The Program

The program of the Wild West Show provided all the details and fascinating facts any vistor would care to know. Complete with history, biography, synopses, and hand-drawn graphics, it was certainly a souvenir meant to be valued and cherished by the spectator who bought it. The program also presented itself as a source of knowldege, authority, and authenticity about the west. The articles of historical events and notable bigoraphies were meant to be educational and authoritative; the program was not merely for publicity. Many of the areas of western history which we find so troubling today were celebrated and exaggerated within the confines of the grand circus tents which comprised the theater for Buffalo Bill's show, and many of them constituted the most celebrated acts of the show.

Acts like the Indian Races helped to spread the perception of the Native Americans as a savage, wild race that rode fiercely across the plains. The program contains a salutatory by John Burke, manager of the show, which notes that "the pressure of the white man, the movement of the emigrant train, the extension of our railways, together with the military power of the General Government, have, in a measure, borken down the barriers behind which the Indian fought and defied the advance of civilization." The presence of Native American actors in the show served mostly to confirm these notions of "the red-skinned danger" that Burke speaks of in the program, and reinforce the conventional stereotypes of the native tribes.

Another fabled event on the frontier was the bison hunt. The number of these impressive animals roaming wild on the plains numbered in the millions in the early part of the Nineteenth century, but by the latter part, they had been hunted nearly to extinction. The Native Americans were largely dependent on these animals for food, clothing, shelter, and tools, and as Alan Trachtenberg notes in The Incorporation of America, white men were encouraged to kill as many buffalo as they could because "every buffalo dead is an Indian gone." Short of the racial implications involved in the buffalo hunt, the loss of the great herds also signified a part of the tremendous ecological toll westward expansion took on the western landscape.

Smith mentions the colorful costumes of the Vaqueros--the Mexican version of the cowboy who would later influence the dandy dress and the unique customs we associate with our American cowboys. Vaqueros too were a part of the Wild West Show. The program notes regarding the Vaqueros distinguish them from the Cowboy in that "[the cowboy] is usually an American inured from boyhood to the excitements and hardships of his life, and the other represents in his blood the stock of the Mexican, or it may be of the half-breed." The Vaquero, then, is not the precursor to the Cowboy; the reverse is true. The Cowboy is the true original, influenced by the independent American spirit and the wide open lawlessness of the West--the vaquero is un-American, and any comparison drawn between the two must acknowledge the Cowboy as the true source of inspiration.

The program was also a source of information, providing facts about indian origins of state names, the latest trends in marksmanship, and historical profiles of great Civil War scouts and frontiersmen. It also offered the following amusing bit of promotion:

A Few Reasons Why You Should Visit "Buffalo Bill's Wild West:"
2nd--Because it is a LIVING PICTURE OF LIFE ON THE FRONTIER"
4th--You will see INDIANS, COWBOYS, and MEXICANS as they live.
5th--You will see BUFFALO, ELK, WILD HORSES, and a multitude of curiosities.
6th--You will see an INDIAN VILLAGE, transplanted from the Plains.
9th--You will see INDIAN WARFARE depicted in true colors.
12th--You will see a BUFFALO HUNT in ALL ITS REALISTIC DETAILS.

Many of the features Buffalo Bill's show promoted detailed a world already lost--the buffalo had been exhausted, the Mexicans had been pushed back at the Alamo, the Indians had been defeated in bloody battles and confined to reservations, and the "wilds" of the frontier were already well on their way to "civilization." Even in its heyday, Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show operated under popular myths of an old imagined west which was rapidly changing and a nostalgia for an actual past time when the west was still an unknown territory rich with promise and mystique--a time which had already expired its brief hour of possibility and potential.

Introduction|The Cast

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