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In 1883: Buffalo Bill Launches His First “Wild West Show”

Of course we are a bit biased, but 1883 was a pretty big year. Yes—it is the year that Edward and J. Brooke Hamilton launched Hamilton Shirt Co., but it is also the year in which a number of incredible events took place, from the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge to the unveiling of Thomas Edison’s overhead lighting. Four generations later, we are looking back to this meaningful time in world history to better appreciate our origins through a series of posts that investigate the defining events of 1883.

As such, we thought it particularly fitting given our western heritage to read up on Buffalo Bill Cody’s first Wild West Show, which first debuted in 1883 in North Platte, Nebraska.

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One part rodeo and one part theatre, the show’s celebration of life on the western frontier made it an instant attraction throughout the US and abroad. Viewers flocked to witness the impressive displays of cowboy skill such as lassoing and marksmanship (most notably that of celebrity sharpshooter Annie Oakley), and were regaled with fantastical vaudeville retellings of historical events in the western territory. In fact, the most popular of these “historical” scenes was an interpretation of the Battle of Little Bighorn, which was altered to suggest that Buffalo Bill himself could have saved General Custer and his men had he been there.

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Unsurprisingly, the Wild West Show retained a strong presence of Native Americans who participated in these scenes, as well as other aspects of the show. Most famously, the show featured Chief Sitting Bull—a good friend of the show’s founder William “Buffalo Bill” Cody—who performed regularly for a number of years.

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From the very beginning, the Wild West Show was ultimately a way for William Cody to preserve and honor his way of life as a frontiersman. Consequently, he is widely regarded as the first person to cash in on the western myth. While the show ultimately dissolved in the wake of an economic downturn, it nonetheless did inspire a widespread interest in the American West that lives on to this day, whether through film, fashion or even contemporary rodeo culture.

Tagged: , , , by Jake Eshelman