Next to P.T. Barnum, William F. Cody was the greatest showman of the nineteenth century. He pioneered the Wild West Show as a form of popular entertainment on an international scale, laid the foundations for the birth of rodeo, and successfully marketed the myth of the American frontier.
Cody's early life embodies and symbolises the history of the American West. At the age of fifteen he worked as a rider for the Pony Express and in 1864 enlisted in the Seventh Kansas Volunteer Cavalry. He was then employed as a scout for General William Sherman before working under contract for the Kansas Pacific Railroad as a buffalo hunter in 1867-68. According to his autobiography in the two years that he worked for the company he killed 4,280 buffaloes and acquired the name Buffalo Bill. In 1868 he returned to the U.S. Army as chief of the Scouts for the Fifth Cavalry.
It was during this time that he guided a buffalo and hunting party for the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia who then wrote about Cody in his memoirs. Cody was beginning to be famous beyond the confines of the Western Frontier and the Dime novel author Ned Butline published Buffalo Bill King of the Border Men, the first of 550 titles about Buffalo Bill.
When Buffalo Billy Cody came on the first on his three visits to the United Kingdom in April 1887, the furore he created was unprecedented. Thousands lined the streets when the exhibition made its way to Earl's Court and on its opening night 28,000 people were there to see the splendour that was Colonel Cody's Wild West. Buffalo Bill would return again in 1891-2 and finally from 1902 to 1904. Places he visited included Hull, Nottingham, Sheffield, Burton upon Trent, Lancaster, Manchester, Bradford, Leeds and Glasgow.
The impact made by Buffalo Bill's Wild West on the British Fairground with many showmen impersonating Buffalo Bill and bringing their own vision of the American West to the United Kingdom. However, as in the case of another famous American showman P.T. Barnum who visited London in the 1840s, it was the personality and charisma of Buffalo Bill himself, which fascinated and thrilled the audience.
When Buffalo Bill came to Britain in 1887 he brought along a travelling history show with real genuine living exhibits from the western frontier. Cody travelled with a troupe of over 800 people including Annie Oakley the champion lady shooter and many American Indians who were glad to escape the miserable conditions of the reservations. The travelling menagerie, which accompanied the set pieces in the show, consisted of 180 horses, 18 buffalo with which Cody recreated his legendary days as a buffalo hunter, and elks, mules and Texas longhorns adding the finishing touches to the authenticity of his exhibition.
The sight of this show lived long in the memories of those who were part of the many thousands who flocked daily to see the attractions. Such was the success of his first British tour that Cody returned again and toured from 1891 to 1892 with his six day stop in Cardiff resulting in over £10,000 in revenue and engagements in Bristol, Bristol and Portsmouth proving equally popular. In 1902 Cody returned for his final and most extensive British tour and between 1902 and 1903 presented 333 performances of his exhibition with only one cancellation. The 1904 season started in Stoke on Trent on April 25 after which the exhibition travelled throughout the West of England and Wales before returning to London before making the journey up to Scotland to open in Glasgow on the 1st of August. Never had such a tour on such a scale been attempted by any showman before or after.
The impact made by Buffalo Bill was immense, and according to Don Russell "the invasion of England by Buffalo Bill's Wild West in 1887, was, beyond much question, the most successful ever made by an American aggregation." Thousands lined the streets when the exhibition made its way to Earl's Court in London for the American Exhibition and on its opening night 28,000 people were there to see the splendour that was Colonel Cody's Wild West. Cody presented a vision of the American West that the audiences believed was rooted in authenticity and created a form of entertainment which was patronised by all classes of Victorian and Edwardian society including and attracted Queen Victoria and the Royal Family on all of its British tours.
A lasting testament of the success of this form of entertainment could be found on the British fairgrounds sixty or so years after his final visit. Although Wild West shows became a main staple of American popular entertainment what is seldom appreciated is that the myth and legends of the Wild West imported by Cody continued on the fairground long after his final 1902-1904 tour.
One of his most creative and long-standing "impersonators" was Texas Bill Shufflebottom. From the 1880s, William Shufflebottom, a former publican from Sheffield became known as Texas Bill. The exact origins of the show are unknown and in keeping with the Buffalo Bill legend, certain family members claim that William Shufflebottom was indeed a performer with the famous exhibition. Whatever his origins, Texas Bill and his wife, raised ten children to continue the family tradition.
From the 1880s to the 1960s, the various Shufflebottom's Wild West shows were a popular attraction on the travelling fairs with the Colorado's, Texans and the Dakotas just three of the various names employed by the children of Texas Bill. Other showfamilies who travelled with a Wild West theme include the Testo's and the Kayes with William Kayes known simply as the English Buff Bill. Circus acts followed suit with Johnny Swallow presenting Bronco Bill's Circus and Wild West Show from 1912 onwards, based in the Wolverhampton area.
Perhaps the most successful British born "cowboy" was Ralph Norman, son of Tom Norman the Silver Dollar King, who appeared in films and rodeos in America as Hal Denver from the 1930s to the 1950s. It appears ironic that the fortunes of the Wild West shows in American declined considerably in the 1930s but that their popularity was unabated in Britain.
Buffalo Bill's Wild West was a living ethnographic extravaganza combing the educational and exotic with the spectacle of the circus and theatre. The status that he achieved with the show in Europe and the United Kingdom and the enthusiastic reception made him into a worldwide celebrity. Like his countryman P.T Barnum who used the success of Tom Thumb in Europe to create greater revenue and success in America, Cody played on his royal connections. The Crowned Heads of Europe entered the arena in the Deadwood Stage and the Command Performance for Queen Victoria was the first public entertainment that the sovereign had attended since the death of Prince Albert.
Buffalo Bill Cody was many things to many people; a rider for the pony express, a frontier scout, a buffalo hunter and probably the most famous American of his day. He was without doubt one of the greatest and most influential showmen in the history of popular entertainment and arguably the most famous American in the nineteenth century. His visits to the United Kingdom informed and shaped how the American West was to be perceived and in the words of a local reviewer quoted in Allan Gallop's Buffalo Bill's British Wild West Show "Buffalo Bill has come, we have seen and he has conquered."