed in, and for ten minutes there was a sham battle which filled the place with noise and confusion. This battle was copied as exactly as it could be copied from one of the scrimmages in which I had taken part in my first days as a scout. Then we gave them a buffalo hunt, in which I had a hand, and did a little fancy shooting. As a finish there was a Wild Western cyclone, and a whole Indian village was blown out of existence for the delectation of the English audience.

The initial performance was given before the Prince and Princess of Wales, afterward King Edward and his Queen, and their suite. At the close o¦f the program the Prince and Princess, at their own request, were introduced to all the leading members of the company, including many of the Indians. When the cowgirls of the show were presented to the Princess they stepped forward and offered their hands, which were taken and well shaken in true democratic fashion.

Red Shirt, the most important chief in the outfit, was highly pleased when he learned that a princess was to visit him in his camp. He had the Indian gift of oratory, and he replied to her greeting with a long and eloquent speech, in which his gestures, if not his words, expressed plainly the honor he felt in receiving so distinguished a lady. The fact that he referred to Alexandria as a squaw did not seem to mar her enjoyment.

That the Prince was really pleased with the exhibition was shown by the fact that he made an immediate report of it to his mother. Shortly thereafter I received a command from Queen Victoria to appear before her.

This troubled me a good deal‹not that I was not more than eager to obey this flattering command, but that I was totally at a loss how to take my show to any of the great residences occupied by Her Majesty.

Finally, after many cautious inquiries, I discovered that she would be willing to visit the show if a special box was prepared for her. This we did to the best of our ability. The box was placed upon a dais covered with crimson velvet and handsomely decorated. When the Queen arrived I met her at the door of the box, with my sombrero in my hand and welcomed her to "the Wild West of America."

One of the first acts in the performance was to carry the flag to the front. This was done by a soldier. Walking around the arena, he offered the Stars and Stripes as an emblem of the friendship of America to all the world. On this occasion he carried the flag directly to the royal box, and dipped it three times before the Queen.

Absolute silence fell over the great throng. Then the Queen rose and saluted the flag with a bow, her suite following her example. There was a wild cheer from everyone in the show, Indians included, and soon all the audience was on its feet, cheering and waving flags and handkerchiefs.

This gave us a fine start and we never put on a better performance. When it was all over Her Majesty sent for me, and paid me many compliments as well as to my country and the West. I found her a most gracious and charming woman, with none of the haughtiness which I had supposed was inseparable from a person of such exalted rank. My subsequent experiences with royalty convinced me that there is more real democracy among the rulers of the countries of Europe than you will find among the petty officials of a village.

It was interesting to watch old Red Shirt when he was presented to the Queen. He clearly felt that this was a ceremony between one ruler and another, and the dignity withà which he went through the introduction was wonderful to behold. One would have thought to watch him that most of his life was spent in introductions to kings and queens, and that he was really a little bored with the effort required to go through with them. A second command from the Queen resulted in an exhibition before a number of her royal guests, including the Kings of Saxony, Denmark, and Greece, the Queen of the Belgians, and the Crown Prince of Austria.

The Deadwood coach, one of the features of the show, was of particular interest to my royal guests. This was a coach with a history. It was built in Concord, N.H., and sent by water to San Francisco to run over a route infested with road-agents. A number of times it was held up and robbed. Finally, both driver and passengers were killed and the coach abandoned on the trail. It remained for a long time a derelict, but was afterward brvought into San Francisco by an old stage-driver and placed on the Overland trail.

As it worked its way East over the Overland route its old luck held steadily. Again were driver and passengers massacred; again it was abandoned. At last, when it was "hoodooed" all over the West and no independent driver or company would have anything to do with it I discovered it, bought it, and used it for my show. One of the incidents of my program, as all who have seen it will remember, was an Indian attack on this coach. The royal visitors wanted a real taste of Western life‹insisted on it, in fact, and the Kings of Denmark, Greece, Saxony, and the Crown Prince of Austria climbed to the box with me.

I had secretly instructed the Indians to throw a little real energy into their pursuit of the coach, and they followed my instructions rather more completely than I expected. The coach was wsurrounded by a demoniac band of shooting and shouting Indians. Blank cartridges were discharged at perilously close proximity to the rulers of four great nations. Looking around to quiet my followers, I saw that the guests of the occasion were a trifle pale, but they were all of them game, and came out of the affair far less scared than were the absolutely terrified members of the royal suites, who sat in their boxes and wrung their hands in wild alarm.

In recognition of this performance the Prince of Wales sent me a souvenir consisting of a feathered crest, outlined in diamonds, with the words "Ich dien" worked in jewels underneath. A note in the Prince’s own hand expressed the pleasure of his guests in the entertainment I had provided for them.

After a tour of the principal cities we returned to America, proud of our success, and well rewarded in purse for our effort.

More information about Buffalo Bill (W.F. Cody) from Wikipedia




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