Stars of the Wild West Show

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In the latter part of the 19th century, before television, radio, or even movies with sound, traveling exhibitions were the biggest form of entertainment most people encountered. Oh yes, the circus! At the same time, newspapers and novels told of the adventures Americans experienced settling the western half of the country: exploring, fighting the natives, hunting strange animals, and building communities. The wild west show merged the entertainment of the circus with the adventure of the new west and brought it to crowds of the eastern US and beyond. The stars of the wild west shows were as famous as world leaders and military heroes -or even more so!

Buffalo Bill

200_Buffalo-BillWilliam Frederick Cody worked as a Pony Express rider, trapper, prospector, buffalo hunter, and military scout before he became the premiere showman of the American West. He earned the nickname Buffalo Bill in his early twenties by outshooting a rival hunter. In 1872, author Ned Buntline persuaded Cody to portray himself in Buntline's play The Scouts of the Plains. Cody caught the show business bug and returned to the theater every season while still working as a scout for the US military. In 1883, he organized a traveling show called Buffalo Bill's Wild West, an outdoor extravaganza which featured historical reenactments, rodeo events, shooting exhibitions, and generally any impressive act that could conceivably depict life in the wild west. Cody's exhibition traveled for thirty years, including a total of ten years in Europe, and was seen by hundreds of thousands of people. Cody's idea of a traveling western circus was recreated by many other show business entrepreneurs, including quite a few of his star acts. In 1893 the name of the show was expanded to Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World when a parade of horseback riders was added. In 1909 he teamed with Pawnee Bill and his Asian acts to form the show Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Pawnee Bill's Far East. See Cody in a surviving film clip.

Dr. W.F. Carver

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Dr. William Frank Carver was trained as a dentist but made his name as a buffalo hunter and champion sharpshooter. The New York Times called him "as fine a specimen of fully-developed manhood as ever walked on Manhattan Island." A short-range marksman, his act consisted of shooting glass balls or wooden blocks his assistant would throw into the air. If that weren't impressive enough, audience members would throw their pencils into the air and watch Carver destroy those as well. He toured on his own and also with Bill Cody's show. Carver won numerous marksmanship prizes in addition to his show business income. Carver invented the horse diving act in which a horse would dive into a pool of water from heights of up to 60 feet. He was inspired when he rode a horse across a bridge that collapsed and the horse executed a graceful dive into a raging river, or at least that was the story he told. Carver's son, daughter, and daughter-in-law carried on the diving horse business in Atlantic City after Carver died in 1927.

Pawnee Bill

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William Gordon Lillie worked as a teacher, interpreter, and advocate for the Pawnee people who were relocated to Oklahoma. His lifelong relationship with the tribe earned him the name Pawnee Bill. He was hired to coordinate the Pawnee actors in Buffalo Bill's first tour. Five years later he went on the road with his own show called Pawnee Bill's Wild West. As time went by, he added Japanese acrobats and Arabian jugglers to the show. In 1908 he again joined Bill Cody, this time as an equal, as they formed "Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Pawnee Bill's Great Far East." Lillie's wife May (pictured) was a rider and sharpshooter in his show while still a teenager.

Buckskin Joe

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Edward Jonathan Hoyt went by the nickname E.J. most of his life, and on stage was known as Buckskin Joe. Born in Canada and raised to use a bow and arrow and animal trap, Hoyt was employed as an acrobat and aerialist with the J.T. Johnson Wagon Circus before the Civil War. He played sixteen different musical instruments  and became an accomplished bandleader. Hoyt fought for the Union in the Civil War and stayed in the military afterward during the Indian Wars. Still, he performed with various shows and learned how to walk a tightrope. Hoyt put together a band that played cow horns, which was recruited for the Pawnee Bill show. Although he wore long hair most of his life already, in 1880 Hoyt vowed to let his hair grow until he was worth $50,000. A few years later he admitted he had enough money and cut fifteen inches off! Hoyt also owned a grocery, served as a US Marshall, mined silver, prospected for gold, and opened his own show called Buckskin Joe's Wild West Show.

Annie Oakley

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Phoebe Ann Moses (or Mosey) later became known as Annie Oakley, the greatest shooter of any wild west show. Her father died when she was six years old, and Oakley learned to hunt and trap to help the family. She gained a reputation as a crack shot, and when she defeated professional sharpshooter Frank Butler in an arranged match, he was so impressed he began to court her. They married in 1882. Butler trained Oakley in riding and developed a show around her skills. Oakley and Butler joined Buffalo Bill's show in 1885, where Oakley became the biggest star outside of Bill Cody himself. She headlined the show for 17 years, then turned to acting when a play was written especially for her. She taught thousands of women to shoot, and even volunteered to put together a regiment of female sharpshooters for the Spanish-American War, but president McKinley did not accept the offer. Oakley continued to stage shooting demonstrations for the rest of her life. You can see Oakley in action in an 1894 Edison film.

Bee Ho Gray

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Emberry Cannon Gray was part Chickasaw and grew up friends with a Comanche family, whose chief gave him the nickname Bee Ho. By the time he was a teenager, Gray was an expert with whips, ropes, knives, and horses. At 19, he joined Colonel Cummins Indian Congress to perform at the World's Fair in St. Louis. He worked with the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West for many years and was with California Frank's All-Star Wild West and the Irwin Brothers Cheyenne Frontier Days Wild West Show. Gray won two world championship roping competitions and held one of the championship titles for several years. When the wild west shows faded, Gray took his act to vaudeville, radio, and Hollywood. His vaudeville act with his wife Ada featured trick roping, banjo music, humor, and his pet coyote. Bee Ho Gray also appeared in two credited films plus several uncredited roles.

Mexican Joe

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José Barrera was only 15 years old when Pawnee Bill hired him as a trick roper. He was an expert rider and participated in a "horse ballet" in which a group of riders danced to a live Mexican band. Barrera married a fellow performer, trick rider Effie Cole. He performed with Buffalo Bill's show and the Miller Brother's show in addition to Pawnee Bill's productions. When he and Ellie retired from show business, Barrera became foreman at Pawnee Bill's ranch in Oklahoma.

Sitting Bull

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Tatanka-Iyotanka, also known as Sitting Bull, was a Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux warrior and later chief who led the defeat of General George Custer. He was a guerilla fighter against the US Army in Red Cloud's War and fought in the Great Sioux War which included the battle at Little Big Horn. After years of exile in Canada after Little Big Horn, Sitting Bull surrendered and was confined to a reservation. He joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West as a star attraction in 1885. He was not required to perform, as his fame was enough to draw crowds. Sitting Bull made an appearance riding around the arena once for each show, then charged spectators to sign autographs. His show business career only lasted four months, but exposure to audiences only increased his fame as a warrior and freedom fighter. Sitting Bull returned to the reservation as a leader and advocate for his people. In 1890, authorities decided to preemptively arrest Sitting Bull because they suspected he would the join the Ghost Dance movement of Sioux who refused to live on the reservations. When they came to arrest him, Sitting Bull was killed along with seven of his followers and eight Lakota police officers.

Montana Frank

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Frank McCray was a messenger and government scout in Montana before joining Buffalo Bill's Wild West as a trick roper. He performed with the show for six years, then took his act to several other traveling companies and vaudeville shows as well as staging shows on his own.

Will Rogers

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You know Will Rogers as a movie star and humorist, but he began his show business career as a trick roper with Texas Jack's Wild West Circus, after honing his skills as a cowboy in the American west, Argentina, and South Africa. He later joined the Wirth Brothers Circus in Australia. Rogers returned to the US and was working for another circus when he was recruited by William Hammerstein to star in a vaudeville show. He added more comedy to his act, which led to a run with the Ziegfield Follies, and then to movies as well as a career as a traveling humorist and political pundit. He had perfected his show business persona to the point that he no longer needed to do rope tricks.

Iron Tail

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Wasee Maza was a Minneconjou Lakota who participated in the Battle of Little Bighorn as a teenager. His name translated to English as Iron Tail. After defeating Custer, he followed Sitting Bull into Canada and then back to South Dakota. Iron Tail joined the Ghost Dancers and was injured at the Wounded Knee Massacre. His parents, siblings, wife, and infant son all died. Not long afterward, Iron Tail joined Buffalo Bill's show. He traveled with the show for 15 years, all the while advocating for Native American rights. Iron Tail was one of three men who modeled for the Indian Head nickel released in 1913. The showman adopted the name Dewey Beard when he converted to Catholicism. Beard appeared in several western movies, mostly uncredited. When Dewey Beard/Iron Tail died in 1955, he was memorialized as the last survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn.

These are just a few of the many stars who entertained crowds in the traveling western exhibitions. Just like traditional circuses, the wild west show suffered from the rise of movie theaters. Some of the performers retired, some went into ranching, and others opened stationary shows and museums (a few combined all those activities). The younger performers took their skills to the movies, spawning an entire genre of film we still enjoy. Yes, without Buffalo Bill, we most likely wouldn't have the western today.

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February 2, 2010 - 3:06am
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