Saturday, July 04, 2009

July 4, 1882: Buffalo Bill Cody and the birth of the rodeo

Time to hop into the "way-back machine" to a previous July 4 that had a profound effect on our nation.

Not to Philadelphia in 1776, nor Vicksburg in 1863, but to North Platte, Nebraska in 1882.

From Robert A. Carter's "Buffalo Bill Cody, The Man Behind the Legend":

At that time in American history, the birthday of our republic was one of the most celebrated days of the year. Plans for its observation usually were made well in advance, and communities vied with each other to see who could stage the most spectacular celebration--and every community hoped to outdo its celebration of the year before.

There are varying stories concerning the celebration in North Platte in the summer of 1882. According to Nellie Snyder Yost, "Some say the town hadn't gotten around to making definite plans for the Fourth before the Honorable W.F. Cody came home for the summer." Others say plans were already under way to do something big for the occasion but the planners were waiting until Cody arrived to help them decide what to do.

The Honorable W.F. Cody was of course Buffalo Bill, also known as The Colonel. He was thirty-six then, and already a legend. As a boy he rode a wagon train with Wild Bill Hickok, then he was a rider for the Pony Express. He fought with the Union as a teenager in the Civil War, participating in the Battle of Tupelo in 1864 and in numerous engagements in Missouri. After the war, he killed 4,280 buffalo (hence the name) in 18 months for the hungry workers building the Kansas Pacific Railroad. He was a scout for Colonel George Custer and General Phil Sheridan in the Plains Indian Wars, and received a Congressional Medal of Honor for his efforts. Yet Cody still found time for a stint in the Nebraska legislature.

And he was a top theater attraction.

But his best days were ahead of him. More from Carter's book:

In the West of 1882, roping, racing, and bucking contests were regular Sunday affairs, where "the cow-boys," gathered at one ranch or another to try their skills "just for the fun of it"; to see who could rope, throw, and tie a steer the quickest, or who could ride the roughest bucking broncs. Similarly, cowboy sports sometimes were presented before gathered crowds, usually as Fourth of July celebrations. One was held in Deer Trail, Colorado in 1872. Other early contests took place in Pecos, Texas, and Prescott, Arizona. The exhibition that Buffalo Bill mounted in North Platte that summer is considered the beginning not only of the Wild West Show but also of the rodeo, although that word was not applied to the contests until 1911.

And the Wild West Show framed the picture of what the American West was. Cody's shows, which traveled throughout America and Europe, elevated the image of "cow-boys," who were viewed before July 4, 1882 as little more than scoundrels on horseback.



Indians were part of those shows too. Ask a 21st-century 10 year-old to draw a picture of a Native American, and what will be handed back to you will be a recreation of a Plains Indian with a feathered head dress, not a Georgia Cherokee or a Michigan Chippewa.

Buffalo Bill and his show inserted that image of American Indians into the minds of millions, and nearly a century after his death, that iconic perception of Native Americans hasn't changed much.

Remember what the newspaper editor character in John Ford's last great Western, "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," said: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

The Wild West Show wasn't just about cowboys and Indian warriors--Annie Oakley, "Little Miss Sure Shot," smashed Victorian beliefs of what a woman's place in the world should be.

Speaking of Victorian, the future Edward VII was so impressed with the Wild West Show by a private performance in London that a second one was arranged--for Queen Victoria.

For many years Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show featured an Indian attack on a stagecoach.

Hmm...that sounds familiar. Did you think John Ford operated in a vacuum?

Portrayals of Cody in movies and television are consistent, he's usually shown as a bigoted buffoon.

The Native Americans in his shows played savages and killers, but the Colonel's opinion of Indians was not typical of men of his era. As he explained, "In nine cases out of ten where there is trouble between white men and Indians, it will be found that the white man is responsible. Indians expect a man to keep his word. They can't understand how a man can lie."

Back to Robert A. Carter:

"Do you believe that women should have the same liberty and privileges men have?" was the leading question put to the Colonel by a prominent feminist. "Most assuredly I do," Cody replied. "I've already said that they should be allowed to vote. Why of course, if a woman is out earning her living she keeps up with what is going on in the world, and she knows the best man to vote for...What we want to do is give our women even more liberty than they have. Let them do any kind of work that they see fit, and if they do it as well as men give them the same pay. Grant them the same privileges in their home life that men have and we will see them grow and expand into far more beautiful and womanly creatures than they already are."

The Colonel died a few months before our entry into World War I. It was an ironic time for him to die, because the German Army studied the logistics of the set-up, tear-down, and the transport of the Wild West Show. Lessons from the show would soon be utilized with deadly efficiency against American doughboys in France.

Buffalo Bill held the first rodeo on this date in July 4, 1882. And the Wild West Show began as well.

Even though the North Platte show wasn't called either of those things.

When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

The Colonel's effect on America was indeed profound--he changed the way Americans think of themselves.

As for Buffalo Bill himself, he was boastful, confident, and not afraid of a challenge--he was just like America.

UPDATE 10:00am: The Radio Patriot takes a look at The Liberty Bell. ARRA salutes the Adams family. Yep, one "d."

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3 comments:

arkansasgopwing said...

Didn't know all this about Bill Cody. I will have to remember this at the next rodeo.

John, have a Happy 4th. Also now following your blog on Facebook Network Blogs :)

PATRICK DEEGAN said...

I have met here in Mackay, some years back, a descendent of Wild Bill. The family laid claim to the connection. They had a sugar plantation here in Mackay, Queensland. Matter of fact the legenendary singing country and western twins... The le Garde twins were born here. They now reside in Tennessee.
Paddy Deegan, Mackay

John Ruberry said...

Hickock, like another famous man of the Wild West, Wyatt Earp, was born in Illinois. Cody was born just across the Mississippi in Iowa, but grew up in Kansas.