Western Trips

Western Trips

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Buffalo Bill Show / Touring Italy

William Cody was probably the best promoter this country had during the latter part of the 1800's. Things were changing fast and America's population, especially those living east of the Mississippi River, had an enormous appetite for anything to do with the wild west. The Buffalo Bill Show, called the Wild West, toured the United States and Europe and that included touring Italy.

The Buffalo Bill Historical Center

buffalo bill cody in 1875
William Cody, circa 1875
If your travels include a Wyoming vacation or if you are just passing through Wyoming you will definitely enjoy a stop in Cody Wyoming at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center. If you are driving from the north Montana 310 connects Interstate 90 with Wyoming 120 from Billings, Montana. From the south go on Interstate 25 to Casper, Wyoming, and then take the Shoshoni Exit to connect with US 20 to Thermopolis, Wyoming, and then WY Rte 120 north to Cody. The Buffalo Bill Historical Center has just about any exhibit concerning the life of William Cody including his Wild West.

The newspapers of the day of course were instrumental in arousing the public's curiosity of life in America's wild west.

The Wild West Played to Huge Audiences

The Wild West performances played to sold out audiences in the United States and traveled extensively throughout the east. The newspapers of the day printed sensational stories about the ongoing migration west. The imagination of easterners was aroused by these accounts and they were more than eager to learn everything they could about the American West and the Buffalo Bill show.

What was it really like? What was it like to be under attack by hostiles and what were these people like close up.? These questions were answered by William Cody and his performers. Buffalo Bill Cody's performers were not actors by trade but were the real thing. When you look at old pictures of the Wild West you can see how William Cody was a promotional genius.  If there was anyone who really knew what people wanted to see, it was Buffalo Bill Cody.

The Wild West in the U.S. and Overseas
Buffalo Bill, 1903

The Wild West shows played to sold out audiences in the United States before traveling overseas to Europe. The Europeans, some might say, even more than some Americans were absolutely captivated by stories of the American West.

Books and dime novels were very popular in Europe. Many Americans gained great fame on account of Cody's Wild West. One of the most popular performers in Buffalo Bill's show was the sharpshooter Annie Oakley. Annie and her husband and business manager, sharpshooter Frank Butler, trekked all the venues in Europe and thrilled the crowds everywhere they performed.

The year 1887 was when the Wild West ventured overseas to England. The show toured England to sell out crowds in London, Birmingham and Manchester. Queen Victoria, the Prince of Wales among other royalty and high society types society figures attended the performances. The English thoroughly accepted the performances as being truly representative of America's wild west. Typical performances were  reenactment of the Battle of the Little Bighorn and Indians attacking stagecoaches only to be driven off by the cavalry. Historians as well as the press agreed that Wild Bill Cody embellished some of these performances but nevertheless they were enthusiastically accepted.. When Europeans wanted to see the wild west, the Buffalo Bill show brought it to their doorstep.

The Wild West Goes to Italy

In 1889 Cody's show returned to Europe including a very successful tour of Italy. Buffalo Bill was quite intrigued with the possibility of bringing his Wild West to the historic Colosseum. One reporter from New York drew a comparison of the Wild West performing in the Colosseum to the days of the old Roman gladiators. While probably not accurate it did help sell his newspapers.

Cody made several remarks while in Italy, some most likely not well thought out. He remarked on the vast differences between his country and Italy. He drew a contrast between the widespread poverty in Italy as compared the the vast American abundance. He went on to compare Italian money with America's pointing out that the smallest Italian coin was only worth one-fifth of an American penny. Regardless of these not so politically correct comments by a visiting famous American, the Italians were excited with the prospect of the Buffalo Bill show coming to Italy. In fact, after the tour was over some commented that they had not seen so much excitement since the days of Titus.

wild west show
Indian Congress Wild West, 1901
As it turned out the Wild West was not able to put on their show in the Roman Colosseum. The Colosseum was much too small to accommodate Cody's recreation of the struggle between Native Americans and the white men.

While in Rome however many notable events occurred. In Rome  they were guests of Pope Leo XIII at the Vatican. Pictures were taken for publicity value at St. Peters Square.

One of the most newsworthy contests was a bronco-busting challenge between Buffalo Bill's cowboys and working cowhands from the Maremma region in central Italy. The Italian cowboys spent much of their time working with the Cajetan breed of horse, the wildest most untamed in Italy. Everyone wanted to see how Cody's cowboys could handle these horses. The Prince of Teano challenged Cody's men to break the Cajetans.

Twenty thousand spectators attended the event. The contest's outcome had mixed reviews. Depending on which account you read and from whether it was the Italian or American journalist reporting it, the results were varied. It seems that the majority of the news accounts stated that the Maremma cowboys were only marginally to moderately successful at trying to duplicate that same feat on Cody's horses.

The Buffalo Bill show troupe acted very much like tourists during their time in Italy, much more than they had in other countries such  in England, France and Spain. They went to all the popular stops. The Vatican, Colosseum, Mt. Vesuvius and they rode gondolas. The Native American's in Cody's troupe went to the Vatican and took sacrament at churches. What's amazing to point out here is that it wasn't all too many years previous that some of these same Native Americans participated in bloody battles with the U.S. Cavalry. Indeed, times were changing.

The Wild West performed for eight days while in Bologna. In Bologna the streets were congested and the arenas sold out. It was in Bolgna that American popcorn was introduced to the Italian audiences giving them a  sample of American culture. Back in the United States the Indian Wars were fading away but there remained some confrontations. The Wounded Knee Massacre of Sioux in 1890 is one example. Also in 1890, the government Census Bureau declared the end of the frontier. That was somewhat true and the Indian Wars died down but there were still Native American issues unresolved.

How the Wild West Show Was Interpreted

Nobody in Italy considered the Wild West show to be merely a circus. It was more of a display of current events in a way. This probably could be said of all the countries toured by the Wild West. This was also the thinking of Bill Cody and his Italian audiences.

A good example of the realness of the Buffalo Bill show were the Indians themselves. These were not professional actors.They were real Native Americans and some of them were believed to have participated in the Battle of the Little Big Horn against Custer. The European audiences were paying to see the real thing.

A daily act during the performances in Naples was a Sioux attack on an immigrant wagon train. Some of Cody's warriors had actually been in custody because of earlier uprisings and only released to Buffalo Bill to tour with his troupe. It's about as real as you can get with a live show for entertainment.

Those of us today who learned of the old wild west frontier from watching movies and reading novels would have a difficult time understanding what it was like for Europeans, including the Italians, to see a live performance of this kind. Remember that in the late 1800's, the media was nothing like we have now. Back in those years people attained knowledge of current events through printed means such as newspapers, books and magazines. Buffalo Bill brought the live action to the audiences with authentic performers and it was hugely successful. It certainly may have been the first documentary production.

cathedral in florence italy
Florence Cathedral
When the Wild West show traveled to Florence for a three day engagement, the reception was the same as with everywhere else. The entire town turned out. An estimated 10,000 people daily attended the show. Newspapers at the time reported that the act the Florentines enjoyed the best was the Indian attack on the Deadwood stagecoach. The Indians looked like they had the upper hand but at the last minute the cavalry appeared to rescue the stagecoach and it's passengers.

A Big Hit in Florence

Stories of the Buffalo Bill show were popular all over Europe. The Nerbini publishing company in Florence started publishing in an illustrated format the adventures of "Buffalo Bill, The Hero of the Wild West".This again shows the huge popularity of the topic.

Historians have debated the meaning of the Wild West performances.. As an example, a newspaper in Florence while the show was performing there, pointed out that the Wild West really was a story of a dying race. The paper further pointed out to history students in the area to make certain to meet the Indian performers since they represented a people who would vanish from the earth. The paper was pointing out that the story of the disappearing Native American was actually a side theme of most of the acts.

Perhaps in a way this was true. That wasn't the intent of the show by any means but an argument could be made for it. The show did an excellent job chronicling the old wild west and it did it with flair and a bit of embellishment. Some acts by all means were embellished but this was nothing new in show business. News accounts at the time stated that many Florentines wandered the show grounds particularly interested in seeing the Indians close up. The audiences loved the show despite what some single critic might have had to say. The Florentines were awed by the sight of the warriors, especially when they had their war paint and headdresses on and shouted a war cry.

 It Was The "Wild West"

Sitting Bull, Buffalo Bill
An interesting side note is that Buffalo Bill Cody personally didn't use or like the word "show', possibly because he thought it sounded phony or fake. This is the reason the performances of the Buffalo Bill show were officially called the "Wild West" without using the word "show" although you do see the word "show" used in some research pieces including this one.

Every indication from research I've uncovered is that William Cody believed he was presenting a piece of very unique history in it's true form.

William Buffalo Bill Cody died in January 1917 at his sisters home in Denver Colorado. When word of Cody's passing reached overseas, tributes came in from leaders all over the European continent. Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West was the biggest show business success story during the late 1800's and very early 1900's. Nothing else really came close.

Many historians point out, and rightly so, that the Wild West served not only as a very popular and well attended entertainment vehicle, but also did much to highlight the accomplishments and progress of a growing United States. In a very real way the Wild West was a goodwill ambassador for Uncle Sam.

(Article copyright Western Trips. Photos are from the public domain)

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