22 June 2011

The Entertainers: Buffalo Bill Cody

By Carrie Lofty

As with most legends of the American West, the factual details of William Frederick "Buffalo Bill" Cody's life are subject to much dispute. His autobiography claims that he began his life as an "Indian fighter" at age eleven and rode for the Pony Express at age fourteen. Facts become a little more prevalent once he joined the Union Army in 1863 as a teamster, and later went on to serve as a scout.

But his true calling was always entertainment. He made his stage debut in Chicago in 1972 at the age of 26. Eventually the play "The Scouts of the Prairie" also featured another Old West legend, James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok, but Cody was much better suited to stage life than ambling, gambling Wild Bill.

After years touring with a company, Cody decided to found his own entourage of Western spectacles. "Buffalo Bill's Wild West" expanded from its 1883 origins to become one of the best known traveling acts to have ever toured. Featured performers included Annie Oakley, and typical shows boasted trick shooting and roping, wild animals, cowboys, horse chases, re-enactments of famous battles, stagecoaches, parades of American Indians in full regalia, and lots of Cody's trademark flare.

Eventually he renamed his troupe "Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World," which probably suited his ever-growing showmanship and fame. The troupe performed for over a million spectators on Coney Island, then traveled to England for Victoria's Jubilee in 1887, officially taking Cody's version of the Wild West to Europe. (Pictured is the troupe's visit to Rome in 1890.) Depictions of massacres and firefights became the most lasting impressions the world would have of the American frontier until Hollywood's interpretations--although most early cinematic portrayals drew heavily from the show's high drama.

The autobiography mentioned above was first published in 1879, when Cody was only 33 and still growing in popularity. He certainly knew the value of managing his own image, and he often used his fame to promote civil rights for women and American Indians, as well as conservationism. Western historians claim that he was the most famous individual on the planet at the turn of the 20th century, and his death in 1917 of kidney failure solicited condolences from the leaders of the United States, Great Britain, and Germany. He remains one of the most gifted entertainers and promoters in American history, with his popular image of the Wild West still influencing imaginations today.

What other entertainers remind you of Buffalo Bill, in that they control huge empires--even to the point of rewriting their own histories? Is that even possible in today's information-saturated culture?

SONG OF SEDUCTION's sequel from Carina Press, PORTRAIT OF SEDUCTION, is now available! Later this year watch for Carrie's new Victorian series from Pocket, as well as her "Dark Age Dawning" romance trilogy from Berkley, co-written with Ann Aguirre under the name Ellen Connor. "Historical romance needs more risk-takers like Lofty." ~ Wendy the Super Librarian