The man born this week (Feb. 26) in 1846, in Iowa, which wasn’t even a state yet, would grow up to become the most famous American in the world.
William “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s fame largely came from the show he created, “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West,” which began touring the country in 1883. The show comprised various set pieces that gave audiences, mostly audiences from the East, a glimpse of life in the “Wild West.” Cody and his fellow “actors,” including the world’s most famous female sharpshooter, Annie Oakley, did roping, riding and sharpshooting tricks, as well as re-enacted stage coach robberies, gun fights and daring rescues. Tellingly, the most common rescue was Cody rescuing young white girls from Indian attacks. The show also included many of the wild animals that roamed the West, in particular elk and buffalo.
Then in 1893 Cody changed the show’s name to “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World,” which featured not just American Indians — including, for a time, the famous Sioux Indian chief, Sitting Bull — but also “cowboys” (the equivalent, anyway) from Turkey, Mongolia, Africa, Arabia and Russia, all displaying their unique horsemanship skills and colorful costumes.
Speaking of Sitting Bull, included in the show was Cody’s completely fictitious “re-enactment” of “Custer’s Last Stand,” in which Cody himself arrives at Little Bighorn moments too late to save the martyred legend, George Custer, from Sitting Bull’s bloodthirsty warriors.
Which was emblematic of the show’s central theme. In portraying a “Disney-fied” version of the West, Cody, as his publicity posters claimed, was portraying “an exposition of the progress of civilization.” But it was mostly a false one. In Cody’s “civilizing” (taming) of the Wild West, the Indians were always the bad guys on the attack while the whites were merely defending themselves. By contrast, in the real world whites were usually the aggressors, moving inexorably west to settle lands that had traditionally belonged to the Indians, and in many cases were lands the U.S. government had recognized as Indian land. The “Battle of Little Bighorn” was a perfect example of this. Sitting Bull was actually defending land that, by a U.S. government-approved treaty, was legally his.
But the real world clashed with America’s belief that “Manifest Destiny” — the spread west of American values and political institutions — excused the sometimes less than noble means of achieving it. And when one could twist the truth and actually make those means look noble, as Cody’s show did, all the better.
Small wonder he became rich and famous. He presented an entertaining show that also allowed white Americans to feel good about themselves and their “progress” in spreading “civilization,” regardless of who got in their way.