The Wild West in 1902

In an age of great showmen and traveling entertainers, William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s Wild West eventually became a moving extravaganza, including not only cowboys and Indians, but costumed performers from around the world who played to international audiences. The Omaha World-Herald on July 30, 1902, called the next day’s performance of Cody’s show in Omaha “more comprehensive than ever.”

The show consisted of a series of historical scenes interspersed with feats of showmanship, sharpshooting, racing, and rodeo-style events. Native Americans figured prominently in many of the performances. The exact scenes depicted changed as time went on. Some were “typical” events, such as early settlers defending a homestead; others were more specific, such as the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

“All the features that have gone to make the Wild West popular are retained and improved on this year,” said the World-Herald in 1902. “The Indians, Mexicans, Cubans, the cowboys, the Cossacks, the Arabs, the Gauchos, the soldiers of the United States cavalry, and artillery and the cavalry of England and Germany, are all a part and parcel of the arenic display. The hold-up of the stage coach and emigrant train, the dance on horseback by cowboys and western girls, the Indian war dances, the marksmanship of Colonel Cody and Johnny Baker [Buffalo Bill’s close friend and unofficial foster son] are all characteristic features that have been retained. The great battle scene showing the struggle for and capture of San Juan Hill is the crowning pictorial representation, and is only possible in this company that can call into use genuine participants.”

The World-Herald added that one more factor promised an exciting performance: “Cody and [Nate] Salsbury [Buffalo Bill’s partner and manager of the Wild West] have this year determined to give the best exhibition possible from their experience, and to that end a serious railroad accident last fall has lent them efficient, if expensive, aid. Over 200 of their horses were killed in a collision on a southern railroad, and this season an equal number of animals were brought direct from the western plains, and not one of them had ever felt or even seen saddle or bridle. They were viciously fractious, and with all the fire and spirit of untamed horses they have added greatly to the interest of the public and to the danger of the riders. This is especially the case with the ‘outlaw,’ or bucking horses, which have this season so nearly mastered their riders on many occasions as to break their bones, and several good horsemen have spent a short season in the hospital as the result of the struggle for mastery. The bucking horse is to large numbers of patrons the exhibition and it certainly is an item of the program that is worth going a long way to see!”

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