The Popular Frontier: Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Transnational Mass Culture

The Popular Frontier: Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Transnational Mass Culture

by Frank Christianson

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When William F. Cody introduced his Wild West exhibition to European audiences in 1887, the show soared to new heights of popularity and success. With its colorful portrayal of cowboys, Indians, and the taming of the North American frontier, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West popularized a myth of American national identity and shaped European perceptions of the United States. The Popular Frontier is the first collection of essays to explore the transnational impact and mass-cultural appeal of Cody’s Wild West.

As editor Frank Christianson explains in his introduction, for the first four years after Cody conceived it, the Wild West exhibition toured the United States, honing the operation into a financially solvent enterprise. When the troupe ventured to England for its first overseas booking, its success exceeded all expectations. Between 1887 and 1906 the Wild West performed in fourteen countries, traveled more than 200,000 miles, and attracted a collective audience in the tens of millions.

How did Europeans respond to Cody’s vision of the American frontier? And how did European countries appropriate what they saw on display? Addressing these questions and others, the contributors to this volume consider how the Wild West functioned within social and cultural contexts far grander in scope than even the vast American West. Among the topics addressed are the pairing of William F. Cody and Theodore Roosevelt as embodiments of frontier masculinity, and the significance of the show’s most enduring persona, Annie Oakley.

An informative and thought-provoking examination of the Wild West’s foreign tours, The Popular Frontier offers new insight into late-nineteenth-century gender politics and ethnicity, the development of American nationalism, and the simultaneous rise of a global mass culture.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806159935
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 12/04/2017
Series: William F. Cody Series on the History and Culture of the American West , #4
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 264
File size: 18 MB
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About the Author

Frank Christianson is Associate Professor of English and Associate Dean in the College of Humanities, Brigham Young University. He is editor of The Life of Hon. William F. Cody, Known as Buffalo Bill and The Wild West in England.

Read an Excerpt


"It Looks like Peace in the Indian Country"

The Wild West, the Great Far East, and the Transatlantic Optics of Peace


Many strange things have happened. Why should not Buffalo Bill become a Quaker if he sees fit? William F. Cody, commenting on himself (1894)

In all of the scholarship on Buffalo Bill's Wild West, there are abundant references to guns and gunplay, violence between whites and Indians, and the myth of the American West. There is growing attention to issues of race, gender, class, and imperialism as they pertain to the Wild West. As evidenced by the other essays in this volume, the show's transatlantic travels are also on scholars' radar screens. Peace, on the other hand, is not a concept generally associated with the show or with William F. Cody, although Cody believed his show helped bring peace to the upper plains — a claim that the US military also seemed to endorse when General Nelson Miles dispatched Cody to the Pine Ridge Reservation (too late!) to ease the tensions that would explode in the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee. Since there is little doubt, as historian Louis Warren has suggested, that Cody's show helped "Americanize the global frontier," might the Wild West, which spent nearly seven years in Europe between 1887 and 1907, be understood in transatlantic context, not only as an instrument of US foreign policy but as a spectacle of peace (at least a certain kind of peace) that helped shape the cultural context for the Hague Peace Conferences of 1899 and 1907? Did any of the roads traveled to the First and Second Hague Peace Conferences pass through the Wild West? As the world moved toward the cataclysm of the First World War, did the meaning of peace itself become part of a spectacle shaped by the optics of Buffalo Bill's show? And what about America's place at the negotiating table at both Hague Conferences as a "great power"? Did Buffalo Bill's stagecoach diplomacy have an effect abroad? And what about its effect at home, especially after Buffalo Bill's Wild West merged with Pawnee Bill's Great Far East Show in 1909? What exactly did it mean to be a great power? Did the Wild West (and its eventual combination with Pawnee Bill's Great Far East Show) position both Americans and Europeans to think of the United States as a major actor on the world stage?

As far-fetched as these suggestions may appear, I believe they do have merit, especially when we reflect on the immediate context for the First Hague Peace Conference. The prime mover behind the conference was not exactly known for his deep knowledge of international diplomacy. According to historian Robin Sharwood, Czar Nicholas II, whose diplomatic note set things in motion, "was an amiable if somewhat obtuse young man of 30, some four years in the throne, languid rather than energetic, whose passions were the army, his family and a determination to maintain the most rigid autocracy." Other European and American political leaders may have had greater knowledge about foreign affairs, and they did not exactly rush to embrace the czar's proposal to hold an international conference that seemed intended mostly to give Russia some "breathing space" amidst its domestic financial and political problems. So what brought these rivals together? A half-century of war on both sides of the Atlantic might seem a sufficient explanation. After all, the US government, newly reunited after a devastating civil war, had been prosecuting its relentless wars against American Indians between 1865 and 1890 and had embarked in 1898 on a "splendid little war" with Spain. Meanwhile, Europeans had been fighting one another, as had the English and Irish. And all of the so-called civilized powers, when not fighting among themselves, had been hell-bent on quashing colonial insurrections across their increasingly far-flung empires. But the experience of wars alone would not have brought these nations together. As Sharwood points out, national governments everywhere had to contend with popular peace movements and peace congresses — many of which took place at international exhibitions on both sides of the Atlantic. All of these factors doubtless played important roles in advancing conversations about peace, but it is perhaps worth noting in passing that Czar Nicolas's favorite uncle, Grand Duke Alexis, had become infatuated with Buffalo Bill and had joined him on an excursion of the American West in 1879.

Like war, talk of peace was in the air — and on the ground — by the close of the nineteenth century. Discussions of peace were advanced by a cadre of diplomats, including that well-known (at least in his day) and now forgotten (a lesson to us all) French diplomat Paul-Henri-Benjamin Balluet d'Estournelles, Baron de Constant de Rebecque. Born into a French aristocratic family that traced its geneaology of begats and begottens back to the Crusades, he entered the French diplomatic corps in the 1870s and rode the waves of international diplomacy until his death in 1924. He is relevant to my story for these reasons. First, he received the 1909 Nobel Peace Prize. Second, he played a crucial role in both the 1898 and 1907 Hague Peace Conferences. Third, in 1900, he was appointed to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. And, fourth, perhaps because of his American wife, he wrote a fascinating, if not wellknown, account of his travels to the United States in which he recorded a meeting he had with Buffalo Bill in person. "Nos maux," Buffalo Bill declared (although probably not in French) in reply to a question d'Estournelles put to Cody about the showman's eternal youth, "n'existent que dans notre imagination: 'it is in the mind,' disait-il. 'it is in the mind!'" That Buffalo Bill became something of an oracle for d'Estournelles is worth mentioning in passing; more noteworthy is what the French diplomat recorded Cody as having said: "it is in the mind ... it is in the mind."

Cody, most scholars would agree, was "in [and not just "on"] the mind" of many Europeans and Americans between 1887 and 1907. True, Cody's reign did not last as long as Queen Victoria's, but considered in terms of the cultural imagination, it would make an interesting study to rethink Victorian culture in terms of its Buffalo-Bill-ian qualities. After all, Cody got out more and put more miles on his frequent-traveler account than did the queen. And it is arguable that more people saw both him and his show than ever set eyes on the "Empress of India." What about his influence on matters of foreign affairs as they related to peace? In the contest between Buffalo Bill and Queen Victoria, the queen surely wins hands down. Or maybe she does not win — at least not when it comes to the cultural construction of the meaning of peace in an age of empire.

Cody's influence on discussions of peace is clear from the event that catapulted him to international fame: the Wild West's appearance at the 1887 American Exhibition, an event held at Earls Court in London and the first in a series of national exhibitions organized at this exhibition site by the English engineer and linoleum investor John R. Whitley. So much has been written about what transpired during the show's appearance at the American Exhibition that only a brief summary is required. Before the show opened to the public, it became, if not the jewel, then the bauble in the crown of English royal family. The rakish Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, and a set of his royal pub crawlers and hunting enthusiasts learned about the show and, through the prince's handlers, arranged a private, behind-the-scenes performance and tour. That they were drawn to the Wild West is hardly surprising. As Monica Rico points out in her Nature's Noblemen, the virtual American West was almost as good as the real thing for British and European elites concerned about issues of masculinity and retaining political power in an age of social upheaval.

The Prince of Wales and his entourage attended a rehearsal of the show on May 8. Cody arranged for his crews to construct a royal box and invited the prince to stand and signal when he would like the show to begin. According to Cody, when the prince gave the signal, "the Indians, yelling like fiends, galloped out from their ambuscade and swept round the enclosure like a whirlwind." Thrilled down to the tips of his royal boots, the prince led his cohort in roaring their approval. Afterward, the future monarch greeted Annie Oakley and offered a cigarette to one of the Indian performers, the Sioux Chief Red Shirt. What happened next was even more important. The prince returned to the palace, spoke with his mother, Queen Victoria, and persuaded the queen to command a performance of the show one week later and another as part of her Jubilee Year celebrations. Cody, needless to say, obliged, and the rest is part of a contested history. In Cody's retelling of the events, when the May 11 performance began and a rider entered the arena carrying an American flag, the queen (and everyone else in the audience) stood and bowed, and the military officers in her company saluted. Historian Louis Warren has described the event differently based on newspaper reports that had the rider, with Cody at his side, lowering the flag before an "all-but impassive queen." Did the queen really get out her chair? Or did she sit on her hands? Cody was not one to get hung up on the details and doubtless would have agreed with the newspaperman in the film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence who told James Stewart, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

Less in dispute is what happened at the Jubilee Day performance a month later. For this occasion, the queen brought with her to the show over three hundred invited guests, including "kings from Belgium, Denmark, Greece, and Saxony; crown princes from Austria, Germany, and Sweden; and a grand duke from Russia." These heads and near-heads of state were in for a royal treat. With Cody literally in the driver's seat, the Deadwood Stage was packed with King Leopold of Belgium, King Christian IX of Denmark, King Albert of Saxony, King George I of Greece, and the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII). Cody raced them around the arena with American Indian performers in hot pursuit. The breathless Prince of Wales told Cody after his ride, "Colonel, you never held four kings like these before!" Cody's reply has become part of the legend. "I've held four kings," Cody replied, "but four kings and the Prince of Wales makes a royal flush, such as no man ever held before." Other aristocrats and ministers would soon join in this vortex of sociability, and a ride in the Deadwood Stage became a rite of passage for policy makers in the summer and fall of 1887.

So did meetings of British and European leaders with the Wild West Indians. The queen recorded her impressions in her private diary (the Indians were "very alarming"). The former British prime minister William Gladstone paid the show a visit and made it a point to meet personally with several of the Indian performers, including Red Shirt. For the duration of the American Exhibition (and beyond), the Deadwood Stage afforded opportunities for countless political leaders to make deals on wheels, or at least to engage in both serious and frivolous conversations about the meaning of peace.

Some clues about the content of those conversations come from Whitley, the organizer of the American Exhibition. Described as having a "Samson-like physique and force of character," Whitley managed his father's engineering firm and set up exhibits at industrial, national, and international exhibitions in Paris (1867 and 1878), Moscow (1872), and Vienna (1873). Taxed by overwork, he retreated from engineering, turned to art, and acquired an interest in developing linoleum, a new product that he believed would have an extraordinary value as an industrial art applied to domestic use. He likely commissioned a study of his own physiognomy, which provided these particulars: "He possesses an enormous front head, the length from the ear to the outer corner of the eye denoting a quick intellect and marvelous powers of comprehension." As Whitley explained it, he put his intellect to work in organizing the American Exhibition (and the succeeding Italian, French, and German Exhibitions — all held in the Earls Court Exhibition complex) "to assist in causing those conglomerations of humanity we call 'Nations' to work together [rather] than to incite them to maim and slay each other."

To make this vision work for Europe, it was crucial, Whitley believed, for England and the United States to join as allies. As he declared in remarks delivered for its opening, the American Exhibition "would deal the final death blow to the suggestion that any remnant of ill-will or jealousy could linger on between the two great nations of the English-speaking world." Gazing into the future, Whitley predicted that "the English-speaking race may most confidently look for a continuance of material and moral progress on both sides of the Atlantic."

Peace, however, was not just an ideal for "the English-speaking race." He believed peace was utterly within reach for all "civilized" nations and that exhibitions, like the American Exhibition and outdoor exhibitions like the Wild West, were the means to attain the end. As if to hammer this message home, Whitley brought the American Exhibition to a close with a conference that drew together prominent American and English political and business leaders at Earls Court in Trophies Hall (an exhibition building that displayed "trophies only of man's war against the lower animals, not against his fellows"). The conference concluded, as the Illustrated London News reported, by adopting a resolution calling for the establishment of a court of arbitration between England and the United States. What animated this resolution? Whitley was blunt. Quoting and paraphrasing a story from the London Times, he declared that "although at first sight it might seem a far cry from the Wild West to an International Court (or as Punch phrased it, from Earls Court to an International Court), 'yet the connection is not really so very remote, ... and civilisation consents to march onward in the train of Buffalo Bill.'"

The American Exhibition, in short, concluded with an invitation to hop aboard Cody's peace train. But as it traveled around the United Kingdom, Europe, and the United States in the ensuing decades, the show came to resemble nothing so much as an Orientalist express intended to wed the ideal of peace among "nations" to the goal of keeping subaltern populations at bay.

This preoccupation with conflating ideas about peace with emerging Orientalist presuppositions that underwrote the cause of empire on both sides of the Atlantic became clear just before the American Exhibition closed. Ever the promoters, Whitley and Cody arranged a meeting at Earls Court between one hundred "Arabs" who had been performing at the Olympia Theatre and one hundred of "Buffalo Bill's Braves." This meeting between the "dusky denizens of the East" and the "Wild Indians of the West" is worth quoting at length.

All present were anxious to see the meeting between these Eastern 'children of the desert' and the Red Men from the plains of the Far West. About two o'clock the Olympia company arrived, with the Arabs in their picturesque native dress — white burnous, baggy trousers, red leather boots, &c, and proceeded at once to the Indian encampment. Here they were received by 'Buffalo Bill,' Mr. Nate Salsbury, and all the cowboys and Indians. Much shaking of hands took place between the Red Skins and the swarthy Arabs, the latter entering the wigwams of the Braves and generally making themselves at home.

This scene captured Whitley's notice and, as the subsequent history of the Wild West attested, certainly stuck in Cody's mind as well. By the early 1890s, he was reinventing his show as a "Congress of Rough Riders" and incorporating performers from the Middle East, Russia, and South America.

To what end? Obviously, Cody was interested in making money. But Cody was part of a long line of ideological innovators who were constantly updating and applying ideas about race and empire in new ways. Could the Wild West show become a "soft" instrument of empire? Could it be a vehicle for cementing what many elites considered common racial interests among "civilized" nations and provide a vehicle for containing dissent among subaltern populations in the colonies? Could the Wild West help secure peace? As early as 1886, Cody had advertised his belief that the Wild West could turn into a "grand council" that would "cement a lasting peace between [Crow and Sioux Indians]."


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations,
Series Editors' Foreword,
Prologue: Exceptionalism, Globalism, and Transnationalism — The West, America, and the World across the Centuries David Wrobel,
Introduction: Americanization Theses Frank Christianson,
1. "It Looks like Peace in the Indian Country": The Wild West, the Great Far East, and the Transatlantic Optics of Peace Robert W. Rydell,
2. "Not National Merely": Oscar Wilde, Buffalo Bill, and the Performance of National Identity Jamie Horrocks,
3. "The Wild West Side of American Existence": Theodore Roosevelt, Buffalo Bill Cody, and American Military Exceptionalism Jeremy M. Johnston,
4. "Don't Forget This": Annie Oakley and the "New Girl" in Anglo-American Culture Monica Rico,
5. Annie Oakley and the Rise of Natural Womanhood in England Jennifer R. Henneman,
6. Taming a "Savage" Paris: The Masculine Visual Culture of Buffalo Bill's Wild West and France as a New American Frontier Emily C. Burns,
7. "Painting the Town Red": Buffalo Bill's Indians in the German Media Julia S. Stetler,
8. The "Black Legend" of Buffalo Bill in Barcelona Chris Dixon,
9. "Buffalo Bill, the Italian Hero of the Prairies": A Fascist Twist on Americanization in Italy Renee M. Laegreid,
Epilogue: The Special Relationship in Popular Culture — The Legacy of 1887 Frank Christianson,
List of Contributors,

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