Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Step Right Up: The Story of Wild West Shows and Performers

While the type of entertainment changes, people’s enjoyment never does.  During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Wild West shows were a favorite entertainment of Americans.  These shows were similar to a combination of today’s rodeos and circuses, and many people from around the globe took part in them.
The most famous Wild West showman was William F. Cody.  Better known as Buffalo Bill, Cody was born in Iowa in 1846.  He had many occupations throughout his life including scout for the United States military, buffalo hunter, and stage performer.  In 1883, Buffalo Bill rode into the limelight with his Wild West show, a show that traveled across the United States and later to Europe.
Another show owner was Gordon William Lillie.  Born during 1860 in Illinois, he eventually worked at the Pawnee Agency in Indian Territory where he received his nickname, Pawnee Bill.  During the early 1880s, Pawnee Bill and several Pawnees joined Buffalo Bill’s show.  While the show was in Philadelphia, Pawnee Bill met his wife, May Manning.  Not long after they married, the couple started their own show. Based upon the show’s success, they were eventually able to build their dream home near the town of Pawnee, Oklahoma.

Another show with ties to Oklahoma was that of the 101 Ranch.  During the late 19th century, George W. Miller established the 101 near Ponca City, Oklahoma. As one of the largest ranches in the area, it became an excellent training ground for Miller’s 101 Ranch Real Wild West Show. 
            Many Native Americans participated in Wild West shows.  A Hunkpapa Lakota named Sitting Bull, of Battle of Little Bighorn fame, traveled with Buffalo Bill’s show.  Another notable Native American of Wild West show fame was Iron Tail of the Oglala Lakota; Iron Tail was also the model for the Native American on the “buffalo nickel” which was minted by the U.S. Treasury from 1913-38 and is still in circulation today.
            Showmanship was not just a man’s business, but a woman’s occupation as well.  One of the most famous Wild West show women was Annie Oakley.  Oakley was a sharpshooter who shot targets with skilled accuracy.  While this talented woman often toured with Buffalo Bill’s show, she also traveled with Pawnee Bill’s show during his opening season.  Another important cowgirl was May Lillie, Pawnee Bill’s wife.  She toured many years with her husband’s show as a sharpshooter and horsewoman.  Many cowgirls, female sharpshooters, and equestrian riders were also participants in the shows.
            It was not only Americans who performed in these shows.  Performers included Arab acrobats and “Russian Cossacks,” who were actually from the European country of Georgia.  These international performers rode horses and danced in the arena.  Sometimes men from various countries would line up and race around the arena to prove who the better horseman was. 

The Wild West shows not only brought the Wild West to eastern United States cities and Europe, but they also took the world to the Wild West through these exciting performances featuring a variety of performers and performance styles.  

            See the book display about Wild West shows on the first floor of the Al Harris Library.  All books on the display are available for checkout.  Grab a book, sit back, and read about the world of entertainment during the great days of the Wild West shows.