Pioneer Performances: Staging the Frontier

By Matthew Rebhorn | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION
Manifest Destinies
Buffalo Bill, Gowongo Mohawk,
and the Genealogy
of American Frontier Performance

One of the most provocative moments in the story of the American frontier and in the history of American performance never actually occurred, though it easily might have. Frederick Jackson Turner, the historian most closely identified with the frontier throughout the twentieth century,1 and William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, the sensational performer who essentially invented the western as a performative genre, were both in Chicago in 1893 for the World’s Columbian Exposition.2 It was at this same cultural event that Turner delivered his famous lecture on the closing of the American frontier—the essay that would help crystallize what has become known as the Turner Thesis—while not half a mile from the midway, Buffalo Bill was performing in his celebrated show, Wild West.

Turner’s ideas about the frontier were shared, of course, by a number of other nineteenth-century historians. Francis Parkman, for instance, had penned an eight-volume history of his own encounters and observations on the Oregon Trail, starting before the Civil War and with the last volume published just a year before Turner’s address. “Like George Bancroft before him,” Joy S. Kasson relates, “Parkman worked within a framework that celebrated the triumph of Anglo-Saxon conquest and saw English, and later American, domination of North America as a story of the progress of civilization over savagery and the extension of freedom over the continent.”3 Even amateur historians, like Theodore Roosevelt, had expounded on the frontier’s symbolic values in his four-volume The Winning of the West

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