William Cody at age 19, photographed near the end of his Civil War service in the 7th Kansas Cavalry.
By the early 1870s, Cody had refashioned his image as Buffalo Bill. With his broad-brimmed hat, goatee, and buckskins, he would be instantly recognizable throughout the US and Europe by the 1890s.
Buffalo Bill in later years.
A map of the Indian Wars of the late 19th century. Cody was an army scout in campaigns against numerous Plains tribes, including the Cheyenne and Sioux.
After the Civil War, Cody hunted buffalo for the Kansas Pacific Railroad. By his count, he killed 4,282.
Buffalo Bill first entered the pop-culture consciousness through “dime novels,” violent pulp fiction that was often based on the exploits of real-life frontiersmen.
“The first scalp for Custer”: Buffalo Bill waves the bloody scalp of Yellow Hair. Cody and his publicists turned this obscure skirmish into an act of national revenge for Custer’s defeat at Little Big Horn.
Buffalo Bill the aristocrat: Cody represented himself as both a “child of the Plains” and as a “natural gentleman” as part of a broader effort to make him appeal to middle- and upper-class audiences.
Annie Oakley, or “Little Sure Shot,” joined the Wild West early on. Her supernatural accuracy with a rifle consistently drew huge crowds.
The arena spectacle of the Wild West show was Cody’s major contribution to the memory of the frontier. The cast poses at the height of the show’s fame in 1890.
The attack on the Deadwood Stage was a Wild West staple throughout the show’s 30-year run.
The Wild West placed violence and competition at the heart of the frontier experience.
Sitting Bull, one of the Sioux leaders at Little Big Horn, joined the show for the 1885 season.
The show cast Native Americans both as a merciless foe and as a “noble savage” – “the former foe, present friend.” Some criticized Cody for portraying their traditional ways in too favorable a light.
Native Americans were the largest group in the increasingly diverse cast of the Wild West.
The 1893 season introduced the Congress of Rough Riders, a military pageant of elite European soldiers, cowboys and Indians, Arabs, and Cossacks. The CoRR dominated the Westerne elements as the 1890s went on.
The Congress of Rough Riders heralded the emergence of the US as a world power. In this show poster, the frontiersman rides at the head of the imperial nations of Europe.
Custer’s Last Stand, as staged by the 101 Ranch, a latter-day incarnation of the Wild West.
Show poster advertising the Wild West’s staging of the Last Stand.
For the 1899 season, the Last Stand was replaced with the Battle of San Juan Hill – an American triumph on a new frontier.
Whenever possible, the show recruited actual participants of historical battles to star in its re-enactments. A squad of Cuban insurgents joined the Rough Riders for the San Juan Hill act in 1899.
Real-life Rough Riders: Colonel Theodore Roosevelt and members of his legendary unit (including some cowboys recruited directly from the Wild West) pose atop San Juan Hill in 1898.
“World’s Wondrous Voyages” – a poster charting the show’s travels in Europe.
“The Only Indians Ever in Venice.” Cody and Native American members of the cast tour the Venetian canals via gondola.
Buffalo Bill and the Wild West helped define America in the imaginations of millions of Europeans – among them Pope Leo XIII.
Buffalo Bill’s trademark act: shooting glass balls from horseback while riding at full gallop.
Such was Cody’s fame by the late 1890s that posters like this were all that was needed to generate hype for the Wild West.
Battles, military drill, and cutting-edge technology like Gatling guns played a major role in the show during the 1890s and 1900s.
In 1901, San Jaun Hill was replaced with new acts like “The Rescue at Pekin” and the Battle of Tien-Tsin, which transferred the themes and characters of America’s frontier wars to the Asian mainland.
The next step: Cody’s last act, the 101 Ranch, preached “Preparedness” for the American entrance into World War One.
The Wild West on film: a frame from Cody’s failed 1916 film “The Indian Wars Refought.”