Wild West Shows – REDDIN (CSS)

REDDIN, Paul. Wild West Shows. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999. 314p. Resenha de: GILLIS, Michael J. Canadian Social Studies, v.35, n.1, 2000.

In this book Paul Reddin examines the evolution of Wild West Shows over a one hundred-year period. The author reviews four different shows beginning with George Catlin’s Wild West show in the 1830s and ending with Tom Mix’s movie career in the 1930s.

The first Wild West show was organized in the 1830s by George Catlin, the world-renowned painter of the Plains Indians. Catlin’s show set the model for all of the following shows by using authentic clothing and objects while recreating life on the Great Plains on a vast scale. The show’s entourage included hundreds of colorfully costumed Indians on horseback and a herd of buffalo. Action scenes included Indian ceremonial dances, a buffalo hunt, warfare, scalping and remarkable feats of horsemanship. Catlin’s purpose in putting together his Wild West show was twofold. First, it was a terrific opportunity for him to make money. Second, and more importantly, he hoped to “rally support for the Great Plains and the Indians and animals who lived there.” Catlin regarded the Plains Indians as noble savages who were victims of Euro-American expansion. His show, whether it was presented to the cheering crowds of New York City or London, was designed to educate the public on the plight of the Indians and “their noble natures and do them justice.”

Fifty years later, Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, unlike Catlin’s, glorified the frontiersmen rather than the Indians. Cody’s shows depicted the courageous and virtuous Americans withstanding repeated Indian attacks until finally the Americans were the clear winners of the west. Indians were portrayed as savages and obstacles to progress. The rattle of gunfire, galloping horses and elaborately staged Indian battles marked Buffalo Bill’s show. Cody often starred in the shows, arriving in just the nick of time to save stagecoaches, settlers and wagon trains from annihilation by ‘bloodthirsty’ Indians. His shows included all manner of horsemanship including racing, roping and riding, and eventually incorporated rodeo-style acts which became the centerpiece of the show. It was Cody, perhaps more than anyone else, who helped popularize the notion of the cowboy. The audiences loved the image of the gun-slinging desperados who rode horses and settled arguments with six-shooters. Like Catlin, Cody brought his show to Europe where crowds cheered the rustic westerners. Even the Pope was swept up in the enthusiasm and offered a papal blessing to mud-splattered cowboys and Indians in full war paint.

In the early 19th Century the Miller brothers, owners of the 101 Ranch in the Oklahoma Territory, formed their own wild west show. Unlike the others, this one was not a traveling road show. Instead, people came to the 101 Ranch to see the show. The Miller’s sought to recreate, on their vast ranch, a working replica of what they perceived to be the American West. The 101 Ranch employed hundreds of cowboys and a thousand Indians. Their acts included horsemanship, men and women in marksmanship competitions, buffalo hunts, Indian camp life, Indian attacks on a wagon train, and rodeo events. Unlike Catlin’s show where the Indians were the heroes, or Cody’s show where the cowboy was king, the Millers sought to elevate the ranch owners as the real founders and heroes of the American West.

The last of the four shows discussed by Reddin starred Tom Mix. Mix bridged the gap between live Wild West shows and silent movies. Employed by the 101 Ranch for a time, the athletic and hard-working Mix became the first true motion picture hero to adopt the cowboy persona. Mix’s show celebrated the victory of white America over the Plains Indians but in a muted fashion. World War I had left America and most of the world in a cynical mood and sick of bloodshed. His shows reflected this attitude by eliminating much of the violence long associated with Wild West shows.

Overall, this is a valuable book on several levels. It offers a succinct review of four Wild West shows by providing insight into important historical figures such as William Cody, Geronimo and Sitting Bull. In addition, it presents a valuable interpretation of how changes in American popular culture were reflected in the Wild West Shows. For teachers and students this book is a wonderful departure point for research and discussion on popular culture and the American West.

Michael J. Gillis – California State University, Chico. Chico, California.

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