Shooting Star (Part 2): Buffalo Bill Comes to Cowtown

In 1879 the traveling show of Army scout/buffalo hunter/“Indian fighter” William Frederick Cody (see Part 1) made its first extended tour of Texas, including Fort Worth.

And Fort Worth had the railroads to thank.

Back when B. B. Paddock and other civic leaders had campaigned to bring the first railroad to town in 1876, among the many benefits to Fort Worth they had envisioned (e.g., importing emigrants, lumber, and cold beer, exporting cattle and cotton) probably was not being able to see wild West shows.

After all, in the 1870s Fort Worth was the wild West.

Nonetheless, such shows, in addition to circuses and menageries, were popular. And they were able to tour from city to city because the railroads allowed them to move tons of people, animals, and equipment.

Buffalo Bill and his show had performed in about one hundred towns across the nation since the year 1879 began. The company zig-zagged week after week from town to town by train, seldom spending more than one day in a town: morning street parade, afternoon show, maybe a night show, pack up and rattle on to the next town.

The show would spend the first half of the month in Texas: December 5 El Paso, 6 Dallas, 8 Corsicana, 9-10 Austin, 11 Brenham, 15-16 San Antonio, 17-19 Galveston.

December 4 was Fort Worth’s day to see—in the flesh and buckskin fringe—the famous frontiersman. By 1879 Buffalo Bill had been a national celebrity for ten years.

On December 4 Fort Worth first was treated to a street parade with “Indians on horseback, headed by Buffalo Bill’s Military Band.”

That night the “monster combination of 24 artists” presented the melodrama May Cody; or, Lost and Won at Evans Hall, which was owned by merchant Burwell Christmas Evans.

May Cody was Buffalo Bill’s sister. In the melodrama, Mormons and Native Americans were the villains.

The presentation included “Buffalo Bill as a rifle shot, at which he is acknowledged unrivalled,”

“genuine Indians in their war dances and camp scenes,” and tableaus about the garrison at Fort Bridger, Brigham Young’s Temple, and the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857, when at least 120 members of an emigrant wagon train were killed in an attack by Mormon militia and Native Americans in Utah.

In Fort Worth, as in all the show’s stops, copies of Cody’s just-published autobiography (he was thirty-three) Life of Buffalo Bill were for sale during the stage performance. Tickets were sold at Max Elser’s bookstore. The company stayed at the El Paso Hotel during its time in Fort Worth.

(Photo from Library of Congress.)

After the performance the Fort Worth Democrat reported that Evans Hall was “well filled,” the performance “first class.”

But Cody was not pleased.

The Democrat followed up: “Buffalo Bill himself told us, that during his seven years travel, he had never seen a stage in so bad a condition. No dressing rooms, no light, and, in fact, no nothing.”

Cody did not return to Fort Worth for twenty-one years.

But elsewhere the show went on. And it was constantly changing. For example, in 1884 Annie Oakley joined the show as “Little Sure Shot.” Audiences watched her shoot a cigar out of her husband’s lips and split the edge of a playing card at thirty paces. Demonstrations such as those earned her a salary second only to that of Buffalo Bill himself. (Photo from Wikipedia.)

In 1885 Lakota chief Sitting Bull joined the show for four months. (Photo from Wikipedia.)

By 1887 Buffalo Bill had gone international. In England his show performed before the Prince of Wales, Queen Victoria, the future King George V, and the future Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany.

And in 1890 the show performed for—and was blessed by—Pope Leo at the Vatican.

The Vatican appearance was news from Los Angeles to Liverpool.

Meanwhile in Wales, a story featuring Buffalo Bill was serialized.

Fast-forward ten years—twenty-one years after Buffalo Bill last set moccasin in Fort Worth. By 1900 Buffalo Bill was an international superstar—before the era of radio and TV and the Internet. Larry McMurtry and other historians later said that Cody was the most recognizable celebrity on Earth.

By the time Cody returned to Fort Worth on October 10, 1900 for a “grand street cavalcade” and two shows, his company had grown from twenty-four in 1879 to “over 1,200 men and horses.”

His show had evolved into a spectacle, in effect a wild West circus. The show was too big to be held in an indoor theater like Evans Hall. In 1900 the Fort Worth show was held outdoors and under canvas at the “exhibition grounds,” which was the former site of the Texas Spring Palace on the Texas & Pacific reservation at the south end of downtown.

The ad in the Register called the show a “veritable kindergarten of history” with a  “military brass band and orchestra” and “band of genuine Indian chiefs.”

The show featured two types of rough riders: Rough Riders (capitalized) and rough riders (lowercased).

Hence, the name of the show: “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World.”

The 1900 show, coming less than two years after the Spanish-American War of 1898, featured

sixteen of Colonel Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, who reenacted their 1898 “charge up San Juan Hill” in Cuba.

Remember that in 1900 there were no newsreels to show audiences film of news events such as the Spanish-American War. Theatrical reenactments, however simplified and subjective, were the newsreels of the time.

Roosevelt and some of his Rough Riders in Cuba in 1898. (Photo from Wikipedia.)

And then there were the show’s rough riders (rough rider as a term meaning a rider of wild or unbroken horses predated Roosevelt’s usage): “the most varied and unique muster-roll of the world’s mounted warriors”: Russian cossacks, western cowboys, South American gauchos, Mexican vaqueros, Irish lancers, Arabian acrobats, Sioux Indians, Filipinos, Hawaiians: “a general ‘round up’ of all the equestrian nations of the world.”

Buffalo Bill was back in Fort Worth in 1902. The ad for the show in the Telegram was a veritable carnival barker: exclamation marks, superlatives, exuberant capitalization. “BIGGEST AND BEST!” and “SEE IT WHILE YOU MAY! ENJOY IT WHILE YOU CAN!”

The show again featured rough riders from around the world in addition to “Artillery drill by veterans,”

“Pony Express riding, . . . celebrated crack shots and noted marksmen,” “U.S. cavalry drills and military exercises, the famous Deadwood stage coach, attack, repulse and victory.”

And, of course, “Col. W. F. Cody (Buffalo Bill) in feats of marksmanship.”

There was even a simulated “buffalo hunt as it was in the far West” with “a herd of real buffalo, the last of their race.”

The show also featured another reenactment of (fairly) current events: the “Capture of Pekin” in 1900. During the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901) in China the capture of Pekin (Beijing) by the Eight-Nation Alliance (including the United States) had ended the siege of the Peking Legation Quarter.

In 1908 Buffalo Bill’s show was staged on North Main Street north of Hermann Park.

The Telegram wrote a feature about highlights of the show, including Arizona Jack, who was a bronc rider, trick roper, and marksman, and the trained horses of Ray Thompson of Dallas.

The show again featured a reenactment, although this one recalled Cody’s early days as an Army scout: the 1869 Battle of Summit Springs (see Part 1).

“The Battle of Summit Springs is depicted with realistic vividness. Showing one of the deciding conflicts between the Indians and government forces in the long drawn out conquest of the western wilds. With savage display of frightful warfare, history is recalled in thrilling scenes.”

And “The great train hold-up pictures heroic deeds of ‘the bandit hunters of the Union Pacific,’ fearless men who have rescued the pathways of commerce from the loot and depredations of the desperado.”

The show also featured a game of “hoofball.” The Record wrote: “Buffalo Bill put on a horseback game of football that had all the clowns that ever painted their faces lashed to a pole for mirth—real, true genuine laughter; and besides that it was a wholesome thriller. Back and forth the redskins and the cowboys went dashing after a pigskin so big that one wondered at times what was going on the other side of the immense round leather thing that rolled about, pushed and kicked by the men and horses. And don’t imagine for a single instant that this game was ‘fixed,’ for the way those copper-colored players and the cowboys went into the feature it certainly looked as if they had money up on the result of the hoofball game.”

In 1910 Buffalo Bill’s show performed at Haines Park, which was located near the streetcar barn where today’s city bus barn is on East Lancaster Avenue (and named for streetcar company general manager Frank M. Haines, not Spring Palace fire hero Al Hayne).

By 1910 the show had evolved again. Now the show was double-Billed, named “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Pawnee Bill’s Great Far East Combined Exhibitions.” Gordon William (“Pawnee Bill”) Lillie was a showman and performer. Despite Pawnee Bill’s nickname, his part of the show was an “Oriental spectacle” showing the “richness and splendors of the romantic Far East.”

(See that “Col. Cody’s terminal tour and final appearance here” in the ad? Ignore that. Cody had been talking of retiring since the turn of the century. However, in 1910 he was sixty-four (life expectancy of a male born in 1846 was about fifty-five).

The show featured “Bedouin athletes in feats of agility, strength and daring,” “cowboy sports men with ill-tempered bucking bronchos,” “wild West girls rivaling cowboys in equestrian feats,” “100 real Indians,” “Rossi’s musical elephants: mammoth musicians playing in time and tune,” and “an attack on an emigrant train: the perils of pioneering and prospecting out on the Plains.”

Pawnee Bill in 1910. (Photo from Wikipedia.)

In 1912, after building his fame in newspapers and dime novels, Cody embraced a new technology as he portrayed himself in the silent movie The Life of Buffalo Bill. (In the future Cody would be portrayed on screen by the likes of Joel McCrea, Dickie Moore, Clayton Moore, Charlton Heston, Paul Newman, Stephen Baldwin, and Peter Coyote.)

In 1912 Buffalo Bill was back at Haines Park, his hair and Van Dyke now as white as the horse he rode. Nonetheless, a Star-Telegram ad promised, “Buffalo Bill personally will appear at both performances Monday in which he will demonstrate with his rifle, mounted on a swiftly running horse, the fact that the grand old scout is still in the ring with eye undimmed and nerves as steady as ever.”

The show was, the ad proclaimed, “An aftertaste of bygone days when romance and adventure spun its lustrous warp through the history and life story of the hardy men and women who blazed the trail for the creation of an empire . . . Depicting the progress of civilization and the last of the momentous and decisive Indian Wars where Buffalo Bill’s rifle spoke for the last time in closing the career of ‘Tall Bull,’ ‘Yellow Hand’ [see Part 1] and other leaders of the savage forces and now depicted with every accessory, realistic, complete and veracious.”


Pawnee Bill’s part of the show presented “the Far East with all its romantic, past, wild, weird, fanatic ceremonies, sports, pastimes, dances, music and strange people from every clime in quaint uniforms and costumes, instruments and native weapons of many lands with nodding plumes and flying colors of the Orient which form a striking contrast to the rugged life of the Occident and the roughriders of the world thus reaching the very zenith of human possibility.”


The Star-Telegram also went behind the scenes of the show, which arrived on fifty double-length railroad cars: “The show might well be termed a traveling city, for within its confines are a post office, a blacksmith and carpenter shop, a physician and veterinary’s office, a barber and tailor ship, restaurant, and a complete electric lighted carbonating plant on wheels for the bottling of Vin Fiz,” which was a grape drink made by Armour.

Three chefs prepared three meals daily for eight hundred cast and crew, catering to both westerners and Asians, both carnivores and vegetarians, cooking with a steamer, the Star-Telegram wrote, “the size of a fire engine.”

After the show the Star-Telegram wrote: “Some of the old time stunts are missing from the attraction. The Oklahoma negro and his ‘bulldogging’ stunt is not with the show this year. This fellow entertained former audiences by throwing a steer with his teeth.”

That surely is an allusion to yet another Bill: Bill Pickett.

Statue of Bill Pickett at the stockyards.

Buffalo Bill may have been a superstar, but by 1912 he needed money. In 1902 he had formed a mining and milling company in Arizona. It lost a lot of money. In 1912 Cody began selling city lots in his Cody addition and Buffalo Bill and Scouts’ Rest subdivisions in North Platte, Nebraska. In addition to Buffalo Bill Avenue, streets were named for generals Sherman, Sheridan, and Custer.

Cody addition today.

But Cody continued to lose money, and in 1913 his show went bankrupt.

To rescue his show, in 1914 Cody partnered with the Sells-Floto Circus.

When Cody and the circus came to Fort Worth in October 1914, “Buffalo Bill himself” received second billing.

The circus was performed in three rings under a tent that could accommodate fourteen thousand people.

The circus featured forty clowns, a sixty-member band, contortionists, tumblers, bareback riders, trapeze artists, “marvelously trained” horses, and, of course, lions, tigers, monkeys, and elephants trained to simulate popular dances such as the two-step and cakewalk.

The Star-Telegram wrote that highlights included a simulated stagecoach robbery by “painted Indians,” defeated by a posse of cowboys with “wild riding” and “quick popping of guns,” “Captain Dutch Recardo, who trains lions, tigers, and leopards with nothing more than a buggy whip and a kitchen chair,” “Zora, the only woman elephant trainer in the world,” and the “government-bred hyney,” a cross between a donkey and a zebra.

In 1914 Cody was sixty-eight years old. Nonetheless, he cut a dashing figure on a horse. Larry McMurtry would later write, “Buffalo Bill looked so good on a horse that it was almost as if the animal had been created just for him to ride.”

Indeed, a highlight of the 1914 show for Cowtowners came when, the Star-Telegram wrote, “Buffalo Bill made his bow to the audience, . . . riding around a couple of times on his easy-galloping snow-white mount. He drew up in the center ring and made one long bow as his mount backed a dozen steps, a trick of courtesy which Buffalo Bill himself taught him. Then Buffalo Bill spoke, bowing right to left: ‘Texas . . .,’ he shouted, ‘Texas: what a thrill the name has. But whoever heard the name Texas without thinking of Fort Worth?’”

By the time the circus reached Fort Worth, it had traveled thirty thousand miles by rail across twenty-eight states in 1914. The tour ended the next day in Wichita Falls.

In 1915, thirty-six years after his first appearance in Fort Worth, Buffalo Bill returned for a last hurrah.

He led the Sells-Floto Circus parade through downtown and rescued the passengers of the Deadwood stagecoach after it was attacked by “wild, bepainted Indians.”

The circus was held at the “T&P Show Grounds” at Main and Vickery streets (former site of the Spring Palace).

Old soldiers never die; they just hand out awards for newspaper contests. More than forty years after a poem (see Part 1) marked the beginning of Buffalo Bill’s fame, a poem again commemorated his fame. To promote Cody’s appearance in Fort Worth, the Star-Telegram sponsored a contest offering prizes for the best limericks about Buffalo Bill.

So, come October 18, there was the old Army scout, buffalo hunter, and “Indian fighter” at the newspaper office handing out prizes. He gave $15 ($420 today) to the writer of the first-place limerick:

“There was once an inquisitive Sioux
Who set out to learn ‘who is whioux’;
But he soon had his fill
Of Buffalo Bill
And decided at once to skiddioux.”

And with that, Buffalo Bill Cody bid Cowtown forever adioux.

In 1916 Buffalo Bill merged his show yet again, this time with the wild West show operated by the Miller brothers’ 101 Ranch of Oklahoma.

In 1916 Europe was at war, and America was preparing for the worst. In fact, military preparedness was the theme of the pageant of Buffalo Bill’s new show, which had a rather long-winded name: “‘Buffalo Bill’ (Himself) and the 101 Ranch Wild West Shows Combined.”

Nine weeks after appearing in Winston-Salem, William Frederick Cody was dead. He was seventy-one.

His death was news from Alaska to England.

The Dallas Morning News editorial page reacted dryly: “Buffalo Bill probably was ready to go. He had outlived the buffaloes.”

Cody is buried in Golden, Colorado. (Photos from Library of Congress and Wikipedia.)

Buffalo Bill Cody has been dead more than a century, but the shooting star remains an icon in popular culture and a subject of scholarship.

Posts About Fort Worth’s Wild West History

(Thanks to Dennis Hogan for the tip.)

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2 Responses to Shooting Star (Part 2): Buffalo Bill Comes to Cowtown

  1. Ron Tyler says:

    The first exhibition I worked on when I became curator of history at the Amon Carter Museum of Western Art was “The Wild West”, the story of Buffalo Bill, Pawnee Bill, and many others who organized Wild West shows. Don Russell, who wrote a good biography of Buffalo Bill, did the book to accompany the exhibition, which the museum published. I wish I had know about Cody’s trips to Fort Worth at that time; I would have incorporated them into the exhibition. Thanks for this great story.

    • hometown says:

      Thanks, Ron. As you know, you can know a lot of Fort Worth history, but people still come up to you and say, “Did you know . . .?” putting your jaw right back on the ground. Dennis Hogan up in Frisco has given me several tips that developed into posts such as this one.

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