The mythical American West has captivated worldwide audiences since the first efforts to expand westwards. Made famous in the late nineteenth century, characters such as cowboys, sharpshooters, Native Americans, and prospectors have leapt into the collective imagination of the United States and the world more broadly. Epitomising the idea of the Wild West was Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, a show which toured around the US and Europe and brought the lore of the American West to life. This article will explore why this idea of the American frontier captivated such a wide audience, using Buffalo Bill’s Wild West as an illustration, and will examine the lasting impacts of this mythology on the modern understanding of American history.
William Cody, the man behind Buffalo Bill, was perhaps the most famous American of his age. Louis S. Warren highlights Cody’s popularity: his story was known to all. Cody’s life growing up on the frontier was fraught with Pony Express riding, trapping, and hunting buffalo. It became the subject of biographies, dime novels, and puff pieces all revelling in the excitement and masculinity that accompanied the Wild West. His show, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, brought to life characters and scenery which defined the American West: heroic cowboys, talented sharpshooters, and Native Americans fought and rode against a rocky, mountainous backdrop. Interestingly, Cody refused to call his show a ‘show’, nervous that this would endanger the realistic picture he was aiming to portray. Buffalo Bill was a huge success, and became, according to Warren, a ‘defining cultural memory’ of the US.
But why was his show such a success? What was it that resonated with audiences both at home and abroad? Warren argues that the portrayal of the wild, primitive West – including buffalo, Native Americans, and staged prairie fires – provided a dramatic contrast to the rapidly urbanising and industrialising nation that American was becoming, thus transporting the audience to a simpler time. By connecting the old and the new, Cody romanticised the American West and further cemented its mythological elements within the collective imagination of Americans. Buffalo Bill, therefore, defined the history of the American West. Cody’s show was also immensely popular in Europe for similar reasons. While grappling with issues such as colonialism, industrialism, and race relations, Europeans were able to look to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and escape into a simpler time, also allowing them a deeper understanding of their own time. However, Cody’s show was uniquely American. Will Wright argues that the success of this mythological Wild West was dependent on its elements of liberty and individualism – the very values America is proud to have been built upon. The cowboy in particular, argues Wright, is a symbol of individualism. The audience, then, is captivated by the reflection of the US demonstrated in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West.
However, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West also served to perpetuate racist and problematic ideas. Indeed, the portrayal of the destruction of Native Americans during the process of westward expansion was already being criticised in the 1970s, when Cody dramatically fell out of favour. A prime example is Cody’s vengeance of General Custer. After learning that General Custer had fallen to the Sioux and Cheyenne at the Battle of Little Bighorn, Cody killed and scalped a Cheyenne subchief, Yellow Hair, in an act of revenge. Soon after, Cody re-enacted this on stage in front of the Native Americans who worked on the show. This is perhaps one of the most significant legacies of the mythological American West; the romanticisation of the frontier fundamentally undermined the severity of the genocide of indigenous people. Cody’s brutal murder of Yellow Hair was presented as a heroic victory, and Custer’s defeat as a tragedy. Cody’s contribution to this narrative is what ultimately destroyed his reputation in the 1970s, though the damage had already been done.
Even today, the American West and its narrative remain influential. Westerns are one of the most important genres in film, and George Lucas has said that Star Wars is ‘in the tradition of the American Western’. Perhaps more seriously, high profile politicians use the American West in order to define their strategies. Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State in 1972, used the symbol of the American West to explain his diplomatic achievements, comparing himself to the cowboy: ‘a Wild West tale, if you like…this romantic, surprising character suits me’. Like contemporaries, we still enjoy the wildness of the West, its seemingly infinite opportunities and the way in which it is so different to our lives today. This lingering influence of the mythological American West therefore impacts our understanding of this history. The very real tragedy suffered by Native Americans is overlooked and trivialised in favour of the romantic, chivalrous cowboy and the exciting shoot-outs. When we remember this history in this way, we neglect the very real complexities and nuances of the time, and we keep alive myth instead of reality.
Written by Amy Hendrie
Brand, Lauren. “Conquering the West.” In The American Yawp , edited by Joseph Locke and Ben Wright. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018.
Leckie, Shirley A. “Buffalo Bill’s America: William Cody and the Wild West Show.” Western Historical Quarterly 38, no. 2 (2007): 215.
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Warren, Louis S. Buffalo Bill’s America: William Cody and the Wild West Show. New York: Knopf, 2005.
Wright, Will. The Wild West: The Mythical Cowboy and Social Theory. London: SAGE, 2001.