Where History Meets Art - Stories Behind the Stuff

Buffalo Bill Rides Again

LiveAuctionTalk.com:  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Brian Lebel.

Buffalo Bill’s 19th century Wild West show captivated audiences for more than 25 years.  The folk hero estimated some 50 million people watched him perform. General admission for adults was 50 cents and 25 cents for kids.  In 1885 the show took in more than $1 million in gate receipts.   

For all the arm-chair cowboys around the world who would never get the chance to experience the Wild West firsthand, Buffalo Bill presented a make-believe enchanting world.  

With Buffalo Bill, it’s hard to separate fact from fiction. He was a grand showman and self-promoter.  After his death, people often looked to his friends to sort it out.    

They said he was basically a good guy.  Maybe he wasn’t the extraordinary scout he made the people back east believe he was.  But they had to hand it to him because he was the only one with brains enough to make the Wild West stuff pay money.   

The Lakota Chief Sitting Bull joined the Wild West show not only for money but because he respected Buffalo Bill. Sitting Bull prized a white Stetson hat that Bill Had given him.  

“My friend Pahaska (Long-Hair) gave me this hat,” he said.  “I value it highly, for the hand that placed it on my head had friendly feeling for me.”  

Before he was arrested and murdered Sitting Bull even requested that Buffalo Bill act as a middle man in his 1890 talks with white leaders.    

The folk hero was banned from any involvement and was troubled because he wasn’t able to help prevent the chief’s death.   

Months before the Wild West show pulled into town, Bill’s advance men plastered colorful posters and billboards on fences, barns and buildings.  Merchants were given free tickets in exchange.  With this kind of advance notice, townspeople were ecstatic.  

“I have seen your Wild West show two days in a row. It stirred me like a war-song.  Down to its smallest details, the show is genuine—cowboys, vaqueros, Indians, stage coach, costumes and all.”   
— Mark Twain

When Bill’s train finally pulled into town cheering crowds of adults and children greeted it.  They watched as Bill, riding his fine horse, led the performers and hundreds of horses as well as mules, elk, deer, bears and a small herd of buffalo to the show grounds.  They watched as the huge tent went up and the arena was assembled.          

Hours before show time people lined up.  Bill knew the audience liked “noisy, rattling, gunpowder entertainment” and that’s what he gave them.  Pony races, cowboy riders and sharpshooters like Annie Oakley were a crowd favorite.   

“I have seen your Wild West show two days in succession,” Mark Twain wrote. “It stirred me like a war-song.  Down to its smallest details, the show is genuine—cowboys, vaqueros, Indians, stage coach, costumes and all.”   

People criticized Bill for always making the Native Americans bad guys in the skits, always chasing someone and always in the end being defeated.  Others praised him for giving them a dignified presence with their ceremonial dress and feathered headdresses. He referred to the Natives as “the original Americans” paid fair wages and insisted they be treated with respect.   

“Every Indian outbreak that I have ever known has resulted from broken promises and broken treaties by the government,” he said in regard to our leadership’s relationship with Natives throughout history.      

On June 10, Old West Events featured a selection of Buffalo Bill items in its auction.  Here are some current values. 

Buffalo Bill 

Lithograph Poster; Le Dernier Des Grands Eclaireurs; Buffalo Bill atop his white horse; 1905; 40 inches by 26 inches image-size;  $1,298. 

Photograph; mounted Cody in front of the famous Deadwood stage; 1934; Boulder, Co., 13 inches by 10 inches image-size;  $1,652. 

Wild West Pennants; 2; pictures Buffalo Bill; 7 inches by 17 ¾ inches;  $1,888. 

Photograph; Wild West cast in New York; mounted on 12 inch by 14 inch card; circa 1887-1888;  $4,720.  

Lithograph Poster; Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Rough Riders featuring Red Cloud; 1893; 29 inches by 22 inches poster-size;  $14,160.   

 

Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her LiveAuctionTalk.com website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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