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The story of Buffalo Bill Cody and the entertaining spectacle he created

By on June 10, 2015

“My life was one of almost continuous excitement, and to tell the whole story would require many volumes.” William F. Cody

William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody, was just 11 years old when his father died, and he had to find a way to make up for those lost wages. By his mid-30s, he had done just about everything:  freight company messenger, Pony Express rider, Indian scout, gold miner, and buffalo hunter, the source of his nickname, Cody personified the spirit of the West and his exploits captured imaginations. His portrayal as the hero of the dime novels of the day added to his mystique and he eventually appeared with other colorful Western characters in stage shows about their exploits.

So when he settled in North Platte, Nebraska, he was already a star and his new neighbors convinced him to turn the last of the state’s big open-range cattle round-ups into a big event. On July 4th, 1882, Cody staged the Old Glory Blowout featuring buffalo and bucking bronc riding, steer roping and horse racing. Many consider this exhibition to be America’s first rodeo.

“Wild West” Comes Alive

In Omaha, the following year, Cody expanded the spectacle and called it the Wild West Show. It depicted America’s wilderness life, as well as the West’s history, portrayed by those who had lived the life, including Indians, pioneers, scouts, trappers and former Pony Express riders. Vignettes depicted Indian war dances, the Westward migration of prairie schooners, scouting party forays, wild game hunting, sharpshooting, and the era of the Deadwood Stage and the Pony Express.

Annie Oakley, nicknamed “Little Sure Shot,” joined the Wild West show in 1884 and traveled with it until 1901. Sioux Chief Sitting Bull, who defeated Lt Gen George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, took part in the extravaganza for a brief time during 1884.

On the day of a Wild West opening a parade of characters marched along the city thoroughfare to the performance venue. The show began with a Grand Review, followed by a cavalcade of charging horses that foretold Cody’s entrance into the arena, astride his longtime, faithful horse, “Old Charlie.” There, the goateed and mustachioed showman, his wavy hair flowing behind him, came to a stop before the crowd, doffed his trademark sombrero, bowed and announced: “Ladies and gentlemen, permit me to introduce to you a congress of the rough riders of the world.”

The Wild West Tours

With the 1883 Wild West a hit in Omaha, scores of promoters across America  booked performances; British royalty jostled to have the show appear in England. In an 1884 letter to Cody, his close friend, author Mark Twain, noted that other shows that had played in England were thought not to be “purely and distinctively American. If you will take the Wild West show over there, you can remove that reproach,” Twain concluded.

In 1886, Cody hired a steamer to carry his entourage to Britain, where British royalty underwrote the show that drew delighted audiences. Cody’s Wild West made several European tours, and earned the consummate showman a fortune. Cody continued to perform with his show until 1916, the year before his death.

Buffalo Bill Rodeo Lives On

Today, North Platte continues to hold an annual Buffalo Bill Rodeo, a modern-day version of Cody’s Blowout that is part of NEBRASKAland DAYS, established in 1964 as the official celebration of the state of Nebraska and its Western heritage. Action takes place in the Wild West Arena, located near Cody’s Scout’s Rest Ranch, on land the Cody family once owned. This year it takes place June 17-20.

During this largest outdoor rodeo in Nebraska, spectators experience the thrills of all seven Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) sanctioned events over four days of competitions. A Grand Entry opens the Rodeo, followed by the first section of bull riding. The final day kicks off with a community parade to the arena, reminiscent of those that Cody organized during his early shows.

Beutler and Sons Rodeo Co., Elk City, Okla., who supply bucking horses and bulls for rodeos nationwide, has provided award-winning livestock to the Buffalo Bill Rodeo for over 50 years. Bennie Beutler, a 2010 Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame inductee, continues the three-generation tradition of Beutler family members who have been in the stock contracting business.

“The Buffalo Bill Rodeo is part of our identity,” says David Fudge, NEBRASKAland DAYS Executive Director. “We associate with Cody as a member of our community and we’re proud of that heritage. The Buffalo Bill Rodeo represents what makes us North Platte.”

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