Western Trips

Monday, July 4, 2011

Buffalo Bill's Wild West Tour Of Queen Victoria's England

Our previous story regarding Buffalo Bill's Wild West covered the life of William Cody as well as his great success with The Wild West performances both in America and in Europe. The interesting photo belowis of Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill taken in 1895.

sitting bull and buffalo bill cody
The European tour was in many ways an advertisement for America. Many thousands of immigrants were entering the U.S. each year during the last part of the 1800's and Buffalo Bill's Wild West performances influenced many Europeans as to their perception of America. With that  said, there were certainly similarities between William Buffalo Bill Cody and the great showman P.T. Barnum. One thing in common between these two men was that their productions were a mixture of both truth and fantasy. That combination alone is probably what makes shows interesting to begin with. The various stories portrayed in the Wild West shows (Custer's Little Bighorn Battle being a top draw) had their share of embellishments. Regardless, an interesting thing happened in September of 1884 when to his great surprise, Bill Cody received an unsolicited letter from no other than Mark Twain. The letter praised Cody's Wild West production and Twain went on to say how many of the Wild West stories reminded him of when he lived in the wild west. Samuel Clemens spent time as a journalist in the rough mining town of Virginia City Nevada during the boom days. Historians maintain that it was in Virginia City that Clemens invented Mark Twain. To take a quote from Twain's 1884 letter " I have seen your Wild West show two days in succession, and have enjoyed it thoroughly".  Mark Twain was a major promoter of the Buffalo Bill Show. Unfortunately P.T. Barnum, another world renown showman, never received this kind of endorsement from Mark Twain.

The Wild West shows did exceedingly well in all European cities visited. The shows appearing in England however had much more of a symbolic meaning. The Wild West show's 1887 opening and successes in England opened the doors to the rest of the European continent including a very successful tour of Italy. How Cody's show was received in England foretold how alluring the American frontier was to the entire continent as well as England. The fascinating story of America's wild west offered both promise and danger for Queen Victoria's England. The picture below left is of Queen Victoria in 1897, ten years after Buffalo Bill's Wild West appeared in England.

buffalo bill in England
Another perspective from many historians is that Britain had an underlying anxiety about a perceived racial decay in the late 1800's. Their position among the world's powers was changing. Labor strife was rampant in the last part of the century much the same way as here in America. British birth rates were declining and the small rural areas were being overtaken by the large cities. Things were changing dramatically during the industrial revolution and the "escapism" which the Wild West show represented played very well to the British audience in 1887. Additionally, the British had read many of the fictionalized portrayals of Buffalo Bill Cody since the 1870's, much the same as many Americans. Buffalo Bill's wild west stories appeared to be just what the British wanted to hear.

It probably wasn't by sheer accident that The Wild West opened in England during the Golden Jubilee, the celebration of Queen Victoria's 50 years on the throne.Not only was the Golden Jubilee going on but there was also the American Exhibition which displayed paintings and American manufactured products with the intent of luring British investment. The American Exhibition was surely planned to coincide with the Golden Jubilee and there's little question that The Wild West was scheduled to coincide with both large events.

When The Wild West cast landed in England they immediately began rehearsals. The Prince of Wales and other dignitaries attended a performance prior to the official opening and Queen Victoria had her own private performance. The Queen ended up attending twice. One thing the Queen's appearance did was counter any criticism out there that The Wild West was anything but  a first rate show. Several interesting things happened during The Wild West tour of England.

With the Queen in attendance, a horse rider came waving the American flag at which point the Queen made a bow. It was a big first. It was the first time since the Declaration of Independence that a British sovereign saluted the star spangled banner. In part, because of the official royal acceptance of The Wild West, Buffalo Bill Cody's performances were hugely successful for years in Great Britain.

picture of black elk indian
Another interesting and somewhat humorous incident occurred after the cast of The Wild West set sail back to America. Four Lakota men were lost and missed the sailing. They then decided to go to London. This was at the time that Scotland Yard and the London police were in hot pursuit of Jack the Ripper. History reports that the authorities were targeting radicals and minorities. The four were picked up by the London police and questioned. Not being familiar with the Ripper murders, Nick Black Elk (1890's picture at right with wife and daughter) who was one of those arrested was quoted with saying " The police questioned us and let us go. They had probably blamed us with something that had happened". 

The reception accorded Buffalo Bill's Wild West  in England paved the way for future tours throughout Europe. The enthusiastic acceptance from Britain's royals set a precedent that would be followed by monarchs throughout the continent. Buffalo Bill himself was every bit a part of the exhibition. The British who had followed William Cody through books for two decades could now see the living legend with their very eyes. This kind of legendary aura was something that P.T. Barnum with all his show business success could never duplicate.

Here are some interesting places to visit in connection with Buffalo Bills Wild West.

Wild West Living Museum Just Outside Yellowstone Park

Buffalo Bill Historical Center Cody Wyoming 

More On Buffalo Bill's Wild West