Friday, July 7, 2017

The Wild West Show: Shaping a Legend

My last two posts about Comanche captives were based largely on the book by Scott Zesch, The Captured. I found everything about his account of the lives of the captives he followed fascinating, but perhaps the last chapter made me sit back and say "wow." The dust had barely settled on the plains after the brutal conflicts of the Indian Wars, and next we find many of the participants together again performing in the Wild West Show. It put me in mind of the television series Westworld, with characters being swapped in and out for the entertainment of a paying audience. Except the players were real characters from history: Sitting Bull, Anne Oakley, Chief Joseph, Calamity Jane, Wild Bill Hickok, and even whites who'd been taken captive as children.

Whether you were an Indian, a captive, or a Texas Ranger a person has to eat and joining the show put money in pockets. This was the new west.

There's a scene in Zesch's book I found poignant. Gathered together after one show, former captive, Herman Lehmann, was reminiscing with a former Texas Ranger. Both men fell silent when it dawned on them the event each described was one and the same--only they were on different sides of the conflict. Herman, then a white Indian, was in a raiding party attacked by the Rangers. Herman narrowly escaped with his life when he was injured and trapped under his fallen horse. He watched as the Rangers chased down and decapitated his best friend. Decades later he came face to face on neutral ground with one of the murders.

How strange it all must have been. A way of life for all the participants was coming to an end at the same time they were active players in creating the myth of the American west.

I have a personal interest in the Wild West Show. I had a great aunt, Louise, who was a wild one (probably a soiled dove, to be honest). She and her best friend, Ethyl, cut a wide swath through the 1920's claiming to have been at virtually every important event at the time. St. Valentine's Day Massacre? They just happened to be vacationing with Al Capone at his Florida home when that happened.

When they were elderly, Louise invited Ethyl to live with them. What I remember from my visits is a large framed, photograph of Ethyl in costume posing next to a horse. She said she'd been a bareback rider in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. So she said. Anyway, that was my introduction to that bit of history.

It was a tamer west when Wild Bill Hickok introduced his Border Dramas in 1872. These dramas, featuring authentic Indians and frontiersmen, reenacted such real events as buffalo hunts on a small scale.

In 1883 Buffalo Bill Cody, true promoter that he was, took the wild west show to the next level. In its heyday he had over 1,000 performers traveling by train around the country. Custer's Last Stand was a popular reenactment along with stagecoach attacks, and women being taken captive by Indians. Other entertainments included races, shooting and roping competitions, trick riders, and music.

The Death of Custer

The Wild West Show was a thriving industry until just before WWI when other forms of recreation took it's place. Hollywood cashed in on the public's interest by making westerns and later TV series. Baseball and football caught on as the national pastime. And rodeos which were cheaper to attend, stole another segment of the Wild West Show's audience.

But, the Wild West Show did leave a legacy. The show helped define the legend of the west as we see it today, selling this image worldwide. It became the springboard for how the west was portrayed in popular culture for decades.

Buffalo Bill Saluting Queen Victoria

But was it accurate? Not entirely....

The grand concept behind the show was man's conquest of the wild. It depicted a glorified white dominated experience. The Native Americans were the villains in the piece, while the Black Americans were almost entirely left out.

Blacks were very much a part of the western landscape as settlers, soldiers, and cowboys. They were originally represented in the shows, most famously by black cowboy, Bill Picket. But when they proved less popular with the audience, blacks were taken out of the show, helping the part they played in taming the west to almost fade into history.

For the Native Americans the Wild West Show was a mixed blessing. One upside was that all performers received the same pay whether woman, Indian, or black, which was certainly different than the rest of America at the time. Indians could make more money than they could on the reservation, and they could take their families with them on the road with three square meals provided.

On the other hand, I can't imagine the effect it had on them to relive their demise over and over again. Not to mention being drawn as the bad guys who deserved what they got. The warrior Rain-in-the-Face who may or may not have been the man to dispatch General Custer (it was a confusing battle) also performed in the Wild West Show. Whether he got to repeatedly deliver the final blow to Custer in the show, I don't know. Custer's widow, Libby, watched the reenactment of the Battle of Little Big Horn and declared it "realistic." (In fact modern evidence gathered imply the battle was less of a heroic stand than a chaotic rout where scattered pockets of soldiers were mowed down by the overwhelming Indian forces.)

Rain-in-the-Face, the man who claimed to have killed Custer.
The west as portrayed in the Wild West Show continued to hold sway until the 1960's and 70's when the revisionist westerns started to appear. Films such as Little, Big Man, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were set in a grittier west. All players in the drama were painted with the same brush, where the line between good and bad was blurred. Indians had their own point of view. Outlaws were also likable fellows. And heroes didn't always behave heroically.

The old west is an uniquely American experience, and I'm sure future generations will continue to draw inspiration from this era. It will be interesting to see how the story evolves. So many stories, so many points of view to explore!

Do you have a favorite western? What do you think of the most current westerns?


Andrea Downing said...

Wow. All I can say is WOW--so much for thought here, Patti, I wouldn't know where to begin in reply. But I always found it remarkable that Sitting Bull was in the show and then went back to fight his last and be murdered.

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Yes, Andi, two worlds were definitely colliding at this time! I think about the Indian chiefs during the last of the Indian wars who traveled by train out east to tour the cities and meet the president. I can't imagine the culture shock.

Kristy McCaffrey said...

A great post, Patti. Even back then entertainment was shaping our perceptions.

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Hi, Kristy! Thanks for stopping by. Yes, it is interesting how our view of history is often a reflection of the time we live in.