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When Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show came to Hertfordshire

PUBLISHED: 10:38 11 June 2019 | UPDATED: 17:18 11 June 2019

Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill, taken by William Notman studios in Quebec during Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, in August 1885. Sitting Bull (1831-1890) was a Hunkpapa Lakota holy man who led his people as a tribal chief during the Indian Wars over the creation of Indian reservations (photo: History Images / Alamy Stock Photo)

Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill, taken by William Notman studios in Quebec during Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, in August 1885. Sitting Bull (1831-1890) was a Hunkpapa Lakota holy man who led his people as a tribal chief during the Indian Wars over the creation of Indian reservations (photo: History Images / Alamy Stock Photo)

Credit: Science History Images / Alamy Stock Photo

This month 115 years ago, Buffalo Bill brought his epic Wild West spectacular to Hitchin - possibly the greatest event the town has ever seen

What an incongruous sight it must have been - hundreds of cowboys and American Indians, together with some 500 horses and exotic 'rough riders', all led by Buffalo Bill, descending on Edwardian Hertfordshire.

Travelling in three special trains, Buffalo Bill's Wild West show brought its breathtaking performances to Hitchin in June 1904 as part of a British tour, teeming down from the station to set up camp on Butts Close - an ancient green space in the heart of the market town.

Buffalo Bill was born William Frederick Cody in Iowa in 1846 and came to be celebrated as the youngest Indian fighter on the Great Plains when in 1857 he killed one of the Native Americans who attacked the cattle drive he was working on.

After the American Civil War, during which he served as a scout for the Union Army (he would later join the US Army as a scout in the Indian Wars) and a stint as a Pony Express rider, Cody hunted buffalo to feed construction crews on the Union Pacific Railroad. He is said to have slaughtered some 4,280 buffalo, earning him the title of 'champion buffalo killer of the Great Plains'. The name gave him the inspiration for his showman persona, when, as a budding impresario, he created a Wild West theatrical extravaganza in 1883.

It was 11 years earlier that Cody had gained prominence thanks to a novel written by Edward Zane Carroll Judson under the pen name Ned Buntline. Judson had made Cody the hero of his highly sensationalised dime novel The Scouts of the Plains and convinced Cody to travel to Chicago to star in a stage version of the book. While Cody and Judson parted ways after a year, the former hunter enjoyed the life of a performer and stayed on the stage for 11 seasons before creating his own touring spectacle.

He was not the first to come up with the concept, with the original Wild West shows having begun in the 1840s, but he was determined to make his fortune from his experiences of the American West.

With a cast of hundreds, his melodrama featured galloping horses, fancy shooting, battle reenactments and, above all, American Indians representing the indigenous tribes.

Cody even attracted leader of the Sioux, Sitting Bull, to join the troupe in 1885. The victor of the battle against Custer's forces at Little Bighorn just nine years earlier, performed in the show for four months after Cody agreed to pay him $50 a week - 20 times the amount Indians who served as policemen on reservations earned.

An 1890s poster depicting a 'perfect illustration' of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and Congress of Rough Riders of the World. The show was watched by Queen Victoria (photo: Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo)An 1890s poster depicting a 'perfect illustration' of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and Congress of Rough Riders of the World. The show was watched by Queen Victoria (photo: Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo)

Paul Fees, former curator of the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, Wyoming, says, 'The role of Indian people was both essential and anomalous in the Wild West. At least in the big shows they generally were treated and paid the same as other performers.

'They were able to travel with their families and they earned a living not possible to them on their reservations. They were encouraged by Buffalo Bill and others to retain their language and rituals. They gained access to political and economic leaders, and their causes were sometimes argued in the published show programmes.

'Yet they were stereotyped as mounted, war-bonneted warriors, the last impediment to civilisation. Thus they had to re-fight a losing war nightly; and their hollow victory in the Little Big Horn enactments demonstrated over and over to their audiences the justification for American conquest.'

American sharpshooter Annie Oakley - immortalised in the musical Annie Get Your Gun - joined the show in 1885, where she was often referred to as 'Little Sure Shot'. She was one of the show's star attractions for 16 years. Annie was renowned for her trick shots. From 30 paces she was able to split the edge of a playing card, shatter glass balls thrown in the air, hit dimes our four months after Cody agreed to pay him $50 a week - 20 times the amount Indians who served as policemen on reservations earned.

Paul Fees, former curator of the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, Wyoming, says, 'The role of Indian people was both essential and anomalous in the Wild West. At least in the big shows they generally were treated and paid the same as other performers.

'They were able to travel with their families and they earned a living not possible to them on their reservations. They were encouraged by Buffalo Bill and others to retain their language and rituals. They gained access to political and economic leaders, and their causes were sometimes argued in the published show programmes.

'Yet they were stereotyped as mounted, war-bonneted warriors, the last impediment to civilisation. Thus they had to re-fight a losing war nightly; and their hollow victory in the Little Big Horn enactments demonstrated over and over to their audiences the justification for American conquest.'

Buffalo Bill's Wild West poster of 1904. It was displayed around Hitchin in the run-up to the event (photo: Amoret Tanner / Alamy Stock Photo)Buffalo Bill's Wild West poster of 1904. It was displayed around Hitchin in the run-up to the event (photo: Amoret Tanner / Alamy Stock Photo)

American sharpshooter Annie Oakley - immortalised in the musical Annie Get Your Gun - joined the show in 1885, where she was often referred to as 'Little Sure Shot'. She was one of the show's star attractions for 16 years. Annie was renowned for her trick shots. From 30 paces she was able to split the edge of a playing card, shatter glass balls thrown in the air, hit dimes held between fingers and shoot an apple out of a dog's mouth. In her most famous trick she used a mirror to hit a target behind her, shooting backwards. These feats astonished and thrilled, and generated huge audiences.

There was plenty else to pull in spectators. Hard-riding cowboys and yelling Indians, trick riders, ropers and shooters, the capture of a stagecoach, Indian war dances and wild animals such as buffalo, elk, bear, moose and deer. Acts included Bison Hunt, Train Robbery and Indian War Battle Re-enactment. The grand finale was usually a scene where Indians attacked a settler's cabin and were repelled by Buffalo Bill, cowboys and Mexicans.

The show first visited England in 1887, watched by Queen Victoria as part of her Golden Jubilee celebrations, and was staged throughout Europe. It returned to Europe seven more times and by the end of the 19th century Buffalo Bill was one of the most famous people in the world.

In 1904 the Wild West show, earlier styled 'Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World', included a gruelling six-month schedule across England, Wales and Scotland, with a show in a different town almost every day.

Tony Riley, coordinator of community group The Friends of Butts Close, says, 'Their logistics were impressive. The Wild West show had a cast of hundreds - different sources give 700 to 800 people - and some 500 horses. The entourage travelled in three special trains; the show finished in St Albans on June 22 and journeyed from there to Hitchin via Hatfield, as there was at that time a direct rail line from St Albans running west via Smallford to Hatfield.'

Strangely, there is little historic reference to the show's appearance in St Albans, even of where it took place in the city, but the troupe subsequently arrived in Hitchin on the morning of June 23 and set up camp.

Tony says advertisements were placed around the town and the show was well anticipated. 'On the morning of June 23 the residents of Bedford Road would have looked out across Butts Close to see an array of tepees, and all of the paraphernalia of the event being set up.'

Annie Oakley (1860-1926) American sharpshooter and star of Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show, in about 1880 (photo: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo)Annie Oakley (1860-1926) American sharpshooter and star of Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show, in about 1880 (photo: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo)

By 1904 the spectacle had become much more than simply cowboys and Indians, with Cody expanding it to include riders and performers from across the continents, including Cossacks, trick cyclists and Japanese warriors.

Tony says, 'It's probably the greatest event that has ever been staged here. The local press reported that some 24,000 people attended the event on Butts Close, and that the highlight was still Buffalo Bill's marksmanship, shooting down balls thrown in the air while riding his horse.

'The entourage decamped and took their three trains to Cambridge, to repeat the shows there the following day. After 800 performers, 24,000 spectators and, especially, 500 horses, cleaning Butts Close of litter and everything else would have been an unenviable task.'

From its inception more than 20 years earlier, Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show had evolved into an international institution and made him one of the world's first global celebrities. Newspaper reporters and dime novelists had transformed the hard-riding, fast-shooting Cody into a Western folk hero.

He continued to perform in his show until 1916, although at the age of 71 he often had to be helped on to his horse backstage. While his exhibition remained very popular in America and abroad, in the end, largely through poor investments, including Cody's purchase of an unproductive gold mine, he lost the fortune he had made in show business. His last public appearance occurred just two months before his death in Denver, Colorado in 1917, a great showman to the last.

Butt what's in a name?

With a history stretching back to the late medieval period, Butts Close is the oldest open space in Hitchin and lies within a conservation area. Its name refers to the archery butts - or targets - which were put up here when it was used as a sporting ground for archery, first recorded in 1465.

In 1543 a statute making longbow practice a legal requirement was revived in response to the threat of French invasion. Henry VIII set a minimum practice range for adults using flight arrows of 220 yards. The 11-acre site, today owned by North Herts District Council and Hitchin Cow Commoners Trust, played a role in training archers in the armies of the Tudors.

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