William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody was born near Davenport, Iowa, on Feb. 26, 1846. In 1860, at age 14, he joined the Pony Express which advertised for “expert riders willing to risk death daily.” During the Civil War, he served as a scout and enlisted soldier, and at age 21 was hired by the Kansas Pacific Railroad to hunt buffalo that would be used to feed construction crews. In 17 months, he claimed to have killed 4,280 buffaloes, garnering his nickname in the process.
Buffalo Bill’s fame, in part, started when he was asked to guide a buffalo hunt in Nebraska for the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia in January 1872. Gen. Phil Sheridan arranged the hunt, which also included Gen. George Custer. Arriving at the hunt, Bill was described as being “…seated on a spanking charger, and with his long hair and spangled buckskin suit he appeared as the feared and loved by all for miles around.”
In 1872, author Ned Buntline persuaded Buffalo Bill to star in the play “The Scouts of the Plains,” which was based on the fictional “Buffalo Bill” in Buntline’s dime novels. As it turned out, Bill loved being a showman, and in 1883 he created “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.”
Buffalo Bill brought his show to Phoenix at least twice in the early 1900s to entertain the people within the growing city. He traveled by train with more than 800 people and animals that were part of his show. The show ran two hours, rain or shine, under an “immense canvas canopy.” Admission to the show was 50 cents for bench seating, $1 for grandstand chairs and children younger than 10 were admitted for half price.
In the early years of the show, Bill would stage a parade through the town he was performing in to drum up business. When the show arrived in Phoenix in 1908, he rode through the major streets of Phoenix to “…convince the public that the old scout is still in the harness, ready to appear as he positively will at every performance.” The performers along with the animals walked from the train tracks up Fourth Street to the grounds of the performance area, which included a cowboy campsite and an Indian village with teepees.
Shows were given at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. and included cowboys riding horses and bucking broncos, a game of football between cowboys and Indians on horseback using a ball that was six feet in diameter and an artillery drill with cannon firing. There was even a train holdup where “…a real railroad train consisting of an engine, tender and combination baggage and passenger coach, puffed across the far end of the arena on a wobbly set of rails. In the attack on the train, a safe (was) blown up at each performance with a huge charge of gunpowder.”
The show also included the reenactment of the Battle of Summit Springs from 1869. Newspaper articles indicated “not only is the battle scene reproduced and that of the duel, but also the mode of the Redman’s living at that period. All the Indians will be seen in their full war paint and feathers.”
Another feature of the show was the reenactment of a buffalo hunt with a small herd of buffalo. News reports indicated “there is plenty of gun-play in the stage holdup, train robbery, buffalo hunt and several other features. The buffaloes are very interesting to see, as they are of the hundred or so bison still surviving.” Buffalo Bill appeared six times during the course of the show. One of the spectators, a middle aged woman, commented, “‘Why, isn’t he young looking!… I saw him when I was a little girl and he looked older than that then.”
Bill toured the world with his Wild West Show, and he invested the money he earned in filmmaking, tourism, ranching and mining in Arizona. However, these ventures did not return a profit for him, and the Wild West show eventually ended in 1913. His debts forced him to continue touring through 1916 as an attraction in other shows. In 1917, at age 71, he died in Denver of kidney failure.
— Mike Miller
— Photo courtesy of the Arizona State Library,
Archives and Public Records; History and Archives Division, Phoenix #97-8055