Montana State University

Buffalo Bill lassoed Europe with his Wild West shows

May 10, 2006 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

A postcard illustration depicts Buffalo Bill in Italy in 1906. (Courtesy of Bob Rydell).   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
BOZEMAN -- In an era when electricity was a novelty, Buffalo Bill electrified a continent and transmitted a culture, says a Montana State University historian and nominee for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize.

"He was immensely popular," Bob Rydell said of William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody, who took his Wild West show to Europe in the late 1800s. Rydell is head of the MSU history department and co-author of "Buffalo Bill in Bologna." The book he wrote with Rob Kroes of the Netherlands was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in history.

Buffalo Bill's show was so spectacular that Queen Victoria made her first public appearance in 25 years to attend, Rydell said. The pope gave Buffalo Bill a special blessing. Kings, princes and as many as 30,000 Europeans flocked to each show to watch this former scout and legendary showman portray the Wild West with its cowboys and Indians, sharpshooters, trick riders, prairie fires, cyclones and much more.

Juti Winchester, curator at the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, Wyo., said the Wild West shows attracted millions of people during their 30-year run across the United States and Europe. Far from being formula shows, they changed over time and were more varied than people think, she said. The shows incorporated military drills as World War I approached. They showed a rescue at sea and football games on horseback. Cowboys rode bucking broncos, leading scholars to debate whether the Wild West shows ushered in the modern rodeo. Riders from Japan, Britain, Arabia and the former Soviet Union all performed. Custer's last stand was reenacted for one season.

Buffalo Bill, like P.T. Barnum, knew how to entertain the masses, but his impact was much more significant than the numbers he drew, Rydell continued.

The Wild West shows, along with circuses and world's fairs, were a major transmitter of American mass culture between 1869 and 1922, Rydell said. Disagreeing with those who think the Americanization of the world began much later or started with McDonald's, Rydell said, "American mass culture is really in place by the beginning of the 20th century, certainly by World War I."

The Wild West shows portrayed American heroism and industry, Rydell said. They depicted conquest and progress. They introduced the Europeans to popcorn, the Colt revolver and Winchester repeating rifle. They showed how the Wild West was very much a part of the industrialized West.

"Just the organizational talent that went into the show was something," Rydell added, explaining that, "Mass culture isn't simply about what you see, but how it's produced and the technology involved."

Europeans weren't just enthralled by the shows, but the effort it took to create them, Rydell said. For England alone, Buffalo Bill shipped 97 Indians, 83 saloon passengers, 38 "steerage passengers," 180 horses, 18 buffalo, 10 elk, five Texas steers, four donkeys and two deer. Buffalo Bill's crews handled the shows' financing, advertising, concessions, music and special effects.

Europeans didn't necessarily adopt everything they saw, but they embraced what they wanted and adapted it to their liking, Rydell said. Like Europeans today, they debated the quality of American culture and whether it deserved adoption.

Winchester said the Wild West shows were one version of American culture, and she appreciated Rydell putting them into a global context. Normally, she said, people tend to trivialize Buffalo Bill.

"People don't tend to take it very seriously, but Dr. Rydell's book does take it very seriously," Winchester said. "It's the kind of work that is needed."

Rydell said he has no intention of exploring the spread of American culture past 1922, saying other researchers have done an excellent job of that.

"Buffalo Bill in Bologna" was published by the University of Chicago Press.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or