The history of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West & Congress of Rough Riders of the World
Nebraska: Where the Wild West began (1974)
By Keith Bryan – Columbus Telegram (Nebraska) Aug 30, 1974
Although not an obscure man before 1869, William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody (1846-1917) rose to prominence that year — became a legend, actually — through books and stories that flowed from the pen of Ned Buntline, who cranked ’em out about like Louis l’Amour writes paperbacks today.
On Sunday, July 11 of that year, the 5th Cavalry, for whom both Cody and Major Frank North’s Pawnee Scouts were scouting, surprised a Cheyenne village at Summit Springs near Sterling, Colorado.
The Cheyenne’s chief, Tall Bull, was killed in the fighting, and the Indians’ loss of this battle was an important turning point in the settlement of the West.
Most authorities agree that it was Major North who killed Tall Bull. But another report was that Cody fired the fatal shot.
It was on this report that Buntline founded the legend. Soon the name Buffalo Bill was known in every corner of the land.
Capitalizing on this notoriety, Cody recruited a handful of helpers, including Ed and Charlie Burgess of Columbus, and produced a western act that toured the east.
Eventually, Buntline turned playwright and dashed off a series of scripts for Stage plays that starred, not only Buffalo Bill, but at one time or another such celebrity as Texas Jack and Wild Bill Hickock. The plays went over big.
In 1882, North Platte made plans for a big blowout on the Fourth of July. Cody was asked to put on an outdoor version of some of the things he had been doing on stage. Not only did the customary success beam on this presentation at North Platte, but Cody was struck with the idea of organizing a large outdoor show to tour the country.
That fall he brought the stage coach and other equipment he had used at North Platte to Columbus and set about piecing together the show of his dreams.
At Columbus, he had connections with the North brothers, who in turn had the horses he needed and the know-how in handling Indians. His partner was Doc Carver, a dentist turned rifle marksman. Fred Mathews of Columbus, a former stage driver, was hired to drive Cody’s rig, renamed the Deadwood Stage.
George Turner, a musician, George Lehman and perhaps other locals were placed on the payroll. Rehearsals were held northwest of town at the fairgrounds where the drive-in theater is now located.
In the spring of 1883, a dress rehearsal was staged for which a large number of local people turned out — no admission charge — and the Wild West Rocky Mountain and Prairie Exhibition was considered ready to hit the road.
With fingers crossed, the show opened at Omaha May 17. All worries had been needless, however, since the opening was highly successful.
There was the same exultant acceptance at Des Moines, then Peoria and later all the other cities where the showed played.
The name was later changed to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. As the years ticked off, performances were staged in all the large arenas of the U.S.. Canada and Europe. Wherever the show went the cast was welcomed and often entertained in big fashion.
Annie Oakley, the diminutive female sharpshooter, was the darling of the crowds the fifteen years she was with the show. Members of royal families applauded the performances along with shopkeepers, kids and housewives when Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show played the European capitals.
In Paris, Cody’s portrait was painted by the famed Rosa Bonheur. After all this success on the international circuit one might wonder why a show of this caliber was eventually booked into a small town like Columbus, Nebraska. But it was… 26 years after its original the old fairgrounds.
1909… a quiet year. Humdrum national — headlines that year seemed to deal most often with U.S. tariffs. A Frenchman named Bleriot was the first to fly an ”aeroplane”‘ across the English Channel, but the feat didn’t rate mention in the local papers.
A Chautauqua was in town that summer with a drowsy program. There was local talk about building a power canal, but it was just talk. So when the colorful Wild West Show posters went up on fences and barns, they were the harbingers of excitement.
The show lacked nothing in either pageantry or press-agentry. From the first of the year copyrighted accounts of Buffalo Bill’s exploits on the plains appeared in one local weekly — all designed to pack ’em in when the show arrived.
And pack ’em in they did! The date was Friday, September 3, 1909, and the mass of people that engulfed the town was beyond belief. Branch trains from surrounding towns had added freight cars to carry the passengers that overflowed the few coaches.
A train from Spalding arrived with people riding on the platforms and roofs of freight cars and coaches. The train from Norfolk was equally crowded. Six hundred train tickets were sold at Humphrey. Forty at Platte Center, and some who bought tickets there had to be left behind.
A recent rain had rendered the circus grounds north of town unusable, so the show set up to the southwest, presumably in the area of the present baseball park.
One old timer reported that wagons and buggies of show patrons were parked “clear back to the Loup bridge,” which at that time was at the extreme southwest corner of the today’s Pawnee Park.
Apparently, there were vehicles and teams tethered all over town, since the paper reports that a “sea of people” began moving along the streets toward the show grounds before noon to catch the two o’clock performance.
For the afternoon and evening performances between 10,000 and 11,000 tickets were sold, fifty cents for adults and half price for children under ten. There weren’t seats enough for all, and some had to stand.
Cody’s show had by this time combined with Pawnee Bill Lilly’s Far East Show, so the program was no doubt an eye-popping extravaganza. On the bill was a re-enactment of the bathe of Summit Springs, an Indian attack on a wagon train, a silage coach robbery, an Oriental Spectacle, football on horseback, Indian dances, cavalry drills, trick and fancy roping by Mexican ropers, sharpshooting exhibitions, high school horses and other similar acts. Many have since become Standard fare on rodeo programs.
While in Columbus, Cody and parts of his troupe conducted a memorial service at Columbus Cemetery that was almost as spectacular the show itself. Fred Mathews, once with the show, was buried there, as were Major North, Jim Cushing and Charles Morse, whom Cody had known with the Pawnee Scouts.
Starting at the home of Mrs. I.A. Chambers, Major North’s daughter, the parade — you would really have to call it that — included carriage passengers Mrs. Chambers, Cody, J.E. North. Captain Lute North, Gus Becher, George Lehman (the latter three were former Pawnee Scout officers) and George Turner.
Also in the procession was Captain Sweeney’s Cowboy Band and a horde of performers from the show, all-in costume. Small wonder the streets were lined with onlookers.
At the cemetery, the service was conducted at the grave of Major North. A minister read from the 130th and 139th Psalms. “Nearer My God to Thee” was played by the band. With tearful eyes, Cody gave a talk. Floral tributes were placed at the graves of Cody’s friends.
A flag was unfurled and the band struck up the National Anthem. A squad of Zouaves fired three volleys, followed by Taps sounded by a cavalryman, concluding the ceremony.
The great Wild West Show boarded the train and departed leaving in its wake exciting memories. Two or three days afterward two children of a family seven miles southwest of town attempted a reenactment of a scalping scene they had observed in the arena, and a young girl — apparently the “scalpee” — suffered a three-inch head wound.
As an illustrious life sometimes ends on a melancholy note, so it was with the Wild West Show that had for nearly 30 years entertained two continents, and in its best year had six million paid admissions.
There were two men in Denver who owned the Denver Post, then a powerful and free-swinging newspaper. They also owned Sells-Floto Circus, which they had built up from a tired and busted dog and pony show to a first-rate three-ring circus. They yearned to add Cody to their circus program.
Their chance came in 1912. Financial problems compelled Cody to go to these men for a loan. When he couldn’t pay the note, the circus owners took over the Wild West Show after a two-day stand in Denver in July 1913.
A scaled-down version of the famed show appeared with Sells-Floto the next two seasons. (The combined show played Columbus both of those seasons. )
When Cody’s age and health forced him to leave show business, the magic that entranced the customers left with him, never again to so powerfully appear.
Others tried to emulate the old master — the 101 Ranch Show, Buckskin Bill’s Wild West Show, Kit Carson’s Wild West Show, Tom Mix, Buck Jones, Tim McCoy, Ken Maynard. Even at one time Frank James and Cole Younger of outlaw fame.
But Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, we’re told by those who make a study of show business, was never equaled in its field. And I think that you and I who, because of a jog in time, missed seeing that great show should feel a little saddened… as must those folks left at the Platte Center depot in 1909.
Show programme: Buffalo Bill’s Wild West & Congress of Rough Riders of the World (1893)
Overture, ” Star Spangled Banner” performed by Cowboy band, W.M. Sweeny, Leader
- Grand review introducing the Rough Riders of the World and Fully Equipped Regular Soldiers of the Armies of America, England, France, Germany, and Russia.
- Miss Anne Oakley, Celebrated Shot, who will illustrate her dexterity in the use of Fire-arms.
- Horse race between a Cowboy, a Cossack, a Mexican, an Arab, and an Indian, on Spanish-Mexican, Broncho, Russian, Indian and Arabian Horses.
- Pony Express. The Former Pony Post Rider will show how the Letters and Telegrams of the Republic were distributed across the immense Continent previous to the Railways and the Telegraph.
- Illustrating a prairie emigrant train crossing the plains. Attack by marauding Indians repulsed by “Buffalo Bill,” with Scouts and Cowboys. N. B. — The Wagons are the same as used 35 years ago.
- A group of Syrian and Arabian horsemen will illustrate their style of Horsemanship, with Native Sports and Pastimes.
- Cossacks, of the Caucasus of Russia, in Feats of Horsemanship, Native Dances, etc.
- Johnny Baker, celebrated young American marksman.
- A group of Mexicans from old Mexico, will illustrate the use of the lasso, and perform various feats of horsemanship.
- Racing between Prairie, Spanish and Indian girls.
- Cowboy fun. Picking objects from the ground. Lassoing wild horses. Riding the buckers.
- Military evolutions by a company of the sixth cavalry of the united states army; a company of the first guard Uhlan regiment of his majesty King William II, German emperor, popularly known as the “Potsdamer reds”; a company of French chasseurs (chasseurs a cheval de la garde Republique Francaise); and a company of the 12th lancers (Prince of Wales’ regiment) of the British army.
- Capture of the Deadwood mail coach by the Indians, which will be rescued by “Buffalo Bill” and his attendant cowboys. N. B. — This is the identical old Deadwood coach, called the mail coach, which is famous on account of having carried the great number of people who lost their lives on the road between Deadwood and Cheyenne 18 years ago. Now the most famed vehicle extant.
- Racing between Indian boys on bareback horses.
- Life customs of the Indians. Indian settlement on the field and “Path.”
- Col. W. F. Cody, (“Buffalo Bill”), in his unique feats of sharpshooting.
- Buffalo hunt, as it is in the far west of North America — “Buffalo Bill” and Indians. The last of the only known native herd.
- Attack on a settler’s cabin — capture by the Indians — rescue by “Buffalo Bll” and the cowboys.
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West (1896)
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World
Nebraska State Journal – October 11, 1896
Buffalo Bill & his Rough Riders (1902)
A page of heroic history torn from the eventful past — Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders… One gloriously grand ruler of the amusement realm.
The Houston Daily Post – Houston, Texas (October 05, 1902)
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West (1908)
For the boys and girls of Washington, The Washington Herald has arranged for tickets for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West — Free, Tuesday, May 19
The Washington Herald – Washington, DC (May 13, 1908)
Antique poster: Buffalo Bill’s Wild West
Circus poster shaped like a saddle gun case on which is depicted Buffalo Bill Cody on horseback, Indian Chief on horseback, western girl, Rough Rider, and foreign soldiers.