Cody's elaborate melodrama of the American West required the participation of hundreds in order to stage the showstopping scenes of the Bison Hunt, the Train Robbery, the Indian War Battle Reënactment, and the Grand Finale--The Attack on the Burning Cabin. Besides the numbers of stagehands and laborers needed to load and unload the show's special railcars and assemble the massive sets, Cody needed a large cast in order to achieve his desired effect in many of the show's featured scenes, and each scene, as Cody would often point out, had been dutifully authenticated. For example, in his 1893 tour, he staged a climactic reënactment of Custer's Last Stand, which he noted was approved by Mrs. Custer. Cody even authenticated himself and wrote in his program that he was an "authentic participant, repeating heroic parts played in actual life."
The cast included anyone who wanted to work for Cody: Mexicans, Native Americans, Cowboys, women, and children, along with special performers with expertise in shooting, lassoing, and riding. Cody's portrayal of cast relations was typically rosy and familial, but in reality, he was a demanding boss and a shrewd businessman. He tolerated no frivolity or laziness among his performers, and was quick to terminate anyone who failed to pull his or her own weight, even though the show suffered many tense moments when Cody's alcohol problem left him too drunk to perform. Still, he was generally considered an affable man, generous and willing to offer any assistance to friends who needed it. The problematic relations with Native Americans and Mexicans in his show, while valid concerns, did not trouble Cody. He genuinely believed that he was providing these displaced people with a rewarding and exciting career, and for his time, Cody's treatment of these groups was remarkably liberal.
Native Americans were the single most important ethnic component in the show. In most of Buffalo Bill's programs, the Indian is identified as "The Former Foe--Present Friend, the American," and Cody went to great lengths to promote the harmony between the whites and the Indians in his show. There were publicity campaigns aimed at promoting the friendly public meetings between 7th Cavalry veterans of Little Big Horn and Wounded Knee and Sioux Indians, posters which depicted Indians on Horseback above a slogan reading "An American," and photos like the one at right, which united Cody and Oglala Sioux chiefs Red Cloud and American Horse in an image of equality and peace.
In Cody's defense, Vine Deloria of the University of Arizona offers two points of fact regarding his relationship with the Indians in his show. (see "The Indians," in Buffalo Bill and the Wild West 45-56) First, he points out that Buffalo Bill's position enabled him to employ individuals considered dangerous by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and take them off the reservations to tour with the show. Since many Indian and military officers would rather have imprisoned these men, touring with Buffalo Bill "probably saved some of the chiefs from undue pressure and persecution by the government at home." The second point Deloria mentions is that Cody gave his Sioux warriors status as part of his "Congress of Rough Riders," a contingent which represented the finest horsemen in the world: American cavalrymen, German Cuirassiers, Vanqueros, cossacks, Arabs, Cubans, and Pacific Islanders. "Instead of degrading the Indians and classifying them as primitive savages," Deloria notes, "Cody elevated them to a status of equality with contingents from other nations," and therefore recognized their skills as horsemen and warriors by stressing their patriotism in defending their lands. Although the show operated under the principles of stereotypes and archetypes of the west, this conferred status indicated Cody's transcendent and sophistocated view of the Native Americans.
Another fabled character of the Buffalo Bill show was the cowboy. Cody's view of the cowboy focused primarily on the spirit expressed by this lifestyle: independence, skill, savvy, and brazen self-confidence. Around the world, the image of the cowboy was--and remains to this day--symbolic of life in the American West. The origins of the cowboy are not clear, but it likely emerged from the lifestyle of the young men who drove cattle from the range to market. The romanticized version of the cowboy is a hybrid of these rangers, hired ranch-hands of the post-Civil War West, and the indigenous Vaqueros of the Southwest. Black Americans lately released from the bonds of slavery actually made up a large part of the cowboy population. Bill Pickett, pictured at left is probably the most famous of these men. Black Americans were not as well represented in Cody's show, but their presence in the west was sizeable.
One of the most famous characters of the Wild West Show was Annie Oakley, who joined the show as "Little Sure Shot" in 1884, and remained with the cast until 1901. Oakley was actually a woman named Phoebe Ann Moses. Cody hired Moses to play the dime novel role of Oakley, a role which cast the western woman in nearly the same light as the cowboy: rugged, high-spitited, independent. The crucial difference between the two, as Henry Nash Smith and others are quick to point out, is that Oakley and other wild west heroines are cast also as "fallen women." Their characters are usually motivated by an impossible romantic attraction to a male lead who cannot reciprocate her affections because of her "fallen" status. Oakley drew consistent crowds for the show, however, and is probably the best remembered character in the Wild West show.
In 1893, the year of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Cody added the famed "Congress of Rough Riders of the World" to the roster of attractions. This military feature paraded a top-notch group of expert marksmen and riders of all nations before an audience dazzled by the dynamism of these men in action. Thanks to his friend, Theodore Roosevelt,
Cody's theatrical troupe found historical significance when Roosevelt organized his heroic team of Rough Riders to fight in the Spanish-American War. Roosevelt's appropriation of the cowboy myth elevated it to a level of respectability by rendering it in political and patriotic terms. Cody responded by adding to his show a simulated charge on San Juan Hill once Roosevelt had taken office, including in his act a few veterans from Roosevelt's squad. (see Richard Slotkin, "The 'Wild West,'" in Buffalo Bill and the Wild West 27-44)) Slotkin examines the "Rough Riders" in his article and discusses the strategic significance of introducing them at the Exposition.
As he sees it, the symbolism of the Rough Riders drew a connection between "the imperialism of Europe and of the United States--the Sixth Cavalry with Chasseurs, Indians with Arabs. And leading the whole Congress of imperial and native riders is the American Frontier hero, 'the king of them all.'" (37)
Slotkin argues that this comparison extends frontier symbolism into "a new phase of expansion--overseas, industrial, and imperialist." (37) This interpretation remakes the Spirit of the West
into the spirit which will make the United States a world power.