by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Every society has its copious supply of myths and legends serving all manner of ends—religious, political, social and otherwise—and one of the most popular and enduring sources for these in late 19th and early 20th century America was the West, or perceptions of it. For many years, William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody seemed, to millions, to epitomize the Western folk hero through his Wild West shows, with fast-riding cowboys, shrieking Indians, shooting displays, and a great deal more.
Tonight’s featured artifact from the Museum’s collection is a 13 April 1914 snapshot of Buffalo Bill’s troupe in a downtown Los Angeles parade prior to three days of shows with the Sells-Floto Circus (another long-standing form of entertainment that has only recently diminished in popularity). The image shows a gent in cowboy garb riding side-by-side with an Indian at the front and groups of native Americans, including one carrying an American flag, following behind.
While there are bystanders looking on, it does not appear that there were huge crowds, at least not in this unidentified section of downtown, though there reported of attendance in the low five figures for the twice-daily shows, held on Main and Washington streets near today’s Interstate 10.
Cody was born in 1846 in Iowa near the Mississippi River and spent much of his youth in Bleeding Kansas, where battles over slavery were often violent—in fact, his father was stabbed while delivery an anti-slavery speech and died from complications a few years later. Forced from a young age to support his family, the young man developed strong horse-riding skills, but also developed his reputation as an “Indian fighter” from age 11 when he killed a native who was part of an attack on a cattle drive.
At 14, Cody appears to have become a Pony Express rider and, while his work was burnished by later publicity, some of his rides involved substantial danger. Still in his teens, the young man then served as a scout for the Union Army during Indian conflicts fought during the Civil War and stayed in service of the Army for a brief time after the war ended. As the Union Pacific Railroad was building the eastern part of the transcontinental railroad, Cody hunted buffalo to feed the work crews and it was claimed he killed nearly 4,300 head in a couple of years—this purported feat added substantially to his growing reputation.
As the federal government employed the Army in larger campaigns against the native peoples of the Plains region in the late 1860s and early 1870s, Cody was prized as a guide and scout and was awarded a Medal of Honor for his service (because he was a civilian, the award was revoked just before Cody’s death but reinstated in 1989.) This, however, included such celebrated “exploits” as the 1876 scalping of Yellow Hair, a Cheyenne warrior that was reported to be in retaliation for the Indian destruction of General George A. Custer’s unit at Little Big Horn.
Cody’s foray into entertainment began in 1872 in a scout drama, while he had his winters free, and about a decade later, he established his own Wild West show, which quickly became enormously popular and featured star attractions like Annie Oakley and her fancy shooting and the appearances of Chief Sitting Bull. For Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887, Cody and his troupe performed and then traveled extensive in Europe. At the World’s Fair in Chicago, six years later, it was reported that three million people saw the extravaganza.
His popularity dimmed somewhat, though he continued to draw large crowds, through the early years of the new century, as did his financial stability, as his once-substantial fortune was largely dissipated by poor investments and his Wild West show company went belly-up in 1913. This was a key reason why, after thirty years on his own, Cody, who was nearing his “three score and ten” years, teamed up with Sells-Floto, owned by a pair of Denver newspaper publishers, for two seasons under the banner of the “Sells-Floto and Buffalo Bill Circus.”
The Los Angeles appearances during the first season of the new circus arrangement was avidly covered by local newspapers, including those in Long Beach, Pomona and Venice, where the shows played first before settling in for the three-day engagement in the Angel City. The Pomona Progress of 9 April began its coverage with the observation that:
Everything which becomes stereotyped has its formula—and the same is true of Wild West shows. And the usual recipe is a program of bucking horses, a bull-dogger or two, and the rest of those things which once constituted the range life of the West.
But just why the formula should be followed year after year was one of the questions which came before the management of the Sells-Floto Circus and Buffalo Bill (himself) [an official wording, by the way], when the arrangements for this year’s exhibitions were considered.
The decision was to reorganize the show so that it “has in its Western schedule of things something different from the usual Wild West,” meaning that the “romance of the West” was retained, but it was then supplemented or continued by “the progress of the country” to the present.
Named “Warpath,” the show was “not to be merely a Wild West exhibition” as Cody was quoted as saying, “there is something more to the spectacle, something deeper” because he intended “to show the West as it has grown, from the day of the wild, open prairie, to the wonderful prosperity of today. And I believe I have succeeded.”
Naturally, there were the acrobats, the lion and tiger tamer, the elephants with the dancer on them, the equestrian teams, the “hyneys,” a cross between a burro and a zebra, some 40 clowns, and much more in addition to Cody’s show. While the admission price remained a quarter, despite all of the additions and changes, the manager noted that “that tent of ours covers eleven acres and seats fourteen thousand persons” which is why the quarter admission was still very profitable when attendance was good.
The Venice Vanguard of the same date promoted the circus by noting that the crowds would be filled with “all the hero-worshipping small boys and their fathers—the small boys of other days” while it was added that Cody “will be preserved and his personality perpetuated” in movies as well as in the new Sells-Floto arrangement that would show Buffalo Bill “and the red aborigine brought into closer touch with the general public, and especially the youngsters under the enjoyable conditions attending the festivities of a superbly equipped circus.”
Major John M. Burke, said to be an old pal of Cody, waxed enthusiastically about the show, deeming it the greatest in American history, while proclaiming that “it is a fact that the circus is a necessity of life and Young America cannot grow up without seeing it, and the middle-aged and the old folks must share in its joy. It is the little ones[‘] first definition of happiness.” He concluded that the low admission price was ideal for families “so that there may be no Cinderellas weeping at home in the corner when the Sells-Floto circus and Buffalo Bill comes [sic] to town.”
Several days after his performance in the city of canals, the Vanguard reported that Cody was reunited with 75-year old Captain C.E. White, a resident of Inglewood and a Civil War veteran who, in 1867, was stationed with the Army in Nebraska. The account stated that “these two veterans hunted buffalo on the plains and they were together during several skirmishes with the Indians.”
Also on the 9th, the Long Beach Telegram went to some lengths to generate excitement for the circus with its opening lines:
Here y’are, everay-y-ybodie-e-e-e-e-e, here y’are. Passing along this way, we willsee the original Orango Tango, the lat-est dance from the jun-gles of Afri-ka! Hurrayy-y-y, hurrayy-y-y, hurrayy-y-y. The South American anteater is about to eat his uncle! Step closer-r-r-r-r now, step closer-r-r-r, for now we are about to learn of the snake with the golden tooth! Perhaps you have never seen a snake with a gold—
Aside from some of the usual and expected components of the circus was “one of the most important features” with Cody’s participation through the “Warpath” spectacle and, the morning before the afternoon and evening shows included a parade through the streets of the growing seaside metropolis with much attention given to “Buffalo Bill himself, America’s best beloved citizen, who is to head the parade as a special honor to this city.”
In its promotion on the 12th, the Los Angeles Times featured photos of Cody and other performers, and noted that “Buffalo Bill, the idol of almost every American boy, grown-ups included . . . will sit on his famous charger heading a parade through the streets and later he will once more exhibit his Wild West show in conjunction with the Sells-Floto circus.” Though Cody was pushing seventy, “his figure is quite as heroic as it was thirty years ago, when he began to thrill the American people and people of other nations with his Injuns and stagecoach and prairie schooners and all that went with them.”
After reviewing some of Cody’s history, the paper added, “Buffalo Bill promises to lead the parade through the downtown streets and later the echoes of the plains of half a century ago will be heard in the big tent.” Major Burke was mentioned as a lifelong and inseparable friend who had his own interesting history, though his showmanship was contained to newspaper offices in his promotional position.
Perhaps it was Burke who put ads in the paper like one purporting to be from Grace, who informed Billie that she couldn’t love him if he didn’t take her to the circus or another in the salesman wanted section that sought 200,000 (a staggering number) spectators for the parade. Cheekily averring that “office boys with rapidly-dying grandmothers will be in evidence tomorrow,” the Times reiterated that “really, the newest and best things about the circus is the addition of Buffalo Bill.”
The next day’s edition of the Times hyped up the circus further, noting that the “squealing, howling, roaring menagerie” was in the Angel City and hordes of laborers were finishing preparations at the show ground for the first show at 2 p.m. It was repeated that “Buffalo Bill intends to do a little more than appear in the performance” and the “white-haired, strong-bodied man” was to be at the head of the procession starting from the site on Main and Washington and proceeding north to Tenth, then heading west to Broadway, and then up to First, and moving east to Spring, and then going south on that street to its junction with Main below Ninth and back to the start.
The Los Angeles Record of the 13th began its promotion with its relating of numerous phone calls to its newsroom and the city editor by those anxious to see the parade and it noted that “while Buffalo Bill himself was the big attraction, and received a continuous ovation, there were many most interesting features to the parade, which included many animals, the big circus wagons, bands and Buffalo Bill and his horses and riders.”
The Los Angeles Express of that day tried to match some of the colorful language of its compatriots in previewing the circus, starting with:
Were you on Broadway this morning?
With blood-curdling shouts a mighty band of Apache Indians charged through Los Angeles’ main thoroughfare. All but the blood-curdling shouts and the charge.
Defenseless women and children were swept mercilessly before them—by crazy men who wanted to see—
Why, Buffalo Bill, of course.
Yes, the old Indian fighter and scout, resplendent in flowing white beard, long hair and sombrero, bowed, smiled and bared his head that Los Angeles might get a wee taste of the frontier.
As for the natives, the paper recorded there were “real live Indians right in styles with yellow, green, red and purple complexions, savage looking feathers and stoical countenances” along with cowgirls, cowboys and the rest of the circus contingent. It was said that downtown businesses closed their doors and that thousands lined the streets to watch, while a special detail of police officers along the route.
The next day’s Express reported that, at the first evening’s show, “it was the same old ‘Buffalo Bill’ and the same old stage coach” and that “while thousands of circus-loving men, women and children watched 744 other men, women and children” perform, all in the audience “kept a weather eye open for every appearance of the old Indian scout” and parts of his act, including “the real Indians, the real cowboys, the real soldiers and the real animals.” As for Cody, “a bald spot, seen when he removes his wide sombrero, is the only sign that he is growing old.”
The edition of the Times on the 14th also reviewed that first day, reporting that crowds were between 10-12,000 for the two shows. When it came to Cody, it offered that “Buffalo Bill, the veteran scout and showman, commanded the usual homage accorded him as the most distinguished representative of the war and romance of the plains, now forever gone.” The Native Americans “and simon pure cowboys” rode, danced and engaged in mock battle around a six-mule stage. Tex McCloud impressed with his trick roping skills, including his lassoing of horses as they flew by.
In an editorial in the paper from the prior day, it was observed that Cody “appears in Los Angeles this week with a minor circus where once he was at the head of his own large aggregation.” It was added that “at 68 he will sit in his saddle, straight and proud” and “the people will applaud and he will ride out of the ring, his day’s work done, his wages earned.” But, it bore recollection that Cody “was once a millionaire” who bowed before royalty in his prime and that the horse he rode was only recently reacquired after it “was sold from under him not many months ago.
Despite these tribulations and his reduced popularity,
The jauntiness of his present bearing is not a last rally of pride nor alone the dignity of age. It is the consciousness of power and the fixedness of purpose that have moved and sustained a vigorous and delightful character, bizarre though it has been, through two picturesque generations. Many fortunes has he made and lost before, and now he turns, in the face of another defeat, with a confidence like that of youth and an experience of vast superiority.
The paper was assured Cody would regain financial largesse, though whether he would keep it was the question, but “he has a spirit and an understanding that will not [bow?] down while that which makes Buffalo Bill lives in the body that men call Cody.”
The aging hero continued to appear with Sells-Floto through a second season and then another period of public events, even as he had to helped into the saddle before he rode out before the audience. He died in Denver in early 1917 at age 70 (that “three-score and ten” mentioned above), but remained in public memory for some years, including as the subject of a 1944 movie starring Joel McCrea as Cody, Maureen O’Hara as his wife, and Anthony Quinn as Chief Yellow Hair [Yellow Hand in the picture] and directed by William Wellman. Notably, this depiction showed Buffalo Bill as fighting against ill-treatment of Native Americans.