People of Leeds #15: Buffalo Bill’s Wild West

This week, we hear from the Central Library’s Helen Skilbeck, who talks us through a fascinating and very-valuable Playbill. This article is #15 in our People of Leeds series – short biographies of lesser-known contributors to Leeds’ past. 

Leeds Libraries collection of playbills can be viewed online but one that has not yet been digitised is Buffalo Bill’s Wild West from June 1891.

Playbill for Buffalo Bill's Wild West, June 1891
Playbill for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, June 1891

The show is described on the playbill as follows:

The world-renowned American Scout and Indian Aggregation, depicting grandly natural and realistic scenes of the Far Frontier of the United States, with 200 Indians, Scouts, Cowboys, Mexican Vaqueros, Riflemen, and Western Girls. 200 animals, horses, mules, ponies, wild buffalo, steers etc. Everything natural, no gilding! No humbug!

Buffalo Bill, real name William Frederick Cody, was born in 1846 in Iowa and supposedly became a rider for the Pony Express at 15. He served the Union in the American Civil War and worked variously as a scout, buffalo hunter, and showman.

In 1867 he won a contract to provide the Kansas Pacific Railroad workers with buffalo meat. His nickname came from an eight hour buffalo hunting competition with Bill Comstock for exclusive rights to the name. Cody killed 68 to Comstock’s 48 and so took on the name Buffalo Bill.

Image of Buffalo Bill on horseback
Image of Buffalo Bill on horseback

Although Cody performed in shows from 1872 it wasn’t until 1883 that he created Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and toured the United States, Europe and the UK, performing for Queen Victoria and the Pope. Stars such as Annie Oakley, Frank Butler and Calamity Jane appeared throughout the show’s history.

The show only visited Leeds on two occasions and the 1891 visit saw Buffalo Bill’s Wild West take over the Cardigan Fields area in Kirkstall.

The playbill claims it was the

largest arena ever used – racing, lassoing, shooting feats by men and women, stage coach attack, war dances, picturesque Indian village and pioneer camp. THRILLING Mimic Battle Scenes by Those Who Have Been There!

Covered grandstands were built for 3,000 spectators with total seating for 8,000. Half the seats would only cost 1 shilling. The show would be performed twice a day at 3pm and 8pm with night-time illumination in the evening show.

Enlargement of part of the playbill for Buffalo Bill's Wild West
Enlargement of part of the playbill for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West

The Leeds Mercury reported:

The Cardigan Fields are well suited for such a display. They afford room not only for a sufficiently spacious scene – this is 180 yards by 75 yards – but for the lines of wigwams and numerous other things, for it is a real encampment, all the employees living under canvas. The hill beyond the turbid Aire forms an effective background. The view of the river is, fortunately, shut out by the lofty stage scenery representing mountains, from behind which the dashing riders come now and again, sparring over the level stretch of greenward to present this or that realistic scene in the generous programme. There is nothing of the ordinary circus about the exhibition, which is, so to speak, an historical sketch of life in the Far West, whether on the frontier or on the Indian reservation. (Leeds Mercury, 22 June 1891)

Although billed as ‘The event of a lifetime – it never returns!’ it did return in 1903, by which time Buffalo Bill was 57. He died in 1917, aged 70.

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