Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org
Running up and down Brooklyn’s Seventh Avenue in 1894, little boys snatched their mothers’ clotheslines, fashioning them into lassoes to rope their younger sisters . Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show was in town, and the young boys were eager to imitate the show’s star performer.
By the time William F. Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill, reached Brooklyn, he had already achieved prominence as a cultural icon of the American West. He began his show in 1883 and toured extensively throughout the United States and Europe for over 30 consecutive years. While the show took various forms over the years, it generally portrayed the triumph of civilization over savagery in unique acts that simultaneously showcased skills like horseback riding and sharp shooting. In honor of his passing in January 1917, we dedicate this blog post to his show’s success in New York City.
In the summer of 1886, Cody brought his show to Erastina, an amusement ground on Staten Island . The festivities began with an elaborate parade through the streets of Manhattan on June 26th . Quickly, the entertainers’ camp became as popular as the scheduled performances. Families from Manhattan and Queens chatted with cowboys and marveled at Native Americans who sat in hammocks and roasted hotdogs for supper . The show closed in September, yet promptly found a new home at Madison Square Garden, where the company premiered Drama of Civilization for the 1886 winter season. A souvenir booklet from the Museum of the City of New York’s collection offers a few detailed glimpses of that season. For instance, the book records the death of sixteen buffalo due to “lung trouble” during the show’s Garden run. Despite this setback, the season was successful. As Louis S. Warren notes in his book, Buffalo Bill’s America: William Cody and the Wild West Show, Cody’s performances at Madison Square Garden signaled “the ascension of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West to middle-class entertainment and respected cultural institution” .
In 1894, Cody and his managing partner, Nate Salsbury, returned to New York with the hope of capitalizing on the show’s success in Chicago during the previous summer . Collaborating with the Thirty-ninth Street Ferry company, they leased a twenty-four-acre parcel of land in Ambrose Park, Brooklyn. Hordes of Manhattanites and other New Yorkers crossed the Brooklyn Bridge or rode the ferry directly to the show ground. The souvenir booklet indicates that only one show was cancelled due to heavy rains, resulting in a total of 126 performances.
Cody’s rise to fame at Madison Square Garden also coincided with technological innovations aptly suited for the urban environment. For instance, the Statue of Liberty was illuminated in the same year that stage lights electrified Cody’s Drama of Civilization at Madison Square Garden . Similarly, an illustration called “The Little Tented City” from an 1898 program emphasizes the relationship between nature and technology in the Wild West show . It depicts the buffalo pen next to the electric generator needed to power the large camp. Likewise, the chief engineer’s tent sits across from the Indians’ tepees. The large urban population and infrastructure of New York City allowed Cody’s show to grow into an elaborate spectacle.
Buffalo Bill’s legacy often blurs the line between fact and fiction; yet he truly did establish himself as a talented marksman and scout on the frontier before he transformed into a charming showman. His Wild West show subsequently relied on his knowledge of the West to gain popularity, but he also depended on urban environments, like New York, which allowed his spectacle to flourish. In the end, he was a man at ease in the saddle or in a suit.
 Warren, Louis S., Buffalo Bill’s America: William Cody and the Wild West Show (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 441.
 Ibid., 254
 PBS, Wild West in New York, http://www.nps.gov/thri/theodorerooseveltbio.htm (December 31, 2014)
 Warren, Louis S., Buffalo Bill’s America: William Cody and the Wild West Show (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 255.
 Ibid., 256
 Ibid., 437
 Ibid., 443
 Ibid., 439