Our Opinion: When the wild west came east


GREAT BARRINGTON >> Cowboys and cowgirls were popular on television in the 1950s — and while in retrospect the dead-aim gunsmiths might not have been the best role models, that's what many of us grew up with. There was no blood and gore.

A few generations earlier, Berkshirites had opportunity to see the real thing, Annie Oakley, her mentor Buffalo Bill and a posse of Indians and cowboys among them. William F. Cody, aka Buffalo Bill, brought his entourage to Pittsfield 11 times between 1874 and 1916. North Adams hosted the same shows, plus one more.

Cody (1846-1917) was born in Iowa Territory, rode for Pony Express and was a civilian scout for the U.S. Army during Indian wars (receiving the Medal of Honor in 1872). He panned for gold, drove a stagecoach, managed a hotel and trapped beaver. Oh yes, he hunted buffalo to supply workers on the Kansas Pacific Railroad, hence his nickname.

He was too bloodthirsty to appease popular thinking on killing the prairie beasts; he is said to have shot more than 4,200 of the animals, and earned exclusive use of his nickname in one 48-hour slayfest scoring 68 bison, besting nearest competitor William Comstock's 48 kills. That's nothing you would brag about today.

Cody became an outsized celebrity of his day, and to capitalize, he organized Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, which went through several name changes but essentially offered a few celebrity and a few ordinary performers. Sitting Bull the Hunkpapa Lakota leader. Gunfighter and gambler "Wild Bill" Hickok. The Metis scout Gabriel Dumont. Frontierswoman Calamity Jane. We remember them from 1950s TV shows. They were the real thing.

Typically at the fairgrounds in North Adams in May 1895, Cody and troupe rode, shot, tumbled, raced and otherwise entertained. "It is the verdict of all who saw the show," the North Adams Transcript reported May 2, "that it was far superior to anything of the kind ever before presented in this part of the country. In fact, there was never anything like it here before [actually, Buffalo Bill had been in North Adams six times before]. In the wild west business Buffalo Bill is originator, stands pre-eminent and without a rival. He is in this field what Barnum was as a circus man and his fame is as widespread as that of Barnum ."

A ruder age

The newspaper the day before had gushed that Cody "is not alone a celebrity, he is a survivor, and the existing type of an extinct race of men. [he is] a picturesque and commanding figure of a ruder and less commonplace age [a] buckskin-clad, flowing-haired product of our American frontier life."

Cody and posse paraded through North Adams on Thursday morning — they had performed in Pittsfield the day before — to an audience said to number in the thousands, and many of them attended the afternoon exhibition.

The show was in the open air, as "too much ground is occupied to be covered by a tent. The seats are erected in a circle and there is canvas back of and over these so that spectators are sheltered from sun or storm, but the performers have nothing but the sky above them."

The entertainment began with a grand entrance of Indians, cowboys, Mexicans, Cossacks, gauchos, Arabs, African-Americans and soldiers from U.S., English, French, German and Russian armies. Particularly impressive were stunt riders and strong men acrobats. There was a re-enactment of Indian attacks on settlers' cabins and a stagecoach — a vehicle said to have actually once run on the route between Cheyenne and Deadwood.

Under electric lights that evening, Cody shot and broke a glass ball while on running horseback. Annie Oakley demonstrated her prowess, as did Johnnie Baker, who "did some of his shooting while standing on his head, his feet being supported by an assistant, and very few were the balls that any of these marksmen missed."

The newspaper reporter concluded, "There was not a single feature of the exhibition that was in the least degree objectionable or that did not come fully up to, and even surpass, the expectations of all who saw it."

Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.


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