On May 16, 1883, a train with sixteen box and three passenger cars arrived in Omaha, Nebraska from Columbus, Nebraska around 4 p.m. at the Union Pacific Shops on N. 16th street. The train contained about 80 people, and more than 100 animals. Over 60 Native Americans from tribes that included the Omaha, Ogallala Sioux, Brule Sioux, and Pawnees. There was also a Saturday evening campfire performance followed by a Sunday matinee. Omaha was the first stop on a tour that played to over 50 million people in 1,000 cities and dozens of countries. The caravan marched to Driving Park at 18th and Sprague. Rain delayed the show for two days.
Over 8,000 people from bankers to frontiersmen went to the 2 pm show. Omaha was the first stop on a tour that played to over 50 million people in 1,000 cities and dozens of countries. William Frederick Cody (Buffalo Bill) and his partner, sharpshooter Dr. William Frank Carver, wrote the show to bring the story of American’s western frontier in a realistic backdrop of original frontiersmen and Native Americans.
Buffalo Bill was the star of the show. His life was the story of the frontier. On February 26, 1846, he left home at the age of 12 to work for a Fort Laramie, Wyoming wagon train. He rode two tours for the Pony Express in 1860 at the age of 14. He became a gold prospector in Colorado in 1859. Finding this venture unsuccessful, he enlisted in the Seventh Kansas Volunteer Calvary in 1864 to fight against Native Americans.
After the war, he hunted Buffalo for Kansas railroad employees earning his nickname Buffalo Bill for providing over 4,280 buffalo in 18 months. In 1872, General Philip Sheridan arranged for Buffalo Bill and Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer to guide Grand Duke Alexis of Russia’s hunting trip set up by President Ulysses S. Grant. His experiences would form the show’s foundation.
In July 1869, dime novelist Ned Buntline interviewed Cody for a serial novel titled, “Buffalo Bill, the King of the Border Men,” for the New York Weekly. Buntline publicized the story as, “the wildest and truest story he ever wrote,” which was based on Wild Bill Hickok’s life, not Buffalo Bill’s narrative. With Buntline’s help, Cody joined his first play, The Scouts of the Prairie in 1872. He scouted and toured in plays for the next few years. Dime novels by Buntline and others made him a celebrity. On July 4, 1882, Cody performed the, “Old Glory Blowout,” featured horse riding and cattle roping competitions. This event’s success led directly to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, and Buffalo Bill began touring full-time.
Advertising was a big part of the Wild West Show’s success. Borrowing concepts from P.T. Barnum, his team created colorful, extravagant fliers and mobile billboards. Ariel N. Barney, called the, “most truthful of all press agents,” served as the advertising agent and general representative for the show. He arrived in Omaha on April 23, 1883 to begin the promotion campaign. By the end of the week, Carver, Buffalo Bill’s General Manager Major John M. Burke, and Josh E. Ogden, treasurer, joined him.
Before the show came to Omaha, it made an unscheduled stop in Columbus for a dress rehearsal. One of the acts was a stagecoach robbery on the Sidney Deadwood Railroad line. Major “Pap” Clothier and city council members were passengers that day. Veteran leader of the Pawnee army scouts Frank North staged the attack. When the Pawnees did a ceremonial yell ad charged, the mules pulling the stagecoach bolted free. They did not stop until exhausted. After the incident, the mayor reportedly, “had to be restrained with difficulty from beating up Cody.”
The show ran smoothly in Omaha. It began with a parade at 9:30 am. A 20-piece marching band fronted the procession. Three Pawnee Native Americans shadowed on horseback. Three young buffalos along with a playful baby buffalo pranced around next. Native American women with young children on ponies accompanied by braves came next. Forty Sioux and Pawnee Native Americans rode horses with war paint on their faces. Dr. Carver and Buffalo Bill came afterward followed by cowboys. Hard to control elk followed a pack of burros, a dog team, and goats ended the parade.
“Pop” Whitaker, a well-known sports announcer in New York, announced a race where frontiersmen tried to catch ponies on foot. Then, the first big attraction came that featured the pony express. A ridder explained and demonstrated how pony express members carried mail and adjusting saddle covers. The stagecoach robbery followed where 50 Native Americans chased and circled a covered wagon. All seemed lost until Buffalo Bill and Carver leading a scout party fought off the would-be robbers and mockingly scalped them.
The next act involved shooting demonstrations. Captain Adam H. Bogardus, a famous sharpshooter, shot at glass balls and pigeons. Carver and Buffalo Bill shot next using Springfield riffles and bullets with a small charge that would not penetrate anything beyond short distances. The grand finale was a buffalo chase. Buffalo Bill let loose the buffalo, and they charged toward spectators. “The bison headed toward the crowd outside the grandstand, which began running away in terror.” Cowboys rode in and wrangled the bison back into their coral. The show ended with Buffalo Bill’s speech calling the spectacle, a “thoroughbred Nebraska” show.
After Omaha, the show went to Council Bluffs, Iowa. The show came back to Omaha in 1898 for the Trans Mississippi Exposition. Buffalo Bill became one of the most famous Americans in the world, idolized by President Theodore Roosevelt and consulted on western affairs by Presidents Ulysses S. Grant to Woodrow Wilson. Annie Oakley replaced Bogardus after he left because of money troubles. Carver left the show over a dispute with Buffalo Bill. Nate Salisbury quickly replaced him. The show peaked with its performance at the World’s Fair in Chicago where six million people attended the show. Buffalo Bill’s show appeared at Madison Square Garden for the final time in 1910.
Times changed. The United States Census Bureau declared the Western Frontier closed in 1890. Buffalo declined in numbers and spectators later arrived in cars to watch the show. Copycat western spectacles saturated the market. Cody died in Denver in 1917 with over 25,000 people attending his funeral. He was the, “last of the Indian wars scouts.” His image of the West shaped Hollywood westerns for years to come.
When Buffalo Bill’s show came to Omaha, the residents experience delight. The promotions team came to the city beforehand to publicize the show written by Buffalo Bill and Carver. His menagerie of frontiersmen and Native Americans showed a dying image of the frontier. It was a mysterious place of abundant buffalo, cowboys, and Native Americans. Through this show and others, he cemented his conception of the west into the public’s imagination.
Arrival of the ‘Buffalo Bill Party in Omaha’” (16 May 1883), Omaha Bee, pg. 1.
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Nellie Snyder Yost (1979), Buffalo Bill: His Family, Friends, Fame, Failures, and Fortunes, Sage Books, pg. 136.
“The Shooting of a Boy by Buffalo Bill” (12 October 1878), Daily Alta California
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