Buckskins, Bullets, and Business: A History of Buffalo Bill's Wild West

By Sarah J. Blackstone | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION: FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Between the years 1882, when Colonel William F. Cody began organizing the first Wild West, and 1913, when he finally went bankrupt, the millions of people who saw his show in a dozen countries were exposed to a version of the winning of the West that claimed to be genuine but was in fact based almost entirely on illusion. This show was being performed by men and women who had actually participated in the Western movement and who claimed to be giving truthful and realistic performances of actual events, which gave the resulting mythic version of life on the frontier the weight and influence of truth. But the show was full-blown propaganda -- glorifying the process of the winning of the American West and declaring to the world that America had won a resounding victory in its efforts to subdue the wilderness. The back-breaking, bloody, and often fatal task of taming the frontier was romanticized and glorified by Cody through his Wild West until the truth was so totally mixed with the myth as to be indistinguishable. The image that Americans have of themselves and the image that Europeans have of Americans is closely tied to both the reality and the myth of the American West.

By the time Cody opened his first Wild West show in May 1883, the land between the Missouri River and the Sierra Nevada was accessible to anyone who wished to settle there. Two transcontinental railroads were complete, and two more were under construction. The Homestead Act and the accompanying land acts had opened up all the Western lands except Oklahoma for settlement, and barbed wire had ended the open-range cattle industry, making small ranching and farming possible again.

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